Our Century

Hardships at outbreak of war

As the outbreak of the first world war brought carnage to Europe the West Midlands prepared itself in August for lean times ahead with an air of gloom spreading through local industry. Factories closed and unemployment was expected to follow if the war lasted for any length of time.

Recruits Wanted posterWorst hit in the early days of the crisis was the North Midlands and commerce and industry was said to have been "shaken to its foundations." locally and nationally.

In Wolverhampton the recruitment office was flooded with inquiries and applications from men wanting to fight for their country in the Great War - and the demand on the recruiting officers were such that it was suggested a second office should be opened.

Local news reports said that the most of the men queueing at the Broad Street office were largely roughly-clad workmen. A Midlands Counties Express reporter said the demand to get to the action was so great that the recruiting sergeant was "evidently up to his neck in it."

The War Office placed orders with several Walsall companies for 100,000 Government horse spurs. Local firms had also sent in tenders for 20,000 bits said to be needed by the Government for the war effort. Walsall Chamber of Commerce asked the War Office to share the orders with various local firms so as to provide as much work as possible for people.

Soldier in the field

Meanwhile the town's Stafford Street drill hall was a hive of activity with Territorial Army units organising route marches - and at the New Hampton Road barracks, gun drill and flag practice was in full swing. Horses which had been requisitioned for the war effort from local dealer and contractors were being inspected and valued.

Evening services were conducted at St Peter's School by the clergy for the soldiers based there. In Walsall marches were organised and in Cannock and Hednesfield, those wanting to enlist had to travel to Walsall or Lichfield because the local recruiting sergeant had gone off with the Territorials. The situation resulted in a host of complaints.

In Dudley one employer announced that the wives of his workers who had been called-up would get ten shillings a week until their men returned. At Brierley Hill seven of the eight men in the Ambulance Corps offered their services for the war, and one reservist got married on a Sunday and joined his regiment two days later.

The mayor of Wednesbury appealed for loyalty and vowed to co-operate with all sections of the community to help the unemployed, assist in the supply and distribution of food and the care of the families of those who had been called-up.

The effects of the war on the home front began to bite early in the West Midlands with appeals for people to stop the panic-buying of food and the local export trade being hit as shipments practically ground to a halt. in Wolverhampton, petrol at two to three shillings a gallon, was being reserved for regular customers only. The advertising slogan of the time, "The pleasures of motoring", was parodied as "The expense of motoring."

And new wartime paper money was throwing Wolverhampton's pensioners into a state of confusion. Owing to a shortage of silver in the town, the aged were being paid out in postal orders. The old folk were not happy with this system and post office counter staff spent time trying to explain matters to them. But the elderly just looked nonplussed when they were paid out in paper instead of coins.

One old dear went off with her five shilling postal order only to return half-an-hour later to tell the clerk her local shop wouldn't accept it. "They won't look at it sir," she complained. "they say they want money." The confused old lady was told to go back and present the postal order again. If it was refused this time she must call in the police. She was told firmly that a postal order was "as good as money."

Apparently in a bid to make the situation clear, all post offices in Britain carried a notice to the effect that the postal orders were legal tender. But in Bilston officials were having great difficulty in trying to make the pensioners understand the postal orders were as good as real money.

The Government's fixing of maximum prices on food had a marked effect on panic buying in Wolverhampton. People were no longer rushing into shops and coming out loaded with food - and in some cases, the cost of food actually dropped as a result of the Government order. Wolverhampton's banks reported that there was no shortage of money and the public was treating the wartime emergency with "philosophical calm." But the banks added that they had to be on their guard against the "illegal hoarding of gold."

Wolverhampton girl Annie Gwinnett, alone in Paris during the outbreak of war, said French soldiers were singing "Marseillaises" and women wept.

For three days there was scarcely a dry eye among the women in the city, the local girl reported. "As I sat in church on this memorable Sunday the minister looked at the weeping women and said 'Bon Courage,' " said Miss Gwinnett, of Milton Road, Heath Town.

She added that a sudden scarcity of gold and silver caused panic among tourists - mainly Americans. "Tradesman would not look at even an English sovereign, and we all wondered where the end would be," she went on.

The girl added that on August 2, when news reached Paris that the Kaiser was on his way, visitors of all nations "fled like the Israelites out of Egypt" . She went to the railway station which was "besieged with screaming people of all nationalities many of them trying to get to England." Miss Gwinnett said that when the French heard that Britain had declared war with Germany, she was overwhelmed with kindness from them.

She said that at Le Havre, the Union Jack was flying on all the French boats.

As she waited for her boat home French soldiers offered her food when they found out she was English. On August 8 she arrived back in England and an Admiralty pilot boat conducted her ship into Southampton.

Lillian Smith
When someone talked about the "night silers" I hadn't a clue what they meant.