Tuesday, 11 November 2014

What the Brownies taught me about the First World War

Armed only with a Brownie Guide Annual and a radio, Joanne Casey has discovered some unexpected facts about the First World War.

This year, the Brownie Guides in the UK celebrate their 100th birthday. My 8 year old is a keen Brownie, with a uniform covered in badges that didn't exist back in my brown bobble-hatted days; Circus Performer, World Issues, Environment, and Disability Awareness. So, at Christmas, I bought her the 2014 Brownie Annual - the centenary special.

Prominently featured is a timeline showing how the Brownie movement has developed and highlighting its involvement in community activities. One little fact captured my attention; during the First World War, Brownies helped to collect eggs to improve the diets of soldiers hospitalised in France.

Image used under the terms & conditions
of the IWM Non Commercial Licence
© IWM (Art.IWM PST 10836)
Let that sink in for a moment.




How on earth did that work?

Very efficiently, apparently. Egg collection points - over 2000 of them - were set up nationwide. A poster campaign promoted the collection, and eggs were collected from anyone from a householder with one laying hen to large farms - the aim was to collect around 200,000 eggs each week. The eggs were packed into sawdust filled boxes for transportation - any that were broken during the initial process were diverted for use in local hospitals. Other schemes encouraged the collection of fruit and vegetables for soldiers and sailors - much of this was done through collections at schools, with pupils encouraged to donate.

The BBC provide more information, and a film clip of one egg collection point on their World War One at Home pages.

It's worth noting that their older sisters in the Girl Guides had a role to play too, acting as messengers of confidential information for the Marconi Wireless Telegraph company, as the use of telegraph became increasingly important.

The Brownie Annual hasn't been my only source of new facts about the First World War. Listening to Radio 4 in the car, I was equally astonished to learn that soldiers based in the trenches gardened in them - growing both food to eat and flowers to remind them of home, and even holding vegetable shows - the Imperial War Museum has amongst its artefacts the medals awarded.

Medals awarded at the 1918 British Forces Vegetable Show in Le Havre
Held at the Imperial War Museum.
Image used under the terms of the IWM Non-Commercial Licence.
Again, this turned my perceptions on their head - I had no idea of the length of time that soldiers must have spent stationed in the trenches, and no real concept of what those trenches were like.

The drive to self-sufficiency was strong on the home front too - the moats of the Tower of London, currently filled with ceramic poppies marking each of the British and Commonwealth soldiers who died in the war, were used at the time as a vegetable garden.

This clip from Gardener's Question Time explains more, and a project undertaken by The Garden Museum also examines this.

100 years on, none of the soldiers who fought in World War One survive - the last veteran who served in the trenches, Harry Patch, died in 2009, and the last surviving combat veteran, Claude Choules who served in the British Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy, died in 2011. For me, the small details of life on the home front and in the trenches allow us to recapture some of the humanity of the war, remembering the small scale alongside the very big picture.

Earlier this year, we marked the centenary of World War 1 with an exhibition and blog post on conflict and remembrance, highlighting items held here in our Special Collections and Archives:
Across our collections, we hold a wealth of physical and electronic resources about World War One, which you can explore through YorSearch.

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