How do we make history come alive? For some of us, online records and archival research can provide fascinating insights into past lives. For others, photographs, films and objects may trigger thoughts and emotions in a way that official records fail to do. Fortunately for us, institutions such as Imperial War Museums (IWM) bring together a wide range of approaches to understanding the past.
In her blog post Mapping the Centenary, Dr Ann-Marie Foster describes how the centenary of the First World War led to an outpouring of community projects, often looking under-researched aspects of that history. Our project Shalom Sussex was one of these. We focused on the war-time experiences of the long-established Jewish community in the county of Sussex in south-east England. Our small team of volunteer researchers investigated the lives of fifty individuals living along the coast from Chichester to Hastings. As well as urban areas and sea-side resorts, we looked at the war’s impact on the local ‘Jewish gentry’ represented by wealthy families who lived in the rural parts of the county.
One of our key resources was the Imperial War Museums’ War Memorials Register. This comprehensive source allowed us to quickly access the war memorial housed in Brighton’s Middle Street Synagogue. The synagogue’s memorial tablet names 125 men from the local Jewish community who served in the armed forces, and records the deaths of six of them. However, this memorial is only a partial record, as it is limited to those with a direct connection to the synagogue.
Middle Street Synagogue, Brighton. Jvhertum, CC BY-SA 3.0
For a wider picture, we turned to the British Jewry Book of Honour, which lists around 50,000 Jewish men and women who served in the First World War, and the website British Jews in the First World War: We Were There Too. Using this combination of resources, along with input from the Jewish Historical Society of England, we found more than twenty Jewish men with connections to the area had died as a result of the conflict or from the epidemic of Spanish Flu that followed.
The IWM collection is rich in material relating to the specifically Jewish battalions that were largely formed from Russian immigrants in London’s East End. The IWM’s online collection includes a cap badge from these troops, known as ‘The Judeans’, who belonged to the 38th, 39th, 40th and 42nd Battalions of the Royal Fusiliers. The IWM archives also provide access to Martin Sugarman’s vivid account of the formation of these battalions. For us, this was an interesting example of how the Sussex community’s experience was quite different from that of more recently arrived London residents. The Jewish battalions in London were formed in late 1917, and included people without British citizenship. By contrast, young men from the long-standing Sussex community usually joined up in the nearby Royal Sussex Regiment. We found only one local person who belonged to the Fusiliers.
We also identified four local men who had belonged to the Royal Air Force and its predecessors. One, Jack Barnato, flew as far as Istanbul on a raid despite the primitive state of aircraft design. We saw many more examples of wartime technology on our visit to the First World War Galleries at IWM London.
First World War Galleries at IWM London. Photo taken by the author.
One object that was of particular interest to our team was a simple, paddle-like fan designed by the scientist and suffragette, Hertha Ayrton (seen in the top left of the photo above). Hertha hoped that the troops would be able to use the fan to dispel poison gas from the trenches. Although many thousands of these fans were deployed to the front, they were said to be of little use. The galleries’ mock-up of a trench helps to underline the claustrophobic conditions that the soldiers must have faced. Our visit to these galleries really helped flesh out the political, social and technological context of the conflict for our team.
Away from the front lines, the IWM archives allowed us a deep-dive into the papers of the social campaigner Lady Eva Mond Isaacs, 2nd Marchioness of Reading. Eva was the daughter of the war-time First Commissioner of Works, Sir Alfred Mond. During the war, Eva was a young wife, pregnant with her second child when bombs began to fall on London. She moved for safety to the Sussex countryside and remained there much of the rest of the war. Our project uncovered several examples of internal migrations, like Eva’s, which foreshadowed the larger scale evacuations of the Second World War. Eva’s letters to her husband Gerald Isaacs at the end of the war were particularly affecting as she rejoiced in the newly-announced peace. Her eye-witness account brought us closer to the feelings experienced by those living at the time.
Extract from Lady Eva Mond Isaacs’ letter to her husband, 1918. IWM Documents.2317 Photo: author
For our team, a visit to IWM offered our diverse group of volunteers a chance to experience the history of the First World War in a variety of ways and to follow up on the things that most appealed to them - whether it was the life history of an individual, a novel piece of technology or the artistic response to the war. Along with a chance to get hands-on experience of archival material, the visit was a perfect way to enthuse our research team and broaden our perspective on the war.
Shalom Sussex was a Strike a Light-Arts & Heritage CIC project. You can read more at http://shalomsussex.co.uk/, see a recent talk via https://jscn.org.uk/heritage/history-festival/ and view our research results at https://www.jewsfww.uk/south-east.php. Our thanks go to our volunteer researchers, our partners and funders, including the players of the National Heritage Lottery who helped fund this project through the National Lottery Heritage Fund.