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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. One of the greatest changes brought by the war was the use of airpower. This created its own demand for airfields and brought new threats from aerial bombardment. At the beginning of the conflict there were just seven military airfields, rising to 301 by 1918.

To equip the New Armies, air force, and navy, the conflict became a war of production. Existing factories were extended and huge new ones created. In towns and cities many buildings assumed new roles, as headquarters for refugee charities, meeting places for knitting and sewing circles to provide comforts for the troops, rest cafes for soldiers and sailors, and many other uses. Every building built before 1918 will have a story to tell about its inhabitants’ wartime experiences.

Volunteers packing groceries for the war effort
Dover Street, London. Volunteers packing groceries for Belgian refugees in the offices National Food Fund, Dover Street, Piccadilly, London (BL22913/002)

As German U-boats attacked merchant shipping, threatening starvation on the population, the countryside was worked more intensively to produce food, as well as timber. Country houses were offered up for war service as military hospitals and convalescent homes. Later the deaths in service of many landowners and their heirs in the war led to the break up of many large country estates.

Summerdown Convalescent camp, Eastbourne, Sussex
Summerdown Convalescent camp, Eastbourne, Sussex comprising standard wooden huts. Recovering soldiers often created small gardens round their own huts, as shown here. The soldier sitting on the doorstep is wearing a convalescent uniform, identified by its paler lapels. (Private Collection)

The following pages explore how the whole country was mobilised for war. Find out where Historic England is conducting new investigations to increase understanding and working to improve the protection of key sites. And discover how to get involved in recording the traces of the Home Front that may still be found all around us.

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