They made the ultimate sacrifice when they answered the call to arms. Richard McComb looks at the staff of the Birmingham Post and Mail who died in the 'war to end all wars'.
There were 20 of them in all, a small band of Birmingham brothers made up of clerks, printers, packers, a linotype operator and a journalist.
They were recruited from the ranks of the Birmingham Post and Mail and were sent to the Western Front, where they died as a result of trench warfare, air raids or illness.
The eldest was 39 and the two youngest, who died years apart at Ypres, were just 19.
The then Birmingham Daily Post had played a unique role in the history of Army recruitment in August 1914. In an editorial at the outbreak of war, the Post urged the city’s “unmarried manhood” to form a local battalion. There could be “no question that patriotism insists that the unmarried shall offer themselves without thought or hesitation.”
Newspaper employees did not shirk their responsibilities. The names of those who did not return would join more than 12,000 others on Birmingham’s roll of honour. A further 35,000 local men were wounded in the 1914-18 conflict.
The names of the Post and Mail staff are commemorated on a memorial mounted in the modern-day newsroom, which today is based at Fort Dunlop. The building opened in 1917, the year of the Battle of Passchendaele which claimed a quarter of a million British casualties.
Visitors to what is now called BPM Media pass the memorial. Occasionally they might stop and read the dedication to the “staff of the Post & Mail who gave their lives for England 1914-1918.” Below the names is etched the words: “A city’s strength is not in her walls or in her ships but in her sons.”
Staff lost in the Second World War – at 19, the total was almost identical – are recorded on a separate panel.
I first saw the memorial in the 1990s, when the newspapers were based at Weaman Street in the city centre. I would give it a casual glance, wonder briefly what had happened to the men, and walked on. Today, my desk is a few paces away from the bronze memorial. You know how it is when you get drawn to something? Well, that happened. It struck me that as a newspaper we should do something to find out about the heroes from our not so distant past. We are only three years away from marking the centenary of the outbreak of the war to end all wars.
Our knowledge of the Post and Mail’s war dead is far from complete. We hope that by highlighting the men’s plight amid the annual Armistice commemorations, relatives may come forward with fresh information. Should you have any details, please get in touch.
According to statistical averages, the Post & Mail lost five workers a year, most of them on the Western Front. But averages are misleading. The first deaths did not hit the newspapers’ staff until 1915, when three died. The darkest year was 1917, when nine employees were killed.
It is also worth noting that nine of the men – almost half their number – have no known grave, their mortal remains lost to the cloying mud of northern France and Belgium. Lacking a formal burial, their names are recorded on the famous memorials to heroism and loss, at Thiepval, the Menin Gate, Tyne Cot and Arras.
One of the men died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, the single most disastrous day in the history of the British Army. Newspaper clerk Cpl Edward Parker, of the 1/6th battalion, the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, was killed in the attack on the Serre Quadrilateral, one of 57,470 British casualties that day.
A report on the opening day of the battle, published in the Birmingham Daily Mail to mark the sixth anniversary, recounted what happened to Parker’s battalion: “By 11am 2nd Lt J G Cooper was the only officer of the 1/6th Battalion untouched, and a dwindling handful of men of the 1/6th and 1/8th [Royal Warwickshire Regiment] was left amongst the heaps of dead and dying to man the Quadrilateral against counter-attacks from both flanks and the crossfire of the German machine guns. It was useless to remain, impossible to go forward.”
By sunset, four companies of the 1/6th were reduced in strength to two weak platoons. The battalion suffered 457 casualties. Parker, aged 26, of George Street, Balsall Heath, had been awarded the Military Medal for bravery.
Lieut Tristram William Jourdain Wilson died aged 28 during an air raid at Ypres, one of three officers killed in an explosion on November 24, 1917. Wilson, described by newspaper colleagues as “one of those cheerful souls who lighten the dull warp and weft of life for the rest of us,” was the only journalist from the staff to die.
Birmingham-born military researcher Chris Baker, who has helped to piece together details about the men, says: “By that time of the war, especially in the Ypres area, you were more or less at nightly risk of bombing from the air. The Ypres front was 10 miles long and the area behind it was packed with camps, dumps, stores, headquarters. You couldn’t move for military gear and inevitably it was a target for enemy air raids.”
Baker, a former chairman of the Western Front Association, is the author of the Long, Long Trail website and founder of the Great War Forum, the busiest discussion group of its type online with 1.4 million posts. He also runs a successful military research business, fourteeneighteen.
Baker believes the experiences of the Post and Mail fallen were “all too typical” of the British Tommy.
“Many of them didn’t die in the major well-known actions. They were the victims of shellfire or sniping or very localised actions whilst holding trenches. This was the day-to-day attrition of that war. Dreadful really,” says Baker.
Accountant clerk John Garner, of Sparkbrook, became ill overseas while serving as a private with the Southern Command Labour Centre of the Labour Corp. He appears to have died at home and is buried in Yardley cemetery. Errand boy Bert William Davis died just 16 days after landing in France in 1915.
Junior clerk Edward Lister, aged 22, of Hugh Road, Small Heath, was one of the original Birmingham Pals, having enlisted with the 14th (Service) battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment at the outbreak of war. “He was killed in the battalion’s first major action, the attack on High Wood on the Somme on 23 July, 1916,” says Baker.
Baker, who lives in Leamington Spa, has researched the stories of more than 4,000 servicemen and is a human repository of First World War facts. For example, he has discovered 300 cases of brothers, sometimes twins, killed on the same day. “In some instances, they were not even on the same continent. Sheer bad luck,” says Baker, who has just published The Battle for Flanders, German Defeat on the Lys 1918.
Baker adds: “You get brilliant stories and you get very tragic ones, of men who lost their lives within a matter of hours of arrival at the front. Those stories are off-set by the men who have done something really fantastic or just doggedly stuck it through, done their bit and somehow managed to survive it all.”
Why did some men make it through while others were annihilated. Was it purely luck?
“Yes – but it was luck at a number of levels in terms of the job you had to do. There is obviously a significant difference between a frontline fighting soldier and, for example, a man of the transport, simply because of the exposure to danger,” says Baker.
“But after that, it’s a matter of luck, an absolute matter of luck. If that flying shard of metal missed you by an inch, you were in luck. It was as simple as that. There is no common story. This is a mass of individuals.”
* Chris Baker’s The Battle for Flanders, German Defeat on the Lys 1918, is published by Pen and Sword.