Home » Community & Living » How the Great War affected Staffordshire
Horses harrowing a field
Farming in the early 1900s was still labour intensive, as can be seen from this image of a man and horse chain harrowing a field near Trysull in 1915.

How the Great War affected Staffordshire

Urging women to ‘make’ their men enlist, the rising price of food and teaching children to milk cows to replace farmhands were all concerns in Staffordshire during the Great War.

Life on Staffordshire’s Home Front, as detailed by Staffordshire’s County Council’s Archives Service and personal memorabilia belonging to its Leader Philip Atkins, can be seen to be increasingly concerned with how to cope with the changing demands placed on communities.

With conscription not introduced until February 1916 thousands of men from Staffordshire’s towns and villages volunteered for service, but the haphazard way it was done caused some resentment, as well as practical problems.

The book ‘Staffordshire’s War’ notes that by 1915 farmers were concerned that they were being blamed for shortages of wheat, as well as high prices, and by March 1915 the Staffordshire Chamber of Agriculture was asking central Government for a ruling on who had priority on manpower, the Army or farmers, asking: “… whether the greater necessity was for more men or more food. They could not do two things at once with the same materials.”

By the end of February 1915, 28,400 men had enlisted, but there were considerable local variations in a county that then included Stoke-on-Trent, Wolverhampton and Walsall. In Newcastle-under-Lyme, for instance, it was suggested that nearby rural areas and mining villages were holding back.

In response recruitment parades, complete with marching soldiers, military band and headed by flamboyant recruiter Colonel Blizzard – in peacetime the owner of a Potteries brick-making business – marched through Knutton, Alsagers Bank, Halmerend and Audley. Speaking at a similar recruitment event in Eccleshall, the then Lord Stafford said he hoped that ‘the women would do their best to make their men-folk go, and tell them what their duty was’.

Philip Atkins, Leader of Staffordshire County Council, said:

“What is fascinating is that until conscription in 1916 there was no Government intervention in the balance of recruitment, so counties like Staffordshire, where thousands signed up, suddenly had to adapt to manpower shortages.”

Minutes from the Rocester branch of the War Agriculture Committee, a collection of local farmers who met in the Red Lion Hotel, shows a preoccupation with those shortages. Philip Atkins added:

“On January 2 1916, a few days before conscription began, it was agreed to compile a list of women and children who could be taught to milk cows.

“A later entry notes the children were making good progress, but I think they were unsuccessful in finding women to take on the farmwork as they had already been snapped up.

“An entry for March 31 the same year says that ‘surplus female labor [sic] is employed in the cotton mill’ but adds that half a dozen ladies were willing to help in the harvest ‘at such times they to spare from their household duties’.”

Staffordshire’s War is written by Karen Hunt, and published by Amberley.