Whatever your views on the causes and conduct of the First World War, it is impossible not to be moved by some of the stories and archive footage of 1914. When we think of that war, we tend to focus on the infantry in the trenches. It is difficult to see the relevance of the Civil Service.
Remembering civil servants who gave their lives...
But as we approach Remembrance Day, I would like to remember both the civil servants who gave their lives fighting for their country and the civil servants who – on the home front – made victory possible.
In recent weeks, the Treasury History Society has been running a competition to write a short essay on one of the civil servants honoured on the commemorative plaques around the government offices in Great George Street. Like much of the Civil Service estate, there has been a huge turnover in tenants over the years. Now these offices house HM Treasury, HM Revenue and Customs, Cabinet Office, Northern Ireland Office, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, UK Export Finance and the Civil Service Commission among others. At the time of the First World War, it housed the Local Government Board, the Board of Education and the Ministry of Works.
All the stories of those commemorated are moving.
Take Sergeant Charles Blackadder, a Scot born in Dublin, who came to London aged 20, and passed the Assistant Clerk Exam in 1909. He lived in West Kensington, sharing a house with 9 other civil servants. He worked in the Post Office Savings Bank and then the Local Government Board. When war broke out, he enlisted immediately at Clapham Junction in the 23rd London Regiment Battalion. He was sent to France after basic training. He was wounded at Fastubert in May 1915 but after recuperating he returned to the front. He died in 15 September 1916 attempting to take High Wood, near Amiens: the assault formed part of the Battle of the Somme and resulted in 581 British casualties.
Or Private Will Fraser, who grew up a stone-throw from Whitehall, when Westminster was rather more run down than it is today. He passed the exam into the Civil Service 9 years earlier than Charles Blackadder but also worked at the Local Government Board rising to the grade of Clerk (2nd division) in 1912. He also enlisted in 1914 and joined the Prince of Wales’ Civil Service rifles, a volunteer battalion of the London Regiment which met for drill and rifle practice at Somerset House. Will was shipped to France at the beginning of June 1916, and served for 6 months on the Western Front. History does not relate whether he regarded the December transfer of the Civil Service Rifles to Salonika in Northern Greece as a good or bad thing. He did have time to send a Christmas card to his brother: “Just a line to say that we have arrived in the land of the Epistles after a good journey...Glad to say I am alright up to present”. Sadly, the regiment was badly equipped: the bivouacs they were provided with provided little protection against the icy north wind; sanitation was poor and access to clean water limited. The Battalion suffered outbreaks of impetigo, dysentery, jaundice and nephritis. And Private Fraser succumbed to broncho-pneumonia, dying in the field hospital in February 1917. He was unmarried and had no children. A final poignant detail: his favourite toothpaste was Kolynos.
And there are many other interesting entries putting lives to the names on the memorials, which space precludes me from setting out here.
...and those who stayed who were central to the war effort
But it is not just the civil servants who died in the war we should remember. There were also the civil servants – men and women up and down the country - who stayed in the service at home and were absolutely central to the war effort.
The scale of mobilisation on the home front was unprecedented. Much of that was about providing munitions and kit to the army in the field and the Royal Navy at sea. It was also about providing food, medicine and wider logistical support. The war effort required much more state intervention, for example through food rationing or the regulation of alcohol consumption. And a more interventionist state required a bigger and more motivated civil service.
Financing the war became absolutely critical. Government spending was just £300 million in 1914. By the end of the war, it was £2.3 billion. The Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise played a great critical role in ensuring the taxes came in. But inevitably it fell to the Treasury to finance most of the war through higher borrowing. It was Britain’s ability to fund the war in contrast to Germany’s failure which largely led to the war’s end in November 1918.
Recently, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, wrote a fascinating article in the Financial Times on the financing of the war - Remember the quiet glory of the old soldiers of Whitehall. It is well worth a read. I could not agree more with the main conclusion: “It is not often that civil servants…are described as unsung heroes. But as we remember the outbreak of the first world war, and the momentous sacrifice of those who fought and died, spare a thought too for those in Whitehall who, though far from the field of battle, fought hard for their country.”
Comment by John fennell posted on
My uncle is commemorated on one of the building memorials - wouldn't it be nice if they could be photographed and catalogued so that we can see the memorial??
Comment by Kevin White posted on
A really interesting blog, thanks Nick. We also did some research into Home Office staff fighting in the great war and the results are in the linked publication (A Finer Spirit of Heroism: The Home Office First World War memorial). One of the obvious (in retrospect) features of the research is that it tends just to be soldiers and officers from well to do families for whom there are photographs!
Comment by Paul Harcombe posted on
My grandfather (dad's dad) was a colliery overman (sort of a senior NCO for miners) in the Rhondda during the war, he tried to join the army 3 times but kept being sent back because his was a reserved occupation. He was bitter about that for the rest of his life.
My mum's dad was a Captain in the Royal Marines, seconded to the Intelligence Corp, landed just after D-Day, went all through the war without a scratch despite being in some serious trouble working with the Maquis a few times and then was the first man through the gate of a satellite camp to Buchenwald. This stayed with him the rest of his life and he only told me about it when he knew he was dying, he'd not mentioned it to his two daughters so as not to upset them. Great men both, sadly missed now but never forgotten.
Comment by Chris Hare posted on
My late Grandfather James Donald Henderson (Don Henderson as he was known) joined H. M. Land Registry at Lincoln’s Inn Field in the 1930s. Initially he worked at Lincoln’s Inn Fields as a surveyor.
In 1938, not long after joining Land Registry, my grandfather joined the Territorial Army. He was assigned to the Honourable Artillery Company (HAC), the oldest unit in the British Army and the oldest volunteer unit in the world, having been established under Royal Charter by Henry VIII in 1537.
Shortly after the outbreak of World War II he had to put his Land Registry duties on hold when he was granted an emergency commission as a 2nd Lieutenant. By early 1942 he was posted to North Africa with the 11th Regiment HAC Royal Horse Artillery. He was promoted to Captain in 1944.
From an early age I had heard stories that my grandfather had won the Military Cross but I didn’t know how. I did a little research about the Military Cross and the official citation reads: ‘for distinguished and meritorious service in battle’. Naturally, I wanted to find out more. After contacting his regiment and the Army Records Office I was able to piece together a fuller picture.
As with so many awards of gallantry, the occasion for such an award is often one of many such examples equally as good. My grandfather’s award was no exception. He had fought with distinction in North Africa at Bir El Aslagh and whilst under heavy enemy fire had been wounded for the first of many times. On the River Ronco in Italy, when cut off from allied forces, he had stayed behind attending to the wounded despite savage close-quarter fighting, carrying a severely wounded comrade back to friendly lines across the heavily swollen river. He also single-handedly destroyed an enemy machine-gun position.
However, the occasion of his award occurred in Italy in January 1945 at the important road junction of Santarchangelo, in the hills 10 kilometres west of Rimini, on the ancient Via Aemilia.
The Regimental History states that Captain Henderson played an important part in the attack in this area. As a Forward Artillery Observation Officer (a role that requires putting oneself right in the frontline), my grandfather identified a hill ahead of him that offered a commanding view. However, the hill was under enemy observation and dangerously close to enemy infantry positions. Moreover, it was considered too dangerous for an armoured vehicle to move up the hill. Completely undaunted by this fact, my grandfather walked up the hill alone, taking up position in a house on the crest.
The house was in such a commanding position that it soon came under heavy artillery fire from which my grandfather was seriously wounded by shrapnel and the house reduced to rubble. Despite his wounds he steadfastly refused to leave his post.
The house continued to be shelled throughout the day, but my grandfather remained defiant, sending back invaluable information of the enemy’s movements. And crucial this information proved to be for the enemy began re-grouping for a strong counter-attack. Decisive action from my grandfather brought down an effective concentration of artillery fire that broke up the threatened counter-attack.
Several days later my grandfather crossed the Rubicon, as Julius Caesar had in 49BC, only this time in the opposite direction.
Peacetime saw my grandfather return to his Land Registry duties and in 1961 he moved to the Lytham Office, where I began my Land Registry career in 1997. He retired in 1977. I currently work at the Land Registry Fylde Office in Warton, which is just down the road from Lytham.
My grandfather’s bravery and devotion to duty won him the Military Cross but he nearly paid the ultimate price. Like many of his generation he spoke little of his bravery so it was important for me to put the story to the medal.
Land Registry Fylde Office.
Comment by Barry McAuley posted on
My late father, who died aged 88 on 13 September, on the Wirral, Merseyside, was seventeen and a half when he was called up as a Bevin Boy. Named after the the then Minister of Labour, Ernest (Ernie) Bevin, forty eight thousand men were conscripted to work as miners between 2 December 1943 and 24 March 1948, following the realisation that too many miners left their pits to join the military. Chosen by ballot, based on the last figure of their service number, with a new last number drawn every two weeks to make the process fairer, many were sent far away from their homes and families to work in unfamiliar towns and villages. My father was sent to the village of Ashington in Northumberland, where he stayed for nearly five years until March 1948. The work was hard, physical and hazardous, and many suffered health problems as a result. Afterwards, they became known as the forgotten conscripts, with their vital contribution to the war effort going unrecognised. some sixty years later, after the Bevin Boys were finally discharged, and almost sixty five years after they began serving their country, their contribution was finally recognised with the surviving Bevin Boys being awarded a commemorative medal for their vital work. A small group of Bevin Boys were presented with their medal at 10 Downing Street on the sixtieth anniversary of their discharge. It is only in recent years that they have been included in the Rememberance Sunday commerorations at the Cenotaph at Whitehall in London, in the presence of Her Majesty The Queen. A fitting tribute would be an electronic and paper record of the names, home towns and service dates of every Bevin Boy, at the Imperial War Museum, London.
Comment by Barry McAuley posted on
Would like the Bevin Boys commemorated when we mark the 70th Anniversary of the end of WW2.
Comment by Adrian Webb posted on
Sir Nicholas Macpherson wrote in his blog ‘But it is not just the civil servants who died in the war we should remember. There were also the civil servants – men and women up and down the country – who stayed in the service at home and were absolutely central to the war effort’. During World War One staff in the Hydrographic Department, based in London, played a key role in supporting naval operations. Many of the civil servants found themselves in reserved occupations and were not allowed to go and join the armed services. As part of the war effort over 600 new charts were compiled and printed, including ‘Air charts’ used for hunting submarines, and submarine charts for the fledgling RN submariners to be supplied with the latest information about the nature of the seabed.
The department came under unprecedented demands for charts for use by the Merchant Navy. Extra chart depots were set up around the world to supply the Merchant Navy and staff in the department worked day and night to ensure charts were always available to both services. By the end of the war almost all of the merchant service were using Admiralty charts. Charts were also supplied for a newly established Auxiliary Patrol service, which was an anti-submarine initiative, as well as for use by the United States, French and Greek navies. To meet these demands the number of staff increased to over six times its pre-war level.
The war brought about changes in technology for the department, including lithographic printing, specialist types of charting for a range of defence and intelligence purposes, as well as an increase in equality opportunities for careers for women in the civil service. The way in which the department supported the Royal Navy and the defence of the realm, a major task which is continued with great pride to this day, contributed to every naval operation and the safety of merchant shipping.
To mark their efforts, the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office staged a one day exhibition on the work undertaken by ‘Hydrographic Department’ staff during World War One on the 11th of November.
Comment by Nigel Green posted on
Charles Blackadder's story has some remarkable parallels with that of my father Maurice (Jim) Green. He too was wounded at Festubert and like Charles returned to fight in the Somme campaign in 1916. He was part of the 24th battalion London regiment that attacked High Wood in September where the Division as a whole suffered 4,500 casualties. Fortunately my father survived and went on to join the civil service in the 1920s until his retirement in the late 1950s from the (then) Ministry of Pensions.