Skip to main content

Bristol 2014 – The City and the First World War Clive Burlton

Written by Clive Burlton

Share this

One of the aims of Bristol Ideas is that projects should continue after our work on them has ended. A good example of this is the 2014 programme to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War and what followed. Clive Burlton worked on Bristol 2014 and writes about this here.

I wrote three of the essays in the book for the 2014 Great Reading Adventure – Bristol and The First World War – and was one of those privileged to contribute to the broader programme of Bristol 2014. The experience was immensely fulfilling and has had a lasting impact.

I was already familiar with the effect the First World War had on Bristol families. Both my grandfathers fought with local units and were injured in the war. My maternal grandmother served in the local Land Army, and my wife’s grandfather, George Pine, and his three brothers all fought.

Two of these relatives never returned to their Bristol families and left behind widows and children. George wrote about his life experiences in a memoir shortly before he died in 1972. I reproduced his words and added my own home front and western front context in the book Trenches to Trams – The Life of a Bristol Tommy published by Tangent Books in 2011.

Building on this knowledge, and already a volunteer at Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives, I was asked by those curating the Moved by Conflict exhibition at M Shed – part of Bristol 2014 – to delve into the collections at the reference library and Bristol Archives, for stories, objects and imagery for use in the exhibition.

Bristol Territorial soldiers of the Gloucestershire Regiment, returning hastily from their Minehead camp and about to be mobilised. George Pine can be seen marching down the incline playing his bugle. The officer on horseback on the right, is Col H.C. Woodcock who commanded the 6th Gloucesters up to the start of the war. Woodcock was also President of the Society of Bristolians, he gave his name to both the football and swimming shields across the city and was a leading advocate of the BristolBéthune adoption. (Clive Burlton)

A spin-off involved me acting as a conduit, providing or highlighting information and resources for use by other researchers involved in creating content for the Bristol 2014 programme and associated initiatives across the city. This was really rewarding; facilitating the distribution of stories, documents and photos to everyone involved, including academics researching for local broadcast news organisations.

There were plenty of highlights but two in particular stand out. First, while searching for the existence of any Bristol-related audio and film footage from the period, I discovered a reel of film in a rusty tin can held by the British Film Institute at Southbank. It hadn’t seen the light of day for 100 years. An intriguing and somewhat oblique catalogue reference to ‘returning Bristol soldiers’ led to the film’s restoration and digitisation.

On viewing, it revealed beautifully shot footage at Temple Meads Station on 3 August 1914, showing Bristol Territorial soldiers of the Gloucestershire Regiment, returning hastily from their Minehead camp and about to be mobilised for the ensuing conflict. Among them, marching down the incline and proudly playing his bugle, was none other than George Pine.

Moved by Conflict exhibition at M Shed, part of Bristol 2014. (Bristol City Council)

This was an amazing discovery for the family. Perhaps of more profound interest, was the imagery it conveyed and what else was happening in Bristol on that fateful Bank Holiday Monday; the day before Britain declared war on Germany.

Across town, the Bristol International Exhibition – part trade fair, part theme park – was in full swing at the Cumberland Basin. Billed to show off the ‘achievements of Britain’s Empire and Dominions’, revellers loved it, despite it costing £100,000 (£10 million at 2024 prices) to stage.

At Temple Meads, Bristolians were also in bank holiday mood, wearing their best clobber, basking in the August sunshine, watching their friends and loved ones marching down the station incline, heading for battalion headquarters and their fateful destiny. Fun, pride and trepidation were all on show that afternoon.

The film was shown as part of the Moved by Conflict exhibition at M Shed. The exhibition itself received much critical acclaim, including this observation from Dr Dominiek Dendooven, historian, curator and writer from In Flanders Fields Museum, in Ypres, Belgium: ‘I’ve seen several exhibitions on the centenary so far and the one at Bristol is by far the best, both to what concerns design (some bright ideas) as to what concerns balanced views. To include war profiteering, conscientious objection and the colonial world in a local exhibition is – unfortunately – «du jamais vu» in the UK.’

The formal opening ceremony 24 March 1925 attended by civic leaders and dignitaries from Bristol and Béthune for the housing project supported by the people of Bristol. Col H.C. Woodcock – seen above riding his horse in August 1914 – is here with other dignitaries. (Bristol Archives Ref No: 17563/1/75) The second picture shows a group from Bristol visiting the original site of the houses in October 2023. Clive Burlton is front, right-hand side. (Western Front Footsteps Tour)

The second research highlight was when I found out that Bristol had ‘adopted’ the French town of Béthune under an initiative by the British League of Help, a charitable organisation formed in 1920 to provide aid to devastated communities in northern France.

Documents, plans and photographs uncovered at Bristol Archives, revealed that Bristol was one of 80 British cities and towns that ‘adopted’ nearly 100 French communities. Bristol decided to fund the cost of providing homes for some of the widows and families of French soldiers killed in the war and resident in Béthune. Although fundraising was slow, by 1924, £5,800 (£555,000 at 2024 prices) had been raised and Bristol architect WH Watkins was commissioned to draw up plans for 16 houses and maisonettes.

Built by the French contractors Hoebeke & Flitz, the homes were completed in 1925. Families moved in and, on 24 March 1925, a formal opening ceremony took place, attended by civic leaders and dignitaries from Bristol and Béthune. Photographers were on hand to record the historic event. In the centre block of houses was a stone panel. Below Bristol’s coat of arms were the words: ‘Given by the citizens of Bristol, England, to the town of Béthune, in memory of true comradeship during the Great War, 1914-1918. Erected 1925.’

Sadly, and surprisingly, in 1967 the Maire de Béthune wrote to his opposite number in Bristol seeking permission to demolish the houses and to move the residents to another municipal location that would forever by known as Cité de Bristol. Subsequent research and a site visit revealed the Maire was true to his word. On the other side of town, and where the 16 homes once stood, is now a car park. All that remains is the stone panel, fixed to a wall, on a grass verge, among the parking places.

Work on city-wide projects marking the centenary of the First World War didn’t stop with the Bristol 2014 programme. The network of 30 plus individuals and organisations drawn together for the Bristol 2014 programme was inspired to continue their collaboration for a further three years under the banner of the Bristol Great War Network.

Led by Naomi Miller, then at Bristol Cathedral and more recently at Bristol Ideas, the network provided the catalyst for more related projects including:

• Three touring exhibitions – ‘Bristol Women at War’, which showed how Bristol women contributed to the war effort and kept families going while husbands, brothers and sons were away on the front line; ‘Parcels of Comfort’, an exhibition of textiles and other media, showing the importance of sending parcels to loved ones during the war; and ‘No News of Fred’, an exhibition tracing the final days and hours of a shoemaker’s son from Easton who died at the Somme.

• ‘At the Going Down of the Sun’ – inspired by Laurence Binyon’s poem, an atmospheric exhibition of photographs of war graves and memorials, taken at night in Bristol cemeteries.

• ‘Returning to Fight’ – a UWE project about expat Bristolians who fought with Dominion Forces.

• Film screenings put on by the Remembering the Real World War One group.

• Several new publications including Bravo Bristol, mostly about the city on the home front; We Have Our Lives, the stories of 52 men from the Diocese of Bristol who fought and died during the First World War – one man for each month of the war; Bristol’s Lost City, about the Bristol International Exhibition and how the site was converted into a barracks for volunteer soldiers; and Bristol’s Australian Pioneer, about Robert Bush and his wife who converted their house into a 100-bed war hospital at Bishop’s Knoll.

• Publications and research into the names on memorials across Bristol.

• ‘Refusing to Kill’ – booklet and exhibition by Bristol Radical History Group about the 580 local men who refused to fight.

• Refurbishment and re-installation of memorials in Bristol churches.

A Guide to Researching Your Bristolian Ancestors in the First World War – a booklet written by Eugene Byrne, assisted by the Bristol & Avon Family History Society

• ‘Leaving the Line. Images & Words of War & Wondering’ – a series of poems written by Tania Hershman and Jeremy Banning

There were many more projects, and I am still involved in marking this period in Bristol’s history with local and international history tours and giving lectures to community, history and school groups across the city.

The environment created by the Bristol 2014 programme was fundamental to the continuation of work associated with the centenary of the First World War in Bristol. The resources produced for present and future generations, and the enduring connections and collaborations, are a testament to the success of the programme and the legacy it has created.

Clive Burlton is an author and social historian and a regular speaker on local history. His books include Bristol’s Lost City, Trenches to Trams: The Life of a Bristol Tommy, and Bravo, Bristol!: the City at War, 1914-1918 (with Eugene Byrne). He has curated several First World War-related exhibitions.

This essay is taken from Our Project Was the City: Bristol Ideas 1992-2024, published May 2024.

Your web browser is out of date. Update your browser for more security, speed and the best experience on this site.

Find out how to update