Birmingham Stories is a series of blog posts exploring the experiences of Birmingham men and women during the First World War through the Museum’s collection.
Harold Hall was born in Woodgate on the outskirts of Birmingham in 1893. At the age of 14 he began working at Cadbury’s in the Biscuit Department. When war broke out in 1914, Harold volunteered for the Army but he was classed as unfit for military service. Harold had lost a finger in an accident when he was 15 years old. At the beginning of the war men volunteering for the army were often rejected on the grounds of poor health, sight, or bad teeth. They could also be rejected if they were not tall enough. Undeterred, Harold then enlisted as a Private with the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) on the 24 November 1914. The RAMC were a non-combatant corps of the armed forces who undertook a range of orderly and medical duties on the home front and overseas.
Home Front Hospitals
In August 1914 parts of the University of Birmingham campus, including the Aston Webb building, were commandeered by the Territorial Force to become Territorial General Hospitals.The University was known as the 1st Southern General Hospital. In May 1915 City Hospital, then Dudley Road Infirmary, became an annex of the 1st Southern General. By May 1917 it was established as a hospital in its own right, known as the 2/1st Southern General Hospital.
Numerous other smaller annex hospitals and convalescent homes were established in Birmingham. They were often run by a combination of the RAMC, the Red Cross or St John’s Ambulance. They could also be sponsored by local businesses and individuals.
Harold trained at the 1st Southern General Hospital before moving to Dudley Road Infirmary in 1915 where he worked in the kitchens.
Harold was a member of the Woodgate Valley Prize Band. In August 1916 he joined a newly formed Dudley Road staff band. The band regularly performed for patients at the hospital, and on military parades. They also performed at the funerals of soldiers who died in Birmingham hospitals, many of whom were buried in Ludgate Hill Cemetery.
Before the introduction of conscription in 1916, Military Tribunals were established in 1915 as part of the Derby Scheme. The tribunals aimed to free up more men for military service overseas. When Harold attended a tribunal he was deemed fit for overseas service.
In August 1917 Harold left England for France. He was initially attached to the 1st Highland Division Second Field Ambulance. Harold was a stretcher bearer. In an interview in 1981 he described what his role entailed.
‘[A normal day on duty at the Line] There would be the walking cases…there would be the stretcher cases…and when they were gassed…all sorts of sickness amongst them of various forms…they all had to have attention, didn’t they….see…[My job was] To follow up and take care of casualties…as they arose…to bring them to the [First Aid] Post and carry them across trenches and all that sort of thing…’
Harold Hall served during the Battle of Cambrai in 1917. This photograph depicts the Advanced Dressing Station of 51st Highland Division Field Ambulance on the 20 November 1917. In an interview in 1981 Harold described what was happening in the photograph.
‘They were First Aid Posts used by us for stretcher bearers and we has to get the casualties off the stretchers and and put them on that windlass thing there and the German prisoners there were releasing the handles to let the stretchers slide down the ramp into an underground hospital which was in a German dugout. The surgeon and doctors were down there and they were doing amputation and all sorts of things on the casualties as they came in …see…they were in a pretty bad way…the chaps you were sending down there…the walking cases…we could get them away…but we couldn’t get the stretcher cases away…where immediate operations were needed…to save their lives…’
Harold probably volunteered at the same time as his friend George ‘Stanley’ Payne, who was also from Woodgate. Stanley was killed at Marfaux in France on the 15 July 1918. He was serving with the 15th Field Ambulance. He died when the First Aid Post he was working at received a direct hit from a German shell. Stanley was 23 years old. During the First World War 743 officers and 6130 soldiers in the RAMC were killed.
Harold Hall donated his collection of personal memorabilia associated with his First World War service in the RAMC in the 1980s. To see more objects relating to Harold’s First World War service with the RAMC or Birmingham hospitals during the First World War please go to BMAG Flikr.
Birmingham Museums are interested in collecting objects relating to Birmingham people during the First World War. Did your ancestor serve in any of the following areas either on the Home Front or overseas?
- Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service
- Voluntary Aid Detachments (VAD)
- Red Cross
- St John’s Ambulance
- Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU)
Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
During a trip to Northern France in June 2014, I visited the graves of some men whose stories we are featuring in an exhibition about Birmingham and the Royal Warwickshire Regiment during the first world war. The family photograph and letters reproduced here are part of the collection of Dave Vaux.
Bill and Alan Furse
Bill Furse and his brother Alan lived in Moseley, Birmingham. When war broke out Lord Kitchener put out an appeal for volunteers, and many white-collar workers joined the so–called ‘Pals’ battalions. Bill and Alan both joined the 1st Birmingham battalion (also known as the 14th battalion) in September 1914. In this photograph Bill is seated to the left hand side, and Alan is standing.
The Furse brothers were middle-class and their background and education would have qualified them for advancement. Both were commissioned to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant. Alan’s letters home give a vivid picture of life in the British Expeditionary Force. He describes the conditions in the trenches: ‘Whilst on your tour of duty round in the front line you are floundering knee deep in mud and both sides are slimy with mud so that you have nothing clean to steady yourself by and when you get back to your dugout to rest you have the slimy walls and at least a foot of mud on the floor. You soon learn not to drop things as of course they are useless afterwards and the great trouble is to find somewhere to put something down’.
Alan also writes to his teenage brother Claude, who was an Army Cadet. These letters present the war as a great adventure: ‘It is a grand sight to see the anti aircraft guns firing at an aeroplane, little puffs like bunches of cotton wool suddenly appearing all round the plane until he gets out of range…Whilst we were walking back to the wood today a couple of shells fell about 100 yds away and kicked up a devil of a row…They are called Whizzbangs because they are of such high velocity and you get no warning of their arrival, just the whiz thro’ the air and then the explosion…’.
Tragically, Alan’s brother Bill was killed on the first day of the battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916. He was 25. Alan was not far away, but he did not hear the news of Bill’s death until several days later when his parents informed him by telegram. Alan’s response to his parents is a prime example of ‘stiff upper lip’, but his grief can be read between the lines: ‘Thus goes the finest pal I have ever had and one of the best and most straightforward men who ever lived. Of course the shock has been bad for me but what you must feel at home having to sit still I can’t imagine but you must not give way more than you can help. Try and bear up. God grant you all His help at this awful time and give you strength to bear the loss of such a splendid man’.
I visited Bill’s grave in June 2014. By the time he died Bill had been transferred to the Tyneside Scottish Brigade, formed of ‘Pals’ battalions of the Northumberland Fusiliers. Bill was temporarily buried where he fell, but was transferred to Bapaume Post Cemetery near Albert after the Armistice.
Alan Furse was discharged on medical grounds later in 1916 and survived the war.
James Edward Weeks Rance
Many men who served in the first world war also went on to fight in the second world war. One example is James Edward Weeks Rance of the 2nd battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment. He was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery during the first world war.
In May 1940 Major Rance, now aged 42, was part of the British Expeditionary Force once again. During the retreat to Dunkirk, he was among those fighting to defend the town of Wormhoudt. During the retreat to Dunkirk, he was among those fighting to defend the town of Wormhoudt, where he was killed. Following this battle, 80 Royal Warwicks were taken prisoner by the Waffen-SS division, the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler. They were locked into a barn and murdered.
Rance is now buried at Wormhoudt Communal Cemetery. A small number of Commonwealth war dead from both world wars lie among civilian graves. It was quite moving to see war graves scattered among the tombs of the local townspeople.
Our exhibition ‘Soldiers’ Stories: Birmingham and the Royal Warwickshire Regiment 1914 to 1918’ opens on 19 July 2014.
Read the first part of this blog: First World War – Private Fred Andrews
Photographs 1-3 courtesy of Dave Vaux.
We have been preparing for an exhibition about Birmingham men who served in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment during the first world war. I had the opportunity to follow up some of these individuals during my recent trip to Northern France. It’s hard to believe that the gentle countryside of the Somme has been the scene of death and destruction, but the reminders are everywhere, not only in the form of military cemeteries but also road signs indicating the front line at various dates during the Somme campaign. This is the first of two blog posts in which I will look at the stories of three men who lost their lives in this area.
Private Fred Andrews
Private Fred Andrews served with the 1/6th battalion of the Royal Warwicks and took part in ‘the big push’ on the Somme in July 1916. He came from a working-class family in Ladywood, Birmingham. He was an officer’s servant. In our collection we have a set of letters written by Fred to his mother and sister, which give an insight into Fred’s life on a training camp on Salisbury Plain and later as part of the British Expeditionary Force in France.
On Easter Monday 1916, Fred writes: ‘Dinner time we had biscuits instead of bread. We shall have them every Monday and Thursday. They are hard, but very nice, I can eat them all right. One man has put his wife’s address on one and a 1d stamp, on one side, and on the other he put, This is what they give us on Easter Monday, at Salisbury Plain. He sent one just the same last year from the trenches. If I was the post man I should eat it’.
Fred only writes two letters once he reaches France as part of the British Expeditionary Force. In one he says: ‘The Officers, and N.C.O’s [non-commissioned officers] are very good to us here. We can get two green envelopes a week, so you will get the letters pretty quick. Dear Mum, Will you please give Ollie [Fred’s girlfriend] my love, and address when you see her. They are a very nice lot of chaps that I am with now. And we get plenty of food to eat. I will close now with very Best Love to you all, and Ollie. Do not worry I hope the war will soon be over now. Things are looking up here. Love to all, Fred xxx’. The last letter from Fred was received by his mother on 30 June 1916.
The final letters in the series are from Fred’s mother. She writes to him repeatedly during July 1916, pleading with him to write to her: ‘oh son I do hope you are all right I have not had a line for nearly three weeks the last I had you wrote the 30 of June and now it is the 19 of July my own dear boy I am quite sure it is not your fault I do not know what is preventing you from writing if I could only get a line in your hand writing I should feel better’. Mrs Andrews’ letters are returned to her, the envelopes marked ‘missing’.
Fred had been killed on the very first day of the battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916. He was 21 years old. Mrs Andrews eventually received this photograph of his grave (see image above). Fred still lies in Serre Road Cemetery No. 2 at Beaumont-Hamel, but he now has a permanent headstone.
I visited Fred’s grave in June 2014. Serre Road is one of the many Commonwealth cemeteries designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. It was completed in 1934. The Commonwealth cemeteries are now maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and are beautiful and peaceful places to visit.
During the 1920s and 30s many relatives of the dead visited their graves in France, some with the assistance of veterans’ associations. We do not know whether Fred’s family ever had the opportunity to do this.
Our exhibition ‘Soldiers’ Stories: Birmingham and the Royal Warwickshire Regiment 1914 to 1918’ opens on 19 July 2014.
Read the second blog: First World War – Bill Furse and James Rance