Saturday 11th November 2023 marks 105 years since the end of the First World War. A day of remembrance and reflection on the immense sacrifices made by soldiers and their dedication to protecting our country. Among them, over 6,300 men from Cornwall died during combat, leaving a legacy of courage and resilience. Their stories and sacrifices continue to shape Cornwall's identity and remind us of the far-reaching impact that the war had on our local communities.
World War One had a profound impact on Cornwall, its influence stretching far beyond the battlefield, as it transformed some of Cornwall’s most iconic locations and etched its history across the landscape, from the land to the sea. As we commemorate this somber anniversary, we look back at Cornwall's connections to World War One.
Throughout Cornwall, iconic locations were transformed to serve crucial wartime operations. To the east, Pendennis Castle, known for it’s rich history spanning centuries, was repurposed as Defenders Port and Pendennis it’s military grounds. In the western region, Bodmin Jail, infamous for its grim history, housed some of Britain’s most precious national treasures, including the Domesday Book and the Crown Jewels, offering protection during a time of great uncertainty. Even Cornwall’s capital, Truro underwent a transformation into a wartime administration hub where government offices and institutes worked at full capacity and coordinated various aspects of the war effort.
While Cornwall became a hub of military activity, thousands of people also left Cornwall and went to war, leaving communities bare and locations unmanaged. The Lost Gardens of Heligan, once a flourishing estate, faced a dramatic transformation during this period. The entire workforce from Heligan Gardens departed to contribute to the war efforts, with only four returning. The war’s outbreak marked the start of the estate’s decline. The garden grew unkempt, neglected and eventually abandoned.
The Gardens remained hidden until 1990 when Tim Smit, who would later help establish the Eden Project, and John Willis, who had inherited the land, wanted to see what damage Cornwall’s Great Storm of 1990 had done on the land. They discovered a garden shrouded in a green veil of bramble and ivy, obscuring its expansive garden and structures, lost to sight. Amongst the overgrown greenery Tim and John found a thunderbox room, or a lavatory, adorned with the message “Don’t come here to sleep or slumber,” beneath which were the signatures of the gardeners who had left for the war in August 1914. Now The Lost Gardens of Heligan is considered a First World War “living memorial”, reclaiming its heritage and honouring the sacrifices made by its workforce.
Perhaps, one of the most interesting connections Cornwall has to the war is through its mining heritage. Cornwall’s mining history played a crucial role in supporting the war effort, offering invaluable resources for the conflict. With a long-established mining industry and rich deposit of essential minerals, Cornwall was able to provide essential resources for the conflict, including tin and copper, which was crucial for the manufacturing of weaponry and ammunition. Many mines that had previously been abandoned or deemed unprofitable were reponed to meet the pressing wartime needs.
The expertise of Cornish miners extended far beyond Cornwall’s borders. Their knowledge of underground mining became an invaluable asset during World War One and their skills were in high demand on the battlefield. Hundreds of Cornish miners served in World War One and used their expertise to help tunnel beneath enemy lines, creating underground passages for the military, while their experience of working with explosives in the mines contributed to the development of explosives and ammunition for military use.
While Cornwall's historical sites and mining heritage played crucial roles in supporting the war effort on land, the region's coastline would also emerge as a pivotal battleground. With it’s strategic exposure to the sea, Cornwall’s coastline played a significant role in the conflict. To the West, St Michael’s Mount served as a military training ground and an observation post. It’s strategic location allowed for surveillance of coastal areas and monitoring of potential enemy movements. To the South, Land’s End was transformed into a defensive zone during World War One. It’s cliffs and headlands were used for lookout posts and coastal defences to guard against potential enemy incursions. Further up the south coast, Falmouth docks, with its deep-water harbour became a hub for servicing naval vessels and facilitating troop deployment for the British Royal Navy.
In 1914 the Royal Navy stood as the largest naval force in the world, and this superiority led the Germans to avoid open sea battles. Instead, they turned their attention to vessels, using their notorious U-boats to target merchant ships. The seas surrounding Cornwall transformed into a perilous war zone, where hundreds of ships fell victim to U-boat attacks and thousands of seamen lost their lives.
To counter the U-boat threat, a clever strategy was hatched involving the use of decoy ships. These “decoy ships” were merchant vessels equipped with concealed guns. By appearing unarmed, they lured U-boats to the surface, exposing their positions and allowing the decoy ships to open fire. This tactical system played a crucial role in safeguarding vital supply routes and ensuring the transportation of troops, equipment and resources. Maintaining these supply lines was essential for the Allies' success in World War One.
Today, memorials throughout Cornwall recognise acts of bravery, mark key locations and act as poignant reminders of all that lost their lives during wars and conflicts. Remnants of the war still linger throughout Cornwall, from the haunting remnants of U-Boats and shipwrecks off the south coast, to traces of military operations, such as defensive posts along the coastline. These remains serve as a poignant reminder of the hardship and sacrifices made by countless individuals both on the home front and the battlefield.
This Sunday, consider attending one of the many Remembrance Day services held throughout Cornwall, such as the Royal British Legion Service of Remembrance at Truro Cathedral. It's an opportunity to pay respects, reflect and remember the heores that shaped the course of history. For those eager to delve deeper into Cornwall's military history, a visit to Bodmin Keep will give you a glimpse into Cornwall wartime legacy through artifacts, photographs and personal accounts.
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