The Tower of London & the World Wars

By Alfred Hawkins
Assistant Curator of Historic Buildings for the Tower of London
20 April 2022

As we gradually come to the end of the construction phase for Superbloom, we have started assessing some of the 200 artefacts we recovered. Each of these artefacts tell a different story and over the next few months I will be talking to you about how they relate to the different phases of the Tower of London’s history and the stories they represent.

 

Photographs of artefacts
London over the summer of 2014 to form a major art installation marking the centenary of the First World War. The red ceramic poppies pool out into Tower Moat.

If you have been following our blogs, you will know that the moat has performed many roles as the old fortress has evolved throughout the centuries. Indeed, some of the most interesting periods of its history can be found in the more recent past. One of these fascinating periods is the Tower’s role during the First World War (1914-1918) and Second World War (1939-1945). This history was remembered in 2014 and 2018 with the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red (Poppies) and Beyond the Deepening Shadow (Torches) installations which commemorated the centenary of the beginning and end of the First World War.

Throughout these devastating conflicts the moat, as the largest open space at the Tower, was put to use as part of the national war effort. It was used as a training ground, recruitment station, stable, hospital and allotments while the fortress itself was maintained as a visitor attraction throughout both conflicts. Each of these uses represent the evolving nature of the fortress, providing a symbol of resilience and fortitude in the heart of London for almost 1000 years.

Yeoman Warder Clark giving a guided tour to a group of servicemen near the ruins of the Main Guard. The Wakefield Tower and Tower Bridge can be seen.

We know that many regiments trained in the moat before being sent overseas and during the construction phase of Superbloom we found physical evidence for this through a large collection of military buttons and cap badges. These physical reminders of the presence of these regiments at the Tower help us document not only the fortress’s role in the conflict, but the journeys these men would have made. In total, we found evidence for 6 individual regiments (the Coldstream Guards, Grenadier Guards, Royal Fusiliers, Scots Guards, Lovat Scouts and Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry) alongside many general service buttons and one which had travelled all the way from Canada.

One terrible feature of both wars, particularly the Second World War, was the indiscriminate bombing of cities on both sides, in which many civilians lost their lives. These bombing campaigns resulted in the destruction of the North Bastion in 1940, a tower which was located on the outer walls of the fortress. In order to better defend against these forms of attack, many anti-aircraft positions were set up throughout London. These measures included barrage balloons being stationed in the western moat and an anti-aircraft gun emplacement on Tower Bridge. The latter of these sought to bring down German aircraft by firing explosive munitions which damaged planes through piercing them with shrapnel or ‘flak’ – many fragments of this flak landed in the moat and were recovered during our work.

Black and white photograph of the North Bastion destroyed by a bomb on 5 October 1940.

Each of these finds serve as a poignant reminder of both world wars and the suffering inflicted on so many. While none of these artefacts can be tied to any one individual, they collectively show some small aspects and experiences of those individuals who passed through the Tower’s walls. It is through this incremental process that we can piece together the stories of the past and preserve them for the future.

School pupils in their classroom

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