The Bulletin of the Birmingham Branch of the WFA

Compiled by Bob Butcher

March 2010


In the autumn of 1915 there was a serious shortage of telescopes and binoculars for the Army and Navy so traders were ordered to submit their stocks of those instruments to a special examination centre in Birmingham or elsewhere. Those found to meet government specifications were purchased by the government and traders were forbidden to sell any future stocks of them except to the government.. The rest were marked accordingly and returned to the traders. About this time Germany let it be known that with its large optical manufacturing industry, it was prepared to exchange a considerable number of binoculars with Britain for rubber. At first the British Government was prepared to agree but before negotiations could be completed the supply situation at home had improved so much that the deal became unnecessary. Was Germany already feeling the effects of the blockade?

Some years ago a guest speaker expressed surprise that a Verdun fort had been captured by German pioneers who would ordinarily ‘be digging latrines’. He had apparently equated the German pioneers of 1916
with the British pioneers of the Second World War. In fact Germany’s corps of pioneers were the equivalent of the field companies of the Royal Engineers and were thus front line troops.

Note: German pioneers were equipped with saw-edged bayonets. Allied propaganda depicted these as ‘barbaric Hun devices’ although they obviously had a practical use. (Ed)

Early in the war certain British regiments formed divisional pioneer battalions e.g. 4th Bn (Pioneers) Coldstream Guards, 17th Bn (Pioneers) Northumberland Fusiliers. It was intended that half the personnel should have been used to pick and shovel work, the remainder being tradesmen such as joiners, bricklayers, etc. Otherwise the battalions were similar to ordinary battalions. They were trained for entrenching, road making and demolition and were also used for bridging and making camps.  The infantry L of C defence troops were unable to provide sufficient working parties so early in the war, some regiments formed labour battalions of men not fit for front line service. These units were subsequently absorbed by the newly- formed Labour Corps.
After the war both the pioneer battalions and the Labour Corps were disbanded but early in the Second World War it was found necessary to raise a labour corps but this time it was called the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps and consisted mostly of men over the age of forty. It later became the Royal Pioneer Corps. Today it is part of the Royal Logistic Corps and a pioneer regiment includes many artisans such as bricklayers and carpenters as well as mortuary attendants. In fact it seems to have more in common with the divisional pioneer battalions of the First War than with the Labour Corps or the WW2 Pioneer Corps.

Pre-war the requirements for artillery and shells for Britain’s small army were met by the Royal Arsenal and by
the  armaments    manufacturers, Armstrong, Vickers, Coventry Ordnance and Beardmores. Vickers also supplied machine guns whilst the government factory at Enfield and the BSA and London Small Arms companies provided the rifles. By the spring of 1915, however, it was recognised that the whole of British industry would have to be harnessed to the war effort in order to meet the vastly increased needs of the services.

The Ministry of Munitions was therefore established in June 1915 and became responsible for the design, manufacture, testing and supply of all munitions. Unlike the War Office, it had access to almost unlimited finance and acquired great powers. Its activities included the acquisition and control of raw materials, finance, contracts, labour, welfare, wages and

much else. It could order manufacturers what to make and set up government `national factories', mostly for the manufacture and filling of shells. When it was thought that munitions workers over-stayed their dinner breaks in pubs, the Minister secured an amendment to licensed hours by enforcing an afternoon break in opening hours. In the Carlisle area the whole of the drinks industry was nationalised.     Both these measures  continued until quite recently.

The story of the Ministry is undoubtedly one of success although for political reasons, the earlier measures taken by Kitchener and the War Office have been overshadowed. Towards the end of the war, the Ministry commenced the compilation of an official history which has recently been reprinted and become available to the public for the first time. It took twelve full sized volumes to record just how good it had been, but then the first Minister was Lloyd George and the last Winston Churchill.

Bob Butcher


On 5 June 1915 the Birmingham Munitions Tribunal heard the following case. Four canal boatmen working for a Birmingham manufacturing firm had given fourteen days notice that they would quit unless their wages were raised. Their action was part of a more widespread strike. There was very high inflation during the First World War so big pay rises were needed just to keep in pace with it.

Shortly before the fortnight strike notice was over the employers agreed a ten percent pay rise and the strike threat was lifted. However their firm gave these four boatmen a week's notice. They appealed to the Birmingham Munitions Tribunal claiming victimisation.

The representative of the firm that had employed the four men told the tribunal that what had happened was coincidence. They had come to a policy decision to stop directly employing canal boatmen and use outside contractors instead.

The tribunal decided that the four men had indeed been victimised. It fined the company five pounds (about five hundred pounds in our terms) of which three pounds was to be given to the four men, each getting fifteen shillings compensation for lost time.



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?

Oval: HOME