Book Group Report, October 2018

By Judith Phillips

 “The Half Shilling Curate” by Sarah Reay was the first reading recommendation for our October meeting. The author’s grandfather was the curate in question, the Reverend Herbert Butler Cowl, who volunteered as an Army Chaplain with the Durham Light Infantry during WW1. Using his own accounts and diary entries, Sarah Reay tells the story of his life, including his attentive and hands-on care of the troops at the Front in France. He is severely injured and sent back to England on the HMHS Anglia, which has the misfortune to be hit by a German mine and sink. Even at this stage, Cowl helped others in distress and after was awarded the Military Cross for his gallantry on that day. While not returning to France, he continued as an Army Chaplain and the book then charts the following decades as a Methodist Minister, his family life and the faith that sustained him throughout.

A previous Book Group suggestion inspired this month’s choice for one member, who brought along “The Great War in Portraits” by Paul Moorhouse and Sebastian Faulks. The book contains portraits in many forms – photographs, pencil sketches done in the field, formal portraits as well as before and after images where soldiers had required surgery and facial reconstruction after injury.

A diverse range of artists and genres are represented in the book, the harsh and brutal reality in Otto Dix’s portraits contrasting with softer pencil sketches of a soldier resting in a trench with eyes closed. The book was written to accompany an exhibition held at the National Portrait Gallery in 2014.

Personal WW1 experience as a Lieutenant in the Norfolk Regiment, and then the Army Claims Commission, influenced Ralph Mottram’s novels “The Spanish Farm Trilogy”. The connection between the three stories is the Spanish Farm, home to the Vanderlynden family, and their relationships with the thousands of soldiers billeted there as they pass to and from the trenches. A slow yet compelling read, the reader gets a sideways look at WW1 through the interaction of the French/Flemish farming community with the British troops stationed so close to the Front. The book won the Hawthornden Prize for Literature in 1924 and was the inspiration for the 1927 silent film ‘Roses of Picardy’.

Heading back to the theme of military chaplains, our next discussion centred on “A Prayer for Gallipoli: The Great War Diaries of Chaplain Kenneth Best”, edited by Gavin Roynon. Best’s first taste of military life came after becoming an Army Chaplain and a posting to Egypt, closely followed by his arrival in Gallipoli in May 1915. He only feels he is truly fulfilling his role by serving up and close with the men in the trenches, giving hands on help wherever he can, and being able to communicate with and relate to men of all ranks and levels. His diary entries show he felt no fear at the time, irrespective of the sheer volume of disease, death and mass burials that his job brought him into contact with. He was awarded a Military Cross in 1918 for his services as a chaplain.

Moving away from the direct action of WW1, Deidre Beddoe’s “Back to Home and Duty” considers the role of women between the two World Wars. While using examples of women from all classes, Beddoe also focuses on the private and public lives as well as women’s work careers. There was a post WW1 expectation that women would return to their domestic duties in the home, and not carry on working. The book highlights women’s struggles against this preconception as well as the politization of their actions, with the acknowledgement that sadly, many women’s lives remained pretty much as they had been before the war.

The last reading selection for the meeting was “Of Arms and The Heroes – The Story of the Birtley Belgians” by John Bygate. Having edited a previous book written about this community of Belgians living and working near Birtley during WW1, and with the help of previously unseen archives, Bygate has written in great detail about the Belgian community of Elisabethville. The various chapters cover the building and running of the munition’s factory, the village built, separated from Birtley, to house over 3000 Belgian workers and their families, and the provision of schools/hospital/churches/shops etc. to cater for this segregated community. Complete with photographs and maps of Elisabethville during the war years, Bygate brings the reader up to date with details of the few reminders of any evidence of the Belgians and their lives in Birtley during WW1

Our November Book Group Meeting, to coincide with the ‘To Serve King and Country’ exhibition running at the Bowes Museum, will take place in the Music Room, next door to the exhibition. So why not call in, pull up a chair and sit and listen for a few minutes as the group make more recommendations for WW1 reading.


All underlined titles are available through the County Durham Library Service.


Programme of events and activities

The exhibition “To Serve King and Country”: Exploring the role of Teesdale in the First World War is now up and running at the museum until 3rd March 2019. In conjunction with the exhibition, we have a programme of events and activities.

The WWI Bookgroup meets on the third Tuesday of the month. So we plan to meet on Tuesday 20th November, Tuesday 18th December, Tuesday 15th January and Tuesday 19th February. For these four meetings, we’ll meet near the exhibition. We usually each bring one or two WWI-related book to introduce to rest of the group – but you don’t have to bring a book – just come along and join us for some lively discussion. Everyone is welcome.

On alternate Thursdays, at 2.15, a project volunteer will lead a short gallery talk in the exhibition space, giving an overview of the exhibition and highlighting a few stories or objects of their choice. The talk lasts no more than 30 minutes and there’s an opportunity to ask questions and discuss the exhibition. The talks are free with admission passes and to Friends. The next gallery talk will be on Thursday 29th November.

A Knit and Natter group will be in the Picture Galleries on alternate Thursdays, again starting at 2.15 and going on until 4.00. As well as knitting (or crocheting) flowers to go onto the WWI-inspired community artwork hanging in the Entrance Hall, the group will be knitting blankets, hats and mitts to send to charities who support war victims and ex-service personnel. Wool, needles and patterns are provided – and there are experienced knitters on hand to help you. Even if you can only mange a few rows when you drop in or perhaps you’ve never tried, you’ll be very welcome. The sessions are free with admission passes and to Friends. The next meeting will be on Thursday 22nd November.

In the New Year, some of the project volunteers will give short presentations on people and events they have researched. We are also planning to have an event to mark the end of the project in March 2019 – again, details will be put onto the museum’s website as soon as possible. For further details, keep an eye on the Events page of the museum’s website, and information will circulated in future e-newsletters.

First World War exhibition

By Judith Phillips

Our First World War exhibition is now up and running at the museum until 3rd March 2019.  We had the official opening on Saturday 20th October when about eighty people attended the morning event.  It was rather an emotional time as the exhibition represented the culmination of many hours of work, not just in the exhibition preparation but during the project itself.

Sir Mark Wrightson, Chair of the Museum Trustees, opened the event by brandishing a 1918 trench periscope that belonged in his family – a rather classier example than the one currently on display but both very effective and necessary in trench warfare.  Jane Whittaker, Head of Collections at the museum, gave a brief overview of the project and thanked the various institutions, charities and other groups who have supported the project and the exhibition.  She then introduced the Lord Lieutenant of County Durham who formally opened the event after a brief speech. 

I was very pleased to have an opportunity to thank my colleagues in the Exhibition, Conservation and Education teams and Rupert Philbrick who worked as Community Co-ordinator for the first half of the project.  But mainly I wanted to thank people from the community who have so generously shared their stories and allowed us to borrow material for the exhibition, as well as the project volunteers who so far have put in more than 3000 hours in research and inputting.

It was great to see so many volunteers and supporters of the project at the exhibition opening.  I am sorry I wasn’t able to speak to everyone but be assured that you were very much appreciated.

I had the privilege of taking Barnard Castle Mayor, Sandra Moorhouse, around the exhibition.  Sandra has been a great supporter of the project since its beginning.  She was accompanied by her grandson who had just flown in from Abu Dhabi but he wanted to see the exhibition as he is studying the First World War at school.

It was so moving when we went through to the exhibition.  Some people saw their fathers’ photographs and medals, others saw souvenirs from fathers and grandfathers; another was delighted to see a diary kept by a family member; others saw socks and caps they had knitted to WWI patterns. 

The rolling Roll of Honour lists all the names on the database and will be added to, in due course.  Over 2500 names take about 50 minutes to scroll past.  A world map from 1914 has been used to show how men and women with Teesdale connections were involved in fighting and nursing hundreds and thousands of miles from home.

It has always been important that modern generations have an opportunity to reflect on the war.  So knitted and crocheted poppies, marguerites and cornflowers are being stuck onto a large canvas painting of a field in Flanders or France, a selection of poems and prose by primary school pupils, secondary school and university students and young men in HMYOI (Deerbolt) can be seen, and visitors are encouraged to leave a note of their thoughts.

A programme of events around the exhibition is being arranged and details are on the museum website.

I do hope you will have an opportunity to visit the exhibition and I look forward to your comments (we’ve already had a couple of good suggestions).

“They shall not grow old”

By Judith Phillips

Very familiar words, but somehow given a different meaning in Peter Jackson’s film which was premiered recently.  If you haven’t had a chance to see the film, it is certainly worth viewing.

I went to see it in Darlington for the live screening of the premiere.  There was so much interest, we had to be moved to a larger auditorium!  I have noticed that the film is still on elsewhere and I understand it will be screened on BBC TV in early November.

The film was commissioned by 14-18 NOW which has been behind a whole range of cultural responses to the First World War during its centenary.  Jackson has taken hours of original film held at the Imperial War Museum and selected images and passages of film to represent the soldier’s experience on the Western Front from 1914 to 1918.  He has slowed the films down to show people moving at a natural pace – not the rather jerky speeded-up version we’ve been used to seeing.  Some conversations have been voiced where lip-reading gave the original (possibly toned down in a few places?).  Voices from the BBC’s interviews with survivors in the 1960s and 1970s were the only commentary.

Most controversially he has coloured many the films, although the early films about recruitment and training are left in black and white.  It’s only when troops move overseas that the colour kicks in.  So we see blue skies and brown mud, chestnut horses, men in khaki or grey or blue uniforms.  For me, the greatest impact of the colour was when wounded or dead animals and men were shown – the blood was so obvious, and somehow horrible injuries were clearer, no longer indistinguishable from the muddy background.  In some ways, the men became so much closer in colour, and I still don’t know whether that made more or less impact on me.  What I did notice was what dreadful teeth so many of the ordinary soldiers had – again, so much more obvious in colour.

In the Q&A session that followed the premiere, Jackson himself pointed out the limitation of the film in only showing the Western Front – he could make several films, he said, from the film available showing different theatres of war.  There were some fleeting shots of Chinese labourers and troops from India and other parts of the empire, an area that wasn’t really explored.  And, if I were picky, I would have liked a more obvious chronology – which shots were the Battle of the Somme, which related to 1917 etc.  But, overall, definitely worth seeing, in my opinion.  I’d love to hear from you when you’ve had a chance to see it.

They shall Not Grow Old

Peter Jackson has produced a film based on original first World War film footage held by the Imperial War Museum and audio archives at the BBC which will be shown ONLY on Tuesday 16th October.  The nearest venues for Teesdale are Vue in Darlington and the Station in Richmond (check their websites for further details).  The film has been remastered, coloured and given a sound background.  We would be interested to hear your reactions to the film if you manage to see it or even your feelings about such a film being made – there has already been some lively discussion for and against the project.