Armistice Day

A century ago, at 5 o’clock on the morning of November 11th 1918, the armistice which marked the end of the First World War was signed in a railway carriage at Compiègne in France.  Seven hours later, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, arms were laid down and hostilities ceased.  So ended four years of violence during which a million British servicemen had died and nearly two million had suffered permanent life-changing injuries. The excitement that had affected many at the outset, as they predicted celebrating victory “by Christmas”, had given way to exhaustion, disillusionment, trauma and grief.  What is striking about many contemporary accounts is the absence of joy – notwithstanding the noisy celebrations that erupted all over the country’s streets, the prevailing mood expressed in diaries and letters is one of weary relief haunted by loss and, often, a terrible sense of futility.

Everyone knew that the “war to end all wars” had changed the world forever, and that the Edwardian society that preceded it was now as distant as another planet.  Several ancient European empires had collapsed, including the ancien regime in Russia, swept away by revolution.  Many people clearly saw in the punitive peace terms eventually imposed on Germany the seeds of another conflict – often predicting, with uncanny accuracy, the 20 year interval that would precede it.

Things had changed enormously for women.  Two million women who statistics suggest would otherwise have married were to remain single due to the deaths of so many of their male peers, and this led to an influx of women into the professions (which generally excluded married women).  Women were soon to be granted the vote; middle class women like Vera Brittain, whose Testament of Youth is one of the most famous of First World War memoirs, had worked as nurses at the front and seen horrors their genteel upbringings would never have acknowledged possible.  They were keen to live their lives in a way that acknowledged how far their experiences had diverged from those of their mothers and grandmothers, and to participate in all arenas of politics, society and the arts.

People knew that as well as being an ending, the armistice marked the beginning of an enormous task – the rebuilding of society and the rehabilitation of individuals broken by war.

For this month’s Biography Collection display, we have a range of books which shed light on this moment of history.  We have many memoirs of combatants and nurses, poignant reminders of the scale of suffering involved.  We have memoirs of some of the doctors charged with trying to mend damaged bodies and minds, including Charles Myers, who studied “shell shock”, and Harold Gillies, who pioneered new treatments for the terrible facial injuries that the modern weapons of this modern war had caused.  We have the accounts of the politicians and military leaders who were there when the armistice was signed, and those who contemplated how to transform Britain into a “land fit for heroes”.  We have the poets and painters who revolutionised their art forms in order to describe their trench experiences.  We have those who addressed the problem of how to memorialise the massive human loss – like Edwin Lutyens, architect of the Cenotaph, and Sir Fabian Ware who founded the Imperial War Graves Commission.  To give a sense of the zeitgeist, we have portraits  of some of the leading figures of the day in both intellectual and popular culture: as the bells rang to mark the armistice, Sydney Blow’s production of “The Officers’ Mess” was the hot ticket on the West End Stage (with its rousing number, “Handsome Herbert of the Horseguards”), the hits of Al Jolson and Irving Berlin were on every fashionable phonograph, Charlie Chaplin was already beloved of cinema audiences, Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians was hailed as a milestone of the biography genre (and encapsulated in its style the dismantling of the old order), and Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier was one of the first novels to wrestle with the psychological legacy of war.

A century on, the scale of loss and suffering endured in the First World War still shocks.  Nothing evokes what it was actually like to live through its bloody course and traumatised aftermath more powerfully than contemporary records like diaries and letters, and the memoirs of those attempting to make sense of an event that transformed and overshadowed their lives.  We hope that they will bring to life for readers this critically important moment in our history, a hundred years ago.

The Biography Store Team, Kensington Central Library


Lest We Forget

The 1st July 2016 marks the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.

At 7.30am on the morning of the battle thousands of young men rose from their trenches and walked across No Man’s Land towards the enemy trenches.

On that single day the British Army suffered 57,000 casualties of which 19,000 men died.  The objective on that first day are shown in the map below:


For families on the home front, newspapers and magazines provided information. Seeing images of the battle meant reading the papers or magazines.

Here is a typical image of “Going over the Top” from our copy of the Illustrated London News from the later stages of the Battle of the Somme, showing that the dominion troops were heavily engaged:

Image from the Illustrated London News Oct 26th 1916


An edition shows British troops  capturing Montauban in late July:

The Great British Offensive North of the Somme: Troops Advancing to the Capture of Montauban. Illustrated London News 22nd July 1916


You can read daily coverage of the Somme battle in the Times Digital Archive and I selected part of one of the first editorials/ leaders to come out on July 3rd where indications are that the battle was going favourably:


Contrast this with the Roll of Honour of Friday 4th August 1916:


Punch Magazine took a different view on the seemingly never-ending battle as we can see from this image of October 25th 1916:

Punch Historical Archive 1841-1992


Having visited the Western Front several years ago I was struck by the openness of the landscape, its tranquillity. The scars remain of course and the area is populated by cemeteries and memorials along the frontline.

Some of the areas which I found very moving on my visit included:

The Lochnagar Mine Crater at La Boisselle on the Somme which was sprung at 7.28am on the 1st July and shows that the war was also waged underground by Royal Engineers and the devastation this caused


Delville Wood was also an incredibly atmospheric place to visit. It was where battalions of the South African Brigade came under artillery fire from the Germans during their attempt to capture and then defend the wood in mid July 1916

The South African Brigade had gone into battle here on 15th July 1915 with strength of 121 officers and 3,032 other ranks. At roll call on 21st July they numbered only 29 officers and 751 other ranks.

Military Artist drawing of the battle of Delville Wood July 1917


Abandoned German trench Delville Wood September 1916


Deville Wood at it is today


Newfoundland Memorial Park near Beaumont Hamel is one of only a few sites on the Western Front where the ground remains largely untouched from when the First World War ended and there are preserved trenches:

Image of trenches from the November 1916 attack


The Royal Newfoundland Regiment, part of the 29th Division, which had seen action at Gallipoli (1915) arrived in France in April 1916 and attacked on the 1st July 1916 at 9.15am as part of the second wave and suffered great losses in their attempt to Beaumont Hamel with 90% casualties.


Just in front of the Caribou in the above photo are the trenches from which the Newfoundland’s launched their attack.

During the First World War plans were already being made on how to commemorate the fallen and I would recommend Empires of the Dead by David Crane (2013) if you are interested in the story behind the building of the British and Commonwealth war cemeteries.


The most poignant and the largest memorial and the focus of commemorations on the 1st July is the Thiepval Memorial to the missing. This commemorates the 72,195 dead of all the  battles fought in the Somme area July 1915-November 1918 who have no known grave.

Total allied casualties during those 141 days were 623,907.

Lest We Forget.

To access all the databases used to research this blog please see:

Punch Historical  Archive 1841-1992

Visit the Times Digital Archive

The Illustrated London News is available at the Central Reference Library

Karen Ullersperger, Tri-Borough Reference Librarian



Stop Press: new Kensington & Chelsea WWI website

Lucy Yates, World War One Project Officer, writes:

We’re delighted to announce that the World War One website (mentioned in our previous post!) is now up and running. You can find it here, so please do log on and have a look.



You can search the material by personal stories (from the Mayor of Kensington to munitions worker Lottie Meade), by local regiments or by place to find out about the internment of Germans at Olympia or the model trench in Cheyne Walk.

We’ve been busy putting up a wealth of material, which ranges from tickets for the Army Christmas pudding fund to posters from the war-time Chelsea Kitchens. However, a big part of our website is collecting contributions from the public about life in Kensington and Chelsea in World War One so if you’ve got a fascinating family tale about the Great War or interesting photographs please log on and add your memories. We hope to make this a permanent showcase of life in the Borough during this unique period of history.

Spotlight on Remembrance Sunday

The second Sunday of November is, every year, a day of reflection, when people of all ages wear a poppy with pride.

Our online Encyclopaedia Britannica has a brilliant Britannica Spotlight on Poppy Day page, which is perfect for helping you (or someone you know) with Remembrance Sunday homework: useful articles and information as well as activities and fun.

Spotlight on Poppy Day
Spotlight on Poppy Day

There is also a Poppy Day article for older students, with a handy double-click on any word to get an instant dictionary definition tool: it also allows you to select different reading levels, and search for and highlight specific words.

Remembrance Sunday on  Encyclopaedia Britannica
Remembrance Sunday on Encyclopaedia Britannica

Check out our Encyclopaedia Britannica page, where you can find links to Britannica Junior, Student and Adult.

Sloane Street 1919: the Peace Parade

We’ve struck gold this week: a guest blog by our Local Studies Librarian, Dave Walker, with some personal- and local- reflections of WWI.

Like many of the people who work in libraries, archives and museums I’ve spent time this year getting ready for the commemoration of the start of the First World War, looking through archive material, going to meetings and workshops, working on exhibitions and events and answering the first flurry of enquiries on the subject. I’ve never experienced any preparation for a centenary like it. Raising awareness of a profoundly significant historical event and getting people interested in history is never a bad thing. But the First World War is not like other historical events. It’s definitely not like the Second World War.


World War 2 was an unambiguous struggle against evil. We may have had some allies we felt dubious about afterwards, and we may feel regret about some of the methods and weapons used by the Allies but it was a necessary war. That seems to be the general consensus. And I know it from my own family. Both my father and my mother were in the armed forces and believed in the cause for which they were fighting.


But World War 1 is less clear cut. We fought an aggressor who was determined on the domination of Europe (and elsewhere). But the origins of the war are caught up in diplomatic machinations and expediency. And there are many areas of disagreement about the conduct of the war. Were our troops “lions led by donkeys” as Allan Clarke famously put it? Or were the allied commanders as competent as could have been expected given that the technology of warfare was changing so rapidly? Was the Great War a just war against an enemy of civilisation? Or simply the result of one gang of would be imperialists attempting unsuccessfully to supplant another? It wasn’t as it turned out “the war to end wars”. But was it just an accidental outbreak of unjustifiable blood-letting?


It’s harder when the event being remembered is reaching the point of being almost past living memory. As far as my own family is concerned there are a few photos of men in uniform seen in old photo albums and I know about my great uncle John James Williamson who died towards the end of the war too late to travel home on compassionate leave when his mother died. (His brother George made it home and survived the war.)


When it comes to what is being commemorated we can agree that it was the courage and sacrifice of ordinary men and women that we want to remember and the details of ordinary lives. The historians and politicians can argue over the rest.

There is no doubt about the suffering and trauma which ended the long Edwardian summer and propelled us into the 20th century. But if it feels disheartening to contemplate pain, misery and injustice we can remember that this is history. We have the whole span of the war to examine, which is why I have chosen these pictures.


This was the Peace Parade of 1919. Men and women who served in the armed forces or in auxiliary forces are seen marching down Sloane Street (just a part of the whole route) to commemorate the end of the war.

We’re rightly avoiding the word celebration this year. But I think it is right to say that these men and women were celebrating one thing – their own survival. They marched in front of cheering crowds to celebrate the peace, proud of what they had done but glad it was finished.


Home at last. War is over.


You can follow Dave’s regular blog here




The lamps are going out all over Europe…

The Times, 5th August 1914
The Times, 5th August 1914

The Times newspaper of the 5th August 1914 gives a sense of the emotion that gripped the country after Britain declared war on Germany on the 4th August.

Crowds pack out Central London waiting for the announcement, and the atmosphere is electric: cheering, demonstrations, patriotic singing, and the royal family appears on the balcony of Buckingham Palace three times, in response to the hysterical crowds below.  Ties with Britain are strengthened across the world, with voices from America, France, and Canada confirming the sense of solidarity and unity:

“All reserve has now gone, and a wave of passionate loyalty is now sweeping the country”. (From The Times’ own correspondent, in Ottawa)

“Let us remember that the future of free government in the modern world is now being safeguarded by the blood and treasure of Great Britain as it was safeguarded by her in the era of Napoleon.” (From an American, escaped from Germany to London)

But side by side with excitement sit practicality and caution : messages to the public to reduce their food consumption, recruitment drives and the sad news that racing meets could be abandoned as the government has commissioned all horse boxes. Burberry makes the most of things:


Excitement seems to be the main ingredient, with little sense of the horrors to come…

The Times newspaper was vital for those at home following the progress of the war, in an age without internet or TV.  Key moments of WWI are brought to life through the words of Times journalists, correspondents and advertisements, and you can access the full archive online through our website, for free.

What lies beneath part 2: the corset and beyond

We have a fantastic costume collection at Chelsea Reference Library and Gillian Nunns, one of our Triborough Reference Librarians has been taking a look….

In What lies beneath part 1′ I had a look at the bizarre story of the crinoline in the context of the changing tides of fashion.  Which brings us to the corset, which also has something of a bizarre, if not more sinister history than the crinoline.

The corset had gone out of fashion in the Regency period of the early 19th Century, when a natural figure and light muslin dresses were in fashion.  Although they still existed in various guises, it was in the 1870s when bustles meant that clothes were moulded to the body at the front of the skirt and around the hips that the corset came back into its own.  The corset industry received a lot of impetus, leading to a great variety of types of corset, and different inventions around their design were advocated.   Also, ladies’ magazines of the time began giving more descriptions of corsets and advertised them frequently, such as this one from the Giraud Company in the 1880s.

Corset advert from Giraud Company
Corset advert from Giraud Company

And here is an image that I found in Support and Seduction by Beatrice Fontanel, advertising the “Thylda” corset.

"Thylda" corset from 'Support and Seduction by Beatrice Fontanel
“Thylda” corset from ‘Support and Seduction by Beatrice Fontanel

The corset also became hugely controversial as it brought with it a trend for smaller and smaller waists, and the controversial practice of “tight-lacing” – a practice which involved systematically reducing a woman’s waist by means of lacing the corset as tightly as possible over a period of time.  The controversy is very well documented as readers of the time could now write to publications with their views, which make interesting (if not painful) reading as I discovered from looking through our Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine issues.  In 1867 one lady described the practice of “tight-lacing” at her school and described girls competing to have waists of 13 inches (which I hope was an exaggeration!)

 “Every morning one of the maids used to come to assist us to dress, and a governess superintended, to see that our corsets were drawn as tight as possible.  After the first few minutes every morning I felt no pain, and the only ill effects apparently were occasional headaches and loss of appetite. Though I have always heard tight-lacing condemned, I have never suffered any ill effects myself, and, as a rule, our school was singularly free from illness”  

(From Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, 1868)

But many thought otherwise, and The Lancet was one publication that regularly voiced concerns, here is one comment quoted in the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, 1968:

 “The mischief produced by such a practice can hardly be overestimated.  It tends gradually to misplace organs of the body, while, by compressing them, it must from the first interfere with their functions.  The grounds upon which Tight-lacing has been recommended are diametrically opposed to the teachings of anatomy and physiology, not to say common sense”

Despite many speaking out against the practice of tight-lacing corsets, the practice continued, although alternatives were invented, such as this orthopaedic corset that we found an illustration of in a book called The Corset; A Cultural History by Valerie Steele.

Orthodpaedic corset from 'The Corset; A Cultural History' by Valerie Steele
Orthopaedic corset from ‘The Corset; A Cultural History’ by Valerie Steele

Fashion only turned away from the corset apparently of its own accord in the early 20th Century, and almost overnight the hobble skirt and a more natural figure was all the rage, as depicted in this postcard of around 1911.

Hobble skirt
Hobble skirt

And here an advert for what might have been underneath, which I found in The Story of Women’s Underwear by Muriel Barbier and Shazia Boucher.

An advert from 'The Story of Women's Underwear' by Barbier and Boucher
An advert from ‘The Story of Women’s Underwear’ by Barbier and Boucher

And when the First World War broke out practical concerns played a crucial role in women’s fashion which perhaps hadn’t in earlier times.  No longer could women take up any fashion despite their practical drawbacks, and the sometimes bizarre undergarments that they entailed.   I was  interested in seeing illustrations of typical fashion in different decades of the 20th Century in a book called Changing Trends in Fashion by Anne Tyrrell, including this one from the time of the First World War.

Wartime dress image from 'Changing Trends in Fashion' by Anne Tyrell
Wartime dress image from ‘Changing Trends in Fashion’ by Anne Tyrell

I also had a look at the future of the undergarment in our issues of Vogue from the 1920s and 30s, and noted the peculiar names given to types of undergarments using new materials that allowed for greater freedom of movement.

From Vogue 1923
From Vogue 1923
From Vogue 1936
From Vogue 1936

And how about this now-not-so-sensational shape advertised in Vogue 1978.

From Vogue 1978
From Vogue 1978

And a French advertisement from 1984 that I found in The Story of Women’s Underwear by Muriel Barbier and Shazia Boucher.

French advert, 1984
French advert, 1984

Perhaps we could say that the laws of fashion are not as strict as they used to be.  Here is a picture of a Lacroix evening dress in 1997 taken by Roxanne Lowit, which we found in The Corset; A Cultural History by Valerie Steele.

Lacroix evening dress
Lacroix evening dress

I hope you’ve enjoyed these two posts and if you like to find out more do pop into to see the collection at Chelsea Library.

Gillian Nunns, Reference Librarian
Gillian Nunns

Gillian Nunns

Triborough Reference Librarian, Chelsea Reference Library

Further information

The sources used for this post are all available at Chelsea Reference Library.

  •  Changing Trends in Fashion by Anne Tyrrell, 1986
  •  The Corset; A Cultural History by Valerie Steele, 2003
  •  Support and Seduction by Beatrice Fontanel, 1998
  •  The Story of Women’s Underwear by Muriel Barbier and Shazia Boucher, 2010
  • Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, 1868
  • Vogue, September 1923
  • Vogue, March 1936
  • Vogue, February 1978