Uniformed organisations on the Home Front

Alongside women, children in Birmingham made an important contribution to war work on the home front.  Much of this activity was channelled through schools but older children, in particular, participated as members of uniformed organisations providing practical assistance to the British war effort.  

Following the publication of ‘Scouting for Boys’ in 1907, the Birmingham Association of Scouts was formed in 1908 with a membership of 1000, and by the end of 1916 there were more than 7000 Scouts in the Birmingham District.

Boy Scouts carried messages for local government offices and guarded important places, such as railway bridges, and telephone and telegraph lines.

Sea Scouts taking messages and semaphoring to a Torpedo Boat Destroyer © IWM (Q 19969)
Sea Scouts taking messages and semaphoring to a Torpedo Boat Destroyer © IWM (Q 19969)

They learnt to send semaphore messages using small flags and by 1917 Scouts were also watching the skies for Zeppelin attacks and sounding their bugles to signal when an air raid was over.  Birmingham Boy Scouts undertook ‘valuable work as Sea Scouts on coast-watching duties’; they were sent to vulnerable coastal locations on the East and South coasts with Whitby being the largest station manned by a Birmingham contingent.  A Sea Scout writes to his old scout master and this is printed in the monthly newsletter of St Paul’s Birmingham describing his experiences:

‘serving my country by guarding telegraph wires … also stop anyone sketching or taking photographs around the coast. We haven’t seen any Zeppelins yet, but we heard them a few nights back.  We are in a house (20 are Birmingham chaps) it is our own and we do our own cooking, and we scrub it from top to bottom twice a week: we also named it ourselves’.

Sea Scout Arthur Walters, Birmingham House, Windsor Terrace, Whitby, Yorks.  

Scouts of 1st Edwardian (Aston) Troop
Scouts of 1st Edwardian (Aston) Troop

Many scouts went on to join the armed forces and a list of scouts compiled in 1910 by the 1st Edwardian (Aston) troop is annotated in a final column headed ‘killed or decorated’; a poignant record indeed.

1910 saw the establishment of the Girl Guide Association in the UK under the leadership of Agnes Baden-Powell, sister of Robert, the Scouting founder. Girl Guides took on many roles:  they packaged up clothing and foodstuffs to send to British soldiers at the front and provided assistance at hospitals, canteens and in munition factories. ‘An ounce of help is worth a pound of pity’; a philosophy expressed in a newspaper when describing the practical help provided by Girl Guides at a local hospital.

The Boys Brigade was founded in 1883 in Glasgow by William Alexander Smith as an interdenominational youth organisation conceived to combine drill and physical activities

10th Birmingham Company Boys Brigade 1915
10th Birmingham Company Boys Brigade 1915

with Christian values.  Just six years later, in 1889, the brigade had its first company in Birmingham at Camp Hill Presbyterian church.  The Birmingham Daily Post of January 1915 records a Boys Brigade bazaar displaying a patriotic exhibition of the work of the league with 50% of the profits going to the Prince of Wales’s Relief Fund.  In September 1918 the annual conference reports that several members have qualified for the National Service Badge, awarded for not less than 100 hours service to the community.

Newspapers of the period provide tantalising glimpses of the activities of these young people but relatively little detail emerges.  As many troops were associated with churches and chapels in the city then the records of individual religious institutions are likely to provide more specific information. The uniformed organisations themselves hold their own archives.

Alison Smith

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