In this guest blog post provided by one of the WW1 Engagement Centres, Voices of War and Peace, we look at the role that the University of Birmingham Hospital played during the war.
Plans for military hospitals in Birmingham were made by the 13th Territorial General Hospital well in advance of war breaking out. Birmingham University was used as the 1st Southern General Hospital, with the first wounded soldiers arriving on 1 September 1914, and 1,000 beds provided by early 1915. As casualties increased many other buildings became hospitals, such as the Poor Law Infirmary on Dudley Road in 1915, the Monyhull Colony in King’s Norton in 1916 and school buildings in Kings Heath and Stirchley. Rubery Hill and Hollymoor hospitals were also used.
Auxiliary hospitals, often staffed by volunteers, were set up in some of Birmingham’s larger houses, including Highbury in Moseley, Moor Green Hall, Harborne Hall, The Beeches in Erdington, Uffculme, and Allerton in Sutton Coldfield.
When war broke out on 4th August 1914, mobilisation orders were received by the 1st Southern General. Just one week later, 520 beds were in place in accordance with plans drawn up in 1909. This photograph shows the University of Birmingham’s Great Hall converted into a military hospital ward.
Many activities were organised to keep the wounded and convalescing soldiers occupied. Workshops mended boots and produced surgical appliances, bed frames, supplies for the front. Classes were given in languages, shorthand, book keeping, shorthand, carpentry, tailoring and gardening. Drama companies put on shows and many Birmingham theatres provided free tickets to performances. At Christmas, wards were decorated and traditional celebrations took place.
Regular ambulance units could not cope with the numbers and volunteer drivers ferried wounded soldiers to hospitals and delivered medical staff to stations. Volunteers produced medical equipment and also trained as nurses. A Citizen’s Committee and Lady Mayoress’s Depot, set up in 1914, organised much of the voluntary work in the city.
Highbury opened as an auxiliary hospital in 1915, the money for its equipment being donated by Kynoch’s of Witton. It specialised in neurological cases and was staffed by a commandant, a matron, eight sisters and voluntary workers, mostly women. It had 274 beds, an open air ward, and the conservatories and greenhouses were used in emergencies.
This photograph, taken in the grounds of the Edgbaston military hospital, shows wounded soldiers from Australia and Scotland with other Allied patients and VAD nurses. By the end of the war there were over 7,000 beds in Birmingham and by 1919 over 125,000 men had been treated, including Belgian, American, and Serbian soldiers.
Great Hall, University of Birmingham [Library of Birmingham: WW1/Hospitals]
Ambulance at Highbury [Library of Birmingham: WW1/Hospitals]
Commonwealth Patients in Edgbaston [Library of Birmingham: WW1/Hospitals]
Matt Shinn looks at an extraordinary story of philanthropy and humanity that is being uncovered by Voices of War and Peace, one of the AHRC Engagement Centres, in partnership with the YMCA.
‘The average Joe probably just thinks of the song by the Village People,’ says Michael Snape, Reader in Religion, War and Society at the University of Birmingham. Few of us now would associate the YMCA with the First World War, or know that the organisation was involved at the time in one of the greatest philanthropic endeavours ever undertaken in British society.
The support that the YMCA gave to soldiers in the Great War was material, educational and spiritual. It covered everything from providing recreational huts and tents when young men began their training, to supplying pastoral care, writing materials and cups of tea at hundreds of centres, many very close to (and sometimes on) the front line (the YMCA centre at Ypres, for example, was in a dug-out that frequently came under shell fire). The YMCA was one of several organisations that gave soldiers a small reminder of the civilian world, even in a front-line trench.
The YMCA was one of several organisations that gave soldiers a small reminder of the civilian world, even in a front-line trench
Then there was what Michael Snape calls the ‘amazingly touching’ service that the YMCA provided, of taking family members to hospitals in France, to say farewell to soldiers who were dying and who could not be moved. ‘I had a great uncle who was fatally wounded at Messines,’ he says. ‘My great grandfather received the news, and was asked to travel to be with him in his last hours. I puzzled over that for years – how was it possible for a working-class man to get over to France in 1917? The answer was that the YMCA had made it possible.’
The YMCA’s work in the Great War was a huge logistical undertaking. And given its range, cost, and the number of people involved, says Michael Snape, ‘the fact that it’s now so little known shows just how much of the legacy of the First World War has been forgotten.’
The project that is bringing this forgotten history to light has been supported by the Voices of War and Peace Engagement Centre, based at the University of Birmingham but involving other universities and a wide range of organisations (see inset box – to follow). Like other projects supported by the Engagement Centre, it shows how much the role of religion in society has changed in a hundred years, and how important the work of faith-based agencies was at the time of the First World War.
The YMCA’s work in the conflict was entirely independent of government: it was carried out by volunteers, and supported by donations totalling £2.5 million over the course of the war – a huge amount at the time. ‘The latitude the YMCA was given shows how much Britain was a liberal Christian society, and the care that it took of its soldiers,’ says Michael Snape. ‘It’s in marked contrast to some of the black legends of the Great War, with their clichés of every 16-year-old being tied to a stake and shot for cowardice. The elbow room given to philanthropic organisations shows the real attitude of the army and of the state, and the extent to which British soldiers were looked after. The French and the Germans didn’t have anything like it.’
The YMCA’s work was carried out by volunteers, and supported by donations totalling £2.5 million over the course of the war – a huge amount at the time
There is a fundamental contrast, in other words, between the work of the YMCA in the trenches, and the image of the army as a callous machine. ‘I’m not trying to bang the drum for the generals, but key figures in the military top brass, including Field Marshal Haig, were important in promoting the YMCA’s work: Haig’s wife even worked for the YMCA in London.’
It was natural that Voices of War and Peace should be involved in this project: the YMCA’s main archive is in the Cadbury Research Library at Birmingham University. As Michael Snape says, it is an ‘absolutely astonishing treasure trove of photographs and manuscripts. And this is a very important story to tell. But one of the problems has been that the YMCA is an activist organisation: it tends to be busy with what it’s doing in the present, rather than thinking about the past.’
The YMCA Goes to War project has involved running day schools, to teach people who are interested in the conflict about this neglected aspect of it. It also involves encouraging local YMCA branches to work with the organisation’s archives, and make use of them. Bradford YMCA, for example, has created a display to catch the attention of passers-by, and show them something of the work that the YMCA did during the Great War – a deliberate echo of the kinds of awareness-raising that the YMCA went in for during the conflict, including the creation of mock dug-outs, to demonstrate the conditions that the soldiers were fighting in. ‘We’re telling YMCA people themselves about their history,’ says Michael Snape, ‘and enabling them to engage with the public in a very direct way, taking stuff out onto the streets.’
An international effort
The YMCA’s Head of International Affairs is Ken Montgomery. He points out that many of the YMCA’s volunteers in the First World War were women, who often came to understand much more of the reality of the conflict than those who stayed at home. ‘Many, indeed, found themselves in harm’s way: Betty Stephenson, for example, volunteered at the age of 18, and was given the job of taking relatives to visit the men who were too seriously wounded to be transported back to Britain. She was killed in France in an air raid, at the age of 21.’
And the YMCA’s work was an international effort: volunteers came from Canada, India, the US and Australia, as well as Britain. US President Woodrow Wilson said that 90% of pastoral services provided to the American troops during the First World War were provided by the YMCA. The government of South Africa also paid tribute, donating 400 acres on the shores of Lake Windermere, which the YMCA still uses as an outdoor activities centre.
‘The YMCA provided services to friend and foe alike,’ says Ken Montgomery. ‘It was ecumenical, and it didn’t proselytise. It was very much about providing practical support, and not just praying. With the professionalisation of services, and the expansion in what the State provides, you probably wouldn’t get anything like it today.’
It was about providing practical support, and not just praying
As well as exploring the impact of the Great War on communities in Birmingham and the Midlands, the Voices of War and Peace Centre will focus on themes of national importance including Gender and the Home Front, Belief and the Great War, Cities at War, Childhood and Commemoration.
To coincide with the 100th anniversary of World War 1, a range of collectible coins and stamps have been launched to mark this event. The Post Office Shop blog team has been researching the role of the Post Office during World War One. In this guest blog post, supplied by Voices of War and Peace, Brook Chalmers from the Post Office introduces a solider from Birmingham who their work has uncovered.
The General Post Office as it was known in 1914 had an active involvement throughout the Great War. During our research we learnt that the Post Office had its own military arm called the Post Office Rifles Regiment. This regiment saw active service throughout World War One. A member of this regiment, Sergeant Alfred Knight was awarded the highest military honour, the Victoria Cross, for an act of battlefield bravery.
The Post Office Rifles Regiment first saw active combat on 11th May 1915 when the 1st Battalion was introduced into the trenches during the battle for Festubert. The regiment would then go on to be involved in some of the key battles of World War One including the Somme, Passchendaele and Ypres.
Alfred Knight was introduced into World War One in 1917 as part of the Post Office Rifles’ 2nd Battalion. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for an act of gallantry on the battlefield.
Alfred Knight was the son of Joseph and Annie Knight and was born on 24th August 1888 in Ladywell, Birmingham. He was a Post Office employee in the North Midland Engineering District which was based in Birmingham. Knight then relocated with the department when they moved to Nottingham in 1912. Alfred was still with the department when war broke out.
Alfred Knight enlisted on 26th October 1914 and was assigned to the 2nd battalion of the Post Office Rifles Regiment. Although he joined the regiment in 1914, his unit was not stationed in France until 1917 and the first combat that the regiment saw was during the second battle of Bullecourt. During this battle, Knight returned wounded soldiers to the trenches under severe enemy fire and for this act of bravery he was given a battlefield promotion to the rank of Sergeant.
Sergeant Knight was awarded the Victoria Cross for his acts during the battle of Wurst Farm Ridge, Ypres on 20th September 1917. He was awarded the highest military accolade for demonstrating “most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty during the operation against the enemy positions.” Sergeant Knight single-handedly stormed a German machine gun position and secured it from the enemy.
On 3rd January 1918, Sergeant Alfred Knight was awarded the Victoria Cross by King George V in a ceremony held at Buckingham Palace. Knight is the only member from the Post Office Rifles regiment to be awarded with the Victoria Cross. When his award was announced, Knight quickly became a local celebrity in both Birmingham and Nottingham. He was given civic receptions in both cities and adorned with gifts.
Knight continued to serve in the Post Office Rifles until the end of the First World War. In 1919 he was then re-commissioned to serve in the Sherwood Foresters regiment with the rank of Second Lieutenant. When the Sherwood Foresters were then demobilized, Alfred Knight returned to his role within the Post Office.
Alfred Knight passed away on 4th December 1960 aged 72 in Birmingham. He was laid to rest in Oscott Catholic Cemetary, New Oscott.
Voices of War and Peace: the Great War and its Legacy is a First World War Engagement Centre funded by the AHRC and in partnership with the Heritage Lottery Fund. The University of Birmingham Centre is a joint initiative across the Midlands with Birmingham City University, Newman University, the University of Wolverhampton and the University of Worcester, and further afield with the University of Glasgow, Manchester Metropolitan University and Cardiff University.The Engagement Centre will support a wide range of community engagement activities, connecting academic and public histories of the First World War.
In this guest post, Emma Login, a University of Birmingham PhD student who is part of the Voices of War and Peace research network, reveals the ideological wrangling behind one of Birmingham’s war memorials. This post first appeared on the Voices of War and Peace blog.
The Hall of Memory has been an integral part of the Birmingham landscape for nearly 90 years. Originally surrounded by extensive memorial gardens and accompanied by an impressive colonnade, the Hall has clearly undergone multiple revisions since its construction. Yet, these changes are small scale compared to those undertaken throughout the memorial’s planning stages, as citizens debated exactly who and what should be remembered.
Discussions regarding the most appropriate way to commemorate Birmingham’s contribution to the First World War began whilst it was still being fought. Based on commemorative responses to earlier conflicts, few believed that the remembrance of the Great War would have any form of longevity. Sir Whitworth Wallis, Director of the Municipal Art Gallery writing for the Birmingham Gazette in 1917 pessimistically predicted:
We no doubt imagine that the shining events of this war will never be forgotten and that the names of those who have fallen will never pass into oblivion- judging by the past these are vain hopes- a few of the important battles will doubtless be remembered, […] a few distinguished generals, famous deeds of a few winners of the Victoria Cross will be recalled from time to time, but the millions of the rank and file will cease to be remembered. (Birmingham Gazette 17/11/1917)
As a result of these cynical projections, initial proposals were for practical memorials and focused on the battles that were fought and the weapons used to fight them. Original suggestions included a large memorial museum to be constructed “if possible in one of the parks, preferably Cannon Hill Park, which contains the Boer War memorial” and which should be “dignified, spacious, top-lighted, […] and on one floor level so as to permit easy extension” (Report of the Honorary Director January 1919). But, these plans were not well received by the people of Birmingham. The prioritisation of the memory of the conflict above that of the dead attracted widespread criticism within the local press, and as a result the scheme was swiftly dropped (Chamberlain and Francis 1919).
Despite this, Birmingham’s War Memorial Committee remained ardent that any memorial should be of practical benefit to the people of Birmingham. Subsequent suggestions included an imposing town hall, “with seating for 3,600 people, 50% more than the existing hall.” But, this time provisions were made to include the memory of the common solider through the addition of a Hall of Memory “intended to perpetuate the memory of the heroic dead” (Brooks et al, Birmingham War Memorial Committee). Yet, continued criticisms within local newspapers of a memorial not wholly based on commemoration and the failure to raise the £300,000 necessary for both structures resulted in one final revision to the scheme.
All practical elements were dropped and it was decided that just the symbolic Hall of Memory would go ahead. Thus eventually, after months of discussions, it was the memory of the ‘millions of rank and file’ that triumphed and which continues to provide the focus of Birmingham’s wartime commemorations today.
‘Voices of War and Peace: the Great War and its Legacy’ is a First World War Engagement Centre funded by the AHRC and in partnership with the Heritage Lottery Fund. The University of Birmingham Centre is a joint initiative across the Midlands with Birmingham City University, Newman University, the University of Wolverhampton and the University of Worcester, and further afield with the University of Glasgow, Manchester Metropolitan University and Cardiff University.The Engagement Centre will support a wide range of community engagement activities, connecting academic and public histories of the First World War.
What does the nature of a centenary commemoration tell us about collective memory and current social attitudes? How have commemorations changed over time? What are the most appropriate ways to handle the remembrance of traumatic or politically sensitive events?
The network is led by the University of Birmingham in collaboration with the Universities of Cardiff and Sheffield, the National Library of Wales, and Historic Royal Palaces, an independent charity looking after sites such as the Tower of London and Hampton Court.
How does World War One connect with the lives of young people? What does it mean to young people today when we talk about the trenches or Zeppelin attacks, rationing or shellshock? What about those who came to live here as a result of conflict, both past and present? What does the commemoration of a war mean to them?
These and many others are all questions that will be explored by a new World War One Engagement Centre over the next few years. Based in Birmingham, the questions have added importance as Birmingham is a culturally diverse city and one with the youngest population in Europe.
Among the other questions the Centre will explore are questions around the legacy of the War – not only what happened between 1914 and 1918 but also the impact that the War continued to have during subsequent years, for example, by 1916 training programmes for soldiers with disabilities were being held in Birmingham’s famous Jewellery Quarter and by 1930 child guidance clinics had been set up – almost certainly the result of the emotional turmoil caused to youngsters during the War.
As well as exploring the impact of the Great War on communities in Birmingham and the Midlands, the Centre will focus on themes of national importance. These include Gender and the Home Front, led by Professor Maggie Andrews from the University of Worcester, Belief and the Great War, led by Dr Michael Snape from the University of Birmingham, and Commemoration, led by Dr Joanne Sayner also from the University of Birmingham.
Voices of War and Peace: the Great War and itslegacy is one of five new First World War Engagement centres set up by the AHRC to connect academic and public histories of the First World War and its legacy. A University of Birmingham-led initiative, the Centre also involves academics from Birmingham City University, Newman University, the University of Wolverhampton and the University of Worcester, and is based at the recently-opened Library of Birmingham. The Centre is led by Professor Ian Grosvenor, the Centre Coordinator is Dr Nicola Gauld, and there are seven Co-Investigators from the five partner institutions. In addition there are over 30 cultural partners including the Cheltenham Festivals, the BBC and YMCA England.
The Centre is formally launched in Birmingham next Friday (21st March).