First World War
The Astors, who owned Cliveden House, asked the British Red Cross to build a hospital to treat the wounded of the First World War in 1914. This request was referred to the Canadian Red Cross, which built the hospital in the covered tennis court, racquets court and bowling alley of Cliveden House. An artesian well was dug to supply the hospital with water. In 1915, after the first casualties were brought in, it became clear that a bigger hospital was needed and this was built to the south of the tennis court. Houses for the staff, a recreation room and a chapel were also built. After the end of the First World War the hospital was taken down and rebuilt in Birmingham and only the newly built houses and well remained.
Alfred Rothschild built Halton House in the 1880s. It was pressed into service in the First World War when Lord Kitchener asked for volunteers to join the New Army. Rothschild volunteered the use of his house as a training ground. The house was turned into an officer’s mess and an army training camp was set up in the grounds. At first the troops were housed in tents but later in purpose-built buildings. The Royal Flying Corps transferred here in 1916. An airfield was established by 1917. After the end of the First World War the Rothschilds sold the house and grounds to the newly formed RAF, who used it as a training base.
Denham airfield was opened in September 1917 and housed two schools of Military Aeronautics until January 1918 when it was closed. The training included engine engineering, photography and map reading as well as flying training. Pupils graduated from the school with the rank of 2nd Lieutenant.
The furniture factories of High Wycombe were given over to aircraft manufacture during the First World War. The factory bosses didn’t like this and proposed a whole new factory dedicated to making aeroplanes, instead of every factory making some parts.
Wycombe Aircraft Constructors Ltd was built on 22 acres of land donated by the Marquis of Lincolnshire. Construction started in the winter of 1917 and by late 1918 there was an invitation in the Bucks Free Press for applications for employment. However, before any aircraft could be made, the war ended and the factory was left derelict.
So the furniture factories did make most of the aeroplane parts. William Bartlett & Son Ltd in Grafton Street made parts for the Handley-Page bomber. E. Gomme Ltd made wings for the D.H.9. Many women were employed in the aircraft factories as the men had gone to fight abroad.
Battalions of troops were raised in Buckinghamshire in the run up to the First World War. Many men volunteered before conscription was put in place, 19,450 men in total. These men were organised into battalions and were trained in battle techniques before being sent abroad to fight.
The First World War was mainly fought by infantry in trenches. Each side would dig trenches opposing each other, which provided cover whilst firing guns and cannons. Troops would make charges from the trenches to try to capture enemy trenches or forts. Many practice trenches were dug in Buckinghamshire for training.
Three sets of practice trenches were dug in woods on Whiteleaf Hill. There are three groups of zig-zag trenches and linear mounds of earth from the ditches. The 21st Division at Halton, part of Kitchener’s New Army who were billeted in and around Princes Risborough, dug them in the winter of 1914 for training purposes before being posted to the Somme in 1915.
Military trenches are usually about 6 feet (1.8m) deep, 3 to 6 feet (0.9-1.8m) wide with earth parapets 2-3 feet (0.6-0.9m) high along both sides. There would be a ‘fire trench’ at the front of the system, with firing positions for rifles and machine guns and ‘shelter’ or ‘reserve trenches’ behind, where troops would muster for attacks. ‘Passing trenches’ would connect the two systems, with passing places for stretchers.
The trenches on Whiteleaf Hill follow this pattern, with zig-zag fire, communication and shelter trenches. Though they are quite silted up now, it appears that the trenches were dug at perhaps half or one third the size of real trenches.
Jack Robinson remembered troops being billeted on his and a neighbour’s house in Aylesbury before they went off to fight when he was a boy. They belonged to the Durham Light Infantry and were nine brothers, all miners. He recalls:
“Some time after the war ended one of the Button boys returned to our house in Aylesbury and he told my mother that most of the youngsters had been killed.” ('Aylesbury Remembered' 1987 p36).
The loss of life in the First World War was huge. It is estimated that 10 million people died, 750,000 from Britain. War was mainly conducted with infantry as tanks, planes and rockets were not well developed and therefore not used. Some troops still went into battle on horseback. They were called the cavalry. Mary Robinson remembers seeing a battalion of soldiers marching through her village, Bishopstone:
“They started just after nine and they did not finish coming through until after four. I remember one soldier giving me a ride on a gun carriage. The officers were on horseback and they would be riding backwards and forwards. We had a well and they came round for water for the horses.” ('Aylesbury Remembered' 1987 p36).
Miss Day from Beaconsfield remembered that the garage at London End was turned into a munitions factory. Peace Day, celebrated on July 19th 1919, was marked by bonfires and a fireworks display behind Davenies (Miss Day: WW2 People's War).
Many churches and town centres have memorials to those who were killed in the First World War, or the Great War, as it is also known. The memorials are often reused to record the names of those who died in the Second World War.
302 men from Stoke Poges volunteered for military service in 1914. 48 were killed or died of their wounds and their names are remembered on a war memorial in St Giles’ Church. It cost £360 18s. 0d., which was raised through donations from the village. Most of those who died had gone into the army as infantry soldiers, but others had been in the Navy, the Marines and the RAF. The youngest who died was 18, the oldest was 42. The memorial in Stoke Poges is a substitute for having the men buried in the churchyard. The soldiers who died were buried abroad, but out of the 48 men who are known to have died, 14 have no known grave.
- Some of the most important landowners in Buckinghamshire volunteered the use of their house and grounds during the First World War. Why do you think they did that?
- Do a search on Buckinghamshire’s Heritage Portal for practice trenches from the period 1914-1918. Try to find four sets of practice trenches, other than those at Whiteleaf Hill and answer these questions:
- Which set of trenches was probably reused in the Second World War?
- Which practice trenches are now covered by a golf course?
- Which trenches are described as ‘slit’ trenches (slit meaning narrow)?
- Why is it important to remember the First World War?
Go back to find out more about Buckinghamshire in the Wars.