There appear to have been record attendances at Remembrance services this year. For the first time in a number of years I attended the Remembrance Service at my local Church, St. James Hill in Mere Green. Despite the extra seating provided there were still a number of people standing at the rear of the Church and I understand the same applied at the service at Holy Trinity, Sutton Coldfield. At St James there had also been an exhibition about the men from the Parish who had been killed in World War 1. Prior to a well-attended Remembrance Evening Vigil, the war graves in the adjoining cemetery had been lit by candlelight. Perhaps it is an appropriate time to question how we build on the momentum of these events, as individuals and as members of the WFA.
Our Branch Service at our Memorial Stone at the Arboretum was a great success. It was well attended and participants included army, sea and air cadets, Service Officers, a Padre and a bugler. Branch members and cadets read extracts from texts and poems reflecting each year of the war. A Guard of Honour was provided by re-enactors from the Staffordshire Regiment Museum.
Despite all the concern about the spread of influenza, news of the Armistice brought crowds out onto the streets across Britain to celebrate the good news. The atmosphere in London was described as one of excitement and elation. The audience at the Alhambra Theatre where George Roby was performing in ‘The Bing Boys‘ was so ‘uproarious’ that the show stopped. Pictures of the Allies were flashed up on a screen instead and one member of the audience commented ‘I didn’t know we had so many Allies’
In Birmingham the Tramways Department was going to run an illuminated tramcar around the streets. The Birmingham Fire Brigade had ten calls to deal with, mostly related to fireworks or other celebrations related to the Armistice. It wasn’t all peace and goodwill however, as a man was due to appear at the Police Court charged with stabbing a woman in Winson Green.
In the more rural area of Cardiganshire, Wales, the celebrations were just as enthusiastic. A day’s holiday was announced in Aberystwyth, whilst in other places Church Bells were rung and streets were decorated. In one town these decorations had been put up by German POW’s reportedly ‘with relish and gusto’. An effigy of the Kaiser was placed on a bonfire in one town, but elsewhere Chapel services for peace and thanksgiving were considered more appropriate. The train buffs among my readers will be pleased to hear that GWR trains greeted the Armistice with much ‘hooting’
In order to protect the population from influenza, schools and the University were closed in Aberystwyth and it was advised that all meetings and entertainments should be postponed or cancelled. More controversial was the advice from the Medical Officer for Health that people should consider not attending Church and Chapel services.
This advice was heeded in one town where a reception was cancelled for a returning soldier. In that town every returning soldier was to receive two guineas from the council. The town band in Aberystwyth was urged to continue to attend practices, so that they would be ready to welcome home every returning soldier.
The local press continued to report the deaths of soldiers from influenza. Signaller Evan Hughes had died in Palestine, whereas Lance Corporal Edward Edwards had survived the Pilkem Ridge Battle in 1917 but had died of pneumonia in France. Families were still being informed that their sons were wounded and in hospital, and another family that their son was a POW in Austria.
It was reported that in the week of the Armistice the death toll in Birmingham from influenza was 170, which was claimed to be fewer than in other towns. Schools were badly affected but factory production continued with little disruption. It was also reported that 24,000 cases of influenza had been confirmed amongst the Army on the Western Front in October.
As early as November 13th the Lady Mayoress’ Depot had received information from Government that parcels could no longer be delivered to prisoners of war in Germany. The organisation had been providing food and clothing to prisoners from Birmingham and latterly to members of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment.
This was a decision that had been made by the War Office and the Foreign Office who stated that the immediate needs of British prisoners in Germany would be met by the Government. As a result the Prisoner of War Fund, could no longer accept contributions, and that a further statement would be issued as to the winding up of the Fund.
The public was thanked for its generous support of the Prisoners fund, and the public were reminded that the other aspects of its work would continue. These were the ’War Hospital Supplies Fund’, the ‘Comforts for the Troops Fund’, and the ‘Occupations for the Wounded Fund’.
On November 14th The Birmingham Mail reported that Prisoners of War were already walking into Holland. It quoted The Daily Chronicle saying that Government had no knowledge of any release of British Prisoners from internment. These men had been welcomed by the Dutch authorities, but had not been part of any planned release. It was believed that they may have been told by the German authorities that they were at liberty to leave at any time.
It is more likely that these were mainly men that had been in unofficial camps behind the German lines and that as authority broke down these men were just told to leave, or were abandoned by their guards as soon as the Armistice was signed. Both these scenarios were well documented and it took some time for the British authorities to exercise some form of control and put the logistics in place for an ordered repatriation.
The Government was still prepared to accept food parcels for distribution where and when it was thought necessary, but could no longer accept those for delivery to individual prisoners. There is evidence that as these arrangements were put in place, the men in the Camps were not only running out of food, but also the fuel for heating and cooking. Men who had been out on Work Kommandos were also returning to Camps and the overcrowding led to further issues such as the breakdown of order at Langensalza Camp.
The Government assured the public that as early as November 13th ships had been sent to Holland to repatriate the first 500 prisoners. These, it was thought, might be back as early as 14/15th November.
One of the groups that met these and later boats as they arrived were the mothers and wives of the missing. They somehow got to know when and where these boats would be arriving and waited with pictures of their loved ones to see if any of the arrivals knew where their lost men might be.
Birmingham Mail October to December 1918
The Cambrian News 1918
Aberystwyth and the Great War by William Troughton
Chris John, Newsleaf, The National Arboretum, Newsletter
Lyn Macdonald, Voices and Images of the Great War
Website: Cardiganshire and the Great War