Cliffe Explosives Works, Kent, part of the First World War cordite factory showing long ranges of single storey buildings and horses grazing in the foreground.

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Cliffe Explosives Works, Kent, part of the First World War cordite factory. © Historic England DP141631

The First World War

This page explains how, during the Centennial period (2014-2018) we revealed the true impact of the war on England; the legacy of what may be regarded as the First Home Front.  

Many places associated with the First World War – former airfields, munitions factories, training areas – were forgotten or neglected and in danger of being lost forever. In some cases wartime buildings have been adapted to new uses.  

Traces of other activities, such as elaborate training trenches, may only survive as subtle marks in the landscape. Elsewhere traces of demolished factories can be plotted as archaeological earthworks.

First World War home front legacy project

The First World War was the first total war and at the end of four years of fighting all sections of society were drawn into the conflict. In parallel to the mobilisation of the population for war, the English countryside and buildings in our villages, towns and cities were enlisted to contribute to the war effort.  

During the Centennial period Historic England worked with the Council for British Archaeology on the Home Front Legacy project to support volunteers to record the legacy of the war in their areas. Early air photographs from the Britain from Above collection provided unexplored views of England shortly after the end of the war.  

You can explore records of First World War remains resulting from the project.

This work contributes to a new understanding and awareness of the impact of the war on England and how it shaped our buildings and places. It reveals the importance of these often overlooked places, and ensure the heritage of the First World War is passed on to future generations.

The National Machine Gun factory, Burton-on-Trent, Staffordfordshire, architectural drawings of the three storey, neo-Georgian style headquarters building
The National Machine Gun factory, Burton-on-Trent , Staffordfordshire © Historic England MD 95/09210

First World War: Land

One of the features of industrialised, mechanised, 20th-century warfare was its hunger for land. In the First World War land was needed for camps to house the New Armies and for training areas for thousands of troops. These demands expanded as ranges were required to train tank crews and airmen. Camps were also required to house thousands of captured German troops. 

Our research covered the following aspects of land-based activities related to the First World War:

You can also find out how to look after war memorials and share information about them.

National Filling Factory Banbury, Northampton, aerial photograph showing the earthwork remains of the factory overlying traces of earlier ridge and furrow cultivation.
National Filling Factory Banbury, Northampton, aerial photograph of the earthwork remains of the factory, scheduled © Historic England 27883/040

The First World War at sea

Throughout the war both sides used their naval might to blockade each other to prevent vital supplies of food and raw materials getting through. German U-boats hunted in English coastal waters, threatening supplies of both raw material and food.

Along England’s east coast, German warships bombarded a number of towns and also hit Whitby Abbey and Scarborough Castle.

In January 1917 Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare, in which vessels were torpedoed without warning. As well as Allied warships, many fishing vessels and neutral merchant vessels were sunk. By April, the Allies were suffering appalling losses from U-Boats. An average of 167 merchant ships were being sunk every month, and Britain was near starvation.

We looked at the following aspects of the war at sea revealing how Britain met these challenges:

Hunstanston, Norfolk, an early 1920s historic air photograph of the lighthouse and First World War wireless station
Hunstanston, Norfolk, an early 1920s historic air photograph of the lighthouse and First World War wireless station © Historic England EPW001849e

Traces of the air war

Historic England has identified the most significant airfields and airfield buildings of the First World War, including some of the earliest associated with powered flight in the world.

New technologies required specialist facilities and the war saw the construction of airfields and balloon stations with dedicated buildings to house and maintain flying machines. The new threat of aerial warfare, initially from Zeppelin airships, prompted a sophisticated anti-aircraft defence system, including purpose-built gun batteries, notably the listed surviving example at Lodge Hill, north of Chatham, Kent.

Lodge Hill, Chatham, Kent, reconstruction drawing by Peter Dunn of the First World War anti-aircraft site with gunner firing at a German Zeppelin airship
Lodge Hill, Chatham, Kent, reconstruction drawing by Peter Dunn of the First World War anti-aircraft site © Historic England

Further reading

In addition to the publications below, you can access many reports covering First World War heritage through our research reports database, using the keywords 'First World War'.

Search the research reports database

Legacies of the First World War

Published 15 September 2018

Examines the legacy of the First World War in England via archaeological and architectural remains.

Learn more

Conservation Bulletin 71

Published 1 November 2013

The remains of the First World War are all around us, but we do not always know how to see them - or how to connect with the millions of personal stories with which they are inextricably linked.

Learn more
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