GREAT WAR CENTENARY: Five years that changed a town

Soldiers drafted in to work on the Golden Lion bridge area in Swindon town centre. Some were recuperating from wounds, others were part of the Labour corps – men no longer fit for fighting but okay for manual labour

Soldiers drafted in to work on the Golden Lion bridge area in Swindon town centre. Some were recuperating from wounds, others were part of the Labour corps – men no longer fit for fighting but okay for manual labour

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World War One began 100 years ago today and those who were lucky enough to return from conflict came home to a place very different to the one they left behind...

Pre-1914...

MUCH of the Swindon which went to war in 1914 would scarcely be recognisable to modern eyes.

The Old Town at the top of the hill and the New Town at the bottom had been united as a borough only at the beginning of the century, and acres of farm and woodland lay where thousands have their homes today.

When the Railway Works were first conceived of in the mid-19th Century, it had been hoped to place them roughly where the Town Hall is now, but that was deemed too close for comfort by some of the wealthier and more influential inhabitants of Old Town.

The result was that the GWR had to build not only a workplace but also an entire infrastructure to support it, including housing, medical facilities, schools and churches. New suburbs such as Rodbourne and Gorse Hill came later.

In 1914, though, Swindon was essentially still two towns linked by Victoria Road. Drove Road, as old photographs show, was just that – a road along which cattle and other domesticated beasts were driven.

These days the population of the borough stands at 200,000; a century ago the total was about a quarter of that.

More than 5,000 men – or about one in five of the male population – went to war. The official death toll was 920, although inconsistencies in records and ambiguities over just who counted as a Swindonian mean the true figure might be as high as 1,300.

Motor vehicles were seen on the streets relatively infrequently, and tended to be in the hands of prosperous business people and wealthy private citizens. The horse still dominated, and the tram was the only form of motorised transport commonly used by ordinary people.

Society itself was different in countless ways. There was a small middle and upper class and a large working class, many of whom lived in a state of poverty which would be completely unacceptable today.

Enlightened employers such as the GWR offered health care and basic compensation for work-related accidents, but were under no legal obligation to do so.

For less fortunate people, the only option in their hour of need was to throw themselves on the mercy of loved ones.

For the least fortunate the workhouse in Stratton St Margaret beckoned. There, in exchange for a bed and very basic meals, inmates would be expected to perform menial tasks. Typical workhouse employment included picking old rope to pieces so its fibres could be reused.

Most homes were heated by coal and lit by coal gas; domestic electricity had been around since the 1880s but was still for the well-to-do. Telephones were even more uncommon – indeed, it would be at least 60 years before a home without one was thought unusual.

Many ordinary people had only one set of good clothes, which were saved for the most special occasions and attending church services – their ‘Sunday Best.’ Church attendance was almost universal and far more people counted themselves devout.

Love of country was entwined with love of God, which is why, as soon as war was declared, men queued to join the forces.

1918 onwards...

IN the late summer and early autumn of 1914, Swindon people rallied around the flag.

A little less than five years later they hacked one down – or the flagpole, anyway – and put it to the torch.

British forces personnel had famously been promised a ‘Land Fit For Heroes’ by the Lloyd George government, but when they finally came home they discovered that not a lot had changed.

Indeed, some things were actually worse. For example, many families of men who had gone to war had suffered great hardship or been forced to accept charity.

There was a housing shortage, with building having been scaled down as ‘non-essential’ during the war years and many older children having grown up and moved into homes of their own.

Some of those who returned struggled to find employment, even if they weren’t among the many who had been mutilated, gassed or psychologically traumatised to the point of disability.

Some employers, such as the GWR and the borough council, rigidly honoured pledges to keep jobs open for those who went away to fight, but others made no such pledge.

Anger simmered among many people in communities across the country, but Swindon’s came to a head on Monday, July 21, 1919.

The Armistice had been signed months earlier, on November 11, 1918, but it wasn’t until June 28 of the following year that the Germans signed the treaty officially bringing the conflict to an end.

Councils up and down the country organised celebrations, and Swindon’s main one was set for the weekend beginning on July 19, complete with a parade and a Town Hall ceremony to congratulate veterans.

The council had also erected a flagpole to commemorate the occasion, reputedly at great public cost and without asking the men who had fought – or the loved ones of the dead – whether such a thing was an appropriate memorial.

This was enough to stir anger among either a minority of rabble rousers or a large number of justifiably angry people, depending on which contemporary account one chooses to believe.

Late on the Monday, as the celebrations were winding down, the pole was fired. When the base was sufficiently weakened, it was toppled and carried on dozens of shoulders down Regent Street and Bridge Street before being laid, according to some witnesses, across tram tracks.

The men sang under their burden: “Old soldiers never die, they only fade away.”

A wooden cenotaph was erected the following year where the town centre water feature currently stands. It proved unpopular and was replaced later in the decade by the cenotaph with which all Swindonians are familiar.

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