Turning back time!
Posted on October 27th, 2015
Fear not. This is not yet another article about the fact that, since my last blog, the ‘Back to the Future’ date (21st October 2015) arrived. Although I must have seen the first film upon its release, I can barely remember anything about it which would not be the case if there had been anything about the Great War in it! So instead I am writing about the fact that, over the last weekend – in the UK at least – our clocks moved backwards one hour and the hours, minutes and seconds which constitute our daily 24 hours became known, collectively, as Greenwich Mean Time once more.
Putting the clock back is enjoyed by those who either like to party hard or to sleep long and deeply; both groups consider that ‘extra ‘ hour each autumn as a gift, during which they can
continue to enjoy their respective pursuits. Meanwhile the rest of us grieve for the loss of both bright mornings and longer, lighter evenings and begin to count down the days to the Winter Solstice – or the shortest day, after which natural daylight will begin to extend itself as we head toward Spring – and the inevitable change back to British Sumer Time – also known as Daylight Saving Time – in the new Spring. At which point we all put our clocks forward an hour again. It is a half-yearly routine which only those few members of our society, and there really are very few who are now aged over 100 years old, might remember being instituted.
Even as we struggle with turning our clocks back and forwards in the early part of the 21st century, still I suspect that most people are unaware that standard time across the United Kingdom was not brought into being until 1840 or that it was hastened by the development of the railway?
Until it was adopted it was possible for a traveller to leave London by train and have to change his / her watch upon arrival at the destination station, even as close by as into the next county ; these different running times, to which the various train companies were despatching their trains, had led to a significant increase in the number of railway accidents as trains travelled along the same lines. So, the standardisation had become a matter of passenger safety. Once Greenwich Mean Time had come into being, there then began movement towards seasonal changes in order to capitalise upon as much daylight as possible.
Over the last month or so I have written about the Battle of Loos, fought between 25th September and 18th October 1915. It was the last major allied offensive of the year ; earlier battles on the Western Front included the Battle of Neuve Chappelle in March 1915 , the second Battle of Ypres in April 1915 and the Battle of Aubers Ridge in May 1915. As ever, hopes were high that the tactical lessons learned through the course of these battles would lead to success in forcing the German Army into retreating back across its own borders. Unfortunately, it failed primarily because of what has long been referred to by historians as ‘The Shell Scandal’.
Whilst it would take until the disaster of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916 to learn that high explosive shells would not destroy the barbed wire that was rolled out in front of the enemy’s trenches, the strategic failures of 1915 highlighted the fact that the British Army just didn’t have either enough artillery pieces or shells to supply the ones it did have. As a result, despite increasingly heavy bombardments of these trenches in the hours before an infantry attack, all too often those same infantry, upon reaching the enemy front line trench, discovered that it had not been destroyed as expected and that it was full of enemy soldiers ready for the fight. As one war correspondent observed, ‘the want of an unlimited supply of high explosives was a fatal bar to our success’.
With so many men having left their workplace in the early months of the war, by 1915 many more women had moved into the factories to take their places ; I wrote earlier this year about my grandmother who worked in the Woolwich Arsenal throughout the war. However, that had not prevented the Trades Unions from striking in order to ensure that, upon the end of the war, those same women would be required to leave the workplace in favour of the returning men. And of course, that, in the meantime, they should not be paid the same money – although they were doing the same job. In order to bring some calm to the situation, and begin to solve the problem of enabling Britain’s industrial output to match her Army’s need for far greater amounts of military materiel than had ever been imagined, a separate Ministry – of Munitions – was created and David Lloyd George appointed as its first Minister. And amongst the many changes which he would institute was The Summer Time Act which came into force on 21st May 1916.
Although it is clear that the changes the Ministry for Munitions oversaw then had a huge impact upon Britain’s industrial output for the remainder of the war – the Battle of the Somme witnessing the largest pre-attack bombardment ever – the never ending irony is that the Germans had been considering the idea for just as many years. And, as ever, beat the UK government to the mark a month earlier!
Debbie Coupland is an experienced researcher and former Lieutenant of the Women’s Royal Army Corps. These days Debbie has put her passion for history into running truly bespoke WW1 battlefield tours to France and Belgium, with Great War Tours.