The Bulletin of the Birmingham Branch of the WFA

Compiled by Bob Butcher

April 2010


French miners continued to work the Bethune mines even though one shaft half a mile deep ran behind the German lines. In September 1917 the Germans pumped huge quantities of chloropicrin into it, killing the unprotected miners. The gas penetrated the gas masks of the British tunnellers who tried to rescue them and they had to turn back. (from World War I Gas Warfare Tactics and Equipment by Simon Jones)

When the Special Brigade was formed, all serving former chemists were transferred to it. A pharmacist in civilian life complained that he was only in the brigade because the recruiting sergeant could not spell pharmacist and put him down as a chemist.

Following the first gas attack on British troops, the Daily Mail, at the request of the War Office, urged women to improvise gas masks at home from cotton wool pads. Some 30,000 were produced within twenty-four hours. Unfortunately they were useless as the cotton wool could not be breathed through when wetted with a neutralising solution. Those made by the trade, the so called `War Office Black Veiling Respirator', using cotton waste and strips of gauze were more successful.

Early in 1918 the Cabinet started to consider the protection of civilians against gas. Nothing much seems to have come of it. However, the public in at least one area were advised to make their own gas masks. They were to consist of a wad of cotton waste in a gauze pouch that could be tied over the nose and mouth. They were to be soaked in a strong solution of washing soda when required. Commercially produced pads were also on sale. The protection offered by either type is doubtful even if the wearer knew when and how to put it on.

British scientists testing the effectiveness of a tear gas compound filled a dug out with it. When the results on a tall officer who walked into it were inconclusive, they gave a boy a shilling to enter the dug out. Gas being heavier than air, the results were conclusive.

Bob Butcher


First World War air raids caused the introduction of laws about showing lights at night. On 27 March 1918 Leslie Stuart Ault of Oakfield Road, Cannon Hill, Birmingham, was tried at Birmingham Police Court for using seven and a half inch headlights on his motor car instead of the regulation maximum four and a half inches; and for dangerous driving.

The prosecution explained that Ault had been driving along Great Barr Street at twenty past seven in the evening on 4 March 1918. PC Harvey and Special Constable Turner had called upon him to stop. He swerved and they had to step back to avoid being knocked over. He was later arrested.

Leslie Ault explained in his defence that while driving down Albert Street he had knocked a woman over. He had stopped and volunteered to drive her to her Bordersley Green home. He said that he had been driving slowly and that he had not known that his headlights were above the legal maximum size.

The magistrate believed the police and convicted Ault on both charges. It was then revealed that Ault had an earlier conviction for having too large headlights and had been fined a pound. The magistrate fined Ault two pounds on each charge and ordered him to pay five shillings court costs. The total cost to Ault of this appearance in court was four pounds and five shillings, about five hundred pounds in our terms plus any legal costs of his own.



As in the Second War, a black out was imposed during the First in order to deny navigation help to enemy aircraft. In fact `dim-out' would be a better description of the Great War lighting restrictions. Emergency legislation empowered the `competent naval or military authority' at a defended harbour to order the extinguishing, in specified hours, of all visible lights.

The Home Secretary was also authorised to order the extinction or dimming of all or any lights in any specified area. The first such order applied to London and its aim was not to plunge the whole city into darkness but to reduce lighting to prevent enemy raiders identifying salient points. The uniformity of lighting on long main roads and on bridges was broken up and lights installed in parks or open spaces to prevent them showing up as blank spaces. Subsequently outside powerful lights were banned, street lamps had to be extinguished or shaded and lights inside buildings shaded.

A similar order was made for Birmingham although at the time it was thought that there was little possibility of raiders reaching that city. Presumably it was thought that there was no chance at all of them reaching other great industrial cities such as Manchester and Sheffield.

At first the reduction of lighting in coastal towns was voluntary but some were reluctant to comply for fear of driving away the visitors upon whom their prosperity depended. By the end of 1914 however, the whole East Coast from Berwick and the South Coast as far as Weymouth were darkened.

By this time the Home Secretary had become the sole authority for making lighting orders in order to avoid the confusion that had often arisen from conflicting orders being made by the various authorities.

Where no orders had been made, lighting restrictions were at the discretion of local authorities. Some enforced them, some did not whilst others relied on switching lights off on the approach of raiders. In one Leicestershire town, for example, the local police superintendent had ordered lights to be switched off when he believed a Zeppelin to be in the vicinity. He was later feted as a hero who had saved the town from destruction!

The situation was reviewed following the night raid of 31 January 1916 when a force of nine (mostly lost) enemy airships roamed far and wide over the Midlands and beyond. Bombs were dropped at widely scattered places and a study of these showed that some of the places attacked, for example, Burton on

locality, for example Birmingham, had been bombed. Consequently orders were made covering virtually the whole of England. In the case of some of the more remote regions, this was done at the request of local authorities.

Early in 1917 with the Zeppelin menace apparently defeated, there was a call for there to be more street lighting at night as much of the reduction of light had been achieved by cutting down street lighting. In Sheffield, for example, out of 12,000 lamps only forty-five were in use and even these were switched off at 1930 hours. In most parts of London, however, the top halves of street lamps were painted blue.

As there also seemed to be some inconsistency between different parts of the country, a conference of chief constables was called. They were mostly against any increase in lighting mainly because they could not guarantee that all street lamps could be extinguished within five minutes of receipt of the Take Air Raid Action Warning as required by GHQ Home Forces. (Most street lamps were lit by gas and had to be turned off individually). There the matter rested, especially with the advent of the Gotha bombers. However, further reductions in the level of lighting were later made at the request of the coal controller in order to save fuel.

The official historian in The War in the Air, Vol V, believed that the darkening of English cities was overdone. He conceded that the restrictions were desirable in the Midlands and South East but not in the more remote regions. He also accepted that many people in various parts of the country felt safer from the bombers by being in the dark. Be that as it may, one of the first recommendations of a post war committee on air raid precautions, was for an even more stringent black out. In fact the restrictions introduced on 1 September 1939 were so severe that the life of the country was almost brought to a halt. They had to be eased somewhat in January 1940.



but I cannot get in touch with your spirit', He said he saw a ghost called Edward with a pointed beard, and that a 'spirit woman' had died of heart trouble. Leaf told the witness to put her fingers on his palms and as she did he mumbled. A second witness woman had also visited his house and paid him five shillings. Mr Denman convicted Leaf of fortune telling and fined him £25 plus five shillings costs, or two months in gaol.

The next spiritualist put on trial was Olive Bush, thirty-four, an American dressmaker and milliner alias Madame Start. At her request her trial was adjourned so that she might consult a solicitor. She was given bail with two fifty pound sureties.

Agnes Constance Macdonald, forty-four, alias Madame Vox, a palmist was then tried. Earlier evidence had been given but at this hearing a woman witness told of having visited Vox and signed a document. The defence solicitor said that it said that Vox did not wish to deceive or impose on anyone. Mr Denman said that one could not 'contract out' of the law. A woman who had accompanied the previous witness said that Vox had said that she would marry young, her husband would have a legacy ten years later, she would have one five years later, and they would have two children. She paid two and six for this prophecy. Mr Denman fined Vox £15 and £5 five shillings costs.

Susan Fielder forty-three, was then tried. A woman witness had seen her on 3 February and paid for a palm and crystal reading. Fielder told her of a fair man who was abroad in khaki and was a Lieutenant, of a fat dark married man, and that she would have 'the time of your life'. Mr Denman convicted Fielder and said that in her case there were no extenuating circumstances but 'only revolting and objectionable features, which could only be regarded as

dangerous, wicked and horrible'. He


sentenced her to two months in gaol without the option of a fine.

The last spiritualist to be tried at this hearing was Annie Elizabeth Brodie, aged forty-four, alias Madame Leslie. Apart from being a paid spiritualist it was said that she had been convicted at Dublin for keeping a disorderly house, and had been expelled from the last Bristol International Exhibition. She denied these charges but was sentenced to two months in gaol without the option of a fine.

Looking at these cases Fielder was imprisoned without the option of a fine because her prophecies were seen as encouraging immorality. Brodie as a convicted brothel keeper, was also imprisoned without the option of a fine. Leaf and Macdonald were given the option of paying a heavy fine or of imprisonment because their visions were less harmful or merely silly, and they were otherwise seemingly respectable people. Bush was treated with kid gloves as an American citizen.




1 A stern Calvinist Scot, he went to France in November 1914 with the 5th Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) and received a facial wound. He became well known as the head of a national institution, was knighted and became a government minister. Who was he?

2 Who commanded the Canadian Corps when they captured Vimy Ridge?

3 'Tell any politician a military secret and he will go straight home and tell his wife, except who will tell some one else's'. Who said this of whom?

4 Who was Secretary of State for War on 4 August 1914?

5 What post did Winston Churchill hold immediately before commanding a battalion in France?

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