A new exhibition on Enfield’s contributions during World War I reveals the impact and relevance of local efforts on a global conflict
When we envision the two world wars, it is nearly always on a grand scale. And this is understandable, considering that the frontline stretched from Europe all the way to Africa, America and the Far East. One might conjure up images extending from Nazi Germany to the Somme, the deserts of Africa or the port of Pearl Harbour. World War I, in particular, was fought on so many fronts and by so many different peoples that it is easy to overlook the impact that it had on local regions within Britain.
Even when we consider London’s part in it, we rarely think of the suburbs. This is why I was particularly excited to learn of ‘Enfield at War: 1914-1918’, a free exhibition taking place at Enfield’s Dugdale Centre. This centre serves as a theatre, cinema and museum and is an important hub of learning and social interaction for the community. The exhibition looks at the place that Enfield and the surrounding areas played in WW1, as well as the way in which the war affected the local population.
The Enfield Museum staff have worked hard, studying local and national archives, to present a vast array of information in a way that is appealing and accessible to the public. Perhaps the biggest success of the exhibition is that it truly caters for everyone: from the very young, through to the elderly, from those who have studied the period, to those who are just curious.
The exhibition begins by looking at the important part that Enfield played in manufacturing British arms. By the outbreak of WW1 the Royal Small Arms Factory (RSAF) in Enfield Lock had been supplying British armed forces for almost a hundred years. During the war, production increased tenfold and the factory’s workforce almost doubled. Included in the weapons displayed is the Lee-Enfield Mark III rifle, produced at the RSAF. The caption reads that, it ‘is still referred to as the finest battle rifle ever produced’. This weapon provides us with solid evidence of this borough’s wartime legacy.
The exhibition goes on to explore the different facets of the area’s munitions industry, from the entry of women into the workforce (1,448 women were employed by the RSAF by June 1917), to working conditions in the factories. There are even two paragraphs detailing public anger towards young male employees who were seen by some to be shirking their duty of armed service: ‘Discharged servicemen held a protest outside the factory, members of nearby tribunals threatened to strike over the issue and local papers received letters from soldiers overseas urging the Government to call-up these able-bodied men.’ It is these lesser-known stories that really make this exhibition so fascinating.
As well as looking at Enfield’s role in arming the British forces, Enfield at War, also explores the way in which the local community looked after those who had been in battle. This includes the many hospitals, schools and church buildings that were used to treat soldiers, as well as to house medical staff. Among them is the North Middlesex Hospital, which is currently one of the largest hospitals serving North London. There are also examples of the many collections and events organised locally in support of British soldiers posted overseas. These include the setting up of a ‘tobacco fund’, and Christmas parties to raise money for the children of Edmonton’s servicemen.
The exhibition also touches on the darker aspects of war-time Enfield. This includes a section on racist attacks on the homes and businesses of suspected German residents of the borough. The First World War gave birth to modern propaganda and the media used a mixture of horror stories about German atrocities and articles on the bravery and morality of the British forces in order to stoke English national pride and ensure support for the war. Emotions in Britain were running high and Enfield was no exception. Local businesses were vandalised, individuals were attacked and even people’s homes were targeted.
These are just a few of the areas that Enfield at War covers. Considering the collection is displayed in such a small space, the scope of the topics covered is very wide. These are presented through a variety of mediums, including film, music and printed text, allowing for an engaging diversity to the exhibition. There is plenty of interactive fun for children to get involved in and enough historical information to keep adults satisfied. One of the great aspects is that it constantly ties the local action into the wider context of the war, giving visitors a sense of both the drama as a whole and the many ways it altered local life. It is fascinating to learn how deeply the war affected Enfield and even more so to learn of the impact that residents had on a vast international conflict being fought on fronts as far away as North Africa. It impresses upon us more than ever, the importance of local stories in a wider narrative.
Enfield at War: 1914 – 1918 will run until 11 January 2015.
Image from: http://www.military-history.org/articles/centenary-season.htm/attachment/world-war-1
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