The Colliery Guardian at War

Six Bells Colliery, Abertillary

 The Colliery Guardian at War

Bill Hartley mines an invaluable source of social history 

An historian once said that by 1914 Europe had become an armed camp. Even so there was a view at the time that war was unlikely given the close ties of trade and commerce between the nations. Well, we know what happened to that theory. Even so, those ties did exist and following the outbreak of war were a cause of concern to the Colliery Guardian. The paper did however try to be upbeat suggesting that British manufacturers would benefit from gaining access to markets denied to the enemy, since it would be difficult for German goods to travel along routes now guarded by the Royal Navy. At home and in the face of anti German hysteria, one editorial in late 1914 took a surprisingly liberal view on the question of enemy aliens working in Britain. The Guardian felt that providing these people did nothing to aid Britain’s enemies then they should be allowed to continue in business. How long some managed to do so was somewhat surprising.

It is unlikely that in those early months of the war government and the military were focussed on what might today be called economic intelligence. The Guardian certainly was and 1914 editions carried detailed statistics about coal production in the German and Austrian empires plus accessible markets in neighbouring coalfields. These came via long established sources and evidently a European war didn’t interrupt the collection of such information. Only one contributor was identified. The British consul in Le Havre seemed to be the source of information about German coal imports.

On the question of imports, Britain was a large purchaser of timber for use in that humble but vital staple of coal mining, the pit prop. This was a question which concerned industry insiders. The alternative to timber was steel props and this was enthusiastically supported by one correspondent, a Mr William Firth. It happened that he was the owner of Firth’s Steel Props Ltd of Sheffield. Mr Firth wasn’t the only enthusiast writing to the Guardian. Under the heading ‘Distinguished Author’s Appeal’, William J Locke urged the press to ‘awaken the labouring population of Great Britain and Ireland from their ghastly apathy’. The press should ‘inspire them with patriotism and sweep away false gods from the hearth of the British proletariat who have been too long trained by the demagogues of Keir Hardie and the scum of uneducated thought’. Mr Locke incidentally was a well-known ‘sentimental’ novelist. He failed however to notice that the miners of South Wales had volunteered to work an extra hour per day plus Sundays to help fulfil Admiralty contracts.

In 1914, Great Britain was a huge exporter of coal and the Guardian wanted to know where it was going. Shippers pointed out that they had no control over where their goods might end up and neutral Holland was seen as a danger. ‘Our enemies do not only live in the Fatherland’ was the ominous warning and the paper voiced concern about fraudulent consignees. This was a real worry in those early months until German commerce raiders such as the Emden had all been sunk. Before the war, German commercial shipping interests had set up a network of coaling stations known as the Deutsches Koalen Depots in such ports as Algiers, Marseilles, Genoa, Naples and Malta. The needs of the German Navy, opined the Guardian, were ‘ever in the background’. Interestingly much of the coal supplied to these locations had before the war been Welsh in origin. The Guardian concluded that they should be closed down or ‘decayed’ as it was known, before they became ‘a dire menace to our trade’. And this was no mere speculation. Three months after the outbreak of war the Royal Navy seized a German collier the Slawenitz and took her into Gibraltar where she was found to be carrying 5,000 tons of Welsh coal. The paper also let its readers know what was happening to some of that coal which was going to an approved destination, with a description of how a dreadnought could be replenished whilst under way. The battleship steaming at 10-12 knots would take a collier in tow then by means of a 400 foot long hoist, winch coal in half or one ton loads at a rate of between 40 and 80 tons per hour.

Interestingly, advertisers in the paper were slow to play the patriotic card. Indeed, only one such advertisement appeared in the1914 editions. ‘Buy British coal washers’ went the slogan. ‘The ‘Notanos’ is and always was superior to any German machine. Patriots buy only British washers’.

Two years later, in 1916, things were very different. By then the Army’s need for manpower had seen the introduction of conscription. Reports coming in from 1915 had recorded a fall in coal production and this was attributed to the number of miners who had been enlisting. It neatly illustrates the problem. Coal was a vital commodity in war and mining was in direct competition with the military for manpower. The Guardian noted that for the first time the nation was ‘coming face to face with the vital importance of coal in fighting a modern war’.

Meanwhile, the Miners’ Federation was meeting in Buxton and the paper noted approvingly that it was ‘perfect in tone and timbre’ and ‘everything had to be subordinated to bringing the war to a successful conclusion’. The president Mr Smillie did however note that the purchasing power of the sovereign had fallen to 12s 4d. There was early mention of the need to create a new department of state: a Ministry of Mines and Fuels. By then the number of men employed in the mining industry had fallen to 530,000. This was still a vast reservoir of manpower for the military to covet. With conscription in force it was an important consideration for Military Service Tribunals, convened to hear appeals against the call up. One can only sympathise with the difficulties of Sir John Harmood-Banner who appeared at a tribunal in support of his chauffeur. Sir John explained that he had various colliery interests which he needed to attend to but his home wasn’t conveniently situated for a railway station. Two of his chauffeurs had already been called up into the Army and efforts to find a discharged ex-serviceman as a replacement had been unsuccessful. The appeal was dismissed.

Even in 1918 the Guardian was still able to publish highly detailed information about industrial production in Germany. Both coal and steel were covered, helpfully broken down into the types produced region by region. In January came the first reference to American involvement in the war with the reproduction of a poster showing a soldier above the caption: ‘Manufacturer before you fix that price, Dealer before you add that extra profit, Workman before you strike: ask yourself, is this my boy?’ This had originally appeared in the Coal Age, the American equivalent of the Colliery Guardian.

Stories continued to reflect the constant conflict between the military need for manpower and the mining industry, with the latter using every means to ‘comb men out’ as it was described. Men who had gone into the industry after 1914 were especially vulnerable, particularly if they hadn’t troubled to complete the paperwork to secure an exemption. War related advertising was becoming more common. Marple & Gillett, scrap metal merchants of Sheffield, posted an advertisement showing a fetching young lady astride a giant howitzer shell as it plunged earthwards. The company was seeking to buy scrap which could then be used for armaments. Walter and Frank Brown Limited, Sheffield steelmakers, restricted themselves to a line drawing of a blushing Britannia flanked by a rather irritated lion. Behind stood two Tommies and bobbing on a distant watery horizon was a dreadnought.

Reports of mismanagement of the call up process appeared during 1918. In Wales there were comments from local councillors about men ‘walking the streets of Ebbw Vale’ whilst pre 1914 miners had been issued with call up papers. At an appeal tribunal in Sheffield, 20 miners appeared in support of their check weigh man. Their presence illustrates the vital importance to miners of a trustworthy man when they were being paid on the basis of how much coal they mined. His appeal against call up was dismissed.

In Parliament, Colonel Sir F Hall asked whether August Seigl, a German national who had been employed in Scottish mines, had been interned or repatriated. Despite the internment of enemy aliens, Herr Seigl had been able to go about his business undisturbed almost for the duration. The Secretary of State for Scotland replied that he would be sent on the next available boat. Presumably he wouldn’t have been away for long since the report appeared in a November 1918 edition. Indeed, the Armistice seemed to have taken everyone including the Guardian by surprise. Gradually the editorials began to reflect the fact that the war really was over. The paper described the German Empire of 1914 as ‘a sound and prosperous enterprise which could only have reached this state with organised effort, method and persistence (but) she has defied and outraged the moral sense of civilisation and had they succeeded civilisation would have collapsed. Thus the German autocracy has perished’.

Even as late as December 1918, the Armistice seemed not to have had any impact on the advertising of Marple & Gillett. In that month the paper carried one of their adverts which announced ‘The Huns have scrapped the Wellington monument (which stood on the field of Waterloo) to make Hun munitions. Sell us your scrap iron and steel to help wreak vengeance for this outrage’. Evidently unnoticed by Marple and Gillett there was talk in that month of a peace conference with the paper suggesting in an editorial that Mr Lloyd George should bring home to the enemy the ‘serious liabilities they have incurred by their reckless policies of running amok regardless of any principal of civilised warfare’.

During the war years the Colliery Guardian produced a vast archive of economic intelligence and was perhaps the first publication to fully appreciate the vital need for coal in order to fight a war using all the power of the industrial revolution. The competition between mining and the military for manpower is a story which has not been fully told and the paper represents an important source of information on this subject.

BILL HARTLEY is a former deputy governor in HM Prison Service and writes from Yorkshire

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