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Bentra Airfield Memorial Unveiling.
The unveiling of the Bentra Airfield Memorial in October 2018.

Our fifth Case Study within this round of projects is ‘Battlebags and Blimps’, a community engagement project delivered by a range of partner organisations including Carrickfergus Museum and Mid & East Antrim Borough Council in Northern Ireland.

  1. What motivated you to contribute to Mapping the Centenary?  

The World War One Airship station at Bentra was a small but important link in a chain of naval and aviation bases all around the coast of Ireland, which were instrumental during the First World War. The Royal Naval Air Service airships operating from here carried out their roles of surveillance and deterrence, that helped combat the deadly German U-Boat menace. Although positioned at the western edge of Europe, this base played a key role protecting Belfast Harbour and resources being shipped to Britain. ‘Mapping the Centenary’ provided the opportunity to highlight and demonstrate the efforts of those in Ireland during 1914-1918, on a national platform. 

  1. How would you describe your commemorative project or activity in five words? 

Challenges; Coastal-Defence; Community; Partnership; Connections. 

  1. Why did you decide to pursue this project? 

‘Battlebags and Blimps’ was designed and developed to engage local communities with their area’s First World War heritage. Whilst the airfield was important during the period in question, the lack of upstanding remains means the site is largely ‘invisible’ and as a result, modern awareness of its existence, prior to the project, was limited. 

The project sought to counteract this lack of awareness by bringing together a team of experts, to create a bespoke programme designed to upskill the voluntary participants in research and the digital documentation of heritage. Whilst enabling active engagement with their local heritage, all involved worked collaboratively to create outputs that would engage the wider public.

  1. What went particularly well? Was there anything that did not go as expected or that surprised you? 

Working with an established unit such as 'Living Legacies', within the Centre for Data Digitisation and Analysis at Queen's University Belfast, provided access to expertise and equipment we wouldn’t otherwise have had. Additionally, the programme they helped us developed took participants on a journey from the initial desk based study through to surveying in the field. Summed up here by a participant:

'Great to use the technology in the actual field after seeing various maps and pictures from previous workshops'.

  1. Did your involvement change your understanding of the First World War, and if so, in what way?  

Yes, the project and the research really brought to the fore the role played by Bentra Airfield, Whitehead and the surrounding areas during the conflict. Not only the physical sites, but the pilots and soldiers who were responsible for manning such stations. 

Thanks to our delivery of the project, we were able to work with the Airfields of Britain Conservation trust to erect a permanent memorial to the units and personnel who served there.

  1. What tips or advice would you want to give future commemorative projects?   

The ‘Battlebags and Blimps’ project has demonstrated what can be rediscovered about these ‘invisible’ sites using digital survey methods and mapping. These approaches are important for contributing to our better understanding, appreciation and recognition of early aviation heritage. To provide the best opportunities for the participants, it was essential to work with 'Living Legacies' - they allowed us to achieve our aims of reach new audiences through promoting an important aspect of local heritage.

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Aberystwyth at War - Study Workshop
Volunteers taking part in a study-skills workshop for the 'Aberystwyth at War' project.

The sixth Case Study is ‘Aberystwyth at War 1914-19: Experience, Impact, Legacy’. This was led by a project team from the Department of History and Welsh History at Aberystwyth University.

  1. What motivated you to contribute to Mapping the Centenary?  

We wanted to contribute our local and community-based research, using previously un-researched material from an area of mid-Wales typically neglected in First World War history, to a wider national and international audience. In particular we wanted to demonstrate the range and power of local geographies and personal experiences in telling the history of the war. Finally, we wanted to share the insights possible through historical mapping, with our online map that pinpoints the home location and service records of all those from Aberystwyth who served during the conflict.

  1. How would you describe your commemorative project or activity in five words? 

People’s history; engagement; mapping; skills-building.

  1. Why did you decide to pursue this project?  

The Armistice Centenary offered an unprecedented opportunity to engage our university, local heritage organisations and local people in a community research endeavour that shared local historical expertise, archival resources and public enthusiasm. Consultation highlighted both an interest in and acknowledged ignorance of the local experience of World War One, among local community members and students alike. We looked to meet this demand in ways that would engage as many people as possible and build lasting bridges between town, university, and local archive and heritage organisations. The Heritage Lottery Fund made the project possible through financial support from its ‘Our Heritage’ funding pathway.

  1. What went particularly well? Was there anything that did not go as expected or that surprised you? 

Volunteer and community participation were far higher than we had hoped - whether the volunteers who researched topics and wrote posts for our weekly blog; those who attended our guided walks, film shows and theatre production; or the community, schools’ and schools’ music groups who got involved and collaborated in events. We had hoped for more involvement from the local Welsh speaking community.

The project interactive map, which pinpointed the home address and service details of every Aberystwyth serviceman we could trace, proved a surprising and resounding success. It has particularly engaged the imagination of schoolchildren, in bringing the impact of the war on the locality to life. Our project blog gave volunteers the opportunity to see their research disseminated to a public audience and, through their subsequent publication in bilingual book form, in print (Aberystwyth at War 1914-1919: Selected Blogs from a Community History Research Project/Aberystwyth a Rhyfel: Blogiau Dethol o Brosiect Ymchwil Hanes Cymunedol, Y Lolfa 2020).

  1. Did your involvement change your understanding of the First World War, and if so, in what way?  

Our project demonstrated the war's impact on a specific locality, down to street level. We were able to show for the first time of how many men served, from which parts of the town, where they served, and in what capacity, underpinned the astonishing variety of wartime experiences even from one small town area. We also uncovered other previously forgotten wartime impacts upon the locality, from troop training camps to the seafront convalescent hospital, local entertainment and the ‘Julian the Tank’ fund-raiser. 

  1. What tips or advice would you want to give future commemorative projects? 

It takes time - but is immensely rewarding - to build up volunteer involvement, thereby enabling them to build skills for use in their research and activities. It also helps when volunteers become ambassadors of the project, who then enthuse and guide other volunteers and help build a volunteer community which is more than the sum of its parts. Meanwhile, make sure to use the full resources of local enthusiasm, including youth groups, music and arts groups, and especially schools. Teachers can be great ambassadors for local history research, especially where – as with our World War One project – where we were able to contribute to the local school curriculum, through providing Year 9 workshops based on local stories and our interactive map.

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Camborne Youth Band playing the Last Post.
The Camborne Youth Band in 2018 play the Last Post, featuring a one-hundred-year old bugle, in Sailly-sur-La-Lys, France.

Our seventh and final Case Study for this batch of commemorative projects is that of ‘Bridging Arts’, an organisation in Cornwall who ran ‘Heart of Conflict’ and ‘Playing for Camborne: Music and Rugby in World War One and Now’.

  1. What motivated you to contribute to Mapping the Centenary?   

Our project ‘Heart of Conflict’ started in 2014 and continues still. It seemed important and significant to mark all this work. We staged exhibitions and events in the UK and in France, as part of our work.

  1. How would you describe your commemorative project or activity in five words? 

Uncovering Cornwall’s untold wartime stories.

  1. Why did you decide to pursue this project?  

We realised that the stories of ‘ordinary’ men who went off to fight had not been explored. We discovered that a group of miners from the Camborne Redruth area signed up for the 25th Field Ambulance under a local doctor and went straight off to the Front in 1914. The descendants of these men still live locally. This is heritage that can be showcased and treasured in an economically and socially deprived area – where people can often not find much else to be proud about.

  1. What went particularly well? Was there anything that did not go as expected or that surprised you? 

People were fascinated to uncover local stories – and energised by them. All sorts of connections with families, community groups and churches were discovered unexpectedly.  We were surprised at people’s connection with their history – and their emotional investment in it.

  1. Did your involvement change your understanding of the First World War, and if so, in what way?  

During the project we travelled to the Western Front and revisited the areas where the Cornish miners were stationed. This helped to widen the vision and understanding of every participant who made this journey. 

  1. What tips or advice would you want to give future commemorative projects?   

Make every effort to involve and nurture volunteers and participants throughout the project and beyond. It’s really important not to ‘drop’ them when funding streams end but to keep in touch. All sorts of unexpected connections and developments can subsequently occur.

Our thanks to these three project representatives for their generous insight.

If you have been inspired to submit a listing for your own First World War commemorative project, please visit the ‘Add Your Project’ section on ‘Mapping the Centenary’.