Alan Crosby dis­cov­ers a First World War pro­ject in Cam­bridgeshire that de­votes equal at­ten­tion to the peo­ple left be­hind as it does to those who fought

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The ‘Thriplow at War’ pro­ject

Th­ese days, the web­sites of our lo­cal and fam­ily his­tory so­ci­eties are full of sad sto­ries con­cern­ing those who fell in the First World War. There has been a quite re­mark­able amount of re­search un­der­taken dur­ing the past few years, and so many peo­ple have helped re­cap­ture those tragedies and dis­cover more about their vil­lage or town a cen­tury ago. Many of the projects have in­volved re­search into the names that ap­pear on war memo­ri­als – who were th­ese young men, and what were their cir­cum­stances?

That was the start­ing point for a pro­ject by the Thriplow So­ci­ety. The small vil­lage of Thriplow lies a few miles south of Cam­bridge, and it has a very ac­tive his­tory group that is af­fil­i­ated to the Thriplow So­ci­ety. The his­tory group, of course, wanted to mark the cen­te­nary of the out­break of war. Its ar­chiv­ist, Dr Shirley WWit­ter­ing, says that: “AAt first, we tthought there wwould be lit­tle tto show – just tthe names oon the war me­mo­rial – but the longer we looked, the more we found, and with the help of vil­lagers we put to­gether an in­ter­est­ing story. Not so much about the fight­ing it­self, but about the peo­ple and the vil­lage left be­hind.”

A mov­ing story

That’s what makes ‘Thriplow at War’ a bit dif­fer­ent. The group has been able to build up a re­ally mov­ing and evoca­tive story that be­gins with an ac­count of the vil­lage and parish be­fore the First World War, to set the scene. It then moves on to con­sider army re­cruit­ment in the sum­mer of 1914 and high­lights the role of one man, Cap­tain Croft Mon­tague, who drummed up sup­port for the en­list­ment drive.

The story on the web­site is beau­ti­fully il­lus­trated and con­tains im­ages of posters from the re­cruit­ment drive and the Home Front. A sec­tion that deals with the ac­tiv­i­ties of peo­ple left at home in­cludes ex­tracts from the vil­lage school logbook. It tells us how the chil­dren knit­ted com­forts for the troops, while some de­tec­tive work by Shirley al­lowed her to iden­tify a mys­tery pic­ture of a wartime wed­ding. It shows a lo­cal girl who worked as a VAD nurse mar­ry­ing an in­struc­tor from the Suf­folk Reg­i­ment.

The fi­nal sec­tion of the web­site takes a look at the men them­selves, in­clud­ing the ones who re­turned from France and those who fell. It is also il­lus­trated with mil­i­tary records, news­pa­per cut­tings, and pho­to­graphs, as well as those stark but in­tensely mov­ing sum­maries of mil­i­tary ca­reers and sub­se­quent deaths that are now so fa­mil­iar.

Here’s a very mov­ing ex­am­ple (and there’s hardly a vil­lage in Bri­tain that did not ex­pe­ri­ence some­thing sim­i­lar): “Pri­vate Al­lan Skillings, of the 2nd Suf­folk (aged 31), the vil­lage black­smith of Thriplow, was mor­tally wounded in the trenches on 22 April (1915), and died upon reach­ing the hos­pi­tal. He had served in the South African War and was in the Re­serves on the out­break of war. He was a typ­i­cal sol­dier, of fine phys­i­cal pro­por­tions, and was sent in a few weeks to France. The Sergeant of his Com­pany, in a let­ter to Mrs Skillings, said ‘We re­gret very much to lose such a good man out of the Com­pany as he was re­spected and loved by ev­ery­one.’ His widow is left with five lit­tle chil­dren.”

The story ends with an ac­count of the un­veil­ing of the vil­lage war me­mo­rial in Novem­ber 1922, the start­ing point for the jour­ney of re­search that Shirley and her col­leagues un­der­took 90 years later. A mov­ing story – and one that tells the tale for ev­ery com­mu­nity in the land.

The group has been able to build up a re­ally mov­ing and evoca­tive story that be­gins be­fore the First World War

Above: Re­cruit­ment no­tices for the First World War

thriplow.org.uk/ thriplow­so­ci­ety/ts.php.

Who Do You Think You Are?

Above: Pri­vate Skillings, who was wounded in the trenches

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