Our Century

Death from the skies

German Fokker TriplaneAn Express & Star correspondent in France reported in December the latest menace facing Black Country soldiers - an aerial attack against which they were virtually defenceless.

The North and South Staffords were in what was supposed to be a rest camp. Some rest . .

"This body of Staffords, after stiff experience of tench warfare in different localities, has the ill-luck to experience a bombardment both from the level and from the air.

"To sit there and be bombed from above, despite the attacks of anti-aircraft guns, is the most trying experience imaginable for the soldier.

"It is worse than crouching in a trench while artillery shells are falling, for the infantryman knows that his own artillery are doing effective things for him and that presently he will be able to hit back. He gets his blood up for the scramble over the top, or the fight in the trench if the enemy gets within bayonetting distance.

"But the soldier in camp cannot hit back. All he can do is clear up his dead and injured and watch the aircraft in their strangely graceful evolutions, very daring evolutions sometimes for the Boche is a good airman.

"One such airman lately flew through the main street of a ruined city occupied by us, firing as he flew, well below the roofs of the shell-riddled houses.

"One has to see aeroplanes at work over the lines to realise how extremely difficult it is for the anti-aircraft gunner to bring down his quarry."

Military Cross: The son of a former Mayor of Wolverhampton was reported wounded by shrapnel at the front in May and spent most of 1917 recovering.

Second Lieutenant Samuel Saunders, son of the late Alderman James Saunders, was rewarded later in the year with the presentation of not one but two awards.

At Buckingham Palace he received the Military Cross and bar (equivalent to two MCs) from the King for "conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty".

Heroism on the high seas: It was the year of Passchendaele, the terrible battle on the Western Front which ended in a bloody morass near the Belgian town of Ypres.

But Flanders was not the only scene of slaughter. The war raged in distant Mesopotamia and, as the poignant memorial in Wolverhampton reminds us, at sea.

It stands in the gardens of St Peter's Church and commemorates Douglas Morris Harris, hero of the Floandi who was killed by enemy gunfire in the Adriatic Sea in May 1917.

Ugly Rumour article

While distant war raged, matters closer to home were exercising the folk of Wolverhampton in January. An "ugly rumour" was spreading that councillors were preparing to dig up part of West Park to grow potatoes.

Digging for victory was one thing. Digging up the town's favourite beauty spot was quite another matter. A sum of 30 was immediately raised by public subscription to save the park for the children and "to ensure that it will be in readiness for the Floral Fete when the war is over."

Quite what the sons of the town, now eye-deep in hell along the Western Front, made of such events is anyone's guess.

Over there, a trench meant the difference between life and death. Back home, even digging up a single sod of West Park was headline news.

Winifred Stevens
We'd always been led to believe that the Midlands was all smoke and soot...

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