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First World War at Sea conference

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The First World War at Sea conference: Conflict, Culture and Commemoration took place 8-10 November at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Working in partnership with Gateways to the First World War, an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded centre, it’s aim was to explore the conflict at sea through a wide range of themes. There was a focus on both the Royal Navy and the merchant marine, as well as placing the experience of the maritime war within the historical context of the years preceding and following the conflict.

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The conference spanned over 3 days with such diverse talks as the use of Lord Nelson and Trafalgar Day for propaganda purposes to the underappreciated contribution the theatre ship SS Gourko made to the morale of sailors based at Scapa Flow.

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Speakers from as far away as Australia discussed the global consequences of the conflict and the context of commemoration in countries who took part and those that maintained a neutral status.

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The U.S. Naval War College presented a Battle of Jutland war game on the floor of the Queens House on the first evening, using the original methods and gaming equipment to demonstrate how American naval officers interpreted the lessons of the battle. Attendees were given the chance to form their own strategy and participate in these ‘war game’ experiments.

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In this the year of the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, it was exciting to hear about the experiences of women at war from those who served in the Wrens and the U.S. Navy to the laundresses on board cruise ships sailing during WWI. The role of maritime archaeology in exploring wrecks around the coast of Britain and how this information is shedding light on the documentary material highlights how much more can be discovered in this field.

National Museums NI was presenting through their collaborative work with the Living Legacies 1914-18 engagement centre on an archive of paper ephemera recently donated to our collection. This archive consists of hundreds of letters that were sent to local officer Bredin Delap during his time in the Royal Navy from 1913 to 1923 providing a vital link to the experiences of sailors during WWI. We have undertaken a project to piece together his naval career through ship communications, naval training manuals, photographs and diaries.

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The Delap family have given us the opportunity to delve deeper, allowing us to 3D scan personal items, including his uniform as well as giving permission for students to study the letters from family and friends. Through these exchanges we are able to gain personal insights into issues surrounding the aftermath of war from the difficulty in finding employment to emigration.

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Bredin was the eldest son of eight children, born in 1895 in Lifford near Strabane, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland. He began his career in the Navy on the 15th September 1913 at the age of 18.

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A family story told of Bredin, serving at the Battle of Jutland, had had to take over command of the ship after the captain had become incapacitated. This dramatic story was an exciting part of Bredins story but further research into his naval files revealed that this was not the case. Although the truth was less dramatic, it also highlights an interesting narrative surrounding the pressure returning military personnel felt to say they were involved in the larger battles to maybe justify their role or make their contribution appear more significant. As a 20 year old Sub-Lieutenant, he probably repeated some of the tales he was hearing about the battle to family and friends and it’s easy to imagine some of them getting the wrong end of the stick.

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As well as giving us an insight into Bredin’s life, these letters are also a valuable primary source for general events during the Decade of Centenaries, an important time in Northern Ireland’s history between 1912 and 1922, when events such as the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme took place. This archive also provides us with first-hand accounts from people who fought in the trenches and their experience of the conflict.

‘he was buried by shells twice in the trenches and is now on light duty. He said the bombardment was terrible and I don’t think he will ever be able to face it’

Post-war Bredin retired himself from the Navy as the prospect of him gaining promotion appeared unlikely. He eventually found a job on the cable ships laying cable across the Atlantic. He went on to marry and have two daughters and the family emigrated to Canada where he died at the age of 75 from tuberculosis. It is clear from these letters that he had a very close relationship with all of his family no matter how scattered across the globe they were. Little did he know the value of these pieces of paper and how they will allow the museum to engage visitors and provide them with a new perspective on what is considered a familiar subject.

A personal archive such as Bredin’s helps us to engage people with the war’s deeper social history and look beyond its military aspects and operations. This is just the beginning of exploring this archive in greater detail and it is hoped more will be revealed about this remarkable family and the events they lived through. Presenting this new material at the ‘War at Sea’ conference at the National Maritime Museum conference demonstrates the importance of the human stories that lie behind the naval conflicts of WW1, and also highlights, importantly, the particular effects the naval war had on those living in Ireland at this time. For their experience of naval warfare was, after all, quite a different compared to those living in Great Britain, a point underlined by looking at the Bredin story.