WHILE the Tommies battled in the trenches on the Western Front, people were fighting their own battles on the home front to feed their families and help keep the war effort going.
The war affected everyone. Edith Birchall, a young teacher wrote in her diary of the novel experience of a Zeppelin raid on Staffordshire while Ellen South energetically collected 39 tons of waste paper for war funds.
Daily life became an increasing challenge for all. Families had to find a way to cope without their breadwinners. These included men in the army and navy but also interned ‘enemy aliens’ such as Bert Kemper, – one of a handful of Germans from Tamworth interned in 1915 (you can read about the Kemper family below). And, in Burton, a group of conscientious objectors like Edwin Wheeldon were sent to prison for their beliefs.
Others set aside their businesses for the duration of the war like Albert Blizzard, a brick and tile manufacturer, who became the principal recruiter for the North Staffordshire regiments. The daily lives of all these ordinary people and their families were changed by the Great War even though they never left Britain.
Now, 100 years on, eye witness accounts, diaries, letters and recently discovered official military tribunal papers have been pulled together for the first time, revealing the truth about the Staffordshire home front.
Gill Heath, Cabinet Member for Communities at Staffordshire County Council who leads on the county’s Great War commemorations said: “This is a remarkable collection of personal accounts that gives us a really valuable insight about life on the home front in Staffordshire during the First World War.
“It shows us how ordinary people managed to survive in a new wartime economy which impinged on every aspect of their daily lives. How they coped to earn a living; how they shopped, cooked and shared food despite increasing food shortages and a rocketing cost of living.”
This was the first time that civilians were a crucial part of a new kind of warfare. Even though men, women and children in Staffordshire were far from the guns, their success in forming a resilient home front could make the difference between winning and losing the war.
Professor Karen Hunt, author of ‘Staffordshire’s War’ said: “While Staffordshire’s War should interest those who want to know more about the past of the county they live in or where their family comes from, this story has a wider reach beyond Staffordshire. For the first time we have a local picture of what it was like to live through a war which in the end touched every home in the country and changed everyday life”.
“Many of the features we have come to associate with a home front, such as food rationing, were invented in local communities during the Great War. In every neighbourhood, people demanded that scarce resources were shared out fairly.”
The book shows how the winter of 1917/1918 was the hardest of the war for those struggling to maintain the home front.
Karen added: “Exactly one hundred years ago, lengthy queues were to be found across Staffordshire. Women and children drawn by the rumour of supplies, gathered early in the morning to queue for scarce goods like sugar, margerine and tea. Local authorities saw that unless they took action desperate people might not just queue but, as they often left empty-handed hours later, they might riot.
“Government knew only too well that food riots had triggered the Russian Revolution earlier in 1917 and now Russia was coming out of the war. Neglecting food queues was dangerous. ”
Staffordshire’s War also uses new evidence from the recently discovered papers of the Mid-Staffordshire Military Appeals Tribunal. These should have been destroyed at the end of the war as they contain many personal details. These papers provide a window onto everyday life as the people of Staffordshire invented a home front for the first time.
A team of volunteers recruited by Staffordshire County Council’s Archives Service worked with Professor Karen Hunt to research and write the book. Staffordshire War is available from Amberley Press.
Bernard Kemper was born in Germany but had lived in Britain for much of his adult life. In 1915, he was a 49 year old unnaturalised British citizen when he was rounded up with two other ‘enemy aliens’ in Tamworth. They were all interned for the duration of the war. He had been running a sausage skin business with his two sons. George (21) and Bert (18) were then conscripted in 1916.
Despite noting their relatively unusual position of having an interned father, George’s appeal for temporary exemption from military service was denied and he was sent into the Army while his younger brother managed to continue the business on a series of temporary exemptions.
Although they did not change their family name as some of German extraction did, the young men did change the name of the business from Kemper & Sons to Kemper Brothers. This meant that they could announce that theirs was now ‘an entirely British business’ – a claim which was crucial to the economic survival of the family.
For the rest of the war, Bert supported his mother and sister in the absence of his father and elder brother. After the war Bernard and George Kemper returned to Tamworth and to the family’s sausage skin business. This prospered in the post-war years despite Kemper senior’s wartime internment as an enemy alien.