SMHS Study Day 2014

24 May 2014

The Great War was a pivotal event in world history. More than 16 million lives were lost; more still underwent life-changing experiences. This war left indelible marks on every person, family and nation where its events played out. In 2014 SMHS dedicated its Study Day to the commemoration of the centenary of the start of the Great War.

~ Lest we Forget ~

Our first speaker was Peter Hart, author, military historian and oral historian for the Imperial War Museum. Peter spoke about Gallipoli, a campaign which, in his opinion should never have happened and lost Churchill his office.

Peter set out the reasons why the Allies attacked Gallipoli, balancing these with the reasons the campaign was destined to fail. Most striking about Peter's talk was the detail in his descriptions of the conditions the troops fought in, of the inhospitable landscape and the prevalence of disease and suffering amongst the troops. Peter's latest book entitled Gallipoli” is available from Amazon or other book retailers. For further information see Peter's website

After a short break our second speaker, Luke Barber, a local archaeologist joined us for his presentation on The Seaford Camps 1914-1919 and beyond. Luke, a Research Officer with the Sussex Archaeological Society has led research into various Great War sites and, now resident in Seaford, has investigated the Seaford Camps largely on his own time together with SMHS member Justin Russell. Luke described how most of the area of the camps is now covered by housing but evidence remains of the thousands of men billeted here for training throughout the war. Luke's sources include postcards, war diaries, letters home, maps and plans. These plans and photos depicted huge swathes of the Downs with huts surrounding parade grounds, areas for physical training and firing ranges - some of which survive in today's landscape.

After a tour of the fort led by SMHS member Ed Tyhurst was curtailed by rain, we broke for lunch returning early as Ed had volunteered to continue his ‘tour' in the dry with the aid of maps and pictures. The fort itself is the largest defence work constructed in Sussex, built in the 1860s it has provided coastal defence through both world wars.

Our third speaker was Sue Light, a trained nurse and midwife who worked as a Nursing Sister in the Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps both in England and abroad. Sue's talk The Mobilisation of Nurses - 1914” covered a topic perhaps less familiar to Great War students. The Fairer Force” numbered just 298 on the eve of war. The Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service had a small presence in military hospitals and its staff were well-trained, efficient and accustomed to hard work which gave them a good footing for war. The QAIMNS also had a Reserve, numbering approximately 200 who could be called upon if necessary which, together with the Territorial Force Nursing Service (3000) and Civil Hospital Reserve (600) identified 4100 potential Nurses who could be mobilised.

In August 1914, Ethel Becher, Matron-in-Chief was just a month away from retirement however; she was to continue in her post throughout the war. Ethel recalled regular members from overseas and sent out letters to those who had retired or resigned. She needed to staff UK military hospitals, hospital ships and send staff to serve abroad. Many who answered her call found that within a matter of days they had left their civilian life and were embarking onto a ship bound for coastal France where a string of buildings were given over for hospital wards. 23 General Hospitals had opened in the UK by the end of August and Ethel had to carefully balance sending staff overseas whilst avoiding leaving heavy gaps in the nursing capability here in the UK. When peace was declared there were 22,000 trained military nurses, and Ethel finally retired from the service. For further details of Sue's research please see

Our final speaker was Kevin Gordon, retired British Transport Police Officer and Seaford Resident with a keen interest in Sussex history. Research for Kevin's latest book entitled Seaford and Eastbourne in the Great War” (Pen and Sword Publishing) provided subject matter for this talk.

Eastbourne and Seaford were closer to the war than many other British towns as the sights and sounds of battle could be witnessed by residents. Local people found themselves on the front-line. German U-boat U35 torpedoed boats and the Captain of the steamer Blackwood” said he could see the Germans laughing as she sank. Another U-boat, U118, washed ashore in front of the Queens Hotel, Hastings on 15th April 1919 whilst being towed to France for scrap. A captive audience were subsequently offered tours until two of the guides died from noxious gases in the wreck, given off by the submarines large lead batteries.

The Mystery Towers built at Shoreham Harbour were constructed to hold an anti-submarine boom across the Solent. Incomplete when the war ended, one was finished and towed to the Solent as a navigational aid (the Nab Tower); the other was found to be too big too leave the Harbour and was subsequently dismantled.

Zeppelin airships appeared in the skies above Sussex. The first air threat, bombs were dropped by hand but not with any degree of accuracy, however they injected real fear into the local population. With the presence of troops on the coast incidents of drunkenness and accidents brought about a rise in Police duties, as did black-out enforcement and the registering of aliens. Newhaven Port was requisitioned and civilian coal deliveries were limited, forcing up the price of coal. One coal ship took two weeks to unload as deliveries were only allowed for two hours each night.

Gas masks were introduced and as men went to war, women took over their jobs. Male farm workers refused to give way and when asked why he did not use female drivers the Manager of Eastbourne Bus Company said he had the safety of his passengers to consider!

SMHS would like to thank all the speakers who gave their time free of charge for this event. Thanks are also extended to Bob Peedle MBE TD for guiding us through a busy programme on time, and to the staff and volunteers at Newhaven Fort for their assistance throughout the day. We are pleased to announce that £800 was raised for The Royal British Legion and all attendees are warmly thanked for their generosity.

SMHS meets on the third Wednesday of every month at the function room of the Royal Oak, Station Road, Lewes, Members (£2) and non-Members (£3) are welcome. Details of our events are available on our website Our speaker for June is Ian Everest who develops the theme of women at war with his presentation The Women's Land Army - a Sussex Connection.”

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7.30pm for 8.00pm start
Function Room of the
Royal Oak Public House,
Station Street, Lewes,
East Sussex.

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