Lessons still to learn from the First World War

Malcolm Doolin

Malcolm Doolin, who is organising the First World War Open Day in Walthamstow this Saturday

An upcoming open day in Walthamstow will highlight the events of 100 years ago, writes Graham Millington 

Local author and historian Malcolm Doolin wants to set the record straight. He is concerned that many people’s knowledge of the First World War is shaped by the war poets, by descriptions of the disastrous Battle of the Somme and TV programmes such as Blackadder, which although excellent entertainment, should not be seen as factual.

Malcolm explains: “There are many myths about the war that are now taken as fact and these should be challenged. We need to be clear about what actually happened so that we are better prepared to stop it happening again.”

Consequently, on 6th May, Malcolm is organising a ‘First World War Open Day’ which will take place at Vestry House Museum and St Mary’s Church, in Walthamstow Village. The event is co-sponsored by the museum and the east London branch of the Western Front Association and supported by several local historical groups. It promises to be both a prestigious and informative occasion.

A pleasing touch is that visitors will be welcome to view the war memorials within the inspiring St Mary’s Church – situated next door to the museum – and then take a moment to reflect on the events of 1914-18.

Malcolm is thrilled by the interest generated. “It has grown and grown with many organisations and individuals keen to take part. It is clear that interest in the ‘Great War’ remains considerable.”

Jack Cornwell commemoration

The unveiling last year of a memorial in Coronation Gardens to Jack Cornwell, a Leyton lad who became one of the youngest people to be awarded the Victoria Cross

Indeed the Walthamstow and Leyton area is of some significance in regard to the war. The first Zeppelin raids on London bombed Leyton and Leytonstone; while Leyton lad Jack Cornwell at age 16 became the third youngest recipient of the Victoria Cross. A permanent tribute to Jack was unveiled at Coronation Gardens just last year.

Furthermore, one of the men who filmed the ground-breaking documentary Battle of the Somme, John McDowell, worked locally, as did artist Haydn Mackey, whose work hangs in the Imperial War Museum.

More recently, at Southwark Theatre, a play called The Greater Game told the story of how the football players of Clapton Orient (now Leyton Orient) volunteered to fight as part of the ‘footballers battalion’.

Neil Pearce, chairperson of the local branch of the Western Front Association, set up the group in 2014 together with his partner Sally, Chris Daughters, and Chris Hunt. Together they have watched the membership grow to 150 and the monthly meetings regularly attract distinguished historians and authors who provide expert knowledge on many aspects of the war. They also organise relevant theatre and museum trips and visits to the actual battlefields in France.

The group is based at the Walthamstow Cricket, Tennis and Squash Club and meets on the third Thursday of every month. It is one of 53 groups nationally which together boast a total membership of around 6,500. Their aim is to perpetuate the memory of those who fought on both sides of the conflict. The association is fiercely a-political and rejects the notion that it ‘glorifies war’.

Neil agrees with Malcolm about the need to challenge the myths and cites one of the groups’ recent speakers, Catherine Corns, who wrote Blindfold and Alone, a book telling how 351 soldiers were executed by their own army during the war. Neil said: “Catherine suggested that many people seem to believe that soldiers accused of desertion were only given a perfunctory trial before being shot.

“However, her research shows that only ten percent of the three thousand men condemned to death were actually executed and the court marshals were carried out with due process most of the time. There were instances of injustice but these were the exceptions not the rule.”

For Malcolm this is a good example of why his work should continue: “It must always be better to know the truth rather than the myth, and this is what our open day is all about.”

Visitors on 6th May will be able to explore many of the museum’s wonderful exhibits and archives and hear from a range of national and local speakers describing how the war affected the local area. First World War experts will be on hand to answer questions and to offer practical advice on tracing ancestors online, undertaking research and collecting war memorabilia. It will also be possible to have medals ‘valued’ and listen to music from the period.

An added dimension will be offered by First World War reenactors who will be dressed in the appropriate uniform and will explain and demonstrate what it was like to be a ‘Tommy’ in the trenches. Members from the Royal British Legion, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Royal Fusiliers will also be contributing on the day.


The First World War Open Day is being held at Vestry House Museum and St Mary’s Church, Walthamstow Village, on Saturday 6th May from 10am until 5pm. Admission is free. For more information:

Email malcolm@astraeducation.com

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