Blackouts, Zeppelin raids and peace: New Scars on the City exhibition shows Edinburgh in World War I

By Culture24 Reporter | 19 February 2015 | Updated: 18 February 2015

Shrapnel, pocket watches and cigarette cards recall the impact of World War I on the lives of people in Edinburgh

A black and white photo of a man and a woman in overcoats in front of a blackboard
Workers from an Edinburgh munitions factory
By September 1914, the streets of Edinburgh were changing rapidly: young men queued at recruitment offices waiting to enlist, while parks and school playgrounds were canvasses for drill practice and defences were being built on the nearby Forth.

The city’s labour force was turning to support the war effort – fathers, uncles and brothers preparing to say farewell indefinitely to their families. The architecture surrounding them was often bombed by Zeppelins.

“There are pieces of shrapnel collected after the Zeppelin raids on Edinburgh in April 1916,” says Vicky Garrington, the curator of a new exhibition, Scars on the City, drawing on an impressive archive collection to recapture the feel of the city during the First World War.

"I was surprised to find out how clued up young people at the time were about the details of the War. Cigarette cards taught them about ranks, army signals and artillery. Board games challenged them to evade mines and bombs en route to Berlin.”

“A braille pocket watch used by a blinded ex-servicemen shows the sacrifices made to defend Britain, and younger visitors will enjoy seeing the toys and games children played with during the war, drawn from the Museum of Childhood collection.

“We’ve got some wonderful objects that will really transport visitors back to wartime Edinburgh.”

Four pictures from the exhibition:

A black and white photo of a man and a woman in overcoats in front of a blackboard
Workers from an Edinburgh munitions factory
World War I shook up Britain’s working life. The absence of men from industry and the need to increase production for the war effort allowed women to enter the workforce in unprecedented numbers and to undertake new roles.

Edinburgh’s women were ready to play their part. Before the War, female labour was concentrated in domestic service and the textiles industry.

Women did undertake other work but there were many occupations considered to be exclusively male. As greater numbers of men signed up to serve overseas the possibility of using women in these ‘male’ roles was discussed.

In May 1916 the first meeting of the Edinburgh and Leith Local Advisory Committee for Women’s War Employment took place. Local trades were discussed in which women were replacing men, including distilling, tramways, rubber manufacture and saddlery.

At the outbreak of War the British engineering industry was seen almost exclusively as a male domain. There was some resistance from Unions and businesses to the idea of ‘diluting’ skilled engineering trades with unskilled female labour.

However, the loss of skilled staff to the Forces and the increased demand for warships, aircraft and ammunition forced the Government and businesses to consider using female labour.

Much of this female labour was used directly in war production, with a focus on ammunition manufacture. Most tasks were sub-divided, with women taking on a small part of a larger process which might previously have been taken on by a fully trained man.

Sub-division meant that women could start work in the factories and become productive in a matter of days. The downside for women was that they were not trained to complete full processes and many found themselves ill equipped for employment after the War.

A black and white photo of a building badly damaged by a first world war bombing raid
Bombing in the city
On August 8 1914, the Defence of the Realm Act was introduced across Britain. The act empowered the government to respond quickly and decisively to any threat to Britain’s victory in the War.

Buildings and land could be requisitioned for war use, the blackout was enforced and the press was censored. The act was extended throughout the War to reach into all aspects of life.

Those found whistling for a cab in the street or owning a carrier pigeon could suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of the law. One of the aspects of everyday life requiring strict control was food.

Famine was a threat to victory and as the war progressed, food supplies became harder to secure. The reduction in supplies created panic buying by the well-off at the expense of the poor.

The government had to intervene. Price controls were introduced on staple foods like sugar and milk and the public became used to queuing outside shops for the available supplies.

Substitute foods grew in popularity, with The Scotsman reporting in August 1915 that even the ‘well-to-do’ were buying margarine ‘in considerable quantities’.

Despite people’s efforts to economise and the government’s price controls, food continued to be unevenly distributed. In 1918 the Government had no choice but to introduce rationing.

Rationing used tokens to restrict each person’s purchasing of essential goods, ensuring fair distribution. The system may have made things fairer, but it was certainly not easy.

Flora Nicholson (born 1902) recalls rationing in Edinburgh: “Sweeties were rationed, butter, coal and sugar…our ration books were something terrible.

“You were rationed for butcher meat and rationed for bacon – every damned thing, it was horrible.”

Rationing was yet another strain on families coping with the hardships of War. But the combination of price controls and rationing worked to avoid the famines suffered by other combatant nations during the war and helped Britain on the road to victory.

A black and white photo of nursing staff sitting at tables enjoying a christmas dinner
Christmas dinner for staff and patients at Edinburgh War Hospital
Within weeks of the outbreak of war, the first wounded appeared back on British shores. A network of hospitals was required to deal effectively with large numbers of casualties and Edinburgh was quick to respond.

Bangour Village Hospital in West Lothian became Edinburgh’s War Hospital after its requisition by the War Office in 1915. By 1918 it accommodated 3,000 beds, making it the largest military hospital in Scotland.

Craigleith Hospital (now the Western General) was a designated Territorial Hospital with 900 beds. The Royal Infirmary (then next to the Meadows) made 100 beds available to the War Office, while an ordnance store at Edinburgh Castle was converted for use as a 60-bed military hospital.

These and other hospitals were supported by a network of auxiliary hospitals run by the Scottish Branch of the Red Cross. Hospitals were staffed by doctors, nurses and nursing members of the Voluntary Aid Detachment.

The latter received basic medical training and supported doctors and trained nurses. Craiglockhart is perhaps Edinburgh’s best-known World War I hospital.

Originally a hydropathic hotel offering Hospitals and Homes spring water treatments, it was requisitioned by the War Office in 1916. It treated officers suffering from neurasthenia (later known as shell shock) using cutting-edge techniques.

It is most famous as the meeting place in 1917 of the war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. After discharge from hospital, a serviceman might be sent to a convalescent home to recuperate, be returned to the front or be discharged from service if no longer able to fight.

A black and white photo of people standing around a city looking at bomb damage
By the end of 1914 nearly 20,000 of Edinburgh's young men had joined the Forces
The Armistice was announced on November 11 1918. Edinburgh started its celebrations quietly, perhaps unable to believe that peace had finally come.

Flags began to be displayed on buildings and in the hands of promenaders on the streets. Some women wore Union Jacks as scarves.

The sound of horns and sirens from ships on the Forth signalled the news to those who had not yet heard. An aeroplane display scheduled for the day in support of the War Loans campaign turned into a celebration of peace.

The revelry gradually grew more rowdy. The Scotsman reported that: “A company of naval men scaled the Wellington Monument at the Register House, and by arranging flags on his person, forced the heir of Waterloo to participate in the celebrations.”

As the sun went down searchlights shone on the crowd, the buildings and the sky. With peace came reflection. The War had left scars on Edinburgh and its people.

Some scars were obvious – the altered fabric of the City, the missing limbs of servicemen – while others were harder to see. From shell-shocked soldiers to grieving families, these scars would perhaps be the hardest to heal.

Meanwhile, the City clung to peace. Surely the Great War would be the War to end all wars?

  • You can see more in the Scars on the City: Edinburgh in World War I at the Museum of Edinburgh until June 27 2015.

Pictures: National Library of Scotland; Edinburgh University Library; courtesy Edinburgh City Council.

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