Shropshire in the First World War
A county wide account
Sons of mine, I hear you thrilling
To the trumpet call of war;
Gird ye then, I give you freely
As I gave your sires before,
All the noblest of the children I in love and anguish bore.
So wrote the poet W N Hodgson in August 1914 as England to her Sons.
War was declared at 11pm on the 4th August 1914. Great Britain’s initial response was to send an Expeditionary Force of four divisions to France, approximately 80,000 men, to support the French Armies, arriving at Le Havre on the 13th August.
Two divisions were retained in Britain for home defence and it was as part of the Sixth division that the First battalion of the Kings Shropshire Light Infantry were recalled from Tipperary and moved to the south coast, arriving in France at the end of August. The Second battalion was serving in India to be recalled for service in France later in the war. The Fourth battalion was mobilised to be sent to India to replace the Second Battalion – and the Shropshire Yeomanry and the Shropshire Battery of the Royal Horse Artillery formed part of the Welsh Border Mounted Brigade, moving to Suffolk on mobilisation.
Realising this war would certainly not be over by Christmas, Field Marshal Lord Kitchener issued an immediate call for 100,000 men for his New Army – and a Fifth battalion of the KSLI was filled in August. In September a further appeal was made for a second 100,000 men and recruiting meetings were held throughout the country.
In Shrewsbury a meeting was held on 6 September in the Music Hall under the Chairmanship of the Deputy Mayor, Colonel Cureton. The Mayor, Colonel Wingfield, was already on active service overseas. Two hundred men volunteered, a situation replicated throughout the county, coming together to form the Sixth (Pals) Battalion KSLI. Many of those enlisted were encouraged and supported by their employers. Maddocks of Shrewsbury gave each of their staff blankets, shirts and socks and the promise their jobs would be kept open for them on return. More men were still required and it was soon evident sufficient manpower would not be available from volunteers alone. From the 2nd March 1916, conscription of single males between the ages of 18 and 41 was introduced and on the 25th May this was extended to married men.
Not to be left out, Boy Scouts were initially on the lookout for persons acting suspiciously and together with the Boys Brigade patrolled railway lines and the pipeline for Birmingham’s water supply. Girl Guides worked in some of the local hospitals doing ‘pantry work’.
Almost immediately numbers of Belgian refugees began arriving, to be accommodated in Shrewsbury at the Armoury, Tower House in Church Stretton and elsewhere in Oswestry, Ellesmere, Ludlow, Bridgnorth and Bishop’s Castle. Refugees were paid an allowance and smaller communities made regular collections for food and clothing. The expectation was that refugees would find their own employment and become self-supporting. One Belgian metalworker made the gates for Church Stretton Memorial park.
Before the war, local committees had been set up to organise recruitment and training in First Aid and nursing skills under the banners of the British Red Cross and St John Ambulance. On the outbreak of war these operated under the title of Voluntary Aid Detachments to staff the hospitals in the county. Initially space was found in existing hospitals at Bridgnorth Infirmary, Shrewsbury Ear Eye Nose and Throat, and Military Hospitals in Shrewsbury, Park Hall (Gobowen) and Prees Heath. As trains of wounded arrived regularly in the county from January 1915, extra space and facilities were required, particularly as men arrived not only wounded and in need of treatment, but in need of physical cleaning and clothing. Cottage Hospitals were pressed into service at Ellesmere, Market Drayton, the Lady Forester Hospitals in Broseley and Much Wenlock, Wellington and Whitchurch. Auxiliary hospitals were created and the owners of large houses in the county offered facilities at Attingham Park, Essex House, Hodnet Hall, Peplow Hall, Hawkestone Park, Longford Hall and Stokesay Court to name but a few.
Another of the important military needs was for horses, a few for cavalry but many more for transport and horses were compulsorily purchased by the Army Remount Department who often arrived unannounced at Markets and Fairs, requisitioning animals for army use and leaving farmers and traders to walk home. Not only was the inconvenience resented, but the purchase price was usually £10 under the market price and hay was also requisitioned, again below market price.
With men being syphoned off into the army, the workforce was reduced as demand for war production increased, requiring women to work on the land, their labour supplemented at harvest time by convalescent soldiers, schoolchildren and, towards the end of the war, even prisoners of war. Shropshire had prisoner of war camps in Bromfield, Clee Hill, Cleobury Mortimer, Compton Hall, Ellesmere, Mile House and Abbey Wood in Shrewsbury some two hundred yards from where you now sit. Prisoners in Shrewsbury were well looked after – one inmate wrote to his German family not to send food parcels ‘as we live better than you do at home’. There was also a camp at Ditton Priors, housing Conscientious Objectors who worked in Brown Clee Quarry. Courses were offered at Harper Adams Agricultural College to train women to drive and operate the farm machinery made available on loan by the Army Service Corps. The college also trained members of the Women’s Land Army.
As well as specific war work, women were engaged in continuous fundraising for one cause or another and knitting and sewing to provide ‘comforts’ for their menfolk and others at the front to keep them warm and dry in the trenches and to provide and pack small parcels of luxuries. This became increasingly difficult with the need to feed the army in the face of a reduction in food imports due to submarine warfare with the almost inevitable shortages resulting in rationing.
Women relieved men in many occupations one of the most important being in the post and its delivery. The GPO and its military counterpart run by the Royal Engineers processed up to 12 million letters each week with the aim that letters would be delivered to recipients in France in two to three days and also in return. This exchange of letters greatly assisted with maintaining morale at the front and at home with a steady flow of information. Life at home was a roller-coaster of emotion with letters containing both good and bad news, some from friends and acquaintances, not all of it accurate.
Some men wrote two and three times each week and it was quickly apparent that the war was not only being fought in a ‘foreign field’ but also and increasingly at home with the need for civilian populations to provide everything from warm clothing to cigarettes, growing food, caring for the wounded and fundraising. The war was not only ‘over there’ but also very much ‘over here’.
Men were wounded and invalided out and at the conclusion of the Armistice battalions were gradually reduced and demobilised. This took time and the cadre of the Pals battalion (four officers and 46 other ranks) of the KSLI did not finally return to Shrewsbury until 5thJune 1919 to a civic reception in the Square given by the Mayor and the Lord-Lieutenant
Throughout the county men who enlisted saw sights and gained experiences that otherwise they would not have had. They were at the forefront of technology as advances were made in transport, aviation, communication and medicine and visited places that they had previously only heard of. In all Shropshire raised 21,000 men from a population of 246,000. Some of these men did not return or returned injured physically or mentally and their life post war would never be as they had imagined it before going to war. Memorials in towns and villages, town halls and churches record that most communities were touched by the war. Uniquely in Shropshire, in the village of Harley there is a plaque recording the names of the twenty men of the village who went to war and all returned safely.
Go, and may the God of battles
You in his good guidance keep:
And if He in wisdom giveth
Unto his beloved sleep’
I accept it nothing asking, save a little space to weep.