Experiences of WWI


On the 4th of August 1914 Britain declared war on Germany. The next four years of fighting, known as the First World War, had a huge impact on those sent to the battlefield, but also on the towns and cities, families and friends that they had left behind. Cambridge experienced food shortages, suspected spies, and air raid warnings. Explore how the lives of local people were changed forever by a war that asked so much of the men, women, and children of Cambridge.

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In 1887, the Member of Parliament for Cambridge, Penrose Fitzgerald, explained that Coldham’s Common was “much used for the purposes of recreation by the inhabitants, both poor and rich”. It was also recognised that “the Common is also largely used by the Volunteers, who form one of the first and most efficient battalions of Volunteers in the Kingdom. Their rifle butts are upon this Common.”

The area had been used as the University of Cambridge golf course since 1875, described by Bernard Daruiin as “the worst I have ever seen” in 1910. He recalled the bad smell that greeted players: “the way to Coldham was suggestive of the pleasures that awaited one there, for it led down that most depressing of Cambridge streets, the Newmarket Road, and through the most unattractive slums of Barnwell. After voyaging for some distance along the Newmarket Road, one turned down a particularly black and odorous lane… On arriving outside the precincts of the club-house one was at once surrounded and nearly swept from one’s legs by a yelling mob of caddies of most villainous appearance.”

Charles Tennyson, a member of the club, recalled how the rifle range would sometimes interfere with his game: “the only hazard beside the ditches, which were made to guard about one-third of the holes, was the town rifle-range. This ran down the middle of the course, and, when in use, constituted a very real danger, for at two or three holes an errant ball had often to be retrieved under rifle-fire occasionally supplemented by a machine-gun, the shells of which hurtled over one’s head with a kind of flapping hiss peculiarly disquieting to a man of peaceful temperament.”

These rifle butts, still evident on the eastern edge of the Common, reveal one part of Cambridge’s First World War history. They were used for the training of troops who would be sent to fight in the war against Germany, whilst the Common itself was a camp for soldiers on their way to the battlefields of Europe. Volunteer groups who had practiced their shooting skills on this spot for many years would form the 1st Battalion, The Cambridgeshire Regiment. These men, commended for bravery and suffering heavy losses, would serve France and Belgium from 1915 to 1919. Their most famous action was the capture of the Schwaben Redoubt in October 1916, described by Field Marshal Haig as “one of the finest feats of arms in the history of the British Army”. However, this achievement cost the Battalion 213 men killed or wounded.

The men that made up ‘the Cambs’ were from all across the county and from a wide range of jobs. Farm owners, lawyers, accountants, dentists, booksellers, builders, college fellows, magistrates, and architects were just a few of the professions represented. Many had well established family links with the earlier Volunteer Battalion that had used the Coldham’s Common rifle range. The war cost the lives of many of these young men, including the regiment’s first casualty Corporal Noble Dewey who was killed in France on 4th March 1915. In a final letter to his mother, Dewey sounded in high spirits: “We are in sound of the guns. I suppose I shall be there in a few days. Many thanks for the sweets, they are very scarce about here. It is still very cold, but we have got plenty of straw, so we sleep warm. You ought to see us in our skin coats. We look like a lot of teddy bears.”

As men like Noble Dewey were fighting on the continent, the city of Cambridge underwent a wartime transformation. Tensions were high and German residents, such as Frederick Frank who owned a butcher shop in nearby Peterborough, were attacked. Pacifists, who believed that the war was wrong, campaigned against the fighting and were also attacked. One Cambridge resident was even sentenced to three months of hard labour for telling locals not to join the army.  In February 1915, perhaps resulting from the creation of lots of new war factories in Cambridge, a suspected spy was arrested by soldiers on Mill Road. The local press even imagined what a German invasion of Cambridge would be like: “The University Library, Senate House & Kings College Chapel would be fired, shell-fire would rake the range of colleges along the Backs and the University labs razed to the ground; the Mayor and Vice Chancellor, ministers of religion and editors of newspapers would be lined up and shot, male inhabitants herded into compounds and women and children driven out."

Whilst never suffering such horrors, the war did change the city and the lives of its inhabitants. In January 1915 a blackout was introduced between the hours of 5pm and 7:30am, aiming to protect Cambridge from the threat of Zeppelin airship bombing. The alarm did sound once in October 1917, but the city was never attacked.

With men called up to the front, the women of Cambridge took on the responsibility of new, unfamiliar occupations. This included supporting the war effort by working in factories, as well as through other more regular pursuits such as Cambridge’s first ‘postwoman’ who set off on her rounds in December 1915. Newcomers, including a number of Belgian refugees, were given homes in the city, whilst hospitals were expanded to deal with the increasing numbers of wounded men returning from battle. Food shortages worsened as the war dragged into its third and fourth years, with local butchers shutting down due to the shortage of meat. Young boys and girls were sent to shops to queue for hours for basic goods such as potatoes, whilst others joined the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides to offer help in their local community.

When the war was over the bells of Great St Mary’s rang out across the city and local citizens rejoiced. The Roll of honour at Cambridge Guildhall names the 1,414 local men who lost their lives in battle, a sacrifice that the city has never forgotten. The residents of Cambridge experienced violence and hunger during the First World War, whilst local women and children had to take on lots of new responsibilities. 

Discover More


Cambridge and the Great War Walking and Cycling Map- 100* Great War 14-18 Booklet- Cambridgeshire Country Council

Ride Between the Lines The Guided Busway-100* Great War 14-18 Booklet- Cambridgeshire Country Council


 Coldham’s Common (site of WWI rifle range)

Mill Road Cemetery WWI graves http://millroadcemetery.org.uk/?s=world+war+one


World War One at Home Programmes http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01nhwgx

Experiences of WWI


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