WWI: Past & Present.

Written by Victoria Green.

This year marks 100 years since the First World War came to an end. It was a war unlike any other, and the loss of a generation reshaped Britain. The National Leather Collection has just become a proud member of the Centenary Partnership, led by the Imperial War Museum. This Autumn, in time for Armistice day, the museum will host a centenary exhibition exploring how leather was used during the First World War, and the effect that the war had upon Northampton’s leather industry.

During WWI, Northampton played an important part in shoeing soldiers. Northampton shoe factories were responsible for making boots for the allies, and produced approximately two thirds of the seventy million boots produced for the British forces. The First World War was a lucrative time for boot makers, with business booming and women being employed to help with the workload. Furthermore, boot makers and repairers were vital on the front line, relied upon to mend soles and keep the soldiers marching.

Shoemakers at Crockett & Jones, Northampton.

As an archaeology graduate, material culture has always fascinated me. When looking at the objects that survived WWI, I wonder about the men that these items had belonged to; what the story of their war had been. It was on this note, several years ago now, that I began to do a little family research of my own.

In 2014, I was first introduced to a pair of Emil Busch binoculars in a leather case. They were in such impeccable condition, it was hard to believe that they had seen trench warfare on the Hindenburg Line in 1918. That they had passed through both German and British hands. It was even harder to believe that they had belonged to my great-grandfather, William Green; kept as a souvenir of the battles he had fought. When I first held those binoculars, it was just instinct to look through the eyepiece. I wondered what William had seen when he did the same, how different that sight must have been.

Emil Busch binoculars, c.1914: ©Northampton Museums and Art Gallery
Emil Busch binocular case, c.1914: ©Northampton Museums and Art Gallery

With my grandfather’s help, I gradually began to uncover the story of Private William Green’s war. Luckily, his service record was complete and accessible. I started with his enlistment in 1915 at 20 years old, younger than I am now. He quickly qualified as a 1st Class Machine Gunner and Signaller, and was deployed in France. From his records, I learned that William was quickly injured and sent home to England after receiving a gunshot wound to the shoulder. However grievous his injury, it was this wound that led him to my great-grandmother; William was posted in Chatham, where he met Gladys Taylor.

He was soon back in France, however, now serving as a Lance Corporal. Not long after, he was wounded once more, this time catching a bullet in his left leg. He convalesced in the 1st Southern General Hospital, Birmingham. Curiously, this military hospital was located at the University of Birmingham’s Aston Webb hall, the very same place in which I graduated in 2014. Our lives, though generations apart, had taken us both to the same place. William then spent a lot of time convalescing in Woldingham, Surrey. His notes suggest he may have been suffering from shell shock.

After a long recovery, William returned once more to Chatham in late 1917. He must have been happy indeed to be able to return to his sweetheart and, consequently, he was stripped of his Lance stripes for being absent without leave on Valentine’s Day 1918.

Family photograph of Private William Green

It was not long before William was back in France with his battalion to join the assault on the Hindenburg Line. It was in these late stages of the war that William found himself in Ronssoy Wood, one of the many battlefields of the Somme. For brave actions on the 18th of September 1918, he was awarded the Military Medal. Under heavy shellfire, William had pulled his wounded comrades from the battlefield, until he himself was injured.

He was one of those fortunate enough to be demobilised and return home in 1919, though he never spoke of his wartime experiences. My father, a young boy at the time, remembers his Grandad as having been very austere, forbidding. It was very clear to me that World War I had stripped William of his youth; he had transformed from the cheeky young man who chose love over duty, to a stern adult.

Certificate showing Transfer to Reserves, 1919.

Though the National Leather Collection’s centenary exhibition is still in its conceptual stages, this year we hope to encourage all to tell the stories of those who are no longer able. It is a privilege to be working on an exhibition that showcases the lives of the men who served in the Northamptonshire Regiment. Finally, one hundred years later, we are able to talk about things the soldiers could not.

Though it comes too late for my great-grandfather to appreciate, I hope that he knows just how proud we are of his actions on the front line, and that his story will not be forgotten.

If I should die, think only this of me;
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.’

– The Soldier, Rupert Brooke (1914)

Follow us on Facebook and Twitter for updates on our centenary exhibition in Autumn 2018.

If, like me, you have a story to tell, or family research that relates to the Northamptonshire Regiment during the First World War, please email victoria.green@nationalleathercollection.org. If you would like to become involved in the project, please visit our volunteer page.