THE letters pages of newspapers can often be most enlightening – both now and in the past. The letters printed there can often give some sense of what many ordinary people were thinking.

I don’t know exactly what the censorship situation was during the years of the Great War but I suspect that they were slacker than they would if we were involved in any similar crisis today.

I often find that if you can learn a lot about any historical situation by scanning through the bits and pieces appearing in the papers of the day.

I was scanning a page of The Workington Star & Harrington Guardian from May 12, 1916. This was almost half way through the Great War of 1914-18 (I make no apologies for stating what many of you would consider to be common knowledge but from what I gather from conversations with some younger people, I am often amazed at what some people don’t know – but then I am often surprised, on occasions, by what I often don’t know about the past, be it significant or trivial).

The paper carried a letter from someone who wished to be known as “Equal Service”. Readers of earlier papers will know that the use of pseudonyms was quite common in earlier years – all very frustrating and annoying for the reader.

The letter was headed: “Should women be conscripted?” At a time when men had only just been required to sign up for duty in the armed forces, this was a pretty revolutionary idea. The writer argued that with so many men going of to war there was a need for labour to fill their places. To quote: “That the hordes of women of all classes who are now more or less uselessly employed should be conscripted for agricultural and industrial services at home.”

He cited the case of national newspapers praising the activities of women who manufactured munitions and were better workers than “Trade Union slackers”. He argued that if “ordinary work girls” could do so well, then employing all middle class and aristocratic women would be “an equal success”.

He was all for the passing of a Female Conscription Bill. So did this letter bring about any public response? As yet I don’t know – I am quoting from a tattered single page remnant of the Workington Star so I must go and search through the microfilm files for that month.

The war had a significant effect locally on most people’s lives after the passing, on April 14 1916, of the Defence of the Realm (Consolidation) Regulations. This required all shopkeepers and property owners to “shade or obscure their lighting” – to use blackout, as we would later have known it. One of the first cases being dealt with by the magistrates was the occupier of a house in Moss Bay Road in which light was showing in back windows, upstairs and down – on April 19. Six people were summonsed for similar offences even though, according to Inspector Hutchinson, they all had been warned.

The defendants were each fined ten shillings, although they were told that they could each have been fined £100 with a possible six months in prison. As these were the first six cases in Workington, they were dealt with very leniently. I wonder if any subsequent offender got off so lightly?

Collecting money from the members of the public to buy cigarettes and tobacco for the lads in the trenches is something I have dealt with in previous years. But I admit to being a trifle surprised by a letter which appeared in The Whitehaven News in August 1915 from Gertrude Smith, of Inkerman Terrace, Whitehaven. She was asking readers of the paper to send her any old spectacles they might have had lying around and doing nothing. So what did she want with theseold spectacles?

To quote from a letter of July 1915: “Spectacles are urgently needed to protect the eyes of soldiers serving in Egypt and at the Dardanelles from the hot sun, sand and dust and the ceaseless attacks of countless flies.… Any coloured or smoke-tinted spectacles, old bicycle or motor goggles will be most acceptable.”

At that time, a pair of spectacles cost one shilling, so cash donations would have been gratefully received to help buy new spectacles to send off for the use of members of the Border Regiment at the Dardanelles. Some 200 pairs of spectacles had already been sent out, but more were needed.

The more I learn about the Great War, the more I understand why most of the veterans of that war never wanted to talk about it.