The Tower of London: 1000 years of resilience and strength (part 2)

Part 2: The World Wars

In this difficult time many of us are taking great comfort in the example of normal people showing extraordinary compassion for the good of their communities. Everyday our homes are made brighter by the courage and kindness of our NHS staff, bus drivers, shop keepers, council workers, couriers and many more besides, all of whom put the needs of their neighbours above their own. This is certainly not the first time we have faced crisis, and sometimes it can be instructive to look to our forbearers for inspiration. In the last blog we learned about how the Tower and its neighbours came together in the medieval and early modern period to fight fires and care for the poor. This week we turn to the greatest disasters of the 20th century and see how friendship and resilience can be found even in the darkest hours.

The First World War

The First World War, which lasted from 1914-18, was virtually unprecedented in the scale of its destruction, and cost millions of lives from all over the world. The war, also known as The Great War, is considered by many as Britain’s first ‘total war’ – meaning that the whole nation had to be mobilised to fight. During the war many palaces and other great houses around the country were turned to the war effort, including Hampton Court Palace, which was used as a hospital, and its surrounding parks hosted troops from India and Canada. The Tower of London, as a natural rallying point, provided a centre for recruitment and training of soldiers in London. Thousands of soldiers were stationed at the Tower during the war, including those from London regiments like the Artists Rifles. The Artists Rifles were first formed in 1860 by a group of painters, architects, poets, sculptors, musicians and actors, and continued to attract artists in the twentieth century. Many members fought in World War I, including poets Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen and painters like the John and Paul Nash.

John Nash was in fact posted at the Tower of London in December 1915 and two letters survive in the Tate’s collections which he sent to his wife during his stay. While posted in London, Nash witnessed some of the terrible air raids on the city – the first-time aerial warfare had been used on a civilian population, with Zeppelin and other balloons concentrating their bombing raids on cities like London and Hull. During one raid of June 1917 a bomb landed in the Tower’s moat, narrowly missing the north-east corner of the Tower. New tactics had to be developed to counter this novel form of warfare and street lights were dimmed and guns, searchlights, observers and even aeroplanes were mobilised. Some members of Tower staff manned the anti-aircraft stations set up on Tower Bridge when not on shift in the fortress!  This was the first-time civilians would use London Underground stations for shelter too – a foretelling of more to come during the Blitz.

The North Bastion, seen from the moat, destroyed by a bomb, 5 November 1940, The Yeoman Warder Archive © Historic Royal Palaces

Despite all this, the Tower of London remained open to the public throughout the war, offering some sense of normality for civilians and soldiers alike. One visitor was Canadian soldier and artist W. G. Storm, who had moved to London to study and to pursue a career as an artist. In 1915 Storm enlisted in the Artist’s Rifles, later being commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 1/5th Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment. Before leaving for the Western Front, Storm visited both the Tower of London and Hampton Court Palace, and during these visits made beautiful oil paintings which record some of the ways in which people tried to maintain a sense of normality. Storm would sadly later be killed at the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, and one hopes that he had found some comfort in both his visits and his art.

William George Storm, The Byward Tower, Tower of London, 1916 © Historic Royal Palaces

The Second World War

It is one of the great tragedies of history that a second, even bloodier, global war broke out less than twenty years after the first had ended. During the Second World War the Tower was sadly closed to the public, as the city prepared for more air aids and the threat of invasion. Tower residents were issued with gas masks and steel helmets, and practised regular blackout drills. Plans were even made that if London was invaded the Tower would be used as a fortress to defend the city. Once again, many soldiers were stationed at the Tower, and the White Tower was equipped with a theatre and even a badminton court for entertaining the troops. In addition to these entertainments the Tower Armouries gave lectures on historic arms and armour, and the Yeoman Warders, who were of course all ex-service personnel, continued to give tours to their military guests. This much-needed rest and recuperation must have offered some welcome escape from the stresses of wartime life.

A Yeoman Warder giving a tour to a group of servicemen during the Second World War, The Yeoman Warder Archive © Historic Royal Palaces

The Tower was of course unable to escape the terrors of the Blitz, and suffered considerable damage from bombing. The East End of London was particularly hard hit from September 1940 to May 1941, and the Tower stood with its neighbours in facing these terrors. During strikes on the Tower several lives were lost, including that of a Yeoman Warder. In the end it was decided there were so many ‘holes’ in the Tower that it was impossible to do blackout effectively, so they took the decision simply to cut the power each evening. Those inhabitants patrolling the ramparts at night must have had an eerie glimpse into the life of the medieval guard keeping their section of the wall.

Allotments in the moat during the Second World War. Yeoman Warders can be seen ‘digging for victory’, The Yeoman Warder Archive © Historic Royal Palaces

More happily, the Tower was able to lead by example in the national “Dig for Victory” movement helping to keep the country fed. The Tower’s enormous moat was packed with a mass of allotments growing much-needed fruit and vegetables for the war effort. The moat had fortunately been drained in 19th century by the Duke of Wellington, hero of the Battle of Waterloo and then Constable of the Tower. The Duke, who considered the smelly moat a health hazard, could not have known quite how fortuitous this decision would prove! The moat was used not just for growing food during the war, but also hosted a barrage balloon, part of the cities air defences. This balloon was staffed by the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (known as WAAFs). This was just one of the many essential contributions of women during the war, and by mid-1943, almost 90% of single women and 80% of married women were working in industry, agriculture, or in the armed forces.

A barrage balloon in the West Moat during the Second World War, The Yeoman Warder Archive © Historic Royal Palaces

We’ll meet again

It is certainly inspiring to reflect on the fortitude and community spiritedness of our predecessors, who came together to face unimaginable times of hardship. However, we must also look at the incredible efforts of those around us today who demonstrate that the qualities of selflessness and resilience are far from lost. In a recent address, HM The Queen reflected: “The pride in who we are is not part of our past, it defines our present and our future”. With pride we can take courage from the actions of those amongst us now, and in return also play our part. Everyone can make a difference at this time, even in small ways, like caring for each other or waiting patiently at home as instructed. At Historic Royal Palaces we look forward to the time when we can welcome our visitors once again, and when we do so, we will surely appreciate each other even more for this period apart.

The Curators
Historic Royal Palaces

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