There are some aspects of life in Birmingham and Sutton Coldfield as described in the Sutton Coldfield News that reflect some of the challenges faced by those on the Home Front. The Appeals Tribunals were finding their task very difficult. In one session the men appearing before the Tribunal were aged between 41 and 30 and married with children. All were granted an extension to their current exemptions due to their involvement in war related activities. One, a builder, was working on an extension to Allerton V.A.D. Hospital. The one exception was a railway porter earning 30 shillings a week who claimed to be supporting his family as a result of his father’s ill health. He was given a short exemption on condition he ‘joined the Volunteers’.
Sutton Municipal Charities agreed to provide ‘pensions’ to 9 of 30 applicants. All suffered from various illnesses such as bronchitis and asthma like Herbert Pickering who had lived in the Parish for 17 years. The Charity still exists and owned the site recently developed for Bars and Cafes in Mere Green. They now make donations to local charities and community organisations.
Another story indicated the ‘workhouse’ was still open in Erdington. An ‘inmate’ was charged with attempting to murder Louisa Parker, a domestic servant in the employ of the ‘master’. He was committed for trial to Birmingham Assizes.
An examination of the home addresses of many Volunteers from Birmingham indicates that many lived in Back to Back and Court Housing, but one Court Case revealed that about 100 men of Chinese origin were living at No 8 Digbeth. It is not difficult to find examples of poverty and deprivation but from the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 The Lady Mayoress’ Depot in Birmingham was supporting the families of soldiers at the Front. This often involved providing warm clothing, shoes and underwear for women and children. Mrs Neville Chamberlain visited and supported the families of men from Birmingham who were serving with the Coldstream Guards.
It is clear from newspaper coverage that the families at home were still coming to terms with the deaths at Passchendaele. There were certainly food shortages and there was the hope that the introduction of a more general rationing scheme would at least introduce an element of fairness into the situation. There were long queues outside shops in the less affluent parts of towns and cities. Those with means were able to pay the higher prices and buy in bulk. There was still a degree of shock however when the popular author of romantic fiction, Miss Marie Corelli, was convicted of hoarding foodstuffs. She had purchased 183 pounds of sugar and 43 pounds of tea from various sources. The food was confiscated and she was fined £50.
In some areas food kitchens were opened to provide meals such as sausage pudding for two pence, and newspapers were full of ideas as to how the housewife could make the ingredients available go further and still provide interesting meals. An example would be cutlets created from nuts and macaroni, and the use of potato flour in baking. I suspect that although these were somewhat innovative at the time such ideas might be popular today with vegetarians and coeliacs.
From January 1918 the manufacture of ice cream was banned. In many parts of the country butter and margarine were difficult to obtain, chip shops were forced to close for lack of fat and butchers were forced to close due to a shortage of meat. The German U Boat campaign was having a serious effect on food supplies, but our difficulties were not as severe as the impact of the Allied Naval blockade of Germany but that is a story for another edition of Brumration.
As the British soldier was confronted with the bitterly cold winter in Flanders, his only comfort perhaps was that at least the mud had frozen and the rain had turned to snow. Their Commander in Chief after meetings with the King and a visit with his family to the pantomime, Aladdin in Drury Lane, had time to contemplate a new offensive for 1918.
Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig and most of his senior generals believed that the war could only be won with a decisive victory on the Western Front. Any efforts in Mesopotamia, Palestine, Salonika or Italy could only be a diversion from the main objective. The total British casualties suffered in 1917 had been estimated at 860,000, but this would have included the dead, wounded, sick and prisoners. The French had lost in the region of 590,000men, while the German casualties were estimated at 850,000,
The British net gain was about 5miles around Arras, including Vimy Ridge, and a similar amount of territory on the Ypres Salient. Those who supported another attack believed that the previous assaults had brought the German Army close to breaking point. The successful German counter attack at Cambrai seemed to contradict this view.
Field Marshall Haig had made his views on the desirability of a new offensive clear at a War Cabinet meeting in January 1918. The Prime Minister David Lloyd George was opposed to this view, and was anxious that any offensive be limited to the achievement of specific objectives. He had not been very successful in achieving this objective in 1917 but there were a number of ways available to him which would enable him to curb Haig’s ambition.
He had the power to dismiss Haig, but Haig did have the support of his Generals and many politicians and the King. It might not have been good for morale as British propaganda had labelled the offensives as victories. With the aid of the War Cabinet and the Army Council he could control the flow of new troops to France, and thus severely limit the options available to Haig. After the offensives of 1917 many Divisions were severely under strength
Field Marshall Haig had already had to send five Divisions to Italy, and in January the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, also agreed to a French request that the British extend their line a further twenty five miles south. The question might now be not can we mount an offensive, but will we be able hold the line in the event of any German offensive.
The Kaiser’s Battle by Martin Middlebrook.
To the Last Man, Somme 1918 by Lyn Macdonald.
Private F Baker No.43057 South Staffordshire Regiment
Killed in action 12 October 1917, Private Baker is commemorated at The Tyne Cot Memorial and is also commemorated on my Passchendaele 100 Pin.
My challenge to my colleagues who have close associations with the South Staffordshire Regiment is to tell me more about Private Baker, and how and where he might have been killed.