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Photographs tell story of Great War and its effect on the home front

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: November 26, 2013

By Simon Parker

  • Padstow women set up a tea party for seamen from the visiting battleship HMS Conqueror, which had moored up at the mouth of the River Camel in North Cornwall

  • Swamped by his new greatcoat, an unidentified young recruit to the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry poses for his photograph before leaving for war

  • Padstow Territorials and their sturdy mounts gather for service during the autumn of 1914

  • British C Class submarines, C31 and C32, attract a crowd on the quayside at Penzance

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The traditional picture of the First World War is one of men in trenches, up to their knees in mud. But what of the sea war, the air war and the war on the home front?

Cornwall's experience of the conflict is documented in a fascinating new book published this month. Packed with revealing photographs of the period, it is the first account of its kind to focus exclusively on the four gruelling years endured by Cornish men and women as they struggled to support the war effort.

Cornwall in the First World War is the work of Pete London, a former defence industry worker and the author of six previous books on Cornish history. Covering the run-up to the declaration of war on Germany on August 4, 1914, military build-up, home front, coastal defence, heroes and aftermath, the author has built a clear picture of how every community was affected.

Even without reading a word, the images alone conjure a time of high drama, hard work, personal suffering and camaraderie. From submarines in Penzance harbour and a huge fleet of warships in Mount's Bay, to crowds of recruits at St Anthony, airships at Mullion, a flying boat on Tresco, HMS Platypus in the River Lynher, sailors on leave in Padstow and female munitions workers in Hayle, all Cornwall was mobilised.

"No-one stayed untouched," said Mr London. "The First World War affected every town and village, while politics, social order and the role of women were forever altered. Losses were truly terrible and afterwards the war's weight lay heavily with many who had returned." Newspapers reported the declaration of war in grave tones. The Cornishman headline read: "Dreadful and Incredible Nightmare is a Reality", while The Royal Cornwall Gazette appeared to welcome the fight, with the words: "A Fight for Honour, Truth and Justice".

"Today, although a century has passed, there is still proximity to the events, sustained by grainy film and faded sepia images reminding us of the fighting," said the author. "We don't have to look too far back to find those who joined up, whether frock-coated, flat-capped or long-skirted. And Cornwall's part in the great confrontation was vital."

What made the Great War so different to any other earlier conflict was, of course, the level of losses, the involvement of civilian soldiers, and the contribution of women.

"As Cornwall's men left for distant battlefields, at home another army mustered," he said. "The effect on civilians was unparalleled, fear and loss reaching out to scar even the tiniest villages. The sheer scale of warfare and the numbers joining up had never before been seen. Everyone knew soldiers, sailors or airmen serving their country.

"On the home front the patriotic energy also surged as people rallied to the war effort, anxious to do what they could to bring the horrible affair to and end."

Cornwall in the First World War by Pete London is published by Truran at £8.99. Visit: truranbooks.co.uk

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