The Extraordinary Life of Ordinary Women

Nadine Rossol, Senior Lecturer at The University of Essex ran a blog forum on Moodle for her Public History course (HR213). As her course is dedicated to the life and work of women in 20th century Britain, her students were asked to write a blog based on women, their lives, and the general issues which women face. In this three-part series, Sophia Pinheiro Vergara is seond to talk about the extraordinary life of ordinary women!

Have you ever thought about ordinary women in history? Throughout time, writers and historians have mostly focused on leaders, the elite, royalty, celebrities, influencers. And very often, these people were men. It’s very easy to forget about the wives, sisters and mothers of those significant, illustrious people – because most of the time, that’s all they were portrayed as. That’s why I’d like to shed some light on the extraordinary lives of ordinary women. Women who maybe were not famous, leaders or royalty, but still have amazing stories to tell. I think it’s time they were heard and celebrated, as they should be.

This story is about Marcelle Vergara, Marcelle Guillemot and Suzanne Spaak. Marcelle and her husband Paul Vergara were both part of the resistance, and he led a centre to hide Jewish children during WWII called La Clairiere. Though Marcelle was not the leader of this resistance group, she helped her husband and their associates, Suzanne and Marcelle Guillemot. Marcelle Vergara often welcomed and hid Jewish children in her home, and with her husband, they would procure false identification papers to send them to safer places. One of the people she hid was a half Jewish young girl, Yvonne Van Nierop, who eventually became her daughter-in-law (Needless to say, Yvonne Van Nierop’s story is a remarkable one as well).

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Suzanne found out that there were threats to the children under the protection of a network and contacted Paul and Marcelle Vergara. It was confirmed on the 12th February 1943 that the Jewish children would be deported from the UGIF (Union Générale des Israélites de France) where they had been placed by the Gestapo. The members of La Clairiere asked people loyal to the cause to take out a Jewish child or two from the UGIF for the day – only to never return them. This mission singlehandedly saved 63 children, aged three to eighteen, who were given new identities and taken to safe homes.

On the 16th of February 1943, only days after the miraculous mission, the Gestapo sent agents to La Clairiere community centre, and Marcelle Guillemot was found. She quickly destroyed all compromising information regarding the rescue of the Jewish children and her links to the Resistance. She somehow managed to flee and escape the Gestapo.

Marcelle Vergara, not long after, was arrested by the Gestapo and taken to Fresnes prison, a special location used by Germans to hold and question members of the Resistance. She was released later that same year. Her own son was captured and taken to Buchenwald

Suzanne Spaak had to flee and take her children to Belgium in October 1943, only to be arrested later on the 8th of November. She was tortured and sentenced to death in January 1944. On the 12th of August that same year, two weeks before the liberation of Paris, Suzanne was executed.

Suzanne Spaak, Marcelle Vergara and Marcelle Guillemot were all recognised as “Righteous Among the Nations”. It’s an honorific used by Israel to recognise non-Jewish people who helped Jews during WWII and the Holocaust by risking their lives.


Plaque of honour for Marcelle and Paul Vergara, “Righteous Among the Nations”

These three women, though not particularly famous, had amazing stories to tell. Their bravery and resilience in the face of oppression is a tale to remember and celebrate, as are other countless women’s stories. Though my goal is to share the extraordinary stories of ordinary women, I have to admit this one is special to me because it’s personal, as Marcelle and Paul Vergara are my great-grandparents. Yvonne Van Nierop (now Vergara), the half-Jewish girl they hid, is my grandmother.


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There is so much more to these women’s stories to tell, and other women’s stories – which is why I asked at the very beginning: ‘what about ordinary women in history?’ There are many fantastic voices undiscovered, only left to the memories of their families. Most of history has been a world led by men, so much so that women’s history is often cast aside for grander tales of men’s deeds. But women’s lives and stories are no less grand or extraordinary, simply often left to the shadows – they should be celebrated and remembered. To the readers out there, I highly encourage you to share your untold stories for them to never be forgotten, and to remind others that ordinary women have extraordinary lives.






•AJPN, available at:, [Accessed 30th November 2017].

•AJPN, available at:, [Accessed 30th November 2017].

•AJPN, available at:, [Accessed 30th November 2017].

•AJPN, available at:, [Accessed 30th November 2017].

•Yad Vashem, available at:, [Accessed 30th November 2017].


Is the Subject of History Accessible to Young Women?

Nadine Rossal, Lecturer at The University of Essex, previously ran a blog forum on Moodle for her Public History course (HR213). As her course is dedicated to the life and work of women in 20th century Britain, her students were given the task to write a blog which was based on women, their lives, and the general issues which women face. In this three part series, Olivia Taylor, questions how accessible History is to young women.

Being the daughter of a history teacher I spent most of my childhood in castles, bunkers and museums and I loved every second of it! I have been given a lifelong love affair but, I couldn’t help but feel I was always learning about what the boys did, and for a young girl growing up in a society that isn’t always on her side, you can imagine that’s not the healthiest thing! So, how can we (you and I) change it?

When I first decided that this was a subject that I wished to investigate further the first thing I did was call my eleven-year-old sister. She’s a keen historian (like her Mum and eldest sister – not the middle one she does geography, we don’t talk about it) so, naturally, it made sense to start with her. We ended up talking for over forty minutes about the history she has studied so far, most of it being empirical or military. But not the broad, diverse cultural history of war time, no. Schools seem to focus solely on the battles, the generals and the strategy. Not a single woman was mentioned throughout the conversation. So, feeling sceptical that the lack of female mention was due to the curriculum and not my 11-year old sister’s memory, I took to the internet to check.

A screenshot of the Key Stage 2 National Curriculum

This is a screenshot of part of the Key Stage Two National Curriculum in Britain. I don’t see how it’s possible for a teacher to portray the lives of women in these time periods. We weren’t allowed to fight or invade or lead. No wonder my sister and I couldn’t see ourselves represented in the subject we love!

However, a more experienced and level-headed opinion came in the form of my wonderful, teacher, Mother. Annoyingly well put, she stated there just aren’t enough school hours to teach everything. She argued that there is no “Women’s History” and “Men’s History”. The only way she can teach history is cause and effect because that’s the reality of the scheme of work and the exam. It’s just too vast and intricate to teach everything in its entirety. But, surely egalitarianism should take priority over chronology?

Before we start pointing the finger at the teachers let’s remember, they’re overworked, underpaid and simply doing as they’re told. So maybe we should turn instead to those in government who write the National Curriculum, and tell our teachers what to do. There are six ministers who sit on the board for the Department of Education and only two of them are female with none of them having ever worked in a school. I’m sure they have the qualifications but, are unaware of the reality. What can we do to ensure the best people are writing our Curriculum? Unfortunately, our choices are limited as to what we can do, but don’t lose heart! Lobbying is here to save the day! The “Fawcett Society” (founded by known suffragist Millicent Fawcett) has been campaigning for gender equality for 150 years. While “UK Feminista” is leading a campaign to end sexism in the classroom. One of the first steps should be to eliminate a gender bias in the course content. Join! Protest! Make a difference!

A table displaying the popularity of GCSE options

History is, in my humble, completely biased opinion, one of the most important subjects taught in schools. It teaches us so much about ourselves, where we’ve been and where we’re going. It’s also one of the most popular GCSE options available, making this mission of equality even more crucial. Women’s history is vital in showing young girls how their female ancestors changed the very world around them. It would be an insult to some of the bravest historical figures to undermine their influence in the classroom. Every girl deserves the chance to follow in the footsteps of the Women in the Land Army, the Suffragettes, Nightingale, Brontë, Windsor and so many more because, if they do, we will have a generation of strong women.

For more information about the course, please look at the course outline here or Dr Nadine Rossol contact details can be found here.







Screenshot Key Stage 2 National Curriculum. Accessed: 27/11/2017

Screenshot GCSE Option statistics. Accessed: 30/11/17

The Fawcett Society Official website Accessed: 29/11/2017

UK Feminista Official website Accessed: 28/11/2017

The Great Poppy War of 2016

Lucy Noakes is a social and cultural historian with specific interests in war, memory, gender and national identity. In this blog, she has written a piece about the Great Poppy War of 2016.

On Tuesday 1 November Britain woke to the news that FIFA had ruled that three of the national football teams (England, Scotland and Wales), playing international matches in early November, would not be allowed to wear armbands with red poppies on. FIFA’s ruling, based on an interpretation of the poppy of remembrance as a political symbol, caused an uproar in the public sphere: newspapers, television and radio, social media and the Houses of Parliament all dedicating time and space to discussion, and usually condemnation, of FIFA’s decision. By Thursday 3 November, according to the Daily Mail, Britain was at war – a Poppy War –which the paper claimed, with a lack of irony, it would fight against FIFA ruling.

At Prime Minister’s Questions the previous day Theresa May had described the decision as ‘utterly outrageous’. So it was perhaps unsurprising that by the 3rd November the English and Scottish Football Associations, playing on November 11, had decided that it would defy the ban: footballers from the three nations would wear a red poppy armband, and accept the penalties imposed by FIFA, most likely a deduction of points from the team’s tallies in their World Cup qualifying groups.

The row focused on whether or not the poppy is a political symbol. First sold by the newly created (Royal) British Legion in 1921, to raise money for the many wounded and disabled veterans who had returned from the First World War, the poppy had its origins in the carnage and chaos of the Western Front, where poppies, thriving in the disturbed earth around the battlefields, grew in their thousands. The Canadian military doctor, John McCrae, based close to the front line in Ypres, wrote the famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ in 1915, which opened with the lines:

In Flanders Fields the poppies grow

Between the crosses, row on row.

First sold to raise money for wounded troops in the United States, the poppy was bought to Britain by a Frenchwoman, Anna Guerin, where they were swiftly taken up as both a symbol of remembrance and a means of raising money for disabled veterans and their families. So far, it might seem, so non-political. What, after all, could be less political than a widely shared desire to help those who had returned from war and were, because of their injuries, unable to find work or to support their families? However, I want to argue in this short article that not only the red Poppy of Remembrance, but the wider traditions of commemoration that grew out of the bloodshed of the First World War, are and always have been, deeply political, if not always in intent, then in interpretation.

As any good student of cultural history will tell you, the meanings of any ‘text’ or object are not entirely embedded in its material form, but are shaped by the views, beliefs and position of its audience and consumers. This was discovered early on in the aftermath of war by the British government, when what was meant to be a victory ceremony became a ritual of remembrance. The first official remembrance of the war took place on 19 July 1919, designated as Peace Day. This was meant to be a celebration of the military victory, with the returning heroes parading through the streets of London. However, the Empire’s dead were also incorporated into this parade, represented by a temporary version of the Cenotaph made out of plaster, cloth and wood.

This was only meant to be a small part of proceedings and the focus of the day was intended as celebration of military achievement. However, this was upset by public reactions. Crowds flocked to the Cenotaph to pay respect to their dead. There were so many people that the parade had to be rerouted and for weeks after people continued to bring wreaths from around the country. What was meant to be a day of celebration was spontaneously refocused around mourning and commemoration.

While the transformation of Peace Day into Armistice Day, first held on the 11 November 1919, with its focus on commemoration of sacrifice and the war’s dead, rather than victory and the living veterans, can be seen as driven by a cultural politics, and, as Jay Winter has reminded us, the needs of the bereaved to find a means to collectively mourn the dead, the first controversy around remembrance took place in the mid 1920s.

The solemn ceremonies of remembrance that took place on the morning of Armistice Day had been followed by often riotous parties and balls, as veterans came together to both remember their colleagues and to celebrate their own survival. By 1925 however, these celebrations were frowned upon by some, seen as ‘out of step’ with the national mood of solemn remembrance, and the continued presence on the streets (despite the annual poppy appeal) of destitute, unemployed and homeless veterans. The Daily Mail led the campaign against veteran celebrations. Its Leader column for 22 October 1925 asked rhetorically ‘Armistice Day Revels. Should they be held?’, answering that ‘such festivities as have hitherto marked the celebration of Armistice Day are not in keeping with the day’s trued character’. The veteran’s desire to celebrate their survival lost out to the dominant politics of remembrance.

As the optimism of the early 1920s collapsed into economic depression, high unemployment and the lure of fascism in the late 1920s and early 1930s, local newspapers began to report on groups of unemployed veterans demonstrating on Armistice Day, wearing their dole papers in place of their medals, using the ceremonies and symbols of remembrance to draw attention to their plight. By the mid 1930s the poppy and its meanings were firmly at the centre of another political controversy. As a wave of support for pacifism swept across Europe, driven by the rise of a belligerent Nazism, intent on defying the punitive terms of the Versailles Treaty, by the Italian Fascist invasion of Abyssinia, by the Japanese invasion of China and by the Spanish Civil War, all of which demonstrated that any coming war would be fought against civilians at least as much as against combatants, the White Poppy appeared as an alternative symbol of remembrance.

First created in Britain by the Women’s Co-Operative Guild in 1933 and sold to raise money for the Peace Pledge Union, the largest pacifist group of the decade, the White Poppy acted as a powerful if always controversial means of commemorating both civilian and combatant victims of war across national borders while expressing an opposition to the decade’s slide towards a second, even more devastating, conflict. Some mourners at war memorials, seeing the White Poppy as an encroachment on the existing symbol of remembrance, were reported to have stamped on the wreaths, and to have threatened White Poppy sellers on the streets.

All of this however, was nothing compared to the politics that has surrounded the poppy, and ceremonies of remembrance, since the end of the 20th century. The millennial ‘memory boom’ – the desire to look back at the bloody and violent 20th century and try to make some sense of it – was strengthened by the passing of the last military veterans of the First World War in Britain, and by the ‘War on Terror’ which saw Britain go to war again, in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Young veterans, wounded in battle, once again began to appear on British streets, and the heart-broken bereaved once again gathered around war memorials. Armistice Day reclaimed its place on the British collective calendar as cultural, political and commercial institutions chose to mark the 11 November as a moment of commemoration alongside Remembrance Sunday.

Alongside this resurgence of remembrance rituals camea renewed politics of commemoration. Always contentious in the bloody politics of Northern Ireland, where the presence or absence of a poppy in early November functioned as a statement of your political allegiance, poppies became more and more visible in mainland Britain. On television, they became almost omnipresent. The Channel 4 newscaster Jon Snow condemned attacks on public figures who were seen without a poppy as ‘poppy fascism’, and the ITV journalist Charlene White was abused on social media for not wearing a poppy on air, as was the actress Sienna Miller. It was not enough, apparently, to support the charity by giving money; your support had to be visible.

What, exactly, is going on here? I don’t think that anyone has ever claimed that the dead of the battlefields died so that we should all wear poppies, yet those who choose not to do so, or who choose to wear a white poppy, or a purple poppy in remembrance of the animals used, and killed in warfare, stand accused of both a lack of reverence for the dead, and – often implicitly – a lack of patriotism.

Britishness, or at least one form of it, has become entangled with the poppy in a way that was never the intent in the aftermath of war. Much of the reaction to the FIFA poppy ban conflated it with a form of Britishness, newspaper columnists and Twitter users queuing up to tell FIFA that it was not a political symbol whilst, at one and the same time, making it exactly that. Tweets from users with names such as ‘UKIP Poole’, Ex EU Serf’ and ‘Leave.EU’ claimed the poppy for a particular form of Britishness, opposed not only to ‘FIFA scum’ but to both Europe and the left.

This emergent and worrying linkage of the poppy with a particular strand of populist politics has, paradoxically, managed to place the poppy – created as a symbol of remembrance for all British combatants, of all and any political persuasion – at the heart of a deeply felt divide in contemporary British society.

The poppy, as a symbol of war remembrance, has always been politicized, even though this was not the original intent; what is new is the venom with which those who choose not to wear one are attacked. If the poppy is to survive as a widely shared symbol of remembrance, perhaps we need to remember that its power as a symbol of remembrance, like respect, only works if it is voluntary.

Mayflower Research Project

On the 24th November 2017, Jake Millar, a current MA student at the University of Essex gave a presentation in the Church of St Nicholas titled ‘Harwich, Religion and the Mayflower’, contributing to the annual ‘Illuminate Festival’ (an event which celebrates the town’s relationship with the ship). Below he shares his experience.


What is the Illuminate festival’?

Illuminate is a multi-genre arts festival showcasing work from the finest up and coming artists. Everything from puppetry to folk music, comedy to spoken word and beyond. Illuminate gives audiences and artists the opportunity to explore something newmay. Affordable, friendly and fearless theatre for all ages. A festival that has something for everyone.

What is ‘The Mayflower’?

The Mayflower was an English ship that famously transported the first English Puritans, known today as the Pilgrims, from Plymouth, England to the New World in 1620.There were 102 passengers, and the crew is estimated to have been about 30, but the exact number is unknown. This voyage has become an iconic story in some of the earliest annals of American History, with its story of death and of survival in the harsh New England winter environment. The culmination of the voyage in the signing of the Mayflower Compact was an event which established a rudimentary form of democracy, with each member contributing to the welfare of the community.

Why Harwich, Religion and the Mayflower?

The question of religion is fundamental if we are to appreciate the ideological importance of the Mayflower’s 1620 voyage. Within Harwich, parishioners and civic officials alike were forced to renegotiate their confessional identities upon a backdrop of profound religious upheaval in the years leading up to the Mayflower’s departure. This discussion will briefly address these issues, and highlight some of the struggles which local men and women often faced.

How do you feel the Mayflower event went?

Overall the presentation was very well received, and the audience asked me a range of interesting questions after the official celebrations had ended.

More information ?

Sarah Mott, MA History student,  has written more about the Mayflower event on the visit Essex blog which is available to view here.

For more information on the Illuminate Festival visit the Harwich Festival website,

Who to contact ?

For more information, or if you are interested in doing a placement please contact Alix Green on




Caroline Wallace: ‘The Red Cross in Essex 1914-1918: Hospitals, Fundraising and the Contribution of Middle and Upper-Class Women’


Caroline Wallace, current MA History student at the University of Essex, and MA Placement student at the Essex Record Office, has written an article for the most recent issue of the Essex Journal. The Essex Journal focuses on the local history and archaeology of the county.  Caroline’s article highlights the role played by upper and middle-class women during the First World War, and how they used their time and influence to support the Red Cross in the county.


The Essex Journal has been in continuous publication for fifty years and is published twice a year under the management of an editorial board consisting of representatives of the Essex Archaeological and Historical Congress, Essex Society for Archaeology and History, the Friends of Historic Essex, the Essex Record Office (on behalf of Essex County Council) and the Honorary Editor. Its aim is to provide a forum for historical writing for the county of Essex.

Women of the upper and middle classes played an increasing role looking after wounded service men during the First World War. Caroline explores the role they played within the Essex branch of the Red Cross Society and the auxiliary hospitals located across the county. She also looks into how they volunteered their time and efforts to fundraise for these hospitals. Caroline’s compelling and informative take on this hidden history makes the article a crucial contribution to our local history – highly recommended reading.




Have You Thought About Interning or Volunteering?

  ” I want to work in a museum, so volunteering was an eye-opener into the museum world ….”


If you’re interested in gaining work experience in a placement relevant to your history studies, there are so many opportunities within the local area. We’ve interviewed Lauren Ellender and Clare Mooney, who volunteered at the Colchester Resource Centre for Colchester Museum, and were happy to share their experiences. 

What did your jobs involve?

[Clare]The volunteering position was titled a ‘collections volunteer’. It entailed a variety of different little jobs; however, the majority of the time was spent auditing the different collections such as pottery, and metal work, in order to be re-located to new stores. As madeewell as this, the job also involved precisely recording accession numbers and any other information attached to the object, then carefully packaging the objects to protect them for transportation. Due to the extensive number of different objects in the collection we often had to do the easy but essential job of preparing the huge amounts of foam and padding needed to keep the collections protected for transport.  As the move was a big project other jobs included general manual lifting, moving and organizing boxes.


How did you find your posts?

[Lauren] I found this opportunity through Google whilst searching English Heritage/National Trust,. [Clare] I found the position by looking on the website, and finding out that the Colchester Resource Centre volunteering position was accepting applications.


Did you enjoy it?

[Lauren] I particularly enjoyed it, and felt that the time went by very quickly. The only thing I really found challenging and tough was the manual lifting of the artefacts, so for someone not looking to lift loads of artefacts you might want to check with the Resource Centre Staff first about the kind of work you can do.

[Clare] Working here was a good opportunity to find out about the general environmentmade of working in a museum. It gave us a chance to see and hold a variety of objects important for Colchester, natural and in some cases, English, history.

Would you recommend that other students seek out internships?

We highly recommend this experience. [Lauren] I am re-doing my first year of university in England and I now wish I had got involved with more activities such as this and been proactive before.

What have you both learnt?

[Clare] I found that working in a museum is hard and diverse. A lot of effort goes into preserving heritage for future generations to enjoy.

Did this experience help with your future career?

[Lauren] I want to work in a museum, so volunteering was an eye-opener into the museum world and has given me a general outlook on what I could potentially do after her MA. [Clare] I’m now considering the option of an MA in Public History and Museum Studies which would be incredibly interesting.

How did the university help?

[Lauren] Travel reimbursement from the History Department really helped. The University also offers services like the Employability and Careers Centre, for anyone looking to develop their CVs or gain vocational experience.


Continue reading

Olivia Smith’s Account with the Western Front Association (WFA)

Olivia Smith was fortunate enough to have an internship experience with the WFA in Ypres, Belgium. Below she gives her own account of the experience, showing her thoughts and feelings.

“Just before I reflect upon my fortunate historical experience, I would like to quickly thank the University of Essex History Department for funding my trip; as well as the Western Front Association and Andy Tonge for their generosity in giving me such an experience, as well as ensuring I was well looked after.”

10-11/2017 11:54


”The journey down from Colchester to Dover was perfect. Not one bit of traffic stopped my first big drive to the continent. Listening to a BBC Radio 4 debate on why people wear a poppy and what the poppy represents, a controversial topic which I had recently covered in my special subject module. Listening to someone say they don’t wear the poppy because it represents the pointless deaths that occurred in wars after the Second World War, just seemed very ignorant. Personally, I feel the poppy is a form of modern respect, to commemorate those who bravely fought for us today. That being a centenary ago on the fields of Passchendale or right now fighting the war on terror.

Currently sat on the ferry going to Dunkirk and reading my book which my dissertation is based on (Testament of Youth by Vera Britain), I can’t help but feel sombre over the memory of many men who made the journey across the channel a centenary ago, to go and fight on the front line, yet here I am making a safe passage to go to the remains of the front line and remember their sacrifice.”

10 /11/2017.

”Arriving in Belgium was beyond a success; for someone who is just about confident driving at home, yet suffers badly with dyslexia and lefts and rights, I counted driving on the opposite side of the road an achievement. I headed straight into Ypres to meet Andy Tonge (WFA) and embarked on a personal tour around the Northern half of the Ypres Salient. This is something I had thought I’d done before, but how wrong was I. Andy taught me how to perceive a battlefield through the eyes of a soldier rather than the eyes of a book. First of all, it was the skyline, the myth that the Ypres Salient is flat is very wrong. High ground gives you the advantage of being able to view the salient, and mark out the churches which act as landmarks for navigation- Ypres Cloth Hall and Cathedral are usually visual, where we were we had a good view of Langenmark and Zonnenbeke churches.

It wasn’t just the view of the churches as navigational landmarks, these acted as a form of context of the soldier’s life; by being able to see that far you are holding the strong point. The battles on the Ypres Salient can’t be perceived as either side on a rollercoaster xxxxxand both reaching the top trying to push one another off, it was a fight for high ground and then defending the high ground. I found this context so significant for developing my knowledge of the First World War. That evening, a trip to the Menin Gate and the chance to witness a beautiful Last Post ceremony and then back to the Ariane Hotel for a briefing before the events on the 11th. It was a great feeling to know I was going to be a part of a great event, with the opportunity to stand under the Menin Gate during the special service”


Early rise, to get ready for Armistice- 99 years. After the briefing the night before, I soon realised how much detail and work went into organising the poppy day parade. The parade started outside Ypres Cathedral, just behind the Cloth Hall and followed the way through the centre of the town before various groups dispersed in and around the Menin Gate. My job as a marshal was to ensure all who would be taking part in the parade were positioned accordingly in the order Andy had set up. Easy? No. Various school groups turned up, military groups etc, yet that did not stop things starting at 10:20 as the bands led their way through the town.

I was positioned in front of the general public, ensuring they lined in groups of four with the wreath laying people standing to the right. Once all was away it was wonderful to feel a part of the occasion rather than a bystander in the crowd. Upon reaching the Menin Gate myself and the other marshal’s stood to the front left hand side, just tucked into the corner of the entrance but a corner that provided a wonderful view of the gate. Oddly, the bands, the orchestra created a light and sweet atmosphere in the gate.


Oddly, the bands, the orchestra created a light and sweet atmosphere. The remembrance ceremony started with the prompt, 2 minute ahead of schedule, arrival of HRH Princess Anne, the representative of Britain and the Commonwealth. I must not forgot to mention that this was not only a remembrance for the British, Commonwealth, French and Belgium forces, yet also a remembrance for the German soldiers who fought during those four years. Representatives of a special First World War German force attended the service too. The service began with the symbolic Last Post performed by the buglers, of which each note echoed throughout the 54,000 names embodied on the walls of the Menin Gate.

Follow by various readings, prayers, and then wreath laying by the Royal and political representatives, then by the members of the public. During this part of the service, through the three openings in the roof of the Menin Gate, thousands of poppies started to fall. This is an image I will cherish in my memory, each poppy represented a soldier who had been lost in the Great War and I found it very symbolic that they were falling into remembrance a century later on. Once the poppies had fallen, the final songs were played by the bands and the service came to an end once Princess Anne made her departure to a service at Tyne Cot.

Each military group and the bands began to follow their way back to the centre of Ypres by the Cloth Hall, and we followed just behind them – and what a wonderful atmosphere that was, to really be a part of something special in our history- we ended up outside the Cloth Hall and watched the masses of the general public disappear as the main event of the day was over. Later that afternoon, Andy and Carol were very kind to take me to the main concert in the Cathedral, and what a lovely tribute they paid to ‘Brothers in Arms’, really focussing in on the camarderie and special bond, which I guess you can say is one of the special outcomes of war.

The concert was followed by a wonderful meal at the Ariane, at which I had the pleasure of sitting next to a gentleman who had been at Ypres commemorating the First World War for the past twenty years plus. I realised then how lucky he was for coming for all of those years, as I heard the most wonderful stories, for he was fortunate enough to have such a strong relationship with veterans. This included the famous Harry Patch and his close circle. I too realised that we were keeping them more alive by telling their tales, passing on their experiences and how those first hand accounts of the war really should not be forgotten. From Alix Green’s module focussing on Unquiet Histories, it is those micro unquiet histories that teach a true history.


In Belgium they focus on the day of Armistice itself, rather than in the UK where we have our main day on Remembrance Sunday. So yesterday was another early rise to make the most of the day, and Andy was taking me on another battlefield tour. This time the Hunters were put on after a day of rain, and I got to fully experience the famous muddy fields of the Ypres Salient. Andy first took me along the Menin Road to get some context of where the BEF first encountered the German forces in 1914. From there we went to visit a -very intact- German bunker.

From the bunker you definitely got the impression that the Germans intended to stay in their advancing positions, with the bunker being fortified with concrete and the main part of the bunker underground (with what could be described as an upper floor of concrete simply to take the full brunt of shells). From here Andy took me to Shrewsbury Forest where the Northamptonshire Regiment fought on the Third Battle of Ypres. On the face of it, the forest was stunning, perfectly autumnal and you could not imagine that a century ago the horror that fell here. We left the trail and followed an unofficial path which led us to the German Front line and here, intact, you could see the three German bunkers.

Looking out into what would have been ‘No Mans Land’ above us was Hill 60 where the British held the high ground. I was shown where the entrances to the underground tunnels would have begun, due to the water build up in a square localised area. To my surprise, and interestingly to Andy’s, we found on the back of the final bunker the initials and engravings that had been left by the German soldiers. Coming out of the trenches we followed the IPad which showed us the original trench matches and exactly where we were in correlation to the wood a century ago.

xWe were mainly following the German Trenches and you could see from the high ground how the Northampton boys obtained success on obtaining the wood to then hit an obstacle with the Germans sitting and dug in (another bunker found, this time a machine gun box). We proceeded to go and explore a wood which held a lock hospital, embedded in an unfinished canal.

Clear details of where the hospital had been shelled were evident by gaping holes in the bricks. As the winds picked up the temperature on the Salient dropped and we headed back to the Hooge Crater where we had coffee and explored the museum. To my amazement, I discovered how the exhibitions that had been created there were all using original artefacts. So the mannequins were wearing real uniforms as worn by the soldiers on the front, and it amazed me that such items of clothing have lasted all these years.

After the wonderful morning truly exploring the Ypres Salient, I went off on my own to Plugstreet Wood where one of the main protagonists for my dissertation wrote a beautiful poem whilst he was stationed there during 1915;


Violets from Plug Street Wood—

Sweet, I send you oversea.

(It is strange they should be blue,

Blue when his soaked blood was red;

For they grew around his head.

It is strange they should be blue.)

Violets from Plug Street Wood—

Think what they have meant to me!

Life and Hope and Love and You.

(And you did not see them grow

Where his mangled body lay,

Hiding horror from the day.

Sweetest, it was better so.)

Violets from oversea,

To your dear, far, forgetting land:

These I send in memory,

Knowing You will understand.

Here I found a violet, and explored the area in which Roland lived and provided me with a first-hand account of life on the Salient. In such a peaceful and beautiful place I truly felt connected with my dissertation. Plug Street Wood was close to my wonderful B&B (as was the place where the famous Christmas Truce occurred, that I also visited) and I checked out then making the journey back home. I had never experienced a rough crossing before, but that evening crossing was horrific. The boat was rattling, and felt like it was hurdling across the waves towards Dover.


I was glad to be home, yet sad at the same time. Ypres is truly a wonderful place, it is amazing how one place can hold so much history and keep it alive a century later. If all goes well with an internship I will return there next summer, but for now as Vera Brittain and Edward her brother would write to each other before an attack during his time on the Salient, it was never goodbye it was only ‘Au Revouir’. ”


By Olivia Smith




MA Work Placements: An Interview for the Great War Archive Project

MA Students at The University of Essex previously completed a placement at the Essex Record Office (ERO) in Chelmsford for the Great War Archive Project. Through various interviews, which have been posted fortnightly, they share their experiences and thoughts on the placement.

1. Could you tell us about the placement that you took part in and why you wanted to do this placement?

‘It was at the Essex Record Office in Chelmsford as part of their Great War Archive Project, the Friends of Historic Essex bought a scrapbook for the ERO. It was created by a lady who was from the County ‘Wood’ family, Minna Bradhurst and documents her life during the war like the things she found interesting or significant and her family’s war activities. It also shows how much of everyday life continued during the war. It is part of a set of 4 scrapbooks, the others all being in private hands although the ERO has microfilm copies of them, along with copies of other scrapbooks put together by Minna Bradhurst.
As part of my placement, I am researching the Bradhurst and Wood families, the Red Cross in Essex during the war, Rivenhall Place (the family home) and Field Marshall Sir Evelyn Wood (uncle of Minna Bradhurst) amongst other things. I am also looking at the activity of scrapbooking itself.

I applied for the placement on a whim, not really expecting to get it (I thought lots of people had applied and that I probably wouldn’t get it). I came to the ERO and spoke to Hannah, the placement supervisor, and found that what I would be doing was interesting and with a large degree of free reign over what was to be produced, so I took it!

2. What was your favourite part of the placement?

Being able to delve into the ERO archives and discover all the other documents that are held there, and bringing my children in for a tour – which they loved!

3. What did you learn from your placement?

That I love archives and collections and old books and researching fascinating people.
I have learnt a huge amount about myself – my abilities and limitations, and how to overcome them.

Academically, I have learnt about different styles of writing, and how they are different from academic essays.

4. Did you have any exciting or interesting things happen during your placement?

Not really – I’ve just found the whole experience exciting!!

5. What would you say to any students who are considering doing a placement?

Make sure you think about how much time you will spend travelling to and from your placement, and the cost involved (even though many of them have bursaries, you still need to budget for travel and food). This was something that I had to factor into my day-to-day life, especially as I have other commitments (children, employment). However, having other commitments has driven me to make the most out of my placement.

6. Do you have any advice for students thinking about doing a placement?

I am doing my MA on a part-time basis and I don’t think I could have done it as a full-time student, although someone full time may say it was fine. I am lucky that my placement provider has been very flexible, but others may not be so, again, take time for researching and writing into account.

Treat the placement as work experience and grab every opportunity given to you there.

Just apply and see what happens!!!

7. Was there anything that you would have like to be told before you started your placement, that could be useful to future students?

It would have been nice to have the assessment guidance from the university at the start of the placement, just so I knew what was expected of me from them. Maybe this could be given out/made available online along with all the other module details.

8. Has doing your placement influenced any career planning that you might have?

It has helped to think about what I definitely do not want to do!

For more information, or if you are interested in doing a placement please contact Alix Green on





Olivia Smith’s Experience with the Western Front Association (WFA)




Student at The University of Essex , Olivia Smith, was lucky enough to obtain an internship at the Western Front Association. The Western Front Association (WFA) in a non-profit organisation which insist on furthering  interest in World War I, also known as the First World War, the Great War, or the War to End All Wars in 1914-1918. The WFA aims to perpetuate the memory, courage and comradeship of those on all sides who served their countries in France and Flanders and their own countries during the Great War. In this interview, she not only shares her experience, but portrays her thoughts and feelings on her experience with the WFA.

What did the experience entail?

“So, it wasn’t the usual process for an internship as I took the initiative. In August I went over to Belgium with my Dad for the centenary events commemorating the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele). Upon the main event, we were escorted to the main Passchendaele museum grounds in Zonnenbeke and I was so inspired as to how people there were able to be a part of such a historical event. After the commemorations at Tyne Cot, we went back to the Passchendaele museum grounds and there I went around the tents exploring the historical companies who were there.

One was the Commonwealth War Grave Commission of which I simply enquired as to who I could speak in regards to internships- unfortunately, they hadn’t at the time set up that area within their business. We moved onto the Western Front Association (WFA) tent, it was very busy, but I enquired to those who were working there about internships and they pointed me into the direction of Andy Tonge, who was busy at the time. I took a business card and exchanged emails, coming away with some hope.


Once I was home I immediately emailed Andy and expressed my desire to work within a historical event that focuses on public history and teaching history to the masses through new modern forms. A few days later I received an email and at first, a phone call had been arranged to discuss what I could do. I had been told I was put forward on the main WFA meeting agenda so I knew it was serious. From the phone call, I knew exactly what was done, they had created this internship for me. Following this, there was a meeting in London which confirmed the details

I am still working with the WFA, this is something that will carry on until next summer. However, I am also a member so that means I can join the WFA over in Ypres for the final centenary months next year, and for as long as I may wish. Many people told me when I was in Ypres two weekends ago, that I am the new generation of historians who will be taking over, and I think it is important to keep history alive.”


OncconfirmedI   the details ”

I am still working with the WFA, this is something that will carry on until next summer. However, I am also a member so that means I can join the WFA over in Ypres for the final centenary months next year, and for as long as I may wish. Many people told me when I was in Ypres two weekends ago, that I am the new generation of historians who will be taking over, and I think it is important to keep History alive.”


I am (still in the process) to create a booklet containing this historical information, to then


A) have it published by the WFA and be an accredited Historian

B) have extracted from the booklet to go up around the site of The Butte De Warlencourt, so when tourists, schools etc. visit they will have information boards (of my work) to read up on.”


How you found it and what were you ‘day-to-day’ jobs/task?

“What was required of me was to dig deep, look into the history of the Butte, before 1914, during the start of the war, The Somme, and the events that followed. For me, this involved three days in the Imperial War Museum sifting through regimental diaries, personal letters, diaries, photos to piece together what it was like around the Butte during the First World War. Some of the accounts were amazing, just reading through certain diaries really puts you in their shoes and their experiences. This mainly got underway around September time, and I was doing the research and putting together the text for the booklet whilst I was still at home and working as a waitress; my luck of doing split shifts meant I had the daytime free to work.”

“I want to go into areas of Public History that communicate and most importantly educate History to the masses…”


Does this experience fit it in with your future career?

This type of work certainly fits in with the idea of my future career. I’ve realised that in our modern world we have to change the way we teach history, so I want to go into areas of public history that communicate and most importantly educate history to the masses- whether this is through media etc. I am determined to find a way.”

Did you enjoy your time working there?

“I am still working with the WFA, this is something that will carry on until next summer. However, I am also a member so that means I can join the WFA over in Ypres for the final centenary months next year, and for as long as I may wish. Many people told me when I was in Ypres two weekends ago, that I am the new generation of historians who will be taking over, and I think it is important to keep History alive.”


Would you recommend this internship?

“I would highly recommend taking that initiative and asking, I believe I was lucky, however it has inspired me to always take that choice and ask because you really do not know until you ask.”

How were the people you worked with?xx

Andy Tonge was just amazing, he gave/gives me a lot of advice if required, and it is all very independent quite like doing a dissertation through choice, so I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting all the people behind the scenes of the WFA yet. Although, going over to Ypres did help in obtaining new contacts, and meeting new people who would benefit from my historical career.”


How do you feel about your experience?

“Lucky. That is probably the best way to describe it. Not many opportunities like this come up and this really is something that I believe can kick-start my career.”


What have you learned through this internship?

“I’ve learned to view History differently in a way. To really focus in on the micro-history, as that’s where the interesting stories lie. It is very similar my required task, as to what a certain assignment could be like so I’ve tried to not to make it seem so unknown by treating it like a piece of coursework.”


What was one of the best moments of your experience?

“Standing in a trench in Shrewsbury Forrest, nearly knee-deep in watery mud (thank god I always carry my Hunters in my car as you don’t know when they would be required), exploring where the German front line was on 31st July 1917. That and bringing back to life the soldiers who fought during the “Great War”, as the unquiet histories really should be brought back to life.”


Who should I contact if I want an internship in the Western Front Association?

“Andy Tonge ( or just email the WFA, they are a very welcoming historical association”.


How did the university help you with your endeavours?

“The History Department was fantastic in the fact that they helped with fees when I went over to Belgium, so as a student that really took off some stress and made the opportunity for me to go over for the 99th Armistice more possible.”

MA Work Placements: An Interview with Deborah Wiltshire

A number of our MA students have recently completed work placements which made use of their unique skills as Historians.  In the second of three interviews with our MA students, we talk to Deborah Wiltshire, who secured a place at the Essex County Hospital supported by the local NHS Trust. She shares her experiences below.


1)Could you tell us about the placement that you took part in and why you wanted to do this placement?

The project is based on the at the Essex County Hospital which closes next year. The project is to archive as many materials from the hospital before it closes, including photos, records and other materials.

I wanted to do the placement to get some work experience, well I have many years of work experience, but not in the field of history so I really wanted to gain some experience there and it just sounded like a good and interesting project. At the very start of the project, it was nice to see how the project got off the ground and I wanted the experience really.

2)What was your favourite part of the placement?

I have two favourites. I have really enjoyed working with the team at Essex County Hospital (ECH) as they are just really nice and enthusiastic and they have been a real pleasure to get to know and to work with. I also just really enjoy rummaging through boxes of photos and find it fascinating. I will happily rummage through photographs for hours anyway.

3)What did you learn from your placement?

So far, I am just part way through so I think that I like learning about the history of medicine. I have done a module on medicine last semester soDSC00284 I was already interested in that area so it was nice to see more modern history especially how the hospital, medical equipment and nurse’s uniforms have evolved. This has been fascinating to learn and will be an area that I want to find out more about.

4)Did you have any exciting or interesting things happen during your placement?

The most interesting thing has been to get the website going, nothing dramatic has happened luckily but it has been interesting because although I deal with social media for work I never actually see something start from scratch like ECH so that has been nice. I have found it interesting to watch.

5)What would you say to any students who are considering doing a placement?

I would say that it is definitely worth doing and it is very interesting. It is also a good opportunity to get some work experience especially if you are younger and have not been in the workplace before. I also think that then it is a valuable way for someone to get work experience especially if research, especially, historical research is something you want to aim for. It is always important to get some experience on your CV as early as you can.

I think that it is fascinating, you find things that you don’t expect to find and if you do a standard dissertation you have a set idea of what you are going to do but with a placement, it evolves a little bit more naturally and that is a good experience to have.

6)Do you have any advice for students thinking about doing a placement?

I think my main advice is quite practical. I would advise that as you go along through your placement that you keep a journal so that any thoughts or feelings you have at that time you write down.

We all think that we will remember stuff a couple of months after we do it but the reality is that we don’t. that would be my biggest piece of advice to keep lots of notes so that you can relax and enjoy your placement as you go along and if you have a level of detail in a journal, then it will write itself and it will make writing up a lot easier.

7)Was there anything that you would have like to be told before you started your placement, that could be useful to future students?

No, I don’t think so. The projects were quite clearly presented so I think in that sense we knew what we needed to do but perhaps for future students to help outline on timetables especially for full-time students the time is quite short so to have a structured timetable might be useful.

8)Has doing your placement influenced any career planning that you might have?

Yes, quite possibly. I have thought about changing disciplines which is why I am doing an MA in the first place but I don’t know if it has my changed my plan wildly. It has confirmed that I would like to make changes once I have finished my placement and MA so it has confirmed what I had in mind.

For more information, or if you are interested in doing a placement please contact Alix Green on