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How we experience war

(September 2021)

A new study, conducted by linguist Natalie Braber and me, has found that people in Nottingham experienced the First World War (1914-1918) differently from the rest of the UK population. For this study we worked with students and teachers of secondary schools in Nottingham to examine language used in local newspapers in the years between 1905 and 1925.

Reading back-issues of the Nottingham Evening Post and Nottingham Journal, we discovered a remarkable difference between these two papers and other British publications. UK papers conjured up an image of the endearing Tommy, a gallant fighter defending British democracy against brutal Germans – the Hun – and shielding women and children at home from Prussian militarism that resulted in German atrocities. But Nottingham papers deviated from the national script. At first, for example, the Post and the Journal were more reluctant to use the derogatory ‘Hun’ and the sinister ‘Prussian militarism’. However, during the final three war years these terms appeared relatively more often in the Post and the Journal than in other UK papers. The Nottingham press also showed special affection for local servicemen, calling them lovingly ‘Robin Hoods’.

Conclusions

The study concludes that these differences were most likely the result of specific attitudes and events, such as views moulded and voiced by local journalists and editors, and incidents that directly affected the city’s population, such as a Zeppelin attack on 24 September 1916 that killed civilians and destroyed homes in the Meadows and Broadmarsh (see photo above) and an explosion in a munition factory in Chilwell on 1 July 1918 that killed well over a hundred workers, many of them women.

It’s a good reminder that we experience war in diverse ways. Our experience is influenced by local factors as well as group traits, personal characteristics and the manner of involvement in a conflict, for example as combatants, their relatives, innocent bystanders or remote onlookers.

Students

The study is one of the outcomes of a four-year Hidden History project. Students from Rushcliffe Spencer Academy, Arnold Hill Academy and The Farnborough Academy took part. One of them wrote in a school magazine about this “excellent opportunity” to bring history to life. A student who took part in the first year said: “Honestly, it really inspired me to take history further.” She has now a History degree at the University of Newcastle. Another outcome is a lesson plan on what happened to residents of Nottingham during the war, which is used in Year 9 classes, for example at Farnborough.

The study – From Tangier to Locarno: The Experience of War in Nottingham and Language Use in Local Newspapers, 1905-1925 – is published in the journal Midland History and available here.