One hundred years on from the First World War, it is still a moment in history that in many ways defines our country. Between 2014 and 2018, thousands of events were organised to mark the various centenaries. These ranged in scale from Jeremy Deller’s We’re Here Because We’re Here, which saw hundreds of actors appear silently in towns and cities across the UK to mark the first day of the Battle of the Somme, to my own personal pilgrimage to tell the story of one forgotten soldier. The Apedale Valley Light Railway held a series of ‘Tracks To Trenches’ re-enactment events, and artist Paul Cummins and designer Tom Piper brought their ceramic poppies to Middleport Pottery.
Our view of the FIrst World War is shaped by the words of those who wrote at the time or immediately afterwards. Since the 1960s, our view has been framed by the War Poets being taught in school – Siegfired Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke and their contemporaries were almost forgotten before becoming widespread in schools.
As we have listened to the voice of the soldiers, we cannot hear the voice of the women, but they were there. Women from every social class served their country, in a variety of different roles. The Munitionettes, the young girls working in factories whose skin was dyed yellow by the chemicals, are remembered, but women took many more ordinary roles in factories to fill the places left by men going to the trenches. The Women’s Land Army, better known from the Second World War but 23,000-strong in 1918, helped to run farms and forests. The Women’s Auxiliary Army Corp, driving and maintaining trucks, drove war materiel across the country and out to the fighting fronts.
And then there are the women grouped together as ‘nurses’, the Voluntary Aid Detachments (VAD), First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, the Red Cross and St John Ambulance Brigade. These women weren’t just passive helpers at the hospitals set up across the UK (locally, there were hospitals in Stoke, Leek, Stone, and Shelton), but were driving ambulances right up to the front line.
One of the volunteer nurses was Vera Brittain. She was born in 1893 into a very wealthy family who lived in Newcastle-under-Lyme (her house is still there, on Sidmouth Avenue, with a blue plaque to her memory). Her family owned a papermaking business, with mills in Hanley and Cheddleton.
Vera and her brother Edward were given a ‘good’ education at Uppingham School, founded in 1584 by the Archdeacon of Leicester. When war came, Edward – like others of his social class – was made an officer. So too was Vera’s finance, Roland Leighton, and their closest friends, Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow. Vera joined the VAD, and served as a nurse at hospitals in Buxton, London, France and on the island of Malta. She was the only one of the group to survive the war.
Vera wrote a memoir of the war, Testament of Youth, which was published in 1933 and has in many ways framed our view of the war ever since. It gives us a very Middle Class view of the war, inevitably, and perhaps more than any other text spoke of a ‘lost generation’. The total strength of the British Army, including over 1.5 million Indian Army and ‘coloured soldiers’, was 8,689,457.
956,703 were killed. 89% of soldiers survived the First World War, albeit with 2,272,998 of them wounded (64% of whom returned to carry on fighting – my Great-Grandad was both shot and gassed, but served until armistice in 1918). For Vera, to lose everyone in her close circle, was both exceptional and incredibly unlucky.
Unsurprisingly, given her experience, Vera became a fighter for peace, at a time when Britain was considering rearmament and faced another European war. Chamberlain, doing everything to maintain the peace, is now seen as somehow out of step, and Churchill’s rush to fight seen as the right thing. But in the 1930s, it was more complex. The First World War was very recent – closer then, than we are to the Spice Girls and Cool Britannia today. There were wounded veterans in almost every family, and war memorials had replaced the maypole on the village green or the market in the town square.
The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the No More War Movement, the Service Civil International and the Peace Pledge Union all formed and were active in this period. The first white poppies were worn in 1933 by the Co-operative Women’s Guild, to remember everyone who died in the war (the British Legion’s red poppy is only for remembrance of the military) and as a commitment to peace. The Labour Party was led by a pacifist (who also chaired the Peace Pledge Union), and at the 1933 Labour conference in Hastings it resolved unanimously to “pledge itself to take no part in war”.
Vera was a member of the Peace Pledge Union and the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship, and through the 1930s she spoke at peace rallies and other events. She wrote for Peace News. During the Second World War, she spoke out against the area bombing of German cities, but did serve as a fire warden and raising funds for the Peace Pledge Union’s food relief campaign. In the 1950s and 1960s, she campaigned against apartheid and colonialism, and in favour of nuclear disarmament. She died in London, in March 1970.
As Lead Artist for Appetite’s Newcastle Common, I’ll be carrying out a two week residency, based around the project’s shopfront space. Having previously made work with the Lochnagar Crater Foundation, an organisation who maintain a Somme battlefield site as a centre for peace and reconciliation, having worked with the history of print and papermaking in Kent, and having spent 20 years finding ways to bring craft and manufacture back to town centres, I want to use that residency to explore Vera’s story through her connection with the town.
And of course, Vera’s connection to Staffordshire isn’t just through pacifism, but also through papermaking. The Cheddleton Paper Mill closed in 1979 (and is now remembered in … er, gin!) and the Ivy House Mill, Hanley closed in 2006, and is now only remembered by a street name.
So to remember Vera and her paper-making ancestry, I’m planning to set up a paper making workshop in the shop, to let people make their own paper. They’ll be able to add their own material to the pulp – a letter from somebody they feel wronged them, a souvenir of a terrible time – as an act of reconciliation as they create a blank page to start something new. After it’s dried, they’ll be able to keep the paper and invited to use it creatively.
I’ve also commissioned a very limited number of sheets of paper from the Paper Foundation one of the few papermills still manufacturing in the UK. I’ll give sheets to selected artists, who make work around themes of peace and reconciliation, and bring what they make together for an exhibition in the Newcastle Common gallery space. I’ll exhibit the work by local people, on the pages they made in the shop, alongside the invited artists.
I’ll create a programme around the themes, talks and presentations about peace and papermaking. And I’ll publish a gazetteer or UK sites, memorials, and gardens dedicated to peace.
The project, rooted in the history of local industry and shaped by a war a hundred and more years ago, will be about the future – the future of our town centres, as places of making again, and as we discuss peace, reconciliation, and forgiveness, about the future of our country.