In the days after the Armistice, there were celebrations in Marlborough. On Wednesday, 13 November 1918 a committee of ladies, headed by Mrs W. E. Free, held a dance with an American theme in the Town Hall – pictured above. The music was provided by ‘Jazz’ Thomas and his American Band.
It is not clear whether this dance was hastily arranged specifically to mark the Armistice – or perhaps to mark American troops’ role in the past months on the Western Front – or just to raise spirits on the home front.
There was certainly joy that the war was over. However, not everyone in the Marlborough area would have felt like celebrating. On the home front there was widespread sadness and the distress of bereavement. Much more generally there was a great deal of hardship caused by shortages and price rises – mainly of food and fuel.
To the shortages of labour – men away in the armed services (both volunteers and conscripted men) with women replacing them at work – was added the serious decline in imports due to the German U-boat campaign against Allied merchant shipping.
Following the general relief of Armistice Day, how soon could people expect life to return to some sort of normal? For many, life on the Home Front would be starting to improve from a very low point.
A matter of some urgency as winter set in, was the supply of coal – even the humblest cottage had coal fired cooking and open fires were the most usual form of heating. But many coal miners had been needed for the armed services and supplies were restricted and carefully monitored.
In the Marlborough Times issue of November 1 an advertisement was placed by the government’s Coal Mines Department: “Before you light a fire THINK…The coal you are going without is forging the key to VICTORY.” Coal was scarce and using it too freely was hampering the war effort.
Each Parish employed a ‘Fuel Overseer’. At the Marlborough Town Council meeting which elected the new Mayor, an increase in the Fuel Overseer’s salary was proposed – from £30 to £70 a year. This was voted through, but then the Town Clerk realised that the Overseer’s salary was in fact paid centrally by – believe it or not – the Coal Controller in London.
Earlier in 1918 the Town Council had got into a bit of flap when a load of coal they had ordered sometime earlier, but then decided they did not need, was suddenly about to be delivered and had to be paid for. A compromise was reached with the authorities and local coal merchants.
The coal situation was much worse in the Pewsey area – in the words of the Marlborough Times headline: ‘Coal Crisis in the Pewsey Rural District’. Their Fuel Overseer resigned ‘rather than accept responsibility for the situation’.
When he appeared before the District Council, he accepted that he had the duty to “…make house-to-house visitations to inspect the stocks of coal throughout the whole of the Rural District.”
A Councillor asked him if some villagers had no coal at all: “Yes, Sir, many of them. And the merchants have no coal to take them.” He had asked the authorities for help but all they did was to keep “…sending me endless forms.”
After 11 November 1918, some immediate ways to lessen Home Front hardship were announced in quick succession. More matches were to be imported – presumably from Scandinavia. The Petrol Controller announced an increase in the petrol allowance – with businesses given priority. And the meat ration was doubled for the forthcoming Christmas period.
Added to the government’s problems would be the imminent return home of thousands of soldiers. On November 22, Wiltshire County Council advertised in the Marlborough Times for “…offers of suitable land in large or small areas…” that could “…provide small holdings for the settlement of ex-servicemen.”
A letter to the Marlborough Times from Lt Col Egbert Lewis called for the earliest possible return home of the Wessex Territorial Division whose men had been in Mesopotamia for three years – without home leave. He did not want them “dribbled back under the demobilisation scheme” arguing that “…employers who have kept places open for are entitled to some consideration.”
Some sectors were looking up. Marlborough’s November Sheep Fair – long ago moved from the High Street to the Common – had been a resounding success. 3,500 ewes and lambs had been sold: “An excellent trade was met with and the farmers generally considered it to be the best of the Fall [sic] fairs.”
But 1918’s harvest was not as good as had been hoped. In June the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, had issued an appeal ‘To the Women of Great Britain’: “The fields are ripening for the sickle; the toil of the winter and the spring is earning its reward. This is no ordinary harvest; in it is centred the hope and the faith of our soldiers that their heroic struggle will not be in vain.”
“Before the war the world was our granary. Now not only are thousands of men fighting, instead of tilling our fields, but the German submarines are trying to starve us by sinking the ships which brought the abundant harvests of other lands.”
Wartime regulations would surely start to be withdrawn. There would soon be no more prosecutions for ‘Failure to plough pasture land’ – land needed in wartime to grow the nation’s food.
The Marlborough Times for 15 November 1918 reported that at Pewsey Petty Sessions, farmer Mark Jeans of Milton and Marlborough had been convicted of the offence of ‘Failure to plough pasture lands’: “But in view of the fact that the land was now being ploughed, a nominal penalty of £5 would be imposed.”
The nation’s Treasury had been woefully depleted by the war and farmers were struggling to feed not just the people at home, but also their cattle. Evidence of the parlous state of the nation’s agriculture came in the Marlborough Times for November 22:
“The Food Production Department has arranged for the use of about 10,000 tons of horse chestnuts by cattle cake manufacturers.” People could apply for sacks and they would get £4 a ton for the horse chestnuts “…which, by the way, should always be allowed to fall before they are harvested.” Whether that was a matter of ripeness and quality or the health and safety of climbing youngsters was not made clear.
The Votes for Women campaign – bolstered by the ‘war work’ women had so successfully undertaken – had been crowned in February by the Representation of the People Act 1918 which gave women the vote for the first time – 8,500,000 of them (as well has adding another 5,200,000 men to voting registers). And during the election campaign women’s rights featured in many speeches.
However, officialdom was still being caught flat-footed: the National War Savings Committee issued thousands of paper bags to shopkeepers printed with slogans urging people to join savings schemes. The slogans were supported by examples of war heroes – military and civilian.
A complaint that none of the paper bags referred to women’s ‘war work’ soon stung the Committee into action. A new range of bags was quickly printed – which the Marlborough Times dubbed the ‘Joan of Arc bag’: “On the back of which full acknowledgement is pictorially given of the services of the fair workers.”
On the home front ‘things’ were set to improve – surely? In the Marlborough Times’ final war supplement, the Conservative Party politician Arthur Balfour, then Foreign Secretary in Lloyd George’s war cabinet, was quoted at the top of the first page: “We look forward to a new epoch.”
On November 24, in a speech in Wolverhampton, the Liberal leader of the coalition, Lloyd George, cautioned that ‘the work is not over yet – the work of the nation, the work of the people, the work of those who have sacrificed’. He went on: “What is our task? To make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in.”
Ahead lay the sad story of the British baby born at 11am on 11 November 1918. He was Christened with the name Pax. He was killed in the Second World War – aged twenty-one.
Just beyond the palely sunlit uplands of 1918, dark clouds were already gathering.
An article reflecting how Marlborough shoppers faced the ‘Peace Christmas’ of 1918 will appear in the Marlborough Christmas Guide – and later on marlborough.news.