Friday, 03 December 2021

Wargrave Local History Society

Wargrave Local History Society

THE society was able to return to meeting in person rather than via the internet for its October meeting.

Dr Margaret Simons, a respected local historian, gave an illustrated presentation on “Reading in the First World War: the Home Front 1914-18”, sharing the results of her research into the effects of the war on the area.

Reading was described in local newspapers as being “alive with khaki” over the August bank holiday of 1914.

Lots of men departed for Portsmouth and Devonport while men of the Royal Berkshire Regiment were recalled early.

It had been a super summer that year but rained heavily on August 4, the day when war was declared.

Men of the Royal Berkshire Regiment departed the next day, accompanied by 24 boxes of Huntley & Palmers biscuits and two days later all the suitable horses in the town were commandeered.

The prospect of war seemed surreal at the time with a sense of excitement as people thought it would “be over by Christmas” and crowds thronged the streets to watch the parading soldiers.

Some businesses, such as Suttons, sought to reassure the staff that their wives would be cared for and the jobs of fighting men would be kept open for them. Local schools were occupied by the army while shopkeepers, apart from jewellers or those supplying food, found trade had slowed.

Reading’s telegraphists were working flat out and postmen who were in the military reserves had joined up, so postal deliveries were reduced from five per day to four.

The major impact, though, was the inflation in the price of food. There was a shortage of pigs, sugar was scarce and the cost of meat and bread rose significantly.

Some food had been kept back for use by forces personnel — Reading was a food base for the army — while some farmers held on to their livestock hoping to get a higher price later.

Because of its road and rail links, very large numbers of the military passed through Reading and St Luke’s Hall was made into a hospital to cater for their needs. Restrictions on the population were imposed by the Defence of the Realm Act, which was passed on August 8 and revised several times during the war.

It required, for example, alcoholic drinks to be watered down and public houses to have restricted opening hours with a gap in the afternoon (a law that remained in force until 1988).

People were not allowed to buy a round of drinks, nor to speak of anything that could give information to the enemy — there was real paranoia that there was “a German around every corner”.

People were prosecuted for infringements, often for failing to observe the blackout.

The resultant changes to the economy led to many workers being put on short time, or losing their jobs.

When men volunteered to join the troops, many families were left without an income and there was a real concern that children would not be fed.

A system was introduced whereby a small amount of a soldier’s pay would be deducted to provide for family members but the scheme took some time to come into effect.

A means-tested scheme of support included an assessment of the wife, who had to be a “woman of good character”.

By the end of September 1914, meals were being provided for 1,273 “necessitous children” in Reading.

As food prices rose, those “just above the line” found themselves below it, so more and more children needed to be fed.

Meals were provided every day, except on December 25 and 26, when they were provided with a bag of food (worth 6d) each day for a single meal, the bags being put together by women teachers.

The Royal Berkshire Regiment was based at Brock Barracks in Reading.

There was a total of four battalions in August 1914 and this was to rise to 13 units by the end of the war.

There was a strong recruitment drive, the Berkshire Chronicle asking: “Young men of Reading… are you willing to see your homes destroyed and your families slaughtered in cold blood… if not, the only remedy is to join Kitchener’s Army”.

There was a patriotic fervour in the town. Soldiers would march around in uniform with their rifles to make it look exciting, so that men would want to join up.

There was a grand recruiting concert, where a popular singer of the time, Phyllis Dare, sang Your King and Country Want You with free tickets for those eligible to join the army and maybe even a kiss from Miss Dare as a reward for signing up.

Local newspapers had photographs of those who had answered the call to persuade others to do likewise. Sadly, many such pictures appeared again to record the casualties.

By 1915 it became apparent that enlisting volunteers would not be sufficient and so the National Registration Act was passed.

Blue forms for men and white for women recorded their name, age and occupation in order to identify the number of males eligible for military duty and females available for work.

The men were issued with an identity card, those in reserved occupations being exempt under the Military Service Act of March 1916.

First, single men and later those who were married were conscripted to serve, with the age range being extended as the conflict continued.

There were conscientious objectors and tribunals considered their claims.

In Reading these were very busy, meeting on three days a week, although the county tribunals considered the town to be too lenient and overturned many of the decisions.

Billeting of members of the forces also had an impact on local people, particularly as Reading was a transit hub for the troops.

A house occupier was paid 9d per night per man who stayed in their home, with 1,500 being accommodated in this way.

There was a considerable outcry at the time as the burden of this fell mainly on the poorer families, who were already in crowded homes, and not on the more affluent with bigger houses.

From February 1916, it was decreed that all new officer cadets for the Royal Flying Corps had to pass through the No 1 School of Aeronautics at Reading, which was housed in the university’s Wantage Hall with an aerodrome near the then new Co-op jam factory at Coley.

About 33,000 personnel were stationed in the town and the sound of their early morning drill was widely heard.

When the corps became part of the new RAF in April 1918, it was suggested that Reading become the new organisation’s base but the university declined to allow continued use of its property.

Many Reading firms were involved in the war effort — food companies, outfitters and engineering concerns.

Those who worked on engineering tasks were known as “munitioneers” and the women who did such work at Huntley & Palmers, where 60,000 shells were made, were called “munitionettes”.

The Royal Berkshire Hospital cared for the war wounded, as well as looking after the civilian population, and fleets of ambulances would meet trains at the station with sightseers having to be kept away.

To increase the number of beds available, the workhouse was adapted as Reading War Hospital No 1 (later known as Battle Hospital), while auxiliary hospitals were set up to house those convalescing or the less seriously injured in surrounding large houses or village halls.

The wounded men were issued with “hospital blues” to wear, so that when out and about they could be identified as fighting for King and Country and not avoiding military duty.

Women “did their bit” during the war, working in local factories, on the trams or as postwomen and even joining the police, doing the work that the men would have done.

In addition, they helped tend those in the auxiliary hospitals and made “comforts” for those in the forces.

The cost of food remained a difficulty for many. As prices rose to 130 per cent of pre-war levels, those who were prosperous could still get what they wanted but poorer families often went without, so statutory rationing was imposed from 1918.

A communal kitchen was set up in the town, which helped those who were working and found it difficult to get to the shops when food did become available.

When the armistice came, whistles blew, people gathered in the streets — even German prisoners of war working locally cheered.

There had been four years of strict controls, with freedoms restricted, and those not part of the fighting force were expected to “step up to the mark” and help with the war effort at home.

Margaret hopes to make the results of her research available as a book in due course.

For more information about the society, including its programme. email or visit www.wargrave

To ensure a covid-safe setting, the number of places available in the meeting room is being limited and members are asked to contact the society to reserve a seat.

Peter Delaney

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