Somme 100 film screening

By Judith Phillips

Over 60 people came to the Witham in Barnard Castle on the evening of Wednesday 5th July to see the digitally-remastered film of the Battle of the Somme. The original film was shown in cinemas throughout the UK in 1916 and 1917. The remastered version, accompanied by Laura Rossi’s newly-commissioned music, was made freely available until the end of July 2017 as part of the commemoration of the centenary of the Battle of the Somme through the First World War Centenary organisation led by the Imperial War Museums, supported by Faber Music and arts Council England.

A brief introduction reminded us that the film was originally screened from September 1916, not that long after the horrendous first few months of the battle and before it officially ended in late 1916. The cinematographers were at the front line and generally did not use staged scenes, although there might have been some encouragement to get the men to cheer when on the march? The famous scene of men going over the top of the trenches was recreated but the whole scene lasts only 70 seconds in film running over an hour.

Another famous scene – it comes up in nearly every TV documentary about the First World War – shows a man coming along a trench towards us, carrying a wounded soldier on his back. What the voice-over told us – and I don’t remember having heard this before – was that the wounded soldier died half an hour after the film was shot. And for the first time in film, dead men and animals were shown. That must have been a huge shock to audiences.

The scenes were introduced by cards showing short written information, and I suddenly realised that this information was on screen for quite a long time, long enough to allow people in the audience who were not used to reading to understand. The music replaced the range of sounds we are used to in modern TV and films. No clip-clop when horses appeared, no background rustle of trees and grass, no grunts of effort as soldiers man-handled huge pieces of artillery. But I really noticed that lack of sound.

I could almost feel the emotion that family members and communities must have experienced when the name of familiar regiment or French/Belgian place was mentioned. It was heart-rending to look at all those men – so different, so individual – and wonder how many survived, not just the Battle of the Somme but the whole war. It was a very intense experience, watching this film more than a 100 years since it was first seen and making a connection with the men in it and also with the audiences who saw it first.

Visit to the DLI stores and Research Centre on 5th July

By Jane Wilson, volunteer

The Durham Light Infantry Stores and Research Centre in Spennymoor recently hosted a small group from the Bowes Museum, for a behind-the-scenes tour and object handling session. Our group was met with a friendly welcome by Naomi, a Learning Support Officer, Lt Col John Heron and Steven Pearce, both veterans of the DLI, and Les, a Newcastle University student, on a placement at the Research Centre.

During a brief introduction to the Research Centre, it was explained that while a small DLI Collection Gallery is on show at Palace Green in Durham, the Stores and Research Centre was the main base for object conservation and storage, archives made available for research, and co-ordination of educational lessons and resources being made available to the wider community.

As part of our tour of the storage area, we were shown a wide array of sporting trophies won by the DLI, a wooden WW1 Battlefield cross, a display of military weapons, framed Victoria Cross citations and artwork completed by soldiers while on duty. For means of preservation, and awaiting conservation, their Regimental colours and flags are all kept wrapped in acid-free materials, and hung from rails were hundreds of coat hangers holding ghostly white acid- free garment bags, with the colourful yet old and fragile uniforms suspended within.

We saw more intimate and personal items that had belonged to those serving with the DLI during WW1, such as a beaded and embroidered pin cushion, a fragment of glass from the Cloth Hall in Ypres, an autograph book belonging to a nurse with photos and letters from DLI soldiers, and even a hardened Jacobs biscuit with a pencil message and date written on the reverse.

We were shown examples of items that are used in the handling sessions held in schools etc. and could touch and feel items that had genuinely been around during WW1. The items included hand grenades, tunics, a military bugle, and one of our group even tried on a protective military helmet and face shield. We probably had just as much enjoyment out of handling these objects as a class of school children would!

Our session finished off by looking at objects, items and contemporary source materials belonging to three North-East people who had been connected to war in various ways. We learnt about a lady who had to give up her job on the buses when she married and how she fared in life when her husband died in the war. We discussed the information about Major Harry Sell, a British Prisoner of War in Germany, looking through what his British Red Cross ration pack may have contained, and learning about his daring escape from one Prison Camp. Lastly, we learnt of the heroic exploits of Jarrow boy-scout Alan Wilkin, who suffered severe injuries while on firewatch duties but was later awarded an honour for his bravery.

Our visit certainly brought the Durham Light Infantry to life for us, and encouraged us to consider the Research Centre for further research, knowing that many experts and DLI veterans assist at the Centre and can share their knowledge with the public

We are now looking into arranging a visit by DLI staff and volunteers to the Museum . Perhaps we could develop this into a drop-in session, with an opportunity to handle some of the material in the stores. Trying on helmets, holding an officer’s pistol, feeling the weight and sharpness of a shrapnel fragment gave a whole new dimension to reading about and imagining the wartime experience of the hundreds of men whose names are currently on the project’s Roll of Honour. Are there any other aspects you would like us to consider in such an event? Contact Judith: Judith.phillips@thebowesmuseum.org.uk or Alison: alison.mounter@thebowesmuseum.org.uk

‘Yesterday Belongs to You’ at Beamish Museum on 15th July 2017

By Judith Phillips


Every two years, County Durham Forum for History and Heritage organises an event where societies and organisations throughout the county get together, put out their stalls and invite the public to find out more about the wealth and range of history and heritage groups in the county. This year the event was held in tow large marquees at Beamish museum. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t kind – a damp, drizzling day with some heavier showers – so perhaps we had fewer visitors than we might have had on a nice sunny day.

However, Alison Mounter and I (with some help from family) talked to over fifty visitors, handed out leaflets about upcoming project events, picked up a few queries and took the opportunity to see other groups’ stalls. That’s always useful – you never know what good ideas you might pick up! Everyone there is an enthusiast for at least one (and possibly ore) aspects of the county’s history and heritage. Of course, we were particularly interested in groups with a First World War connection but, in fact, that covers most local village/town societies and a large range of specialist stalls – postcards, books, police, railways, religious history, mining, among them. (The Vikings were just a bonus attraction!).

This is probably a good place to give you some information about our upcoming events. On Saturday 9th September Dr. Megan Leyland from English Heritage will explore the experiences of conscientious objectors during the First World War. This talk will uncover some of the very personal and often moving stories of individuals held in Richmond Castle during the war, while placing these stories in the local and national context of resistance to the war.

In October (on Saturday 7th), we’ll have a drop-in session for all the family. Jan and Richard Crouch will be on hand all day to talk about food during the war and they’ll bring along some samples. They’ll intersperse the day with a couple of longer talks on food – the restrictions and difficulties and how people coped by innovating. We’ve found many recipes in the Teesdale Mercury but not all of them sound that appetising! You’ll also have an opportunity to do some creative activities, making felt flowers (including poppies) to add to a cumulative scene.

Photographer Lee Karen Stow on Saturday 4th November is offering a workshop in the morning, showing photographers with moderate to advanced level of experience how to turn a theme into an individual visual narrative. In the afternoon lee will talk about the inspiration behind her exhibition Poppies: women, War, Peace, including how the poppy came to be a symbol of remembrance a hundred years ago.

Booking information will be posted on the project website and on the museum’s website soon.

Book Group June 2017

By Jane Wilson, volunteer

Despite our June book group meeting being at half its usual strength, we still managed to pass a pleasant two hours discussing the various reading recommendations brought along.
Our first suggestion was a work of fiction by the popular author, Michael Morpurgo, who while well known for his books for children, also manages to create stories based on real life that interest both adults as well as a younger audience. ‘Private Peaceful’ follows the story of two brothers, Charlie and Tommo, who live in rural England and spend most of their WW1 service together. They have a close brotherly bond, and during the war, look out for each other, especially when confronted by the strict, officious, even malicious treatment from their Sergeant. The book covers themes including family ties, disobeying orders from a superior and the harsh military consequences of this.

Moving on from the bond between siblings, our next recommendation was ‘The Love of an Unknown Soldier; Love Letters Found in a Trench’. The book was first published in 1918, and was believed to be a set of love letters written by an unknown soldier to his unknown sweetheart, an American nursing on the Western Front during the war. The letters had been found hidden away in the dugout of an abandoned gun position by a soldier, who then passed them on to John Lane, a publisher with Bodley Head. The letters highlighted the deep love felt by the soldier for the unknown woman, never posted, but declaring his deep love for her and his despair at not having told her how he felt.

Our next reading suggestion was not a book, but a series of diaries/reports/first-hand accounts of WW1 that are published on-line at www.firstworldwar.com/diaries
The available accounts range from a young British wireless operator going over the top at the Battle of Arras, to a description of reconnaissance missions in Kite Balloons, overseeing the lay of the land prior to battle. Accounts come from people of various nationalities, of battles and conflicts in theatre of war all round the world, and include reports from serving personnel as well as Prisoners of War, medical staff, landowners, and even foreign ambassadors to Britain. Each account is a personal viewpoint of a specific role carried out during the conflict, and some of the contrasting views of the same conflict provoke thoughts and the possibility of further reading around the subjects.

We ended by looking at Max Arthur’s book, ‘Lost Voices of the Royal Navy’, a volume which covers interwar and WW2 periods as well as the First World War. First-hand accounts of WW1 provide the main content of the book, including events documented by low ranking midshipmen all the way up to ships captains and high ranking naval military. Highlighting how far around the world the Royal Navy were deployed (from Scapa Flow to South America), the stories include those from men serving on naval battleships, submarines and give a rich account of the lives of men serving on both Upper and Lower Decks.

Come and join us at our next meeting on Tuesday 18th July at 2.30 to find out about more interesting WW1 reads.