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Tanks for all Walsall's help

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: June 18, 2014

  • Tank Julian and civic dignitaries pictured in front of Walsall Council House

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FROM late 1914 the opposing armies of France, Britain and Belgium on one side and Germany on the other, had dug what were originally intended as temporary positions across Flanders and France.

The initial mobile warfare stagnated into parallel lines of trenches which eventually stretched for more than 400 miles from the Swiss border to the Belgian coast.

Attempts to break the deadlock of trench warfare on the Western Front achieved mixed results for the next three years. However, the British General, Julian Byng, launched an army of more than 430 tanks to smash a five-mile gap through the German front line at Cambrai in November 1917. The success was quickly seized upon by the Government; Prime Minister Lloyd George ordered the churches across the land to peal their bells, silent since August 1914. Two tanks positioned in Trafalgar Square raised more than £3 million in War Bonds sales, and were sent out to other cities to support what became known as "Tank Banks", as towns and cities vied with each other to raise ever higher amounts in subscriptions for War Bonds and War Savings Certificates (a pink booklet, paying weekly).

Eventually seven tanks spread out across the country; more than 160 Tank Banks between November 1917 and June 1918 raised more than £135 million.

The week before Easter in March 1918 saw tank 113 Julian arrive at the Midlands Railway Goods Station in Walsall after six days at Worcester.

Julian, probably named after the General who had launched the tanks at Cambrai, had already raised more than £40,000,000 in contributions, three quarters of which had been amassed during its time in Scotland.

Julian's commander - Lieutenant W. E. Davies from Holly Hall, Dudley - while organising the arrival of Julian on the Sunday evening of March 25, 1918, ruined his breeches. At the end of the week, he was sent anonymously a parcel containing a "lovely little pair of spotless flannel knickers." The Chase Project have been unable to ascertain whether they were suitable for a male or female.

From the Goods Station, tank 113 Julian had made its way along Tasker Street, Wednesbury Road, Bradford and Bridge Streets, to its resting place behind the balustrades outside the Council House in Lichfield Street.

The speech by Walsall's Mayor, Mr S. M. Slater, was especially poignant; his wife had been killed by a bomb dropped during an air raid by German Zeppelin L19 in January 1916. A bomb had landed near Walsall's Science and Art Institute in Bradford Place, with shrapnel hitting a tram car in which she was travelling. She had died from her wounds three weeks later. The Zeppelin raid was the only time Walsall was bombed during the war. The Mayor presented medals from on top of the tank to eleven men from Walsall and the surrounding area. The Russian Order of St George was also presented to Sergeant William Harrison, the sergeant-in-charge of Julian.

Walsall's MP, Sir Richard Cooper, declared that "our fighting men were standing between us and annihilation." He referred to the other speechmakers as human machine guns that 'rattled' from the top of the tank and had found their targets as surely as the tanks had done on the battlefield. The good-natured crowd waited patiently to make a purchase and were entertained from the platform at the side of the tank by the local Bescot Prize Band, and also Shelfield Male Voice Choir. Military bands were also invited, including that of the 3rd New Zealand Rifle Brigade, stationed at Cannock Chase Reserve Centre. The band was a regular feature next to the tank during the week.

Five street vendors, four from Birmingham and one from Leeds, arrested for selling postcards and souvenirs, were charged with acting as pedlars without licences and sentenced to seven days' imprisonment.

Local schoolchildren raised more than £21,000 with one blind girl offering the contents of her money box in exchange for certificates. One lady arrived with a carpet bag filled with the family silver which was weighed and the proceeds invested in War Bonds. Blind men and women, who worked for the Walsall and Wednesbury District Blind Society, passed their hands over the tank. They marvelled at Julian's metal tracks commenting on the riveted, adamantine sides.

Wednesbury and Darlaston Councils, along with Pelsall Rural Council, were also involved in raising funds, and Walsall Town Council voted unanimously to invest £20,000 in War Bonds. In 1917 Walsall had purchased £1,600,000 of War Bonds; in four days in March 1918 Walsall had managed to raise £832,000 (the Council had decided not to allow the Tank Bank to be open for business on Good Friday).

It could be argued that Prime Minister Lloyd George's claim that the tank was a "war winner" is somewhat exaggerated.But the tank was certainly a major contributor to the financial ability of Britain to continue fighting. More importantly the support for Tank Banks showed soldiers that the Home Front recognised that War Bonds and War Saving Certificates would help get them back home quickly.

There is a misconception that civilians did not fully understand what was happening in the mud and blood of Flanders and France. To a certain extent this is correct. However, the civilians realised that War Bonds would buy tanks, which cost around £5,000 each. Tanks would overcome the German defences and barbed wire. The war would be won. Their husbands, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters could come home. The logic was obvious to the citizens of Walsall who unanimously gave their support.

Walsall's citizens had raised enough money to pay for 166 tanks.

Do you or your family have any additional information or photographs of this important chapter in Walsall's Great War experience? Email editor@blackcountrybugle.co.uk, log on to www.blackcountrybugle.co.uk or write to us at 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL, and we will pass the details on to The Chase Project.

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