March 2014

The Bulletin of the Birmingham Branch of the WFA

Compiled by Bob Butcher


It can scarcely have escaped your notice that this year sees the hundredth anniversary of the start of the Great War. It was therefore inevitable that there would be a number of new books about it and equally certain that I should receive one as a 2013 Christmas present. It was, in fact, CATASTROPHE Europe Goes to War 1914 by Max Hastings. I do not intend to review it other than to say that it is both narrow and wide—narrow because it covers just 1914 and wide because it puts the British contribution in the context of what was a wide conflict even in its early weeks.

To be honest my real interest in the war starts with the BEF's first action—Mons (23 August)—which was fought by elements of just two British divisions. However, well before then, the Austrians had bombarded Belgrade, Germany had invaded Belgium and France, France had occupied Mulhouse in Alsace although they were soon driven out, the Austrians had attacked Serbia with nineteen divisions but were later repulsed with heavy losses, France attacked in Alsace and Lorraine, Russian and Austrian forces were in action in Galicia, the last fort at Liege had fallen, the Germans had entered Brussels, the French were defeated at Morhange and the Germans at Gumbinnen in East Prussia, France had lost 27,000 men killed in one day in the 'Battle of the Frontiers' and there was a sharp battle at Charleroi—all this before Mons. Incidentally, on the day after Mons the disastrous (for Russia) Battle of Tannenberg commenced in which on Russian army was destroyed and another narrowly escaped a similar fate.

This is not to underrate the historical and military importance of Mons to Britain if for no other reason than that it was the first evidence of the sheer quality of Britain's Regular Army. However as Barbara Tuchman points out in her very fine The Guns of August, it was at First Ypres that the 'old' army earned its immortal glory. Even here, though, we tend to ignore the fact the Belgians and, especially, the French must share in the 'glories' of that epic battle.

The approaching anniversary seems to have caused some apologists and self-styled experts and other writers to dispute 'who started the war'. Hastings has no doubts—he very clearly blames Austria-Hungary and Germany. In particular he pins the main blame on the Austrian Berchtold and the German chief of staff von Moltke. I suppose that we must expect claims that the war was pointless and unnecessary and that it was a case of British 'lions led by donkeys' a la the film Oh What a Lovely War and TV feature Blackadder. Some 'experts' say that the war was not 'right'. If by that they mean that it was not just, I can only say that it depends on which side you were on. It was certainly unjust for the Austrians and the Germans to invade Serbia, Belgium or France but surely the Serbs, Belgians and French were justified in defending their countries and attempting to eject the invaders for them. It was also just for other countries to go to their aid. Bob



Recent research by The British Transport Police History Group has revealed that twelve railway constables from the Birmingham area lost their lives while serving in the army during the Great War: three from the Great Western Railway; seven from the Midland Railway and two from the London and North Western Railway.

At least some were Regular Army Reservists who had served a period with the colours followed by a number of years on the reserve (usually totalling twelve years) and had joined the police during this latter period. The police in general favoured ex soldiers as recruits. I suspect that most of those who lost their lives were either such reservists or were volunteers as the police were mostly exempt from conscription.


Each year at Westminster Abbey a British National Torch of Remembrance is lit by the Dean of Westminster at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. It is then taken on to Dover where a service is held in the presence of the Mayor and other civic dignitaries. The pilgrimage then travels by ferry to Calais and then on to Ostend where it is met by the Burgomaster and town dignitaries. After a ceremony at the town's War Memorial, the pilgrims journey on to participate in the ceremony of the Last Post at the Menin Gate Ypres on 11 November.

The British participated in this Belgian Torch ceremony in November 1966 for the first time.


By J.P. Lethbridge

Some black market traders were honest by their own lights and did what they promised. However others were conmen who relied on their victims being frightened of complaining to the police in case they themselves were charged with illegal trading.

On 14 December 1917 George Edwin Matthews, aged thirty-nine, a clerk, of no fixed abode, was tried by the Birmingham magistrates. He was accused of false pretences. The first witness, Philip Yallowitz, a tailor of Lower Essex Street, Birmingham, had met Matthews who claimed to be the head of the Birmingham Food Control Department, in the Cross Keys pub in Hurst Street. Yallowitz and a friend complained to Matthews how difficult it was to buy goods and Matthews asked if he would like to order two pounds of tea, three pounds of butter and four pounds of sugar. He agreed and they went to his workshop where he paid Matthews fifteen shillings and five pence in advance, and ten shillings as a deposit for the next order. Matthews promised to return with the articles but did not do so. Therefore Yallowitz went to the police.

The second witness, Mr Body the Honorary Secretary of the Birmingham Food Control Department, explained that Matthews had been a temporary clerk there and had left without notice after borrowing thirty shillings. This meant he knew enough of the department to commit his fraud. The third witness, Mrs Emma Packwood, a Wiggin Street grocer, had got to know Matthews in connection with her sugar ration card. He went to her shop and promised to supply ten pounds of tea and a quantity of margarine and butter. She had paid him two pounds, seven shillings and seven pence but he had not delivered the goods.

Matthews admitted that the above evidence was true but said that he himself had been deceived by another man who had claimed to be in the grocery trade. The magistrates convicted Matthews and Inspector Macaulay explained that Matthews had pleaded guilty to another such charge. The magistrates sentenced Matthews to nine months in gaol.

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