Engaging local communities in the North East on their First World War heritage by Mike Reeve

The North East of England has a rich history of coastal defence that has received relatively little attention. During the 2014-18 period marking the centenary of the First World War, many commemorative activities have focused almost exclusively on the exploits of soldiers, while sailors and civilians have occupied a secondary role. Trends in family history have produced an explosion of interest in the trenches of the Western Front, with citizen historians tracing relatives involved in some of the most famous and bloody battles of the conflict. Such efforts have enriched popular understanding of the Great War and the ordinary people that enacted it. What is largely missing from this narrative are the efforts, fears and sacrifices of civilians, many of whom experienced the ‘home front’ as an extension of the ‘battle front’, where air ships and naval attacks on civilian areas of towns and cities blurred the conventional boundaries between the two. The placement project I have been recently engaged in hoped to weave together these often interrelated experiences.

The East Coast of England occupied a focal place in pre-war and wartime perspectives on defence, given its proximity to the North Sea and a potential bombarding or even invading enemy force. This is true of every facet of the coast, North and South. The first aeroplane and air ship raids affected places like Dover, Norfolk and Essex in 1914-15. However, the first seaborne bombardments of civilian populations occurred in the North East. When war seemed a close possibility in early 1914, the British government devised plans for coastal areas in case of invasion or bombardment, including the building of coastal defence batteries and artillery emplacements. The towns and cities surrounding the Tyne were viewed as a particularly vulnerable access point to Britain via the North Sea, and so new batteries were built at Blyth, Marsden and Hartley, Northumberland, while much longer-standing emplacements were reinforced to defend Newcastle and Tynemouth.

The subject of my placement – Fort House and Roberts Battery at Hartley – was one of this series of new gun emplacements. It was unique, in that only Roberts Battery and Kitchener Battery at nearby Marsden, used repurposed guns from a naval battleship: HMS Illustrious. Official plans and memoranda, held at the National Archives, give details of the process of moving the powerful 12-in breech-loaded guns, as well as how they would fit into a newly built emplacement, with domestic outbuildings (Fort House) and training grounds. While building began in 1917, the privations and labour shortages of the war meant that construction was not completed until the war was over, in 1921 (Foster, 2004).

As a cultural historian of war and community, I thought this would be a fascinating project to be involved in. Working at the North of England Civic Trust in Newcastle, I used the office as a base to carry out archival research trips, with a view to assembling a research plan that could be later followed by a group of volunteers. The aim was, and remains, to find out more about the social and cultural history of the battery, the people that staffed it, built it and trained at it. To explore this, the plan is to use the research findings – from newspapers, local, regional and national archives – to provide public engagement around the subject of Roberts Battery, fitting this enriched narrative into the broader history of coastal defence in Britain. If we are successful in attaining funding, we plan to explore the Battery in Minecraft, as well as through more traditional educational workshops. Volunteers will be able to work as a team to build the battery in the game, connecting this interactive activity with the wider historical context they’ve learnt from the research process. Alongside colleagues from NECT, I hope to also deliver tours of the battery site, including nearby Fort House, taking place during Heritage Open Days 2017. All of this activity is dependent on funding. This is why a large portion of the placement involved writing detailed funding applications, to organisations such as the Heritage Lottery Fund.

I must underline the fact that sites such as Roberts Battery shared the nominally civilian space of the village with non-combatants at a time when coastal areas were felt to be vulnerable to attack or even invasion. My intention is that this project – which is ongoing – will enable the local community in and around Hartley to understand the place of their village and region in the history of the First World War, engaging volunteers of varying ages and backgrounds. Hopefully, it will also contribute to an enriched picture of civilian relations to coastal defence, bringing to the fore the contribution and sacrifice of civilians in coastal communities, including voluntary soldiers, civil defence volunteers and construction workers.

 

Reference

 

Foster, J. (2004) The Guns Of the North-East: Coastal Defences from the Tyne to the Humber (Barnsley: Pen & Sword).

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