Manchester, 1919: The centenary of Peterloo and the unfulfilled promise

In August 1919, the centenary of the Peterloo massacre focussed thoughts on the defence of principles and on how the lot of the average Mancunian had changed over the past 100 years. Its commemoration was also a high-profile event, providing a platform on which current grievances could be voiced. And, in 1919, many returned ex-servicemen  had good reason to feel aggrieved.

The golden age of “Cottonopolis” had been coming to an end in 1914; changes were already then making Manchester’s confidence creak. The First World War would exaggerate and speed up both the internal and external forces of change – so that the Manchester demobbed soldiers returned to was not the city of their childhood.

Over the course of the war, factories and warehouses had been turned over to munitions production. By 1917 Manchester was producing 2,000 4.5-inch shells per week. Engineering works shifted to manufacturing aircraft parts and dye plants converted to produce explosives. By 1916 a commentator could write:

‘It has been said that the present war constitutes a definite fissure in the modern world’s continuity – a sort of geological ‘fault’ in the stratification of time. Already Manchester is becoming acclimatized to war and ‘twelve months ago’ begins to look antiquated, almost antediluvian.’[i]

That ‘fissure’ was definite and irreversible. In 1919 it wasn’t just the immediate challenge of converting manufacturing premises back to peacetime production lines that Manchester faced; the markets in which Manchester’s goods were traded had also changed fundamentally and forever.

The decline of Lancashire’s textile industry began during the war, as the supply of raw cotton was disrupted. At the end of the conflict the industry experienced a brief recovery; there was again the shipping capacity to bring raw cotton in and domestic demand was healthy. In 1920 textile manufacturers made good profits. It was a brief glimmer, though. 1921 was a terrible year for the cotton trade. And, though exports would start to pick up through the first half of the 1920s, they remained well below pre-war levels. Between 1920 and 1926 organized short-time would become the general rule in Lancashire cotton spinning. During this period most operations turned over at around just two-thirds of normal activity levels. And by 1928 export figures were heading down again. As the market share figures below show, Britain’s dominance was finished. Some of the markets that Lancashire had traditionally supplied contracted after the war, and other competitor countries (which had the advantage of cheaper labour costs and were closer to the supply of the raw materials) had carried on developing and servicing the demand of their domestic and export markets. By 1930 British exports would have waned to almost a third of what they had been in 1913. Lancashire’s position was slipping. British cotton exports went into a long-enduring decline.

The men who had been recruited to the Pals battalions had been promised that their jobs would be waiting for them when they got home – but, in so many cases, employers would prove unable, or unwilling, to honour that undertaking. In November 1918 around 1,000 people were registered with the Openshaw Employment Exchange as being unemployed. By January 1919 3,000 men were registered as unemployed in the district and 6,500 women. Around 50% of the unemployed women were former cotton operatives, who had become munition workers, and now found themselves without work. As the numbers of demobilised men increased, the severity of the problem would grow. [ii]

Various veterans associations were being formed by early 1919 to represent the interests of the jobless ex-servicemen. The National Federation of Discharged and Demobilized Sailors and Soldiers (N.F.D.D.S.S.) had been established in 1917 by London-based veterans groups.[iii] In 1919 its Manchester branch was articulating the grievances of local veterans. In February it convened a public meeting at the Co-operative Hall in Manchester. Several hundred men were reported to have attended. Mr Paley, vice president of the Manchester branch of the N.F.D.D.S.S., forecast ‘very grave trouble’ ahead, unless the needs of veterans were addressed.[iv]

The Manchester Guardian’s leader writer, C. E. Montague, took a keen interest in the welfare of ex-servicemen. From the time of his own demobilisation in 1919, until his retirement in 1925, his editorials for the Guardian give an insight into the difficulties being experienced by both returning ex-combatants and by the city that was taking them back. In March 1919 the Guardian’s editorial would be reflecting on a recent demonstration by the N.F.D.D.S.S.. ‘A disposition to chafe is showing itself among a growing body of unemployed ex-sailors and soldiers in Manchester,’ the paper’s leader article began. It was now estimated that there were around 11,000 unemployed ex-servicemen in the Manchester district, around 6,000 of them being in receipt of the Out of Work Donation.[v] In a meeting with the Lord Mayor, a deputation from the N.F.D.D.S.S. had articulated concern that employers were exploiting veterans’ need to find work:

‘Many employers, it is said, welcome their former workmen back at the pre-war rate of wages “What is the use of 45s. a week to me?” asked a demobilised man yesterday. “It is not a living wage for a man with six children. I get 50s. out-of-work benefit for six months, and I will continue to draw it until something much better turns up.” That is a common attitude. The men have in mind the substantial wages earned by civilians during the war, and they have a feeling that theirs is the only labour which, apparently, has not gained in value.’[vi]

The pride of ex-servicemen was smarting. They clearly felt degraded and in some respects cheated by the country that they had fought for. This didn’t feel like being treated fairly.

By August the papers were reporting that ‘a grand route march’, from Manchester to London was being planned, ‘as a means of drawing attention to the lack of work.’ The Manchester Guardian lamented that it was a ‘depressing spectacle’ that men who had fought for their country had reason to complain that ‘they are not given a chance of earning a living in it.’[vii] 

“Peterloo, 1819: Labourloo, 1919”

In 1819 people had crowded onto St Peter’s Field, Manchester, to hear the famed orator Henry Hunt speak against the Corn Laws and in favour of political reform. The meeting had been progressing peaceably, but with so many people assembled (an estimated 60,000-80,000), the magistrates were afraid that there could be a disturbance. An arrest warrant was issued for Hunt and, in the panic that followed, the Yeomanry cavalry drew their swords and started to lash out at the surrounding crowds. 15 people were killed. Of the 654 recorded casualties , at least 168 were women. The “Peterloo Massacre” instantly became a sensation and it would cast a long shadow.

‘The battle still goes on,’ the Manchester Guardian recorded in August 1919. ‘Saturday’s demonstrators evidently see the situation to-day very clearly as a battle, and as nothing less. As much was said in a dozen speeches and written on no few banners.’ Among the slogans on those banners was: “Peterloo, 1819: Labourloo, 1919”.

A procession moved through the streets of the Manchester, en route to a public meeting on Platt Fields. The piquancy of this spectacle wasn’t lost on the watching journalists:

‘With bands playing and banners flying, on foot or in waggonettes, men, women and children moved southwards down Peter Street. The red bonnet carried on a long pole that came at the head of the procession stopped when the demonstrators were ranged along the Prince’s Theatre and the Free Trade Hall. Here, on the very ground where, a century before, the horror of Peterloo was at that moment being enacted, heads were bared and the “Marseillaise” was sung, and “We’ll wave the scarlet banner high” went up from a thousand throats.’

The day also saw a mass meeting in the Free Trade Hall, convened by Manchester and Salford Independent Labour Party. Philip Snowdon, of the I.L.P., told the crowd, “In 1914 your country needs you. In 1919 nobody wants you.”[viii]

 ‘The promise is not quite fulfilled’

In September 1920 there were estimated to still be at least 3,000 unemployed ex-servicemen in Manchester. The Guardian’s C. E. Montague took the opportunity to remind employers of their pre-war promises:

‘In the first months of the war we took it upon ourselves here to say things, in the name of all Manchester business men, which must have increased the assurance of many volunteers for the famous “Pals” battalions that after the war they would not be left to walk the streets. There was no word of complaint then that we promised too much. But till each of those three thousand men has got at least the offer of a decent job the promise is not quite fulfilled.’[ix]

The situation wasn’t to improve over the next year. With recession beginning to bite, the ‘Out of Work Donation’ scheme would be extended again for ex-servicemen to March 1921. In November 1921 Edwin Stockton, President of Manchester Chamber of Commerce and Chairman of the ‘Debt of Honour Committee’, wrote to the Manchester Guardian warning that, at the third anniversary of the Armistice, ‘vast numbers of the gallant men who achieved victory for us were in the most unhappy circumstances of employment and consequent deprivation’. And those unhappy circumstances seemed likely to develop into something challenging. Stockton went on:

‘The ex-service men feel they have very special claims upon the community, and in view of the services they have rendered to humanity they do not consider their present position to constitute even justice, nor to speak of gratitude. This feeling of soreness may be a source of grave danger to the social structure of our country.’[x]

There was clearly a very real sense that this ‘soreness’ could break out in dangerous directions. The government feared civil disorder. Between 1919 and 1921 Home Office correspondents monitored the major industrial centres and delivered secret ‘Reports on Revolutionary Organizations’. Fear of the radicalisation of ex-servicemen was evidently prominent in the thinking of those tasked with assisting to find them employment in Manchester. In March 1922 a representative of the Labour Ministry’s Appointments Department advised Manchester employers that every man given a job ‘became a contented worker, and the nation could not afford to drive anyone into the Bolshevik ranks.’[xi]

Other agencies were working to address and appease veterans’ resentments too. In July 1921 the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilized Sailors and Soldiers merged with its rival National Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers, plus the more conservative Comrades of the Great War and the Officers’ Association, forming the British Legion. While still energetically representing ex-servicemen’s interests, with a particular focus on employment and pensions, and addressing their welfare issues, in this new guise the voice of veterans would lose its radical edge. The British Legion’s first-stated principle was that it was ‘democratic, non-sectarian, and non-Party politically’. The Legion was created to ‘inaugurate and maintain comradeship’ and to ‘inculcate a sense of loyalty and service’.[xii] Coinciding with Armistice Day 1921, a letter from the British Legion was published in the Manchester papers. It stated the organisation’s aim: ‘The British Legion exists as the league of brotherhood of all ex-servicemen, and we are pledged to make every sacrifice in our power to aid our less fortunate comrades.’ In the winter of 1921 it was the immediate objective of the Legion to set up two feeding centres in Manchester. To that end, street collections were to be organised following Armistice Day and an appeal for gifts of food, clothing and boots was issued. But, as well as emergency assistance for the destitute, the British Legion sought to offer comradeship and companionship. ‘Our centres are in effect poor men’s clubs,’ it explained, ‘for last winter dozens of voluntary concerts were arranged in the dining halls in the cold evenings. It was a great benefit for men down and out to bring their wives to such cheery surroundings.’[xiii]

The first-stated objective of the British Legion, though, was to ‘perpetuate the memory of those who died in the service of their country’.[xiv] With the British Legion as the veterans’ mouthpiece, there would also now be more focus on remembrance and commemoration.

[i] H. M. McKechnie, Manchester in 1915: Being the Handbook for the Eighty-Fifth Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Held in Manchester, September Seven to Ten, 1915 (1916).

[ii] Manchester Guardian, 30th January, 1919.

[iii] The N.F.D.D.S.S. was founded in January 1917, initially with the aim of articulating opposition to the Review of Exceptions Act, which made it possible for men who had formerly been discharged from the army on medical grounds to be re-conscripted.

[iv] Manchester Guardian, 25th and 26th February, 1919.

[v] The ‘Out of Work Donation’ scheme had been introduced in November 1918, offering emergency financial assistance to both unemployed ex-servicemen and civilians. It originally provided men with a weekly ‘dole’ of 24s, and 20s for women. Ex-service personnel could claim it for a maximum of 26 weeks, during the 12 months following demobilization, and civilians could receive it for 13 weeks, during the six months following the scheme’s inception. The number of ex-servicemen claiming state assistance peaked in May 1919. In Lancashire and Cheshire 73,732 men were claiming at this time. Manchester Guardian, 22nd November, 1919, 21st September 1920.

[vi] Manchester Guardian, 19th and 20th March, 1919.

[vii] Manchester Guardian, 14th August, 1919.

[viii] Philip Snowden, formerly the I.L.P. MP for Blackburn, had campaigned against conscription during the war. He had lost his seat in the 1918 General Election, but would be re-elected in 1922 (to represent Colne Valley). Manchester Guardian, 18th August, 1919.

[ix] Manchester Guardian, 21st September, 1920.

[x] Manchester Guardian, 8th November, 1921

[xi] Manchester Guardian, 17th March, 1922

[xii] As stated in the British Legion Pilgrimage Handbook (1928).

[xiii] Manchester Guardian, 11th and 12th November, 1921.

[xiv] As stated in the British Legion Pilgrimage Handbook (1928).


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‘Honour the dead, remember the living’ – Peace Day and protest, 19th July 1919

With the treaty negotiations at Versailles finally complete and peace signed at the end of June 1919, a national celebration – ‘Peace Day’ – was fixed for the 19th of July 1919. Plans were announced to light a chain of bonfires down the country (nodding back to the beacons that were lit to warn of the approach of the Spanish Armada on 19 July 1588) and a grand Victory Parade was being prepared for in London.

From the outset, though, there seems to have been some disquiet and confusion as to what ‘Peace Day’ was meant to represent – and whether it ought to be a jubilant celebration or a solemn commemoration. Its reporting in the Manchester papers reflects this ambiguity and the mixed enthusiasm for the project. ‘Anyone who goes outside his house and garden ought to be able to see by this time that the country as a whole is not in the mood for a huge bout of dear and noisy merry-making,’ a Manchester Guardian editorial considered. It went on:

Men and women are learning, each with his own measure of bitterness, the element of disillusion that there is in nearly all success. You fight the good fight, and, lo! the prize itself has changed while you fought, and alloy has crept into the gold. You finish the long race, and only then you find that the “you” who has won it is not the same “you” who once had it to win. Everywhere, in all classes, you find a vague disappointment that the victorious England is not the same England of August 4, 1914, simply with her desire attained… something seems to be lost in the spirit which fired us then, and we cannot get it back any more than the parents can get back their sons.[i]

In some parts of the country veteran’s associations took a decision to boycott Peace Day and it appears that there wasn’t much enthusiasm for it in Manchester either. The ‘apathetic’ response from ex-servicemen in Manchester seemed to surprise and disappoint the City Council. Advertisements had been issued in May, inviting ex-combatants to participate in a civic reception, but, by 5 June, only 3,000 men had accepted.[ii] A letter to the Manchester Evening News reflects why enthusiasm might have been somewhat lacking:


I am sure the title Peace Day will send a cold shiver through the bodies of thousands of ‘demobbed’ men who are walking about the streets of Manchester looking for a job. Could a term be found that would be more ironical for such men? Perhaps, after the Manchester and Salford Corporations have celebrated this ‘Peace’ and incidentally will have wasted the thousands of pounds which it will cost, they will devote their spare time to alleviating the ‘bitterness’ and ‘misery’ which exist in the body and mind of the unemployed ex-soldier.

It is high time some very forcible and active measures were taken. Many Manchester businessmen refuse to employ the ex-soldier on the grounds that he has lost four years of experience in this line or that line of business through being in the army. What a splendid and patriotic retort to make to the men who were chiefly instrumental in saving their business from being in the possession of the Hun.[iii]

The programme caused Manchester City Council some consternation and, in the end, official arrangements were low-key: a dozen bands were engaged to play in the parks, the Town Hall bells were rung and the Lord Mayor and the City Council travelled through the city in an illuminated tramcar. There was no official scheme of street decoration – though companies and individuals ultimately took on that task and the streets were accordingly ‘gay with bunting and flags’.[iv]

As it was, the people of Manchester themselves seem to have determined the character of the city’s ‘Peace Day’ celebration. While young people enjoyed boisterous festivities (already by the night of 18 July they were spilling out into the streets, playing instruments and dancing ‘the latest American “jazzes” and “cake walks”’ in Albert Square), gangs of children gleefully banged on tin drums and begged coins from the crowds and ‘hundreds of skylarking mill girls romped about the streets in khaki’. The Manchester Guardian observed, though, that the festivities lacked the ‘sparkle of spontaneity’. The city couldn’t recapture the delirious joy of 11 November 1918. ‘That was the sudden release of a long confined effervescence of feeling. It burst with explosive force without any official drawing of the cork.’ The Guardian reported:

Thousands of people collected in the streets and walked about aimlessly inspecting the unsatisfying decorations and looking for something more exciting to happen. This constrained and awkward situation was saved by the youthful and (if a plain word may be used) the rowdy elements in the population, whose sportive activities in public are usually regarded by the police with an unfriendly and repressive eye.

There’s an implication that, in the evening, the tone of the celebrations was, here and there, tinged with something darker.

The “mafficking” in the streets reached its highest pitch of extravagance after sundown. Albert Square, which is always a focussing point for any unusual agitation of public feeling, was filled with a merrily turbulent crowd – dancing, singing, blowing paper horns, beating drums and tin cans, and occasionally letting off fireworks with a high power of detonation. The restraints usually imposed on public life in the streets were swept away, with results not always pleasant. There were many signs of a liberal use of intoxicants. Occasional fighting marred the prevalent merriment and good humour.[v]

‘Honour the dead, remember the living’

19 July 1919 wasn’t just a day of giddy (or rowdy) mafficking; in Manchester it was also marked by a protest march. In the afternoon a procession of unemployed ex-servicemen moved through the streets of the city centre. It was reported that the column of men, walking four abreast, many of them wearing their medal ribbons, stretched nearly the whole length of Oxford Street. They carried banners which bore the words “Justice”, “Employment”, “Work, not charity” and “Honour the dead, remember the living”.

The demonstrators marched to Platt Fields, where a meeting had been convoked. By the time that the procession reached that locality its numbers had swelled and the men were ‘a battalion strong and more’. Before the speeches began the Last Post was sounded.

The Chairman of the meeting, Mr Fred Cox, told the crowd that ‘they had fought for freedom, but the freedom they had won was the freedom to starve.’ He went on:

To give a man 29s. a week was destructive work. It resulted in the breaking up of homes, in the under-nourishment of children, and the loss of efficiency in all directions. Employment ought to be found immediately on housing, roads, and every kind of public work, and the Government dole of 29s. could be paid to municipalities to help them to bear the cost of the schemes. It was work they wanted, not doles. They had been asked to save the country; now they asked the country to save them from poverty and degradation.

Mr. W. Richards, who had organised the meeting, proposed that ‘failing a reasonable reply from the Government within a reasonable time’ the unemployed ex-service men of Lancashire should march to London. ‘Winter was coming,’ he threatened, ‘and winter, with its cold and hunger, meant riots. That was why something must be done soon.’[vi]

[i] Manchester Guardian, 27th June 1919.

[ii] It was finally decided that this official ‘Welcome Home’ for the troops should take the form of a series of receptions (‘treats’) to be held in Belle Vue Gardens. Men were to be given ‘a suitable meal’ and an address from the Lord Mayor. Manchester Guardian, 5th June, 4th and 19th July 1919.

[iii] Manchester Evening News, 10th July 1919.

[iv] Manchester Guardian, 19th July 1919.

[v] Manchester Guardian, 21st July 1919.

[vi] Manchester Guardian, 21st July 1919.

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“Lancashire will indeed be proud of them”: bringing news of the Somme to Manchester, 1st July 1916 (and conveying it back again…)

On the 1st of July 1916 Manchester newspapers carried exultant headlines. The Manchester Evening News reported that the British had broken into the enemy forward line over a distance of 20 miles, capturing many prisoners. ‘The public had for some days been led to believe that we were on the eve of a great advance,’ the paper went on, ‘and the fact that the British report was so cheering has caused the greatest joy.’ British casualties, it was stated, were not heavy. There were ‘exuberant demonstrations of delight’ in Manchester.[i]

Fig 1. British offensive

Fig 2. Front of 20 miles

Manchester Evening News, 1st July 1916

Over the course of the next few days, reports specific to the Manchester Battalions began to come in. They had ‘done excellent work and covered themselves with glory’ Lord Derby told the papers.[ii]

The 30th Division, which included four of the Liverpool Pals Battalions and the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th Manchester Battalions, had been on the extreme right flank of the British attack on the 1st of July. With the Liverpool Pals making the initial assault on the German front lines facing Maricourt, the Manchesters were then tasked with securing the well-fortified village of Montauban. The English and French lines met at Maricourt, and the support of the French heavy artillery had a significant impact on the outcome of the British attack here. The bombardment of Montauban had been substantial and effective. It was pulverised. The Manchesters entered a village of smoking ruins and dying Germans. Many more came forward with their hands in the air.[iii]

Fig 3. Great shock

Fig 4. Somme map

Manchester Evening News, 3rd July 1916.

The attack on Montauban was one of the few ‘success’ stories of the 1st of July. By 11 a.m. 30th Division had succeeded in taking all of its objectives. It achieved the most substantial penetration into enemy lines of any of the New Army units. Lord Derby conveyed his congratulations by telegram:


‘Convey to the 30th Division my best congratulations on their splendid work. Lancashire will indeed be proud of them.’[iv]

‘Manchester has every right to be proud of the men she breeds,’ asserted the Manchester Evening News. ‘Happily nowhere on the front had our artillery fire been more utterly destructive than in Montauban itself. The Manchesters would have got it, whatever the resistance had been. As it was, they romped into it almost without a check… they held on, beat off the counter-attacks, and since Monday last the place has been solidly ours.’[v]

Though the 30th Division’s experience compared favourably with what had been happening further to the north, it was still a gruelling and a costly day. They didn’t exactly romp forwards without a check. The Division suffered 3,011 casualties on the 1st of July.

Fig 5. Davson Somme Map.jpg

Above map is taken from the Davson, History of the 35th Division, p. 29.

‘It is utterly impossible to locate the site of a street or house,’ the Michelin Guide to the Somme battlefields would write of Montauban in 1919. ‘The only remaining landmarks are the pond and the cemetery – the latter considerably enlarged by the addition of numerous German graves. Everywhere else nothing is to be seen, except heaps of stones and rubbish, beams, scrap-iron, and debris of all kinds.’[vi]

Fig 6. Montauban

Montauban – all that remained of the church at the end of the war.

With the southern end of the British front suddenly looking like it had more potential than the line further north, priorities and plans were reshuffled. Now the country north and east of Montauban, with its crescent of woodlands, would become the focus for a series of attacks.

The 23rd Manchester Battalion, meanwhile, were en-route to the Somme. On the 2nd of July, at short notice, the 104th Brigade entrained from Béthune and headed towards Arras. The weather was oppressively hot as the Battalion transports then took them south. The Brigade was now based around Bouquemaison, with the 23rd Manchesters camped around the hamlet of Neuvillette. (‘A more delightful little bit of country is not to be found elsewhere in France,’ Eustace Maxwell told his family.[vii]) They would remain here for the next four days, their time occupied with cleaning, inspections and training. The 35th Division was now allotted to VIII Corps, Reserve Army. ‘We are now in Reserve,’ Bernard Montgomery wrote home, ‘behind the big offensive, waiting to be used if required.’[viii]

The weather broke on the 4th of July. There was a thunderstorm and then heavy rain in the afternoon; roads and trenches quickly began turning to mud. Bernard Montgomery wrote to his mother:

‘It is pouring hard now and must be very unpleasant for the troops actually attacking. The beginning of the offensive was put off two days on account of the rain, and it will be very bad luck if it goes on. We have had big casualties, motor ambulances with wounded go through our present village all day and night. I don’t know our total losses but they must of course be very large.’[ix]

On the 6th of July the 23rd Manchesters travelled south-east to Bus-les-Artois (north of Albert), where they were accommodated in a wood. They were now in the Département of the Somme. ‘In the wood were huts and much mud,’ Eustace Maxwell wrote. ‘That day it rained harder than I think I have ever seen previously in Europe; it really was like monsoon rain, with the result that the wood was not the driest place in the world, while our huts moreover were flooded.’[x]

Also on the 6th of July, the Germans counter-attacked at Bois Favières, south-east of Montauban, and managed to take back the northern edge of the wood. With this unexpected action, the next British attack, which had been scheduled for the 7th of July, was postponed until the 8th. The 23rd Manchesters, though, seem to have known little of what was happening further south. Maxwell wrote home: ‘It’s queer that tho’ within a dozen miles of this great fight we should know less of what is going on than you do; we really depend on the home papers for what we hear, and as these have failed today we have to go hungry.’[xi] Had the Bantams been able to access the Manchester papers, they would have seen Lord Derby was saying that ‘Losses are not excessive’. But, over the course of the next week, it started to become apparent that losses were on-going and of a significantly larger scale than had first been reported.[xii]

Fig 7. Toll of war

Fig 7. Heavy losses

Manchester Evening News, 8th July 1916.


[i] Manchester Evening News, 1st July 1916.

[ii] Manchester Evening News, 6th July 1916.

[iii] The French 39th Division were advancing to the right of the British 30th Division. They succeeded in their objective of capturing Bois Favières (to the south-east of Montauban).

[iv] Quoted in The History of the King’s Regiment (Liverpool), 1914-1919, by Everard Wyrall, Volume II (1930), p. 274.

[v] Manchester Evening News, 10th July 1916.

[vi] Illustrated Michelin Guides to the Battlefields (1914-1918): The Somme, Part I (1919), p. 63. Quotations and images from the Michelin Guides are reproduced with the kind permission of Michelin Tyre PLC.

[vii] MS Letters of Eustace Lockhart Maxwell, NAM 1974-02-34-35.

[viii] IWM, BLM 1/47.

[ix] IWM, BLM 1/47.

[x] MS Letters of Eustace Lockhart Maxwell, NAM 1974-02-34-35.

[xi] MS Letters of Eustace Lockhart Maxwell, NAM 1974-02-34-34.

[xii] Manchester Evening News, 6th July 1916.

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20 July 1916: ‘This operation did not work according to plan’

‘Our turn will come if only we can be patient’

Eustace Maxwell, commanding the 23rd Manchester ‘Bantam’ Battalion, wrote to his family on the 16th of July 1916. The Battalion had been in ‘Happy Valley’ (‘here we still sit, bivouacking on the sides of a valley and heartily cursing our luck’) since the 13th of July and Maxwell was feeling impatient.

‘Your anxieties, so far as my worthy self is concerned, have hitherto been quite misplaced, for we have as yet taken no share in the action. It is almost humiliating to have to say this over again… The other two brigades of this Bantam division have been lent to other divisions, and will be fighting tomorrow; we have been left out of it because our brigade was supposed to have had rather a rotten time in the wood from which I last wrote. It is very tiresome. But our turn will come if only we can be patient.’[1]

Maxwell’s patience was straining, but he was about to get his turn. This would be the last letter that he would write.

Fig 18. Maxwell(Right) Then Lieutenant Maxwell, with a group of officers from the Bengal Lancers. Photograph from an album created as a ‘Souvenir of the Jubilee of the King Edward’s Own Lancers (Probyn’s Horse) Rawalpindi 1907’, NAM, 1973-08-17-1. 


Major Eustace Lockhart Maxwell had assumed command of the 23rd Manchester Battalion in May 1916. Aged 38, he had formerly been a Captain in the Indian Cavalry (11th King Edward’s Own Lancers). 


On the 18th of July the Manchesters moved up to Talus Boisé. The weather had been wet and the roads weren’t good. They arrived at their destination in the early hours of the morning and bivouacked in a field next to the wood. The 35th (Bantam) Division were now relieving the 18th Division, which had been engaged in the Trones Wood area for the past three weeks.

Major-General Reginald John Pinney, commanding the 35th Division, arrived at Brigade H.Q. (‘Stanley’s Hole, an evil-smelling dug-out about 400 yards south-west of Maricourt’) on the evening of the 19th of July. He had just come from a corps’ conference. He gave the order now that units of the 105th Brigade were to go forward the next day and to capture 1,000 yards of enemy trench between Arrow Head Copse and Maltz Horn Farm. The operation was intended to secure a more advantageous position from which the forthcoming attack on Guillemont could go ahead. Maltz Horn Farm, an important defensive position for the enemy, faced the junction of the British and the French armies. The Bantams were about to become very familiar with it.

Fig 21. Maltz Horn Farm Map

(Above) Detail of map taken from H. M. Davson, The History of the 35th Division in the Great War (1926), p. 29

The orders for the attack were issued to the 15th Sherwood Foresters, who had been occupying the trenches opposite the objective since the 16th of July. Through the 18th and 19th the position had been subjected to heavy bombardment, to tear and gas shells. The Sherwood Foresters were exhausted, hungry and having their nerve and stamina severely tested.

The Sherwood Foresters received their orders at 9.50 p.m. on the 19th of July. The length of front was too long to be attacked directly by one battalion; therefore, instead, the plan was to focus the attack on two points – Maltz Horn Farm and Arrow Head Copse. The orders stated that the enemy was to be shelled that night and then heavily bombarded from 4.25 a.m. to 5 a.m., at which hour the artillery would lift and form a barrage. One Company of the Sherwood Foresters was then to attack, in four waves at 50-yard intervals, from the south-west of Arrow Head Copse. Meanwhile four waves of a second Company were to attack from just south of Maltz Horn Farm. Bombing squads were then to work their way along the enemy trench until the two attacking parties met up. From midnight Pioneers were to begin to dig a trench out towards Arrow Head Copse which could be joined up to the enemy’s trench once captured. There was a sap running in a westerly direction ahead of the enemy front line (‘supposed to be occupied as sniping has been observed from it’) and wire along the front line trench (‘but it is not considered strong’).

sherwoods(Above) From the War Diary of the 15th Sherwood Foresters: Catalogue Reference: WO/95/2488 Image Reference:316.


The official histories emphasise that the plans for the attack were made hurriedly. ‘It was an arrangement that left much to be desired, but time was short’, the History of the 35th Division concluded.[2] Circumstances were, however, to deteriorate further. Shortly before midnight Lieutenant-Colonel R. H. S. Gordon, commanding the 15th Sherwood Foresters, sent an urgent message to Brigade H.Q.: having been subjected to three days of shellfire and gas attacks, his battalion was badly shaken. The men had been in gas masks for the past four hours and it was going to be a challenge to find two companies’ worth of men in a fit state to attack. ‘Disconcerting news,’ wrote Pinney in his diary. Gordon asked that reinforcements be sent up, and, his request having been agreed to, new orders were issued to the Sherwood Foresters at midnight. Two Companies of the 23rd Manchesters had been ordered towards and would support the attack from the right (i.e. from the Maltz Horn Farm end), occupying the trenches vacated by the attacking companies of Sherwood Foresters and providing carrying parties. ‘At very short notice on July 20th the 105th Brigade attacked Maltz Horn Farm,’ Brigadier-General Sandilands would recall. ‘At still shorter notice, without even being given time to digest or issue orders, the 23rd Manchesters were sent up to help them.’ ‘W’ and ‘X’ Companies of the  Manchesters, having struggled up the line in darkness, arrived ahead of Maltz Horn Farm at 4.55 a.m. The attack was due to commence in five minutes. In response to the allied bombardment, the Sherwood Forester’s position was experiencing severe retaliatory shelling.

As the artillery weren’t able to secure positions from which they could observe the trenches near Maltz Horn Farm, there was evidently some best guesswork in their aiming. Moreover, as there was less than 500 yards distance between the allied and enemy positions, it seems that it was difficult to target the enemy front line without some danger to the Sherwood Foresters. The register of messages over the course of the day indicates that the artillery was falling short. At some time before 4.25 a.m. the allied front line trench had been evacuated for the sake of the safety of its defenders.

At 5.00 a.m. the first two lines of Sherwood Foresters advanced towards the enemy. They wouldn’t make it very far. A Report of Operations, written afterwards by Lieutenant-Colonel Gordon, recorded:

On the signal for the advance being given four waves moved forward and on topping the rise came in full view of the enemy where they met by a devastating fire from Machine Guns as far as can be ascertained from concealed positions to the East of MALTZ HORN FARM. From reports received from survivors it appears that the Coy. had suffered severely from the enemy’s barrage fire, and owing to the lateness of the time for the attack and the light shining directly on them, they afforded an easy mark for the enemy’s fire’.

Somehow, though, a few men did succeed in reaching the enemy’s front line trenches. French observers, also advancing towards Maltz Horn Farm, recorded that they had seen some of the Sherwood Foresters reaching the enemy line, but they were driven out.[3]

The company attacking from the Arrow Head Copse end also faced devastating enemy fire as soon as they topped the ridge. The scattered survivors dug themselves into shell holes. The next two waves, again facing hostile fire, made it less far and were compelled to retire back to their trenches.

At 6.50 a.m. a message was sent back to 105th Brigade H.Q., notifying them that the attack had failed. An immediate reply ordered that the attack must be continued. ‘As the right of the attack near Maltz Horn Farm was at the junction with the French, who were attacking simultaneously and had made progress, it was important that headway should be made,’ the History of the 35th Division explained. At 7.30 a.m. a telephone call was made back to Brigade H.Q., warning that, if the attack was to be recommenced, further support was imperative. Brigade replied that another two companies of the 23rd Manchesters (‘Y’ and ‘Z’) were being sent up. The attack was to be repeated at 11.35 a.m. In the meantime the troops in the front line trenches were experiencing heavy shelling.

‘Officers & men went over with no clear idea of their direction or objective’

At 10.45 a.m., in advance of the planned bombardment of the enemy’s position, the companies of Manchesters who had been occupying the front line trenches were ordered to evacuate and to take up assembly positions to the rear. The bombardment started at 11.05 a.m. At 11.08 a.m. a phone call was made back to Brigade informing them that the reinforcing companies of Manchesters (‘Y’ and ‘Z’) hadn’t yet arrived. Guides were sent out. Eventually arriving some time shortly after 11.35 a.m., the attack had already started by the time that the Manchesters reached the position. One of the companies was immediately ordered to follow the attack “over the top” and the second to hold the trench.

The attack advanced in eight waves. ‘Officers & men went over with no clear idea of their direction or objective,’ records the Manchester’s War Diary. A sense of confusion is clear. Major Maxwell was the first man over the top. Once over, they faced machine gun and rifle fire. Those that could, retired back to their trenches, which were now subject to intense bombardment by enemy artillery.

Shortly after 12.00 p.m. a message was received from the French indicating that they had observed signs of the enemy concentrating troops to the East of Guillemont with a view to counter-attacking. ‘I considered the situation at this period to be extremely critical,’ wrote Gordon. He went on:

‘The men of the Sherwood Foresters who had already occupied the Trenches for four days and had been incessantly subjected to intense bombardment during the whole period, and the remaining men of the Manchesters who had come up into a new part of the line without any knowledge of their whereabouts or the local condition after a trying forced march, were practically in a state of collapse, especially as the enemy had in addition been sending over considerable quantities of Tear and Chlorine Gas Shells.’

Gordon directed six special runners to Advanced Brigade H.Q. and sent up the “S.O.S.” signal by rocket. In the meantime, the remaining officers attempted to rally the men to be ready for a counter-attack. At 12.05 p.m. a phone call from Brigade ordered Gordon and the remaining Sherwoods and Manchesters to hold the line ‘at all costs’. Fortunately no counter-attack took place.

In the afternoon reports were sent to 105th Brigade H.Q. ‘strongly recommending’ (Gordon) that the Sherwoods and Manchesters should be relieved. The Manchesters were left without any senior officers and the Sherwoods with only one effective officer per company. The relief was sanctioned and, finally, at 9 p.m., they began the handover to the 18th Lancashire Fusiliers. It must have been with some weariness that the Manchesters began to the journey back to Talus Boisé. John Duffield, the Battalion chaplain, recalled the mental state of some of the men that evening:

‘We had such a lot of casualties, and, that night, I was in charge of about 50 or 60 men, all badly shell shocked, lying on the ground, waiting for ambulances… I went about amongst them and tried to talk to them and they really were broken men. There was no cowardice about it.’[4]

On the 20th of July the 15th Sherwood Foresters had lost 10 officers killed and 9 wounded. 39 other ranks had been killed, 146 wounded, and 36 were missing. The day’s entry in the Manchester’s War Diary concludes: ‘Major Maxwell fell in the attack. He was the first over and was later reported missing, believed killed. Capts. Rothband & Gosling were killed, Maj. Grimshaw shell-shocked & Capt. Cooper, Lt. Wilson & 2nd Lts. Hamer, Simpson & Lye wounded (2nd Lt. Lye died on the 21st). 28 other ranks were killed, 98 wounded, 9 shell-shocked & 13 missing.’

49 officers and men of the Battalion were ultimately listed as ‘killed in action’ or ‘died of wounds’ on the 20th/21st of July 1916. 36 of them, with no known grave, are commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Harry Barnes was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Pendlebury. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private John Thomas Beaumont was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Manchester. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Albert Booth died of wounds on the 20th of July 1916. He was aged 20 and from Hulme, Manchester. He is buried in the Corbie Communal Cemetery Extension.

Private Andrew Cassell was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was aged 31 and from Manchester. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private George Henry Conley was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Manchester. He is buried in the Flatiron Copse Cemetery, Mametz.

Sergeant William Cox was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Bolton. He is buried in the Flatiron Copse Cemetery, Mametz.

Private William Crawshaw was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was aged 22 and from Newton Heath. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private James Cropper was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was aged 23 and from Bolton. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Thomas Cummins was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Salford. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Charles Lawrence Darlow was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was aged 21 and from Salford. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Fred Dodd was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Harpurhey. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private William Dossantos was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Hulme. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Sergeant Thomas Henry Faraghan was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was aged 24 and from Chadderton, Oldham. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private James Forrest was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Middleton. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Walter Gorin was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was aged 37 and from Redditch, Worcestershire. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Walter Heaney was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was aged 21 and from Manchester. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Joseph Heaps was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from West Gorton. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Acting Quartermaster Sergeant Rowland Herrick was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Salford. He is buried in the Flatiron Copse Cemetery, Mametz.

Private Frank Holden was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Hulme. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private William Horridge was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was aged 38 and from Gorton. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Robert Simeon Hulme was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Newton Heath. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Corporal William Edward Hulston was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Ardwick. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Sergeant William James was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Oldham. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Joseph Johnson was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was aged 25 and from Middleton, Manchester. He is buried in the Flatiron Copse Cemetery, Mametz. He was originally reported missing, but subsequently identified.

Private William Johnson was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Ardwick. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Peter Laithwaite was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Orrell, Lancashire. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Richard Lambert was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Chorlton-on-Medlock. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private James Leigh was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Collyhurst, Manchester. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Lance Corporal Michael Levy was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was aged 29 and from Leicester. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Corporal William Christopher Lowry was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was aged 21 and from Ancoats. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Walter Matthews was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Collyhurst. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Charles Millward was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was aged 19 and from Todmorden. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Arthur Edwin North was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was 21 and from Coppice, Oldham. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Ernest Owen was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Manchester. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Harry Cromwell Pilling was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was aged 29 and from Ashton-under-Lyne. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private George Robinson was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Collyhurst. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Bertram Taylor was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Manchester. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Joseph Ward was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Manchester. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Philip Wilkinson was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was aged 24 and from Pendleton. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Company Sergeant Major William Henry Wolstenholme died on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Salford. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private John Yates was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was aged 19 and from Accrington. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Herbert Blacklock was killed in action on the 21st of July 1916. He was aged 32 and from Lower Broughton, Manchester. He is buried in the Peronne Road Cemetary, Maricourt.

Private William Doyle died of wounds on the 21st of July 1916. He was from Newton, Manchester. He is buried in La Neuville British Cemetery, Corbie.

Private Richard Pontefract died of wounds on the 21st of July 1916. He was aged 38 and from Pendleton. He is buried in La Neuville British Cemetery, Corbie.

Private George Frederick Wall died of wounds on the 21st of July 1916. He was aged 42 and from Blackley. He is buried in La Neuville British Cemetery, Corbie.

Lieutenant Gilbert Lye died on the 21st of July 1916. He was aged 23 and from Rochdale. He is buried in the Corbie Communal Cemetery Extension.

Captain Jacob (‘Jack’) Eustace Rothband was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. According to family papers, Rothband walked along the parapet just prior to his Company attacking. Trying to rally his men he shouted, ‘Come on boys, don’t be afraid of their guns’. He was shot through the head almost immediately. Jack Rothband was from Cheetham Hill. An old boy of Manchester Grammar School, he had been an officer with the Jewish Lad’s Brigade in Manchester. He worked for the family firm of W. S. Rothband & Co., rubber manufacturers, in Cheetham. When war broke out he was in San Francisco, but he returned immediately to the UK and enlisted in the Public Schools Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment. He became a Temporary Lieutenant in April 1915 and was subsequently granted a commission with the Manchester Regiment. On his death the Manchester Evening News published a letter from Lieutenant George Simpson. He wrote of Rothband: ‘His humour and cheery disposition often kept us going when everything else seemed against us. I have lost a beloved company commander and true friend.’ Jack Rothband was aged 34. He is buried in Flat Iron Copse Cemetery, Mametz.

Captain Frederick William Gosling was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. A former Liverpool Institute boy, he was working for Liverpool Corporation in 1914. Gosling volunteered as a private at the start of the war, but received a commission in November 1914 and became attached to the Manchesters. His rise was rapid and he was promoted to Captain in November 1915. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

 (Below)   A selection of the ‘in memoriam’ and ‘missing’ notices for men of the 23rd Battalion posted in the Manchester Evening News (31st July, 5th August, 14th September 1916, 20th and 25th July 1917):

Eustace Lockhart Maxwell’s elder brothers (Laurence Lockhart Maxwell and Francis Aylmer Maxwell) were both commanding battalions on the Western Front at the time of his death. They investigated his disappearance in the weeks that followed, keen to piece together the course of events, to discover whether he truly had been killed and, if that was the case, to locate his body. They spoke to his fellow officers, his men and repeatedly went over the ground.


Francis Aylmer Maxwell wrote in his journal:
‘The 2nd in command of Eustace’s battalion, I gathered, had failed – it was he who should have taken the final company into action. Eustace therefore, against orders, took his place and seeing how bad things were, took a rifle and bayonet and went forward to certain death.’


That ‘2nd in command’ was ex-colour sergeant Major Grimshaw. It is noted in the Battalion War Diary that he was suffering from shell shock.


Francis Maxwell’s journal goes on:
‘Eustace was last seen to hand his waterproof to his orderly and to take the orderly’s bayonet. With that he went forward and was seen to fall at the German trench which was being attacked. That was all I could learn of the matter for certain, after several visits to the spot and from letters and interviews with his Brigadier, the officers of his battalion and wounded men of his battalion in hospital and from officers (of other units) who later took over the trenches whence this attack had been made.’


A note adds: ‘The dead and wounded of 23rd Manchesters after the unsuccessful attack were left in No Man’s Land – “but all were eventually brought in, or accounted for by night patrols – with the exception of Eustace”. The chaplain who later buried the dead stated that there was no trace of Eustace…


Conclusions –
1.        He may have been hit directly by a shell in which case there would have been no trace of him.
2.        He may have fallen – yet not been picked up by our people later – he may in that case have been buried undefined since.
3.        He may have reached the German trenches – been killed or captured there.’


His body was never recovered. The anxiousness of the Maxwell family to know the truth about Eustace’s fate reflects what so many families must have been feeling at this time. Eustace Lockhart Maxwell is commemorated on a family grave in the Municipal Cemetery, Guildford, Surrey.


James Walter Sandilands’ A Lancashire Brigade in France (p. 13) records: ‘He was last seen leading his men in the gallant manner to be expected of one of such a distinguished group of soldier brothers.’ 


MS Letters of Eustace Lockhart Maxwell, NAM 1974-02-34-40 and 41.

‘The best type of Bantams done in’

Pinney wrote in his diary: ‘400 Manchesters went for MALTZE HILL FARM [sic] and all got in, but it is on forward slope of hill and they got blown to pieces by Bosh guns, even before they had finished off the Bosh garrison. The best type of Bantams done in.’[5]

It was a hastily planned – and badly planned – attack. As the History of the 35th Division conceded, arrangements did indeed leave much to be desired. The battalions of the 35th Division would later face criticism for their performance on the Somme, but evidence suggests that the 23rd Manchesters played their part on the 20th July to the best of their ability.  Lieutenant-Colonel Gordon’s report on the day’s events concluded:

‘I also wish to bring to notice the conduct of the Officers and men of the 23rd. Manchester Regt. who, arriving at very short notice carried out the second attack with great fortitude and dash and although driven back cheerfully set to work to repair the line and place it in a state of defence in expectation of a counter-attack. I consider the conduct of the Officers and men deserving of high praise especially in view of the fact that they had lost their Commanding Officer and all their senior Officers.’

That evening General Magnan, of the French 153rd Division, sent a message to Pinney. The advance of the 23rd Manchesters had been witnessed by several of his observing posts. He recorded: ‘It was splendid, as on parade, but they had no chance on front face of hill.’

The village of Guillemont literally does not exist’

Fig 27. Guillemont.jpg(Above) Guillemont – all that remained of the village at the end of the war


Guillemont was finally taken on the 3rd of September 1916. The History of the King’s Regiment recorded, ‘Guillemont had fallen! At last that rubble heap, of which scarce one stone or yard of ground was unstained by the blood of gallant men, was in our hands.’ When the British line was consolidated, and there was opportunity to explore the ruins of Guillemont, there were found to be networks of subterranean passages under the remains of the village and enormous cellars in which large numbers of the enemy had evidently sheltered.[6]

At the end of the month the film maker Geoffrey Malins (‘The Battle of the Somme’) visited the vicinity. His memoires record:

‘The village of Guillemont literally does not exist, in fact, it is an absolute impossibility to tell where the fields ended and the village began. It is one of the most awful specimens of the devastating track of war that exists on the Western Front. The village had been turned by the Bosche into a veritable fortress; trenches and strong points, bristling with machine-guns, commanded every point which gave vantage to the enemy. But, after much bloody fighting, our troops stormed and captured the place and the German losses must have been appalling. Many have been buried, but the work of consolidating the ground won and pressing on the attack does not permit our men thoroughly to cleanse the square miles of ground and bury the bodies and fragments that cover it.’[7]

In 1919 the Michelin Guide summarised Guillemont for battlefield tourists thus:

‘Guillemont (razed to the ground) was entirely captured by the British on September 3, 1916. No trace whatever remains of the houses, the sites of which are now indistinguishable from the surrounding fields. The whole area was devastated and is now overrun with rank vegetation. After its capture it was strewn with wreckage of all kinds—stones, bricks, beams, agricultural implements, and household furniture from the shattered farms and houses. The fine modern church, Gothic in style, which stood in the centre of the village, has entirely disappeared.’[8]


Fig 34. Guillemont tree.jpg(Above) Ruins of Guillemont


[1] MS Letters of Eustace Lockhart Maxwell, NAM 1974-02-34-36.

[2] The account of the events of 20th July is put together from: H. M. Davson, The History of the 35th Division in the Great War (1926), pp. 34-36;  J. W. Sandilands, A Lancashire Brigade in France (1919), pp. 13-14; War Diary of 23rd Manchester Battalion (WO 95/2484); War Diary of 15th Sherwood Foresters (WO 95/2488); ‘Account of the 23rd (Service) Battalion’s service in France and Flanders’; Diary entries for 20th July 1916 from Major-General Reginald John Pinney’s Army Book, number 3. Diaries and papers, IWM Collection 66/257/1.

[3] By 6.20 a.m. the French, whose attack coincided, had succeeded in taking Maltz Horn Farm. Over the course of the day the French right flank advanced around 2,500 yards.

[4] Interview with John Duffield, Catalogue number 4411, IWM.

[5] Diary entries for 20th July 1916 from Major-General Reginald John Pinney’s Army Book, number 3. Diaries and papers, IWM Collection 66/257/1.

[6] The History of the King’s Regiment (Liverpool), 1914-1919, by Everard Wyrall, Volume II (1930), p. 321.

[7] Geoffrey H. Malins, How I Filmed the War: A Record of the Extraordinary Experiences of the Man who Filmed the Great Somme Battles Etc (1920), p. 236.

[8] Michelin Guides to the Battlefields: The Somme, Part I, p. 84.

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‘The burning joy of the moment’: Manchester’s reaction to the Armistice

News of the imminent end of the war reached Manchester just after ten on the morning of the 11th of November 1918. With an official announcement expected, there had been an all-night vigil in the newspaper offices. All wires had been cleared in anticipation. And then, at 10.25 a.m. flags were being unfurled at the offices of the Manchester Guardian and the Evening News. With the presses already having been set up and ready to roll, it was only a short matter of time before newspaper carts, also decked in patriotic colours, were carrying the hot-off-the-press headlines all over the city. Suddenly factory sirens were sounding and all across Manchester people were flinging open their windows. ‘It was as though people had heard the news and wanted to breathe it,’ the Manchester Guardian observed. ‘It seemed just what occurs after a long and heavy thunderstorm, when people may be seen opening their windows as though some welcome release had come.’ Soon people were on the streets. At 11 a.m., as the Armistice was being signed, people crowded into Albert Square. There was a momentary stillness as the crowd watched a flag being hoisted over the Town Hall. There seems to have been a feeling of shock, more than joy, in this instant. There was a sense of solemnity. People cried rather than cheered.

Albert Square at noon on the 11th of November 1918. Manchester Guardian, 12th November 1918.

Albert Square at noon on the 11th of November 1918. Manchester Guardian, 12th November 1918.

The mood shifted over the course of the day, though. Tears turned to joyous laughter and by the afternoon the predominant tone was one of jubilation. The munition works broke out, shops, offices and warehouses closed and a holiday was declared at Manchester Grammar School. By 1 p.m., the streets were packed:

‘Along all the main roads into the city, along Ashton Old Road, along Stockport Road and Hyde Road, work-girls poured in hundreds, gathering as they went flags and the other patriotic symbols which had been so suddenly rushed out of obscurity of the hawker’s warehouse. They clambered on town-going lorries. In Market Street one saw a cart, drawn by the tiniest of donkeys, with seven or eight sturdy girls in overalls, cheering and flag-waving… The girls – for the first crowds were mainly girls – flocked in their workclothes, shawls over heads, or in the light trousered overalls of the munition works. They shouted and cheered, breaking up now and then to do a few steps of a wild fox-trot.’

The bells of the Town Hall clock were ringing and the tugs in Salford Quay were sounding their horns. People were trimming their hats with red, white and blue. The newspaper reports of the day emphasise the sudden loudness and colour of all of this jubilation – a wild breaking out of vitality after the long stifling wait of war. As night fell, the city lit up. After so long an age of stumbling through dimmed streets, suddenly every lamp in the city seemed to be burning brightly. There was a ‘feverish energy’ now, wrote the Guardian:

‘It was given point and direction by bugle bands and drums. In almost every main street at any time during the evening one could see such a band, with its flag-waving leader and its long straggling tail of men and girls linking arms across the street. They marched quickly and unimpeded through the crowded streets, for there were no tramcars to break their ranks. It was, indeed, a wonderful contrast with the days that are just behind us – streets with lights but no traffic, crowds that moved about us as if they had no care and no thought beyond the burning joy of the moment.’

The night’s celebrations were exuberant and spontaneous and raucous – and extended into the early hours of the morning. The Manchester Guardian’s editorial observed: ‘Long pent-up reserves of nervous energy and high spirits took long to work themselves out.’[i]

[i] Manchester Guardian, 12th November 1918; Manchester Evening News 11th and 12th November 1918.

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November 1914: The Race for Recruits

Fig 4. Race for recruits

The first recruit for Manchester’s 8th City ‘Bantam’ Battalion was attested on the 25th of November 1914. As the recruiting office was being set up in the Town Hall, word was sent out to the city’s newspapers that enrolment would begin in earnest the next day. With the simultaneous enlistment of the 7th and 8th City Battalions – in the same building, at the same time – the recruiting committee decided to encourage a “race” between the two battalions. ‘This recruiting race should provide an added stimulus to those who are engaged in persuading men to join,’ proposed the Manchester Courier.[i]

Fig 5. Recruiting scenes

(Above: Manchester Courier, 25th November 1914.)

When the doors of the Town Hall opened on the 26th of November over a hundred men were there waiting to enlist. As they queued, the Lord Mayor delivered an address. “It is not bigness that makes a soldier,” he told them, “It is pluck and endurance.” He also touched on the seemingly contentious issue of what the battalion was going to be called:

‘”I understand you object to being called ‘Bantams.’ (Some laughter.) A magistrate suggested to me ‘Fighting Cocks’ was a more fitting name. (More laughter.) It has also been suggested that ‘Bobs’ Own’ is the best name. Lord Roberts was a little man, but he was a very great Field Marshal. (Hear, hear.) I am sure you, too, will do good work. You know, little men can get round corners where big fellows can’t. (Laughter.)”’

Photographers from the Manchester newspapers were there as the men made their attestations. The Lord Mayor himself swore in the first batch. With the flare of a photographer’s flash the Mayor is reported to have quipped, “That’s the first time you have faced fire.”[ii]

Fig 7. Swearing in

(Above: Manchester Evening News, 26th November 1914.) 

The 27th of November saw Manchester Town Hall crowded with ‘sturdy little deep-chested stalwarts’. Prominent citizens addressed speeches to the men as they waited to be sworn in. In the afternoon Sir Henry Mackinnon, the General Commanding the Western Division, attended. ‘During the General’s visit an example of the fine physique of the little men was forthcoming,’ the Manchester Courier recorded, ‘which created no little amusement among those who saw it.’

‘Major Allen, the Assistant Inspector of Recruiting in the Western Division, called out one of the men to see whether the “standard chest measurement of 34½” was being adhered to. On the tape being put round the recruit’s chest, it was found to register 39 inches. This fine physical development has been a feature of those joining the 8th Battalion. Yesterday a large number of colliers from the Pendleton Pits offered themselves. They delighted the hearts of the officials, and though they were but short in height they were almost as broad as they were long, and had chests and arms that many a professional “strong man” might envy.’ [iii]

325 men enlisted over the course of the day. While some of the men joining the battalion evidently were miners, volunteers seem to have come from a wide variety of occupations. The Manchester Battalions Book of Honour gives some clues as to the occupational profile of the battalion; the majority of individuals identified as members of the 23rd Battalion therein work in cotton mills or engineering, but they are also employed in chemical works, iron works and warehouses, for assurance companies and shipping agents, in clothing manufacturing and for Manchester Education Committee. One man worked for Richard Johnson & Nephew’s barbed wire works. As such they really are a cross section of Manchester trades. 

Fig 8. Attestations

(Above: Manchester Evening News, 27th November 1914.)

While some volunteers might have been able to boast a ‘strong man’ physique, a significant percentage of men were being turned away because they couldn’t attain the minimum required chest measurement. This caused ‘a certain amount of murmuring’, the Manchester Guardian recorded. Some scrupulousness was evidently being exercised in the selection of this battalion, its promoters already being well aware that its performance would be subject to particular scrutiny. ‘The 8th Battalion is not designed as a refuge for patriots of a poor physique,’ the Guardian insisted:

‘Its fighting quality will not be one whit less than that of the best of the other city battalions, and the chest measurement, although exacting, is being rigidly enforced in order that at the finish Manchester may have particular pride in the last battalion to complete the second City Brigade… Lieutenant Bartrum, who has the supervision of recruiting at the Town Hall, is taking particular care with this battalion, aiming at a first-rate standard in each individual. He was completely satisfied with yesterday’s recruits, describing them altogether and severally as “topping good chaps”.’[iv]

The 28th of November saw another 265 men signed up, bringing the total to 590. The Manchester papers remarked that some candidates had travelled considerable distances for a chance of joining the unit, as men under the standard height were not yet being accepted in many other localities. Letters of application were received from as far away as Ramsgate, and the recruiting office of the Isle of Man requested permission to enlist men on behalf of the Battalion. Some of the volunteers arriving in Manchester, it was reported, had walked long distances and slept rough en route.

Not every man came forward with absolute confidence and certainty, though. There was evidently some last-minute dithering to be witnessed in Albert Square – but there were parties always ready to usher the men through the door. The Manchester Evening News observed:

‘The “five-foot recruits” visit the Town Hall in batches. They seldom come singly. Frequently one sees a score or more march in to be examined. Some of them are diffident about taking the final plunge, and gather in small knots in Albert Square. They are frequently approached by men who have already joined or by public men who have taken an interest in recruiting, and do not then take long to make up their minds. Mr J. R. Lancashire has done a good deal of work in this direction. He made a haul of no fewer than thirty recruits in this way to-day. He saw the men talking together outside and joined in the conversation. A minute or two later he was escorting the batch upstairs to receive their tickets preliminary to examination.’[v] 

Fig 9. Recruiting off

(Above: A recruiting officer at work in Albert Square. Manchester Evening News, 26th January 1915.)

That day an article – ‘Small Bodies and Big Souls’ – was published in the British Medical Journal, which gave authority to the arguments of those who had proposed the Bantam Battalion. Though the language and logic might seems slightly odd to modern ears, this expert justification boosted the confidence of those involved in the raising of the Battalion. It was reproduced in the Manchester papers. ‘We are glad to see,’ the Journal began, ‘that the War Office has set aside the absurd standard of height so far as regards an East Lancashire battalion, and had given permission for a “midget” battalion to be raised.’ The article went on:

‘Not a little is to be said in favour of short infantry. Short men occupy less room in transport; they find cover more easily, and offer a smaller mark to bullets and shrapnel; they are better sheltered in trenches and require to dig less deep trenches to protect themselves. It takes less khaki to clothe them, and less leather to boot them. The army blanket covers them more amply, and they need less food than tall thin men to keep up their body heat and maintain their marching energy; a smaller service transport, therefore, suffices for their needs. Many short men are tough and wiry, and when sturdily built, like the north country miner, are strong and capable of the greatest endurance. The managers of factories where skilled work is done know that the small man is often a better workman than the big one, who is apt to be clumsy… The cavalry and artilleryman requires to be big and powerful, but as to those who burrow in the trenches, how can it matter whether they are 4ft. 9in. or 5ft. 6in.? We are not out for a show and a parade, but to win  – a war of sieges and attrition. To hang on with tenacity, and use the rifle with skill, to keep warm and healthy in body, and courageous in spirit – these are the qualities, and the short men have them. The brave soul of the little man in the face of the giant is proverbial. The Japanese soldier has earned the highest reputation for endurance, courage, and fighting capacity, and his average height is between 5ft. and 5ft. 3in. There is waiting the call to enlist an army corps of bantam weights – the sturdy, short-limbed men of the North and the short men of the South and of Wales. The difference is in part due to difference of race, but valour and worth must not be valued by the length of a femur.’[vi]

By the 30th of November the total number of recruits in Manchester – those ‘sturdy, short-limbed men of the North’ – had increased to 730. One volunteer, who had just completed his attestation, told the authorities that he had previously been rejected by 34 recruiting depots. The volunteer proudly proclaimed that he ‘felt a man again and no longer a boy, now that he had been accepted as a soldier of the King.’[vii]

The 1st of December saw the 7th Battalion win the “race” to completion. The 8th Battalion’s numbers increased slowly over the next two days, with many men again being turned away on account of insufficient chest inches. After beginning at a rapid pace, recruitment slowed down to a crawl at the finish.[viii]

On the 4th of December, nine days after recruiting had officially opened, the Battalion was complete. With 39 men required at the start of the day, the recruiting officers actually had 100 to choose from. By 2 p.m. the recruiting offices were being dismantled. The Manchester Courier hurrahed: 

‘There is only one thing that is objectionable. He should not be described as a “Bantam”. We appreciate the alliterative allurement of the title “Bigland’s Birkenhead Bantams”, but do not like it. We dread the infection. Fancy “Manchester’s Military Mannikins,” or “Leeds Little ‘Loiners’”. They are not Football League teams; but if we do object to the gallinaceous title we know that they are “game”.’[ix]

On the 4th of December the 8th City Battalion – now designated by the War Office to be the 23rd Manchester Battalion – paraded for the first time at the artillery headquarters in Hyde Road. Journalists were there to watch. ‘The men presented a very smart appearance,’ observed the Manchester Courier.[x] This was the start of a newspaper fascination with the gallinaceous-titled battalion.

[i] Manchester Guardian, 25th November, 1914; Manchester Evening News, 25th November, 1914; Manchester Courier, 25th and 26th November 1914; Manchester Evening News, 5th December 1914.

[ii] Manchester Evening News, 26th November 1914. There are repeated indications in the local press that the men objected to the term ‘Bantam’.

[iii] Manchester Evening News, 27th November 1914, Manchester Courier, 27th November 1914.

[iv] Manchester Guardian, 27th November 1914

[v] Manchester Courier, 28th November 1914; Manchester Evening News, 28th November 1914; Manchester Guardian, 28th November 1914.

[vi] British Medical Journal, 28th November 1914.

[vii] Manchester Courier, 30th November 1914; Manchester Evening News, 30th November 1914.

[viii] Manchester Courier, 2nd December 1914; Manchester Evening News, 1st, 2nd and 3rd December 1914; Manchester Guardian, 3rd December 1914.

[ix] Manchester Courier, 4th December 1914; Manchester Guardian, 4th December 1914. Recruiting was completed for the reserve company of the 8th City Battalion in early January 1915.

[x] Manchester Courier, 5th December 1914.

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‘Bobs’ Own’

A correspondent to the Manchester Courier:

‘Wherever we go we behold the King’s call, “To arms,” “Your King and country need you,” etc. But what a terrible disappointment when a man tries to answer the call, but is rejected because he is only 5ft, 0 ½in., although he is possessed of all his faculties and yearns to do his share.’ 

The editor’s reply:

‘We advise our correspondent to put on a pair of big boots and try the “Bantams”.’

In August 1914 a Manchester Evening News reporter spent a day at a city recruiting station. He recorded his observations under the heading ‘Manchester Men’s Physique’. The journalist concluded:

‘In view of all that has been said in recent years about the dwindling stature and poor physique of the men of Lancashire, the experience of the doctors at the Dickinson Street recruiting station in this city is reassuring.

The examination each applicant has to pass through before being accepted for either the regular army or the special reserves is of a searching character, lasting from four to six minutes, yet the rejects only number from 25 to 27 per cent.

It is true that all the applicants do not get as far as the doctors owing to their being too obviously short in weight, height, or chest measurement; but, on the other hand, it must be remembered that the bulk of the applicants are of the poorer, unskilled classes who only too often fail to get even the minimum of nourishment necessary for proper development.’[i]

Fig 1. Manchester recruiting

It’s difficult to quantify how many men were being turned down as ‘too obviously short’, but it seems likely to have been a significant percentage. An article from the same newspaper, a couple of weeks later, makes it clear, though, that whatever the rejected men may have lacked in inches, they could make up for it in enthusiasm: 

The anxiety of the youth of Manchester to respond to the country’s call was strikingly shown in the lining up with the others of young men who must have known that they were below the minimum height of 5ft. 3in. One, a mere boy, was picked out from the crowd by a police officer engaged in marshalling the men. He was taken to an improvised measurement board roughly drawn on the jamb of a doorway, and it was then found that he failed to “pull” the standard height by about two inches. The youth looked very disconsolate when informed that it was no use for him to trouble the doctor’.’[ii]

The newspaper disclosed that the doctors were permitted to use ‘a little elasticity’ in passing men who only just missed the required physical standards, if it was deemed likely that they would develop under training. However, some eager volunteers required more elastic than the doctors could supply and frustration was increasingly being vented on the correspondence pages of the Manchester papers. ‘It is all very well being strict in time of peace,’ ran one such letter to the editor, ‘but in time of stress like this country is in at present I think the height and chest measurements might be reduced a little. What is an inch in a crisis like this?’[iii]

Fig 2. Rejected poem

(Poem published in the Manchester Evening News, 27th November 1914.)

By November 1914 this matter had been brought to the attention of the War Office. An article from the Manchester Courier revealed:

‘A feature that has occasioned no little comment has been the fact that many of the men presenting themselves have been slightly under the minimum height standard. In other respects they have been all that could be wished – eyesight good, teeth good, and physical proportions of the best. It has been considered that the War Office, considering the urgent need there is for soldiers, might accept these men and train them for the service of their country. Speaking in Manchester last night, Sir Frederick Smith expressed the opinion that the Government should accept men five feet tall for the Army, as many of the hardiest men were small and thick-set. He himself knew many colliers, for instance, who would make excellent soldiers. A step further was taken by Sir Alfred Hopkinson, who, speaking at a recruiting meeting in Beswick last night, said that every man who was physically fit, no matter what his age, should be allowed to go to the front if he so wished. The Germans were sending every man, and we could surely do as well.’[iv]

It’s generally acknowledged that the story of the Bantam Battalions began in Birkenhead. Lieutenant-Colonel H.M. Davson’s The History of the 35th Division in the Great War recounts a recruiting office scene. Very similar scenarios were playing out in Manchester’s recruiting offices:

‘A fine, sturdy little man walked into Birkenhead Recruiting Office towards the end of September, 1914. He was very angry when rejected, because he was an inch too short. He had tried four of five other recruiting offices, but always with the same result. Mr Alfred Mansfield talked to the man and came to the conclusion that we were losing some of the best manhood of our race. Splendid little men, who were keen and anxious to do their bit, were being rejected daily. He (Mr Mansfield) went to Mr Alfred Bigland, M.P. who was chairman of the Birkenhead Recruiting Committee, and asked him if something could not be done to get these men into the Army. Mr Bigland promptly took the matter up with the War Office next day. He asked permission to form a ‘Bantam Battalion’ at Birkenhead – and got it.’ 

Apparently the ‘sturdy little man’ offered to fight any man in the room and was only removed from the recruiting office with some difficulty. [v]

On the 20th of November a letter from Alfred Bigland was published in the Manchester Guardian, appealing for recruits for the Birkenhead Bantam Battalion. He wrote:

‘We are now ready to receive the names of men who are willing to join what it has been decided to call the “Bantam Battalion,” believing that a man is as good a soldier and as plucky a fighter at 5ft. 2in. as 5ft. 6in. In proof of this I would point out that if Britain had fixed its standard for officers the same as for privates the Empire would have lost the priceless services of the Field Marshall who was lovingly dubbed by his men “Bobs” and whose death the nation now mourns.’[vi] 

Field Marshal Lord Roberts – a popular figure, affectionately nicknamed “Bobs” by the newspapers – had died just days earlier. Bigland now asked Manchester men willing to join the new battalion to send him their names and addresses. Three days after recruiting opened, Birkenhead had over 2,000 Bantams attested and had to form a second battalion. ‘So began’, Davson wrote, ‘the formation of the “Bantam Division.”’

Just below Bigland’s letter, on the correspondence page of the Manchester Guardian, was a letter from D. E. Anderson, Chairman of the National Service League, North Western Area. It wasn’t just Birkenhead that had a mind to raise a Bantam Battalion. Anderson wrote that, in recruiting for the New Army battalions over the past few weeks, it had troubled him to have to reject so many Manchester men who were excellent soldierly specimens in every respect except their want of height. ‘Personally I am firmly convinced that a “little good one” is far preferable to a “poor big one,”’ he reflected. His letter went on:

‘To-day, in London, the greatest soldier of modern times has been laid to rest in St. Paul’s. He was small in size, but what a glorious record he had left. Knowing the high estimation Lord Roberts had for little men, I feel convinced that the present is a most opportune time for ending the injustice of refusing men short in stature the opportunity to fight for King and country. Surely that long-established slight to small men can be removed seeing how greatly changed are the present war conditions from the past.’ 

With that in mind, Anderson proposed to begin compiling a list of the names of volunteers between 5ft. and 5ft. 3in. Men were invited to register their particulars at the National Service League Offices and, if a sufficient number of names could be collected within the next week, Anderson proposed to submit his list to the War Office. If Manchester could follow Birkenhead in setting up a Bantam battalion, Anderson proposed that it should be called “Bobs’ Own”. 

The Manchester Guardian’s editorial of that day was sympathetic to Anderson’s cause. ‘In most modern fighting lack of inches is an actual advantage,’ the paper considered. It went on:

‘It is ridiculous nowadays to make the test of able-bodiedness one of inches. The sole test should be whether a man is in fit physical condition to stand the heat of a battle and the more exhausting fatigue of waiting and preparing for battle, and that is not a question of length or breadth, though it may be of proportion.’ 

On the 24th of November Anderson wrote to the War Office, drawing attention to the ‘useful material that was being wasted’. That night the Lord Mayor of Manchester received a telegram giving the go-ahead for the city to raise a battalion of below-standard height men. By the time that the battalion was sanctioned, the National Service League had collected the names of 1,208 would-be Bantams.[vii]

(Next: ‘The Race for Recruits’.)

[i] Manchester Evening News, 21st August 1914.

[ii] Manchester Evening News, 7th September 1914.

[iii] Manchester Evening News, 6th November 1914.

[iv] Manchester Courier, 17th November 1914.

[v] H. M. Davson, The History of the 35th Division in the Great War (1926), p. 1.

[vi] Manchester Guardian, 20th November 1914.

[vii] Manchester Evening News, 23rd and 24th November 1914.

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The Archduke, the Parisian Prophetess and the more pressing concerns of Cottonopolis

‘He who believes he will reign will not reign’, pronounced Madame de Thebes, the renowned Parisian prophetess. ‘It is about to be accomplished. No one can escape his fate.’

It was the 29th of June 1914 – the day after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand – and the Manchester Evening News, reporting the predictions of Paris’s ‘celebrated soothsayer’ alongside events in Sarajevo, had its tongue somewhat in its cheek. Though forecasting that Austria would probably now harden its line against the Slavs, the Evening News foresaw no significant fall-out. ‘The event, tragic though it is, is not likely to have any effect on international politics,’ the Manchester paper considered. The doomsaying prophecies of a Parisian astrologer were just an amusing aside.[i]


Manchester Evening News, 29th June 1914.

The boy assassin’s gunshot would echo loudly through international politics for the next month. Still, though, while diplomatic manoeuvres on the Continent were reported in the Manchester press, there was little expectation that England would become directly involved in events across the Channel and more close-to-home concerns dominated the headlines. Manchester had other things to think about. In July 1914 Lancashire was preoccupied with the likelihood that a depression in the cotton trade was looming.

In 1913 the UK’s cotton exports had reached an all-time high (7.075 billion yards of cloth, worth £126.5 million). In January 1914 the Manchester Courier had crowed: ‘One wonders what the pioneers of the cotton trade would have thought of such an output of cloth from the looms of Lancashire! Not in their wildest dreams could they have foreseen such a development of the industry.’[ii]


Lancashire was cotton, and cotton was Lancashire. In 1899 over 75% of the UK’s cotton textile workers were employed in the county.[iii] With the textile industry came all manner of associated trades and manufactures. Manchester in 1914 was a town of warehouses, traders and shipping agents, of bleaching, dyeing and printing works, chemicals, iron works and engineering, brokers, bankers and insurers. The state of the cotton market had a decisive influence over the local economy. When the cotton trade was doing well, Manchester prospered; conversely, a depression in the trade impacted the whole of the area’s economy. And, by the summer of 1914, Lancashire’s supremacy was starting to creak. It was the beginning of the end for the golden age of “Cottonopolis”.

While 1913’s headline figures were impressive, analysis was unsettling. Britain’s world share of exports had contracted – from 82% in 1884 to 58% by 1913 (on a weight-of-cloth basis). The emerging consumer markets that had kept Lancashire’s mills busy through the nineteenth century were now developing their own domestic textile industries. The most significant amongst these would be India. The market for cotton there had grown fast over the previous twenty years and Britain had been the principal beneficiary; by 1913 India was consuming 45% of the total yardage of cloth that Britain exported. But it wasn’t going to last. India’s own textile industry was expanding rapidly; during the period 1900-1913 the number of factory spindles in operation in India increased by one third and the number of power looms operating more than doubled. Thanks to the growth of the Indian consumer market Lancashire had enjoyed a boom. But it was about to peak – and fall. Lancashire’s long “Indian Summer” was ending. [iv]


In July 1914 Manchester was looking at international events with trade, not war, in mind. Sir Charles Macara, President of the Master Cotton Spinners’ Associations, was a worried man, and his anxieties were being put into print all over the local press. Lancashire’s customers weren’t buying. ‘The state of the cotton trade throughout the world is uniformly bad,’ Macara wrote.

‘All the great foreign markets are depressed. Famine and plague in India, revolution in China, and war in the Balkan States have handicapped the three countries which, in the order I have mentioned them, are England’s best customers. Further drawbacks have been the war between Italy and Tripoli, the Mexican revolution, the depression throughout South America, and last, but no least, the high price of raw material. Notwithstanding this accumulation of reverses, mills for the production of cotton goods have been growing in number at a rapid rate, with the result that markets are over-supplied, and the prices have fallen to a level which leaves not only no margin of profit, but a serious loss.’[v]


Manchester Evening News, 1st July 1914

At the start of July the General Committee of the Federation of Master Cotton Spinners recommended that all mills working America cotton should suspend operations. With the whole trade co-operating to manage down output, it was hoped that the recent fall in the prices of finished goods could be arrested.[vi] On the 31st of July 1914 the Spinners’ Federation duly voted in favour of organised short-time. However, overseas events were suddenly pushing trade concerns out of the headlines. In the words of the Manchester Guardian, ‘bigger things were in the air’.[vii] At the end of July, as Austria presented its ultimatum to Serbia, cotton prices dropped sharply. The mood of mercantile Manchester deteriorated correspondingly. ‘There are war-clouds on the horizon,’ wrote the Manchester Evening News, ‘but people hope that they may not burst. The European question never loomed bigger, but surely means will be taken to localise war if it breaks out at all.’ The next day, as Austria declared war on Serbia, it seemed like those clouds were perhaps, after all, bursting.

‘It is difficult to recollect days such as these,’ reflected the Evening News.[viii] 

[i] Manchester Evening News, 29th June 1914. In her Almanac for 1914 Madame de Thebes had predicted the outbreak of a war – detailing that German troops would approach Paris, but not enter it. Several regional papers picked up and publicised these ‘prophecies’ over the course of 1914. She also forecast that the Kaiser would die on the 29th September 1914.

[ii] Manchester Courier, 9th January 1914. The article went on: ‘In spite of increased competition, we are still unapproachable in the production of cotton cloth, nor is there any genuine reason to suppose that we are even now nearing the limits of expansion.’

[iii] Lars G Sandberg, Lancashire in Decline: A Study in Entrepreneurship, Technology, and International Trade (1974). p. 3.

[iv] Sandberg, Lancashire in Decline. pp. 141, 142, 167.

[v] This interview was printed in the Manchester Courier and Manchester Guardian, 9th July 1914.

[vi] See Manchester Courier, 8th July 1914. Going on to short-time was the traditional way that Lancashire textile manufacturers responded to a downturn in demand. The strategy was normally supported by employers and trade unions and respected throughout the industry. Cotton spinning factories had gone onto short-time in 1900, 1903, 1904 and 1910.

[vii]Manchester Guardian, 1st August 1914.

[viii]Manchester Evening News, 27th and 28th July 1914.

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From fanfare to footnote

In May 1916 Major Eustace Lockhart Maxwell received a promotion. Having formerly been an officer in the Indian Cavalry, he was now given command (his first) of an infantry battalion in France. After forty-eight hours with his new unit Maxwell wrote to his family, ‘The outstanding characteristic of those who belong to it seems to be their extraordinary self-complacency! Esprit de corps is a fine thing, but the satisfaction with which they regard themselves, their battalion, its internal economy, its gallantry, its discipline, its everything else, is almost indecent! If at the end of a month my opinion of them is half as good as their own, I shall think myself uncommonly lucky.’ That battalion was the 23rd Manchester ‘Bantams’.[i]

It’s perhaps not entirely surprising that they were feeling pleased with themselves. Having been formed in November 1914, being entirely composed of men of a height between 5ft and 5ft 3”, the battalion had spent much of 1915 training in the Lancashire seaside resort of Morecambe. There, billeted in West End boarding houses, they had been petted by landladies, were applauded by crowds as they drilled on the Promenade and had poems and songs composed about them (‘See our squads along the front,/ Hearts aflame to bear the brunt.’) It would be some time before they made it from seafront to front line, but when the Bantams finally left Morecambe, Private Percy Gidley would write to the local paper, ‘The cheerfulness, encouragement, and care of those providing the billets, and the generosity of Morecambe in general, made new men of us.’[ii] Morecambe had made the Manchester men into well-polished exhibition soldiers. They looked the part (if diminutively so) and had all of the right things to say. It was now time to turn their patriotic assertions into actions.

Despite his initial concerns, by the end of that month Maxwell had developed a liking and respect for his new battalion. They were talkative, friendly, funny and bloodthirsty. ‘The murderous little beasts just love their work’ Maxwell wrote.[iii] He was eager, indeed impatient, to take them into the fight. His turn came on the 20th of July 1916. He went over the top with his murderous little beasts in an attack on enemy trenches, south of Guillemont, on the Somme. He was killed within a few yards. Maxwell was one of fifty men of the battalion who died that day; 100 more were wounded, shell-shocked or missing. The bodies of thirty-eight of those killed, Maxwell included, would never be found. Major-General Sir Reginald Pinney, the commanding officer of the Division, would write in his diary at the end of that day that ‘the best type of Bantams’ were ‘done in’.[iv]

Almost half of the men involved in the attack on the 20th of July would eventually be counted as casualties and the 23rd Manchester Battalion would never be the same again. They would never regain the confidence that had so struck Maxwell at their first meeting. That esprit de corps had taken a battering. And it was about to be further tested. It simply wasn’t possible to consistently replace casualties with recruits who had the same physique as the original Bantams, who had had the benefit of the same length of training and, perhaps most importantly, who had the same spirit – that pride to be there and hunger to prove themselves. The gaps left by short, stocky volunteers were now being filled with small, slight conscripts. The fighting quality of the Bantams was observed to be deteriorating.

At the end of 1916 the concept of the Bantam battalions would be examined, found wanting and scrapped as an unsuccessful experiment. The 23rd Manchester Battalion was officially ‘De-Bantamized’ in January 1917. Drafts of six-footers now broke the tidy height uniformity of the ranks as they marched south through icy February landscape. The Bantam battalions, so celebrated in 1915, became an embarrassing mistake. By 1917 the same journalists who had been extolling their virtues a year earlier (‘the Bantams have not been long in proving that you can’t measure a man’s soul with a foot rule’) were ridiculing them (‘poor little men born of diseased civilization!’). The Bantams had become a joke. A bad joke. And something best forgotten.[v]

But the men who had called themselves Bantams remained proud (albeit now quietly so) of their achievements. On Armistice Day, in the decades after the War, they still marched through Manchester behind a banner that said ‘23rd Bantams’. They meant to be remembered. This then, in fond and respectful remembrance, is the story of Manchester’s ‘cock-o-doodle’ Bantams.

‘We are – The Bantams!

The Cock-o-doodle Bantams:

Morecambe breezes suit us grand.

Firm as Heysham rocks we stand,

Grenadiers at heart tho’ small,

Proud to answer country’s call.’[vi]

[i] MS Letters of Eustace Lockhart Maxwell, NAM 1974-02-34-30. Reproduced with the kind permission of the National Army Museum.

[ii] Quotation from ‘The Bantam Soldiers’ Ditty’, a poem published in the Morecambe Visitor, 20th January 1915. Percy Gidley’s letter was published in the Morecambe Visitor on the 13th October 1915. As the Bantams moved on (to Masham, Salisbury Plain and eventually France) Gidley continued to correspond regularly with the paper. All quotations from the Morecambe Visitor are reproduced with the kind permission of The Visitor (Johnston Press plc)

[iii] MS Letters of Eustace Lockhart Maxwell, NAM 1974-02-34-31.

[iv] Diary entries for 20th July 1916 from Major-General Reginald John Pinney’s Army Book, number 3. Diaries and papers, IWM Collection 66/257/1. Extracts from Major-General Pinney’s army diaries are reproduced with the kind permission of Philip Pinney.

[v] Both quotes are from articles written by the journalist Philip Gibbs, who took an on-going interest in the Bantam battalions. See Daily Chronicle, 19th June 1916 and Now It Can Be Told (1920), p. 404.

[vi] Quotation from ‘The Bantam Soldiers’ Ditty’ (as above).

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