Six stories from Brighton Museum's War Stories: Voices from the First World War

By Ben Miller | 15 July 2014

Six stories from the highly personal new display at Brighton Museum, as seen by curator Jody East

A black and white photo of a First World War military hospital
The Entrance Hall of Brighton's Royal Pavilion, where beds for wounded Indian Soldiers were organised in 1915© Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove
Eileen Daffern (1914 - 2012)

“This is an exhibition that’s grown out of making an appeal to the local community, to the people of Brighton.

We didn’t really know where to start when we thought of making an exhibition about the First World War. Obviously everything’s so big – the numbers involved, the politics, the number of casualties.

So we thought the best way to engage people was to take it back to the absolute personal, the individuals who were involved, and try to tell the story of the war through their voice and eyes.

We had about 80 people come forward to share their stories. They’ve provided quite a broad range of experiences – it’s not just your soldiers and tommies.

For example, Eileen Daffern, who’s our first story, is a lady who was born on the 1st of January 1914.

She later became quite a prominent member of the Sussex Peace Alliance – ironic for someone born into the year of war.

Her daughter donated her christening gown to us. Eileen died in 2012. She talks about growing up in a village surrounded by women, not with any men around.

It’s quite an unexpected way of starting the exhibition. We have an oral piece with her which was in the collection.

She was very proactive. She became an active peace campaigner in CND and the Sussex Alliance for nuclear disarmament.

Eileen lived in Brighton from 1960 and taught at Westlain Grammar School and the University of Sussex.

A random connection: she’s Jeremy Paxman’s wife’s aunt. We didn’t find that out until later.”

A photo of a poster for a Belgian flag day in Brighton and Hove during World War One
As part of the display, Brighton Museum has collaborated with the In Flanders Fields Museum, in Belgium, to reveal some of the Belgian refugees who arrived in Sussex© Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove
Keith Wilson (1894-1977), 2nd Lieutenant, Royal Field Artillery

“Keith was in Mesopotamia, which is now Iraq. We wanted to show that it wasn’t just the Western Front – it went a lot further than that.

We thought about the importance of personal remembrance and what it’s like coming home and what it would have been like coming home for these guys and not feeling like you could talk about it.

Keith grew up in Brighton and played for Sussex County Cricket Club between 1914 and 1934.

He cut out loads of newspaper cuttings showing the cricket scores throughout the war. But then in the middle of it he wrote this detailed personal account of his time in Mesopotamia.

Most of it’s cricket scores, actually – he was just taking his mind off it. He enlisted in 1914 and was posted to the 1st Sussex Battery of the 1st Home Counties Brigade based in Brighton.

In the late autumn of 1914 he was posted to India and from Mumbai had to cross the Persian Gulf to Basra.

In August 1916, while recuperating in an Indian hospital, Keith sent his mother an account of his part in the Mesopotamian campaign: ‘Men were sitting hunched up on their horses caring not a jot if they died, so miserable were they, some were so demoralised that they were actually weeping.’”

A photo of a circular piece containing a black and white photo of a military nurse
Florence Holdgate© Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove
Florence Holdgate (1877-1945)

“A lady and her husband, when they moved into his great-aunt’s house after she died, found this trunk of stuff relating to her time as a nurse during the First World War.

They didn’t know anything about it so they went and did some more research in the archives and managed to piece together where she was.

It’s a what’s-in-your-family-attic kind of story. I think people are genuinely interested in where they come from now.

The old trunk held many clues, including a nurse’s uniform. Further research revealed that she had served with Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Nursing Service.

Florence’s service included a short time at the Kitchener Indian Hospital in Brighton before being sent out to the Middle East.”

Sergeant-Major George Edward Victor Fulkes (1883-1956) and Nurse Betty Donnelly

“He lost his arm after being seriously wounded in the Battle of the Somme and was in a hospital for limbless soldiers.

He fell in love with one of the nurses there, Betty Donnelly, and they got married in July 1918.

Up until 1919 more than 6,000 patients were admitted to the Royal Pavilion, many receiving artificial limbs and learning new skills.”

A black and white photo of a small team of Indian male soldiers during the first world war
A pictorial exhibition, Dr Brighton's War: Hospitals and Healing in Brighton, has also opened on the city's seafront© Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove
Pte Leonard Alexander Raymond Williams (1897-1983) and Marjorie Brinkhurst (1897-1970)

We have a lady who met her fiancé just before the war when they were both 16.
Their courtship was  interrupted by the outbreak of war, when Leonard volunteered for the Army Service Corps.

They corresponded throughout the war and eventually became engaged.

Marjorie arranged the marriage and bought her own ring, so that they could marry before Leonard was demobbed.”

Bert (1885-1954), Arthur (1885-1976), Harold (1886-1917) and Howard Tibbalds (1888-1970)

“This is a family of four Brighton brothers – it’s about them coming back and carrying on with life, all the army papers they kept, all of their papers, kit lists, transfer papers…the sort of stuff you see quite a lot of from the Second World War but you don’t really see much of from the First World War.

To see a family collection like that is quite impressive. It was really hard to condense it.

In fact, we had so many people come in and share things with us. You could write a fantastic book about most of the stories.

Bert, Arthur, Harold and Howard were from a close musical family, all either amateur or professional string players.

They all enlisted in the army during the course of the war and three survived. Harold died on the Western Front on the 11th May 1917, leaving a wife and young daughter.

Arthur returned to Brighton where he and his wife brought up their family, Bert returned and took over the family violin-making business, and Howard travelled the world as a musician on cruise ships.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

More on the exhibition:

Curator's Choice: An undercoat worn by a First World War soldier at Brighton Museum

Curator's Choice: Legendary goalkeeper Robert 'Pom Pom' Whiting's World War I story
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