The Week in Radio: Fascinating tales from heroes on the home front in BBC's World War One at Home
"I was born when the war was on. And I was yellow." So began the story of Gladys Sangster, one of the First World War's "canary babies". Gladys' mother worked at the National Shell Filling Factory No 9 on the outskirts of Banbury, Oxfordshire. The chemicals in the TNT powder she handled daily turned her skin yellow, and when Gladys was born, she came out yellow, too. "It gradually faded away," said Gladys unfazed.
Gladys's story is one of many arresting tales in World War One at Home. An ambitious piece of centenary broadcasting by the BBC, it launched on Monday with 230 stories across its local radio and television stations, from BBC Berkshire to BBC Radio York. By the time it comes to a close in 2015, it will have told around 1,400 tales about life on the home front.
The short stories – they range from two to 10 minutes – have aired on local radio stations at 8.15am all week and will continue to pepper schedules through to 2015. The real treasure chest, though, is the website www.bbc.co.uk/ww1 which gathers all of the pieces by region, allowing listeners to click through and browse the 100-year old tales at their leisure. It is a remarkable project –hyperlocal but with global significance, history with a very human voice. On which note, it is a proper pleasure to hear so many and varied regional accents in one place; you don't get that on Radio 4.
I listened to 10 in a row, looking up places of personal interest, clicking through the sidebar, and simply being drawn in by titles like "Mossband, Cumbria: Devil's Porridge" (as cordite was popularly known), "Albion Works, Sheffield: Lizzie the Working Elephant" or "Reading: Emergency Ration Biscuits". This last missive from Radio Berkshire was typical, focusing on something seemingly small to tell a bigger story. A visit to the Huntley and Palmers factory revealed how biscuits were crucial in keeping up morale. Not because they tasted good – quite the opposite. Instead the soldiers would send them home to their families, using them to make picture frames, or as the butt of some black trenches comedy. "My teeth might fall out if I eat this, so I'm sending it back to you..."
These are the stories of those left behind, who kept calm and carried on while their lives were turned upside down or devastated by fighting in far-off fields. There are tales of munitions factories and makeshift hospitals, of Bristol Zoo hosting parties for wounded soldiers, of nationalised pubs in Gretna and of The Blimp, a satirical magazine edited by Cambridge cadets. Naturally, women feature heavily – from the founding of Britain's first WI group in Llanfairpwll, Anglesey to the female football team of St Helens. What started as a way for a group of Merseyside munitions girls to get some fresh air on their breaks, ended as a popular phenomenon cheered on by thousands. By the end of the war, there were simply not enough male footballers left for fans to watch.
The horrors are rarely far away. BBC Cornwall has an interview with a descendant of the Rowes, a Penzance family which lost all four young sons – Charlie, Bertie, Fred and Sidney – to war. A two-minute segment on BBC Manchester tells the story of Chapel Street in Altrincham, a 12ft-wide cobbled terrace that became known as "the bravest little street in England" after 161 of its residents joined up. Twenty nine of them were killed. The street was demolished long ago but thanks in part to the BBC's far-reaching project, it will not be forgotten.
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