Tag Archives: War

The Legacy of War

The First World War signified a change in the conduct of war. War was now waged on an unprecedented scale against both military forces and civilian populations. The mass mobilisation of military firepower led to untold devastation on the battlefields, campaigns which left millions dead.

Emerging from this ‘total war’ were cases of shell shock, soldiers psychologically affected by the harsh reality of 20th century warfare. Still a relatively new diagnosis, the first use of the term shell shock was believed to have been recorded in the Lancet in 1915 when Charles Myers, Captain in the Royal Army medical Corps, published his article ‘A Contribution to the Study of Shell Shock. Being an Account of Three Cases of Loss of Memory, Vision, Smell and Taste, Admitted into the Duchess of Westminster’s War Hospital, Le Touquet.’

Order for the Reception of a Dangerous Lunatic Soldier. [HC AS]

There are only a handful of surviving records from the psychiatric hospitals in Birmingham dating from the First World War. In the records of All Saints Hospital are reception orders for those admitted to the hospital. These include ‘Service’ patients who were members of the armed forces who had experienced attacks of a psychological kind that had left them with symptoms including those of hallucinations, apathy, loss of memory or understanding, restlessness and the inability to answer simple questions.  In some cases, these men already had pre-existing conditions. In 1917 one soldier, whose cause of attack was unknown, was described as ‘… deluded imagining his food is poisoned. He told me that he was surrounded by enemies who wished to take his life.’ [MS 344/15/14]. We don’t know the full details of this soldier’s condition, however the effects of war seem to be obvious.

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Another Verdun

Birmingham Archives and Collections has other references to a wartime Verdun, as one of the towns used for the accommodation of prisoners during the Napoleonic war in the early 19th century. By the beginning of 1808 there were six of these towns, forming a string close to the north-eastern border of France: Valenciennes, Arras, Givet, Verdun, Sarrelibre, and Bitche. In 1809 three more were added, Mount Dauphin, Briançon, and Cambrai.

Two volumes have survived in the Papers of Matthew Boulton and Family, a letter book and an account book, which belonged to the Committee for the Relief of British Prisoners in France, established in 1803. (MS 3782/19/1-2)

The purpose of the Committee was to oversee the distribution of charitable aid to prisoners, from money collected from prisoners’ families or by public subscription. There were several organisations collecting funds for the relief of prisoners. One, the Patriotic Society, restricted payments ‘to the aged and wounded, to the instruction of the young men, and to the relief of such prisoners of weak health, whose disorders were not sufficiently dangerous to necessitate their being transferred to the hospital’.

MS 3782.19.1 f761

1809 regulations for the distribution of charitable relief. [MS 3782/19/1/letter 761]

Some time after the formation of the Committee at Verdun, its members ‘wrote home to solicit a general subscription’, as they felt that there were a number of prisoners whose needs were not being met by the above fund. As a result, another Society was formed at Lloyd’s Coffee House to receive donations. Lloyd’s Coffee House was the centre of the marine insurance business and it is possible that this Society was particularly concerned to relieve prisoners from the crews of merchant ships, though its funds were applied to wider objects. The letter advising the committee at Verdun of the formation of this ‘very humane and charitable institution’ bore the date 12 November 1807 (MS 3782/19/1/letter 406).

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Damaged houses in the Rue Neuve on the River Meuse, Verdun. © IWM (Q 67594)

Damaged houses in the Rue Neuve on the River Meuse, Verdun. © IWM (Q 67594)

Today, February 21st, marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of Verdun.

German advances in eastern France had created a salient at Verdun. Lying on the banks of the Meuse, Verdun was strategically important not only because of the ‘dent’ it had created in the German front line, but it was also the main crossing point for miles across the River Meuse. If Verdun could be taken, this could be significant for supply routes into France.

The French defences at Verdun were not as strong as they once were, and although they did have some warning of the impending attack, the German bombardment which began on 21st February signalled the start of German advances in the area. Seen by many as one of the hardest fought French-German battles during the First World War, the French defence slowed down the advance. Although the battle is generally seen as ending in December 1916, it would not be until November 1918 that the German army was finally pushed back to the position it had held prior to the battle. It is believed the number of dead or missing from both the French and the German sides was 305,440.

Although the battle involved French troops, word had reached soldiers in the British trenches – amongst them a soldier from Birmingham, Private Reg Smith, an employee of W. Canning Materials Ltd. Private Smith wrote several letters to his employer while serving in the army,  nearly all of which were censored, and he wrote of Verdun in a letter dated 8th April 1916:

When it comes to proper fighting they’re done. The French have got ’em skinned at Verdun, that’s about the biggest bloomer they’ve made in this War. It has only got one ending to it and the longer it is postponed the greater will be their defeat.

Letter to Canning Ltd from Private Smith, April 1916. [MS 2326/1/19/8]

Typed transcipt of a letter to Canning Ltd from Private Smith, April 1916.
[MS 2326/1/19/8]

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War & Conscience, 1914/18: Marking the Centenary of Conscription

Anti conscription leaflet Political and Trade Union Archive Jim Simmonds Papers volume 2

Anti-conscription leaflet (Political & Trade Union Archive, Jim Simmonds Papers, vol 2)

This year we mark the centenary of the Military Service Acts which introduced conscription during the First World War. The first Military Service Act came into force on 2nd March 1916 and compelled ‘eligible’ men to join the armed forces. Initially it affected single men between the ages of 18 and 41 but eventually conscription included every able-bodied man between 18 and 51. The Act included exemptions such as those for the medically unfit, certain classes of industrial workers and clergymen, it also included an exemption for reasons of conscience.

There was significant objection to conscription from a number of perspectives and many men felt that it went against their conscience. Some objected due to socialist principles whereas others objected on religious grounds. A centenary event on Saturday 27th February held by the Quakers & the First World War: Lives & Legacies project will explore some of these perspectives and details of the event and how to book a place are given below.

Quakers, or members of the Religious Society of Friends as they are also known, formed a significant part of the objection to conscription, and to the war in general. Many Quaker men became Conscientious Objectors (C.O.s) and the Society collaborated with organisations such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a non-denominational Christian pacifist group established in 1914, and the No-Conscription Fellowship, also formed in 1914 for anyone who opposed compulsion on religious, political, moral or humanitarian grounds.

Roll of Honour, Alan Scrivener Lloyd (MS 4039)

Roll of Honour, Alan Scrivener Lloyd (MS 4039 Lloyd family papers)

Not all young Quaker men were C.O.s however, a number enlisted in various branches of the military services and the roll of names included members of prominent local Quaker families – Barrow, Cadbury, Gibbins, Impey, Lloyd and Southall.  Alan Scrivener Lloyd, one of the four sons of Gertrude and John Henry Lloyd, enlisted almost immediately and was given a commission in the 78th Brigade Royal Field Artillery. Alan was killed on 4 August 1916 at Ypres and posthumously awarded the Military Cross. Two of his brothers Ronald and Eric served in the Friends Ambulance Unit (a voluntary and unofficial Quaker body active on the Western Front) before eventually joining the military. The fourth brother Gerald was C.O. who performed alternative service in Oswestry working in YMCA huts. Similarly Egbert (or Bertie) Cadbury, the youngest son of George and Elizabeth Cadbury, served in the Navy and then as a pilot in the Royal Naval Air Service, a forerunner of the Royal Air Force.  Continue reading

‘I Chose Where To Stand: The Life of Else Rosenfeld’

dont_stand_by_logoThe theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day on 27th January is ‘Don’t Stand By’, reminding us that the Holocaust and later genocides occurred as a result of local populations either actively supporting and taking part in government persecution or remaining silent, whether through fear or indifference, and allowing persecution to take hold and grow.

The story of Else (or Elsbeth) Rosenfeld, recorded by Charles Parker, the BBC documentary radio producer in 1963, is the story of someone who didn’t stand by. Born in Berlin in 1891, to a non-practising Jewish father and a Christian mother, she and her siblings were brought up as Lutheran Christians, and were encouraged to treat everyone equally, irrespective of their beliefs. Her father was a well-liked doctor, practicing in one of the poorer areas of Berlin. As a child, Else often accompanied him when he visited patients, an experience which in later life influenced her decision to train as a social worker, at that time an unusual occupation for a woman. She initially worked in a team which cared for disabled soldiers, and later worked as a social worker rehabilitating inmates in a women’s prison in Berlin.

'The Life of Elsbeth Rosenfeld' from Charles Parker's library (ref MS 4000/4)

‘The Life of Elsbeth Rosenfeld’ ( MS 4000/4)

In 1920, she married Siegfried Rosenfeld, a Jewish lawyer who became a Social Democrat MP in the Prussian Parliament and a civil servant at the Prussian Ministry of Justice in Berlin, but in 1933, her husband was removed from office. Else, despite being Christian, was asked to stop her work in the prison because of her marriage to a Jew.  At the same time, rehabilitation or social work for prisoners was banned by the Nazi regime.

Life became increasingly difficult for the couple and their children, but despite this, they hid Jewish friends in their house until it became too dangerous to do so. In the summer of 1933, they decided to move to the countryside, where they were forced to move villages numerous times over the next few years because of tightening restrictions on what non-Aryans were allowed to do, and increasing intolerance and abuse from the people living around them.

In 1937, out of a desire to help the Jewish community and fight against injustice, Else asked a liberal Rabbi to register her as a member of the Jewish community and provide her with a certificate, though she did not renounce Christianity. She realised that the skills she had gained through social work could be of use in helping to alleviate some of the suffering of the Jews, but without the certificate, it would have been hard for her to be accepted and trusted by the Jewish community at that time. By deciding to stand with the Jews, she was putting herself into a dangerous situation from which her Christian faith could have saved her.

Ghetto gates. Image courtesy of the Wiener Library via http://hmd.org.uk/resources

Ghetto gates. Image courtesy of the Wiener Library via http://hmd.org.uk/resources

The family’s plans to leave Germany fell through after tightened restrictions on the movement of Jews after Kristallnacht in 1938. Knowing that it would soon be impossible to leave the country, they managed to get help from the Quakers so that their children could travel to England. Just before the outbreak of war, when Else’s travel permit failed to arrive, she convinced her husband to leave for England to join their children.

Soup Kitchen in Lodz ghetto.

Soup Kitchen in Lodz ghetto. Image courtesy of the Wiener Library via http://hmd.org.uk/resources

Else was soon travelling to Munich every day to help people in the ghetto. She was responsible for finding housing in the already crowded ghetto for 350 displaced Jews from Baden, and providing them with ration cards, food and clothing. She also supervised three homes for the elderly.

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My favourite thing in Archives & Collections, Corinna Rayner

Poppy Red Remembered

There are so many things in the Archives & Collections at the Library of Birmingham that could be my “My favourite thing” that it was incredibly difficult to choose something. The collections are so varied, span such a length of time, touch on so many aspects of Birmingham’s history, culture, communities, events, and experiences, but, eventually I settled on the first collection I ever catalogued as a newly qualified archivist in my first professional job, which was here in Birmingham.

Collection of letters written by Private Smith letters [MS 2326/1/19]

Collection of letters written by Private Smith
[MS 2326/1/19]

I have chosen a set of letters written to Canning & Co. by Private R. Smith of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment (MS 2326/1/19).

In the 15 years since cataloguing the letters, I have never forgotten the reference number for the collection, I have remembered the names of the soldiers who wrote back to their employers describing so vividly their day-to-day lives and experiences on the frontline, their hopes, concerns, humours, and losses. I remember details with such clarity, because of the way they wrote. So many images from the letters play across my memory whenever WWI is mentioned, from lighting flashing off of bayonets to rats the size of kittens.

An extract from my favourite letter of all however, is transcribed here, and I think it speaks for itself as to why I chose it:

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We Will Remember the Fallen

Remember the Fallen

Remember the Fallen

Three years ago we featured the Remember the Fallen website on the Iron Room – the result of the hard work of one woman, Sandra Taylor, dedicated to ‘bringing to life’ the names on local war memorials.

Today, the number of war memorials and rolls of honour on the website now total 574, with a total of 22,254 names:

  • 533 Worcestershire
  • 14 Shropshire
  • 10 Gloucestershire
  • 9 Warwickshire
  • 4 Herefordshire
  • 3 Birmingham
  • 1 Staffordshire

Of the three memorials in Birmingham, one is the Austin Motor Company WW1 Roll of Honour No 1 which is now in Northfield Royal British Legion Club and records 197 names which are listed on the Remember the Fallen website.

A new improved website will be launching soon so please do have a look and show your support.

(The Library of Birmingham does not hold records of the Austin Motor company, but please do enquire with the Heritage Motor Centre.)