At the mouth of hell…


Our new show Seeing It Through, about life on the home front in East Herts during the First World War, is now scheduled for Saturday 15 November 2014, at Hertford Theatre Studio.

When I started this project, I had no real idea of what daily life was like in England in that time, in contrast to the vivid and grim picture we have of life for soldiers in the trenches. There’s a vague sense that back in England the gilded Edwardian age was suddenly blighted by the loss of its young men, but otherwise things carried on.

I’m discovering that people at home wrestled with some huge changes. Some they debated and agonised over – should there be conscription? Was it right for women to work on the land? Other devastating blows literally fell on them out of the sky. Zeppelins loom very large in the wartime experience of this corner of Hertfordshire. Many people, including children, were killed in air raids. We are collecting eyewitness accounts of them for Seeing It Through. It’s not clear why Hertford and Ware suffered so much – they were hardly strategic targets. Many of the bombs were probably dropped by mistake: it is thought the Zepps navigated by rivers and one theory is they mistook the little River Lea for the Thames (!).

Hertford’s worst experience was the night of 13 October 1915, when a dozen people were killed. One household which miraculously survived the night was that of Annie Swan, a great character who will definitely figure in our drama. She was a novelist, journalist and one-woman powerhouse who did huge amounts for people’s welfare during the war, as did her daughter Effie. Her husband was a GP. He was out doing his rounds when eight bombs were dropped on their house on North Road Hertford. Amazingly, everyone got out alive.

This is how Annie Swan describes it in a letter:

“The house is entirely destroyed and about half our stuff. There were many marvellous escapes among it, as well as of us. For instance our after-dinner tea poured out in the library was not spilled, though most of the furniture was upside down.
It was an awful experience. I really felt that we were at the mouth of hell. Eight bombs fell, 3 on house and 5 on garden – only the poor cats were killed sleeping in their chairs when the kitchen was blown up. While the bombs were raining on us where we stood on the terrace Effie said quite simply, “Mummy do you think this will be the one”? But God did not take us yet. There must be more to do.”

Annie and Effie had already been working in France, near the front line. They hadn’t expected to have the war visited on them at home.