Coventry in the Great War by Leonard Markham


Book Reviewer
This book is from an excellent and growing series from Pen & Sword. Obviously, the standard and scope of each book depends on the skill and interests of the author, as well as the characteristics of the town, city or area described.

Leonard Markham has written an eclectic range of books, covering topics of history, meteorology, footpaths and angling, in English counties including Derbyshire, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, Sussex (East and West), Warwickshire and Yorkshire. I admit to being intrigued to search out a copy of “Yorkshire Privies”, after being taken to reservoirs and sewage works throughout Midlands and Wales during school holidays by my Dad who worked in water industry, and now I live in West Yorkshire.

The author describes his book as “the necessarily abridged but unadorned story of Coventry during the Great War of 1914-18”. That's exactly what is achieved through 118 pages.

Each chapter starts with the song from which the title is taken. The body of each chapter is made up from short paragraphs. There is a neat way of indicating domestic topics using a Three Spires photo as a logo, and the badge of Royal Warwickshire Regiment to indicate military topics. Among all the stories told, the author highlights that of Private Albert Troughton, who served with 1st Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers, was shot at dawn in April 1915.

At outbreak of war, Coventry had a German-born Mayor, Siegried Bettmann. He was married to an English woman, Anne Meyrick, and was one of only a few Germans to avoid internment.

Coventry was known in early 20th century for principally for industry, healthcare, education and football – much as today.

Among local industry, White and Poppe Ltd which started making single cylinder water-cooled motor engines in 1899, had earned a reputation for excellence and reliability during the Boer War. During World War One, the firm produced tanks, aircraft, anti-aircraft guns, cartridge cases, fuses and detonators. In fact, Coventry became an arsenal, attracting workers from all over the United Kingdom, including women who became known as “Canaries” or “Tetrol Girls” as a result of yellow skin.

Smith's Stamping Works came under government control in 1915. To avoid the inefficiency of sending drop forgings for further treatment in Sheffield, the company improved its capabilities at Red Lane plant, and manufactured components for ships and aircraft.

Coventry Munitions Court dealt with many cases of poor timekeeping by factory workers, usually resulting in fines of up to a week's wages.

The Coventry and Warwickshire Hospital allocated 30 beds of its then 60 beds for use by expected military casualties. Over the course of the Great War, the C&W dealt with 2,500 military cases.

In the field of education, many pupils of schools such as Bablake and King Henry VIII's joined Cadet Corps, before signing up when they were old enough. At Barr's Hill School for Girls, the private school magazine included records of numbers of “comforts for the troops”, body belts, cuffs, helmets, mittens, scarves and socks knitted by each class.

Coventry City FC suffered financial disaster when many of its squad volunteered and left for France. Nine CCFC players never played again. The club faced extinction due to monetary losses, until tobacconist David Cooke paid back rent on Highfield Road ground and remained sole tenant until his death in 1932.

Alongside these activities, Coventry residents raised £8,500,00 in National War Savings Scheme.

Admiral Jack Fisher, Radical Jack, was a former pupil of King Henry VIII's School, so he was well remembered fondly in Coventry after he dispatched a flotilla of Royal Navy ships to intercept German ships steaming from Chile towards the Falkland Islands in December 1914.

Conscription from 1916 called up men of specific age and marital status to serve in armed forces. Horses and mules were also rounded up, so that over 1 million were in service in 1917. One horse or mule was lost for every two men. However, in 1914, John Townshend of Coleshill managed to hide his favourite horse, Tom, by blindfolding him and leading him into an upper room scattered with deep hay. Other horses were taken from the ground floor.

Military personnel from Royal Munster Fusiliers and South Wales Borderers arrived in Coventry in January 1915. The Fusiliers were involved at V Beach on the Gallipoli Peninsula.

One story with a Coventry connection links the First and Second World Wars. On 28 September 1918, Private Henry Tandey from nearby Leamington Spa, confronted a limping German soldier, took aim, but “couldn't shoot a wounded man”. That man was said to be Adolph Hitler, who remembered his escape. The story says that when he became Nazi leader in 1933, he tasked his staff with tracing Tandey, after seeing a painting in the Green Howards' officers mess. A copy of a painting by Matania showing Tandey rescuing a wounded comrade was hung in Hitler's retreat at Berchtesgaden and shown to Neville Chamberlain during his 1938 peace mission. After his army service, becoming the most highly decorated private surviving WWI, being awarded VC, DCM and MM, Tandey worked as a security guard at Triumph, later Standard Motor Company. Hitler's memory of the shot that wasn't fired appears much stronger than Tandey's, so considerable doubt must be expressed.

2,599 men of Coventry lost their lives in armed service during the Great War. Many others were injured and civilians were also killed or injured during war service. So, the city better known for its role in World War Two and reconcilliation, also played its part in the earlier conflict.

An excellent book for anyone interested specifically in the role of Coventry and surrounding area during the Great War. One reservation: there are some inaccuracies in the index - page numbers listed do not always contain information about the word indexed.

For completeness, to assist people considering buying this book, I include a list of content below:

Preface by the Author
Prelude to War and Beginnings
1. 1914: Your King and Country Needs You
2. 1915: Keep the Home Fires Burning
3. 1916: I Didn't Raise My Boy to be a Soldier
4. 1917: Over There
5. 1918: The Hearse Song

4.5 out of 5.

Paperback ISBN 978 1 78346 8. Cover price £9.99.

Publisher Pen & Sword. Paperback published 2014.