New book provides fascinating insight into local life during the Great War

Martin Hayes, the studies librarian at West Sussex County Council
Martin Hayes, the studies librarian at West Sussex County Council

The world has begun to take notice again of the sacrifices made by millions during the First World War, which began 100 years ago this month. Here in West Sussex, a team of authors have produced a fascinating chronicle of what local life was like during the Great War. Martin Hayes, the county’s local studies librarian, has played a pivitol role in the book, and speaks here about it.

This month’s centenary of the First World War’s outbreak in 1914 has given us the opportunity nationally to commemorate one of the most devastating events in modern history. The part played by local people is described in a new book Great War Britain: West Sussex, Remembering 1914-18.

The book is a highly unusual publishing project, a partnership between The History Press and West Sussex County Council, the result of thousands of hours of research by 150 volunteers and outstanding writing by a team of 12 authors.

It is an account of service and sacrifice by local people both on the home front and overseas, particularly by those in The Royal Sussex Regiment.

Edited by Library Service staff, it would never have happened without wide-ranging support from West Sussex Record Office staff and a generous grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Advances in digital technology enabled the high resolution scanning of ten local newspapers, 1914-18, to produce searchable text on DVDs, now available for public research at some large libraries and the Record Office.

Volunteer indexers found 10,000 articles describing significant events, an archive of information which would have taken a single writer many years to unearth.

On the Home Front, the war effort in West Sussex has been researched in detail, producing remarkable stories and surprising outcomes. The county hosted many thousands of servicemen, initially billeted in local homes and later housed in huge military camps.

Early in the conflict came blackouts to counter air raids, Special Constables were enrolled and most towns and villages formed civil guards (Volunteer Training Corps, a kind of ‘Dad’s Army’) to protect themselves.

The county even saw a top secret project (the ‘mystery towers’ at Shoreham Harbour) to counter the submarine threat. Initiatives such as ‘make do and mend’, recycling, rationing of food, coal, gas, petrol etc, and the Women’s Land Army, all originated in the Great War.

Existing hospitals such as Graylingwell, numerous convalescent homes and non-medical buildings were transformed to care for several thousand wounded during the course of the war with surprising recovery rates. The scaling up of industry, the conversion of many local companies’ production to arms manufacture, and the mobilisation of women into the workforce, also happened in this period.

Increased food production, helped by the largely rural county, was hugely important in staving off the sort of the malnutrition suffered by German people.

Local churches were a unifying force for the local population and played their part in maintaining morale. The success of local people in raising over £1 million (£55 million today), making armaments, comforts and goods, maintaining morale, and increasing food production, were all key elements in supporting our victory.

Over 50,000 Sussex men are estimated to have fought, most in the Army, and many went into the County Regiment. The many complex influences and pressures on those who volunteered, and later those conscripted, are fully explored. Their service overseas is described using source material previously untapped by historians, including uncatalogued diaries, letters, photographs etc in the Royal Sussex Regiment Archive as well as the newspaper articles.

This book pays tribute to their endurance, courage, sacrifice and suffering. The issues faced by the servicemen who returned, and the plight of bereaved families, are also explored. We learn how they coped, or not, with mental and physical disabilities, usually for life, and how they suffered financial problems, reduced incomes, low pensions, unemployment and some surprising public hostility.

Finally, we learn how memorials were created to those who did not return. At first, temporary shrines emerged, later, plaques and windows in churches, works of art, the well-known substantial stone memorials and buildings, all fitting tributes to those who laid down their lives.

We hope that the main legacy the book will be to prompt every reader to gain a better understanding, and greater appreciation, of the suffering and sacrifice made by many thousands from our county, at home and abroad. Those people, particularly the ‘lost generation’ of young men and their unfortunate families, should never be forgotten.

The book may be borrowed, or bought at £12.99 (RRP £14.99,from every public library in West Sussex; also at the County Record Office in Chichester.