Twentieth century Chester 1914-2000
Chester and the first world war

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Victoria County History

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C.P. Lewis, A.T. Thacker (Editors)

Year published

2003

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240-241

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'Twentieth century Chester 1914-2000: Chester and the first world war', A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 part 1: The City of Chester: General History and Topography (2003), pp. 240-241. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=19221 Date accessed: 30 August 2014.


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CHESTER AND THE FIRST WORLD WAR

The 1st Battalion of the Cheshire Regiment, in Ireland when war was declared, was sent straight to France to fight at Mons. Within three weeks there were 800 casualties among the 1,000-strong battalion, and hospital trains full of the wounded began to arrive at Chester. The city was then the headquarters of Western Command and the principal recruiting centre for Cheshire; troops were enlisted and trained in camps within or around the city and mass meetings were held at the town hall to persuade men to volunteer for military service. (fn. 1) The Army requisitioned the Roodee for training, and from 1915 the races were discontinued. (fn. 2) Normal political activity was also suspended. In 1916 the city's Unionist M.P. resigned, and his replacement, Sir Owen Philipps, took his seat without a contest. (fn. 1) The mayor, John Frost, remained in office for six successive years from 1913, and was knighted in 1918 for his services to the city. (fn. 2)

Because so many men joined the armed services, industry was soon short of labour, and men were sought from the surrounding districts, especially for the large new munitions factory built by the government in 1915 at Queensferry (Flints.). (fn. 3) By 1917 some 3,000 munitions workers had come to live in the already overcrowded city. (fn. 4) Although the government encouraged women to take work, the corporation was reluctant to employ them, using them only as lamplighters and tram conductors, and dismissing its female employees in 1919. (fn. 5) Working women were blamed for the rise in the infantile death rate to an all-time recorded high of 106.9 per 1,000 live births in 1916, although it was acknowledged that overcrowded living conditions were partly responsible. (fn. 6) Inflation was a further cause of hardship, particularly to those reliant on poor-law relief or Army allowances. By early 1916 the board of poor-law guardians thought that there had been a 40 per cent increase in the cost of living since the war began. The reasons were little understood, and food price rises were blamed on profiteers. (fn. 7) The presence of many troops and the greater freedom for women led to some relaxation in socially acceptable standards of behaviour. There was no support for prohibition, but licensing restrictions were introduced. (fn. 8) For fear of air raids the street lights were extinguished at night, the blackout being blamed for the 'disgraceful conduct of young girls in the Rows'. (fn. 9)

Men and women not directly engaged in war work were drawn into voluntary activities such as entertaining servicemen and auxiliary nursing of war wounded in the military hospitals which were set up in the workhouse, at Sealand, and in private residences, including Eaton Hall. (fn. 10) There were many fund-raising events, and several voluntary organizations came together as the Council of Social Welfare. Much of the work fell upon women. (fn. 11) The most important organization for men was the Chester Volunteer Regiment, a home-guard unit given official recognition in 1915 and active until the end of the war. (fn. 12)

In 1918 American soldiers began to arrive in the city and baseball matches were held to make them feel welcome. Despite the onset of the 'Spanish' influenza epidemic, peace was celebrated 'exuberantly', with huge bonfires. (fn. 13) Mayor Frost placed a roll of honour in the town hall for the 771 Chester citizens killed in action, and Dean Bennett successfully urged the donation of memorial stained-glass windows to the cathedral. The council chose as the official war memorial a red sandstone cross designed by Royson and Crossley, an Oxford firm with strong Chester connexions. (fn. 14) There was some difficulty in raising sufficient funds by public subscription, but in 1922 the cross was erected on a site south of the cathedral, facing St. Werburgh Street. It was unveiled by two mothers, one of whom had lost three of her four sons, and the other, four of six. (fn. 15) Remembrance Day services were held there or inside the cathedral until 1929, after which they took place outside the town hall. (fn. 16) The honorary freedom of the city was accepted by Sir David Beattie, Sir Douglas Haig, and Lloyd George, but President Wilson declined. (fn. 17)

Footnotes

1 F.W. Longbottom, Chester in Gt. War, Images of Eng.: Ches. Regiment, comp. R. Barr (2000), 34-5.
2 Ches. Observer, 8 Aug. 1914; R. J. Barr, '1st Battalion, 22nd (Ches.) Regiment and Military Disaster at Mons', Ches. Hist. xxxv. 78-88; Chester City Cl. Mins. 1913/14, 665-6, 745; 1914/15, 68, 206, 311, 340-2; 1915/16, 117, 227.
1 Brit. Parl. Election Results, 1885-1918, ed. F. W. S. Craig (1989), 96.
2 Burke, Peerage (1931), 2683.
3 Ches. Observer, 26 June 1915; cf. ibid. 20 Aug. 1921.
4 Ibid. 4 Aug. 1917.
5 Ibid. 18 Dec. 1915; 21 Jan. 1917; Chester City Cl. Mins. 1914/15, 317, 569; 1918/19, 424-6, 440.
6 Annual Rep. of Medical Officer of Health (1916): copies in C.C.A.L.S., ZDH 2/5, and bound with copy of Chester City Cl. Mins. 1915/16 at C.H.H.; Ches. Observer, 20 Sept. 1916.
7 Ches. Observer, 9 Sept. 1916.
8 Ibid. 8 Aug., 5 Sept. 1914.
9 Ibid. 12 Feb. 1916; 26 Jan. 1918.
10 Ibid. 27 Jan., 17 Mar. 1917; Chester City Cl. Mins. 1914/15, 441.
11 Ches. Observer, 30 Jan. 1915.
12 Ibid. 9 Jan. 1915; 6 Dec. 1918.
13 Ibid. 26 Oct., 16 Nov. 1918; Annual Rep. of M.O.H. (1919); Longbottom, Chester in Gt. War, 22; cf. Chester City Cl. Mins. 1918/19, 53, 252, 285, 319, 344, 355-6.
14 Ches. Observer, 18 Oct. 1919; 9 Apr. 1921; A. Bruce, 'Oxford War Memorial: Thomas Rayson and Chester Connection', Oxoniensia, lvi. 155-68.
15 Ches. Observer, 21 Jan. 1921; 27 May 1922.
16 Ibid. 16 Nov. 1929.
17 Longbottom, Chester in Gt. War, 24, 27; Chester City Cl. Mins. 1918/19, 170-1.