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Lest we forget

Jenny Flood with one of the Newhaven Poppy Trail boards

Dockworkers at Newhaven in the First World War (Credit: Newhaven Museum)

Newhaven Poppy Trail information is also online at https://www.newhaventowncouncil.gov.uk/newhavens-first-world-war/the-poppy-trail/

The centenary commemorations for the First World War culminate this weekend with Remembrance Sunday, but for University of Sussex doctoral student Jenny Flood the reflections are far from over.

Jenny has spent the past six years delving into archives to help those in her hometown of Newhaven in East Sussex understand more about how the port and its people were involved in the 1914-18 war.

Besides creating information boards for a poppy trail around the town, running workshops for schools, and giving talks to local groups and to scholars, she is also working on her doctoral thesis that will examine identity and morale among First World War soldiers in training camps, such as those in Newhaven, before they were sent to the Western Front.

“I’m looking at that journey from civilian to soldier, and whether they actually always saw themselves as soldiers, or whether they saw it as a temporary thing,” says Jenny, who turned to diaries and letters held in the Imperial War Museum as her main research source.

“I have a collection of soldiers that I am following. I’ve got quite attached to some of them. Of course, you hope that they make it home, but often they don’t. Sometimes the letters are accompanied by the telegrams of their deaths.”

For many of the soldiers this was their first time away from home – and their first experience of writing letters to their families. While they talk about their new daily life, and of missing loved ones, what they mostly wanted from their families were cakes, says Jenny.

“It seems cakes were really important to them, especially homemade ones. They liked to share them round.”

Even before facing the battlefields, tragedy also struck in the camps. Jenny came across accounts of how a soldier fell off the cliff at Newhaven Fort during training, and how another died by misfortune during a gasmask exercise.

Her interest in First World War history started during a work placement at Newhaven Fort when studying for an MA at Sussex in Life History Research.

When preparations for the centenary commemorations began, Jenny helped the town council put together a Heritage Lottery Fund bid. The money awarded went towards creating eight boards around the town showing photographs of the town and port as it once was, with information researched and written by Jenny from sources such as Newhaven Museum, Newhaven Fort, and The Keep at Falmer.

“Newhaven was only a town of 6,500 residents, but it played an important role in being one of the main supply ports for the Western Front,” she says. “I think that this has been overlooked. Six million tons of equipment and food were shipped out, including 700 tons of Christmas pudding.”

While all commercial shipping was suspended during the war, the port employed 2,500 dock workers a day to work around the clock loading vessels with food, alcohol, tobacco, munitions and vehicles for the British army.

“It was dangerous work,” says Jenny. “Several people died through a lack of health and safety measures. Some drowned falling between the ships and the quayside. One man died after 80lb sacks of sugar fell on him.”

Conscientious objectors worked at the docks until they refused to handle munitions during a dockworker’s strike. In 1918, towards the end of the war, up to 800 women were brought in to work the day shifts.

Although the port wasn’t bombed, German U-boats were laying mines close to the coast and torpedoing the transport ships that left for France and Belgium. Altogether, 97 merchant seamen lost their lives.

On Sunday Jenny will be joining those taking part in the Remembrance Day ceremonies at the Memorial Green in Newhaven. For each year of the centenary she has provided the names of the Newhaven men who died one hundred years ago, which are read out by pupils from Seahaven Academy, while Newhaven primary schoolchildren have laid Royal British Legion crosses.

Jenny, who received funding for her PhD from the Arts and Humanities Research Council through CHASE, is hoping to finish writing her thesis next year, but her First World War work is continuing. With the aid of a Heritage Lottery Fund, she is also working with Newhaven Town Council to create a celebration for next July to mark the centenary of Peace Day, which was held on 19 July 1919,  when most First World War soldiers had returned home.

“I have really enjoyed the public engagement aspect of my work and research,” she says. “I hope that I’ll be able to continue doing this. It’s been a very rewarding aspect of my doctoral studies, and I hope it’s been of value to my local community.”

 

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By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Thursday, 8 November 2018

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