As 2014 is the centenary of the beginning of the First World War, I decided to write the following article which concentrates on the happenings at home, rather than the carnage abroad. It was a time of shortages and hardship for many, and sadly, not 'the war to end all wars', as it was known.

Life in the Pre-War Era

For many working class families, life was hard in the early part of the twentieth century, and expectations were low. People worked long hours for low wages, and lived in poor and overcrowded housing. Skilled men could earn up to thirty shillings a week, and unskilled men could expect to earn no more than twenty shillings a week. Trades unions were becoming increasingly militant, and strikes happened frequently. In 1913 a strike of engineering workers lasted over two months, in an attempt to raise the minimum wage for unskilled workers to twenty three shillings a week. There were also strikes on the railways, and in the coal mines, not forgetting the great unrest at Wednesbury when the tube makers downed-tools.

Food was expensive, so much so that some families spent sixty percent of their income on it, and malnutrition amongst children became commonplace. Due to the harder and more stressful living conditions, and the lack of modern medical care, life expectancy was much shorter than today, being around fifty years for men, and fifty four years for women.

The turn of the twentieth century saw the dawn of the welfare state, but only in a modest way. In 1909 the first old age pensions were paid to people over the age of 70. They were entitled to five shillings a week. Two years later the 1911 National Insurance Act was passed to provide sickness and unemployment benefit for people. The scheme was compulsory for all wage earners between the ages of sixteen and seventy. They had to contribute four pence a week to the scheme, which was supplemented by an additional three pence from the employer, and two pence from the state. In return, workers received free medical attention and medicine, and were paid 10 shillings a week for the first 13 weeks, and 5 shillings a week for the next 13 weeks. Unemployment benefit consisted of seven shillings a week, beginning after the first week of unemployment, and lasting for fifteen weeks in any single year. It was paid at labour exchanges, which first appeared in 1910.

For many years Britain had been the dominant economic power in Europe, but by 1914 Britain was being outperformed by Germany, which had previously been an important customer for many of our largest industries. As Germany’s industries flourished, British exports suffered, and some industries began to decline.

Old Wolverhampton - oblivious to what lay ahead. From an old postcard.

Causes of the War

For some years imperialism had grown in most of the major European countries, which meant that at some time, the outbreak war was almost inevitable. It officially began on 28th July, 1914 with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, who were shot dead in Sarajevo, by Gavrilo Princip, one of a group of six Bosnian Serb assassins. After the assassination, Austria-Hungary delivered an ultimatum to the Kingdom of Serbia and prepared to invade. At the time there were two groups of allies in Europe: The Allied Forces consisting of France, United Kingdom, and Russia; and The Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary.

Britain had a treaty with Belgium, and so declared war with Germany when the German army invaded Belgium and Luxembourg, on its way to France. Soon all the major European powers were involved in the war, which within a few years, also involved many other countries throughout the world.

When Britain declared war on 4th August, 1914, celebrations were held throughout the country. Most people believed it would be a quick and simple affair that would be over by Christmas. Patriotism was high, and large numbers of men rushed to join the forces to answer the call to arms. The government wanted 100,000 volunteers and began a large recruitment campaign which bombarded the public with posters. This was so successful that within a month 750,000 people had volunteered.

Sadly it was not to be a quick affair. As the German troops entered France, the French and British troops moved northwards to meet them, and the massive armies dug-in, starting the terrible trench warfare which would last for four years.

Wolverhampton in 1914, that Fateful Year

June 1914 was hot and dry, war seemed far away. On 25th July an article in the Express & Star stated that Britain and France were not interested in the problems in Europe, and were appealing for moderation.

Within a few days the headlines changed, and people began to realise the seriousness of the situation. On 2nd August the headlines changed to ‘Germany declares war against Russia’.

It was stated the next day that Britain’s only involvement would be naval and that troops would not be used, but two days later, after the declaration of war, the main headline was ‘England at war’.

All German subjects had to immediately report to the Chief Constable’s office in the Town Hall, as can be seen on the poster opposite, and panic buying began in the shops, leading to many price rises.

By the second week in August, volunteers were sought to take part in the war.

As part of Lord Kitchener’s call to arms, Hon. Colonel T. E. Hickman (later Brigadier-general)formed a new battalion of volunteers to go into service with the South Staffordshire Regiment. Participants had to be male, between 19 and 30 years of age, and were asked to bring another possible volunteer with them.

Lord Kitchener’s appeal using the slogan ‘Your King and Country needs you’ led to many volunteers. One hundred thousand men were needed immediately, to go to the front for a war that would be over by Christmas. Even so, they had to enlist for three years, and for the duration of the war. Men who didn’t enlist were under a lot of pressure to do so, and those who enlisted had no idea what they were letting themselves in for.

In August, Parliament Passed the Defence of the Realm Act which gave the government a range of new powers to prevent anyone assisting or communicating with the enemy. The press was censored, to keep-up people’s morale, and plans were made to ensure that scarce resources were correctly used.

Brigadier-General T. E. Hickman, C.B., D.S.O., M.P.

Major T. E. Lowe of the South Staffordshire Regiment.
Lieut.-Col. H. H. C. Dent of the 3rd North Midland Field Ambulance.

The Admiralty and the Army Council were given powers to take-over any factory or workshop for the production of arms, ammunition, or products for the war-effort. Within twelve months the shortage of munitions led to the government setting-up its own arms factories, and eventually taking over the vitally important coal industry.

On 5th October a civic farewell was given at St. Peter’s Church for the 6th Battalion of the South Staffordshire Regiment as it left for war. During the next twelve months the battalion would sustain heavy losses.

Much pressure was put on anyone considered to be a potential recruit. It was impossible to escape from the recruitment drive.

Major W. Pearson, Regular Army and Special Reserve Recruiting Officer.
F. Carr, Acting Commandant, Wolverhampton Rifle Corps.
By the end of the year The Wolverhampton and District Recruiting Committee had been formed, and recruiting techniques were developed.

The committee, which consisted of teachers, clergymen, political agents, and members of various societies, visited every man between the age of 18 and 40 to explain the necessity of going to war, and to encourage enlistment.

Lady committee members visited men’s wives while they were at work to stress that their husbands should join-up. A man and a woman would then call on the family in the evening to try and persuade the man to enlist. Talks were given at factories during the lunch hour, and everything was done to assist the recruitment drive. Skilled recruits received 9s.11d. per week, unskilled recruits received 8s.9d. per week, with a separation allowance for married men of 12s.6d., plus 2s.6d. for each child.

The committee's duties included assisting local regiments to obtain recruits, and looking after them until they moved into barracks, or went to war.

Midland Evening News, 1st September, 1914.
Anyone involved with any of the local political parties was asked to assist in canvassing, and the name and address of every single man between the ages of 18 and 40 was obtained, along with the details of every married man that was capable of joining-up.

The committee also recorded the name of every man who had military experience. When necessary the committee would house, clothe, equip, look after training, and feed recruits. Every shopkeeper was invited to display a recruitment poster in their shop window, which could be obtained free of charge from the committee. Posters were also put on lamp posts, which gave the address of the recruiting office.

Marches of scouts, girl guides and men in khaki uniforms were organised, and three or four men in khaki uniforms were stationed in the following streets each evening, to persuade likely recruits to enlist:

Darlington Street, Victoria Street, Dudley Street, Lichfield Street, Tettenhall Road, Queen Square, Worcester Street, Snow Hill, Five Ways, Willenhall market place, Darlaston market place, Bilston market place, and Brierley Hill market place.

Open air meetings were held, and cinemas displayed an army recruitment film. Clergymen were asked to mention the need for recruits during church services, and prizes were given to those who brought-in the largest number of recruits.

Roll of honour cards were displayed on the houses of those enlisted, some of whom had to wait a short while before joining the forces. During that time they joined route marches and assisted in the recruitment campaign.

The recruiting drive continued apace. Between December 1914 and the end of January 1915 there were 1,500 local volunteers, but still more were needed.

The names of volunteers were displayed in local newspapers to add even more pressure to potential recruits. In February there was a mass recruiting meeting, and a torchlight procession, and in May a special recruiting week.

Although around 12,000 locals had been recruited, it was still not enough. The futility of the stand-off between the vast armies meant that large numbers of people were killed or wounded, and enormous numbers of men were needed at the front.

In the autumn of 1915 Lord Derby headed a campaign which resulted in around 300,000 new recruits, but it was still not enough to meet the needs of the army. In January 1916 the prime minister, Herbert Asquith, introduced conscription for all single men aged between eighteen and forty, which was seen as the only way to get all of the troops that were needed.

By 1915 people began to realise that some skilled men were still needed at home. All the local factories worked flat-out producing vital war work and armaments for the armed forces, but initially suffered because of the shortage of skilled men. The factories could not operate without them and so applications were invited for the reservation of skilled men. For the first time, women were allowed to work in some of the more physically demanding factory jobs which had previously been considered to be only suitable for men. Women also kept many of the essential services in operation including trams, the railways, and our farms. They also worked in munitions factories.

The vast range of Wolverhampton-made products for military use included the following: The Sunbeam Motor Car Company Limited produced military staff cars, ambulances, aircraft, and aero engines. Clyno produced machine gun carriers, ammunition carriers, and aero engines. A.J.S. built military motorcycles, machine gun carriers, ammunition carriers and light ambulances. Guy Motors built 30 cwt. military lorries, aero engines, tank engines, and depth charge firing mechanisms. Star produced aero engines, ambulances, vehicles for use as Marconi portable wireless stations, 50 cwt military lorries, aircraft wings, and parts for mines. Villiers produced ammunition, including shell fuses. Hobsons made carburettors for aero engines.

Clyno machine gun carriers at the front.


Dragonfly aero engines in production at Clyno.

In 1915 the Germans declared an official naval blockade of Britain, and threatened to sink any ships sailing into British ports. The Americans immediately objected because many of their cargo ships sailed here, and the blockade was cancelled. Two years later it was reinstated, which caused the Americans to enter the war.

The blockade by the German U-boats led to food shortages, rising prices, and long queues at the shops. Both sugar and wheat were in short supply. Due to the shortage of wheat, the Ministry of Supply recommended that 20lb. of potatoes should be added to every 280lb. sack of flour.

Zeppelin Raids

In 1916 there were Zeppelin Raids over parts of the Black Country including Tipton, Bradley, Wednesbury, and Walsall.

From the Express & Star, Wednesday 2nd February, 1916:




Press Bureau, 6 p.m. Tuesday night.  The War Office issues the following publication:

The air raid of last night was attempted on an extensive scale, but it appears that the raiders were hampered by thick mist. After crossing the coast the Zeppelins steered various courses, and dropped bombs at several towns, and in rural districts, in:

Derbyshire,  Leicestershire,  Lincolnshire,  Staffordshire.

Some damage to property was caused. No accurate reports were received until a very late hour. The casualties notified up to the time of issuing this statement amount to:

Killed --------------------- 54
Injured -------------------- 67

Further reports of Monday night’s air raid show that the enemy’s air attack covered a larger area than on any previous occasion. Bombs were dropped in:

Derbyshire,  Leicestershire,  Lincolnshire,  Norfolk,  Suffolk,  Staffordshire.

The number of bombs being estimated at 220. Except in one part of Staffordshire the material damage was not considerable, and in no case was any military damage caused.

No further casualties have been reported, and the figures remain as 54 killed, 67 injured.

At Tipton, during the frosty and foggy night of 31st January, around eight o’clock in the evening, three bombs were dropped on Waterloo Street and Union Street, where two houses were destroyed and a gas main set alight. Fourteen people were killed, five men, five women, and four children. The airship then flew over Bloomfield Road and Barnfield Road, dropping three incendiary bombs on the way.

At Bradley bombs were dropped over the canal where a young courting couple had gone for a stroll. One of the bombs exploded close to them, killing William Fellows outright. His partner Maud Fellows (not related to William) was mortally wounded and died just over a week later at the Wolverhampton and Staffordshire General Hospital. Maud, who was 24 years old worked in a Bilston butcher’s shop and lived at 45 Daisy Street, Bradley. William, aged 23, worked as a stoker and lived in Castle Street, Coseley.

In Wednesbury bombs were dropped around King Street and on Russell’s Crown Tube Works that stood between the High Bullen and King Street, setting the huge factory alight. Its burnt-out shell remained until the 1960s. In King Street one of the houses was completely destroyed, killing the four occupants, who were Joseph Smith and his three children. Joseph’s wife survived because she left the house to investigate the cause of a loud noise, which had been the bombs falling on the factory. Luckily the explosions had fractured a gas main, cutting off the street lights, which plunged the town centre into darkness.

In Walsall a bomb fell on Wednesbury Road Congregational Church, badly damaging the main part of the building. Unfortunately a passer-by, Mr. Thomas Merrylees was instantly killed by a piece of flying masonry. A short time later an incendiary bomb fell on the grounds of the General Hospital and was quickly extinguished by a passing policeman.

Early in February 1916 Beatties advertised blackout materials.

Several other bombs were dropped including one that fell on Bradford Place, killing two people, and injuring several others, including Walsall’s Lady Mayoress, 55 years old Mary Julia Slater, who died from her injuries, three weeks later in the local hospital.

The Later War Years

On 1st July, 1916 the 4th Battalion of the Staffordshire Volunteer Regiment was formed.

In February 1918, the continuing shortages led to the introduction of food rationing. The weekly ration for each person included 15 oz of meat, 5 oz of bacon, and 4 oz of butter or margarine.
Even horses were rationed. Horse owners had to keep a record of the horses in their possession, the quantity of food fed to each of them, and a description of all food purchased. The maximum daily ration of oats was as follows:
Class of horse Hard Working Light work or Non-working
Heavy dray, cart horses, and trotting vanners 16 lbs. 12 lbs
Light draught horses and light trotting vanners 14 lbs. 10 lbs.
Other light horses and cobs 11 lbs. 8 lbs.
Ponies of 14 hands and under 7 lbs. 5 lbs.

Because industry concentrated on war work, there were many shortages of all kinds of items in the shops, so 'make do and mend' was the order of the day.

In 1918 six battle-scarred tanks were brought over from France to spend a week in many towns or cities to raise money for the war effort. In Wolverhampton, Tank number 119 "Old Bill" paraded through the town to the Town Hall on 4th to 9th February. £1,425,578 of War Savings was raised. From 28th October to 2nd November in Gun Week, six howitzers were put on display, and £920,000 was raised towards the war effort.

In 1918 after a German offensive along the western front, the Allies and the American forces successfully drove them back, leading to the armistice on 11th November, 1918, and victory for the Allies. Church bells rang, factory hooters sounded, flags were flown everywhere, and large crowds gathered in the streets. The end of hostilities was celebrated by a thanksgiving service held in the market patch, and on the steps of St. Peter’s Church. The peace agreement was formally signed on 28th June, 1919.

The aftermath

In November, after the war, the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, who stayed at the Mount as a guest of the Mander family, received the Freedom of the Borough. He gave a speech from the Town Hall balcony and urged Wulfrunians to 'light the road along which England shall march to a nobler future'. Whilst in Wolverhampton he started his election campaign at the Grand Theatre.

Over 1,700 Wolverhampton men did not return from the war. Their details are recorded in the town’s roll of honour. Plans were made for the building of a suitable war memorial to commemorate those who had fallen. A War Memorial Committee was established in 1919, and after much deliberation, a contract for the building of the memorial was given to William Sapcote and Sons Limited, of Birmingham, in June 1922.

The war memorial.

The memorial, built at a cost of £1,888, was sculpted by Mr. W. C. H. King of Hampstead, London. Red sandstone was used, to match the stone of St. Peter’s Church. The simple column is decorated with four statues at the top, one for each of the armed forces, and a fourth representing St. George, the patron saint of England.

It had been decided that the memorial would carry no names, just the following simple inscription: ‘In Grateful Memory of Wolverhampton Men Who Served in the Great War 1914 -1919’.

The memorial was unveiled on Thursday 2nd of November, 1922 by Admiral Sir Frederick Doveton Sturdee. Also present were members of the council, representatives of the police, firemen, postmen, and members of the boys' brigade, scouts, and guides.

Several other war memorials were erected around the Borough, including one built in 1919 in St. Peter’s Gardens to commemorate Douglas Morris Harris. It features a bust by Robert Jackson Emerson.

The Harris Memorial is dedicated to Able Seaman Douglas Morris Harris who was born in 1898 at 49 Penn Road. By 1911 the Harris family had moved to 42 Lea Road.

He initially worked in a bakery before joining the navy, and being posted to HMS Admirable. He was later on loan to the Italian navy, and joined the crew of an armed Italian drifter called ‘Floandi’. The drifters were used to blockade the port of Cattaro to prevent the Austrian Navy from using the Adriatic.

The Harris memorial.


The front plaque.

The Emerson bust on the Harris Memorial.

On the night of 14th to 15th May, 1917, the drifters came under attack from three Novara Class Austrian cruisers, SMS Helgsland, SMS Novara, and SMS Saida. On that fateful night, Douglas Harris, who was the wireless operator on the ‘Floandi’, remained at his post while his ship came under heavy fire.

He continued to send messages, and make entries in his log until he was killed by a piece of shrapnel. He died on 15th May, 1917 at the age of 19. Although he was not awarded for his bravery in this country, he was awarded one of Italy's highest honours.

The plaque on the rear of the memorial.

One of the town’s servicemen, Corporal Roland Elcock received a Victoria Cross for his single-handed attack on a German gun position on 13th October, 1918. Later that day he attacked another enemy machine-gun and captured the crew. He was 19 at the time. A civic reception was held in his honour in February 1919, and he joined other medal winners at the Hippodrome to be presented with a gold watch.

On the evenings of Tuesday 18th March, 1919 and Wednesday 19th March, 1919 a dinner followed by entertainment was held by the proprietors of the Express and Star, N. B. Graham, and J. D. Graham, at the Baths Assembly Rooms, for the 913 ex-prisoners of war from Wolverhampton and the Black Country, on their return home. Peace celebrations were held in Wolverhampton on Peace Day, 19th July, 1919. On 16th October, Field Marshal Earl Haig visited Wolverhampton to receive the Freedom of the Borough.

Anti-German feelings were so high that suggestions were made by the council, to remove the Prince Consort's statue from Queen Square, to show public disapproval of his German connections.

The war greatly helped the cause of women’s emancipation and gave them a greater degree of independence than before. Although many women lost their jobs when the hostilities ended, and the men returned, they now had a more prominent role in society and increased expectations for the future. The Representation of the People Act 1918 gave women over 30 years old the right to vote, but they had to be a member, or married to a member of the Local Government Register, or a graduate, voting in a University constituency. They had to wait another ten years until the passing of the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928 to gain the same voting rights as men.

The Economy

Immediately after the end of the First World War, there was a short-lived boom in the economy, which lasted until late in 1919, but things rapidly went downhill. The early 1920s were a time of recession, a time of hardship for many people. The First World War greatly stretched the nation’s finances. It disrupted our trade, and led to the rise of foreign competition, and the loss of many of our traditional exports, including steel, coal, and textiles. The country had previously grown wealthy because of its pre-eminent trading position in the world, the loss of which, led to the decline of many of our once great industries, and substantial job losses.

The war had been funded by selling foreign assets, and borrowing large sums of money, which led to a large national debt. Britain’s interest payments amounted to around forty percent of the national budget. In 1920 the rate of inflation was twice as high as in 1914, and the value of the pound fell. It would take many years, and the threat of another world war for the situation to improve.

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