Malcolm Atkin Military Research
Within days of the outbreak of war, Pershore market gardeners met to discuss how they could support the war effort by forming a new force for home defence. In the event, it took some months for the national Volunteer Training Corps movement to spread into the county.
The original VTCs were independent bodies but in April 1915 the decision was taken to bring these together to form the Worcestershire Volunteer Regiment. See HERE for details of the structure of the VTCs and Volunteer Regiment. The new regiment was under the presidency of the Earl of Coventry who was Lord Lieutenant of the county and who became a Vice President of the Central Association of Volunteer Training Corps. The Coventry family at Croome Court, together with their circle of close friends, became a (now somewhat neglected) powerhouse for the organisation of the Worcestershire war effort on the home front.
In August 1916 the Worcestershire Volunteer Regiment was formally accepted as a regiment of the new Volunteer Force and its officers were granted temporary commisisons. Its status was increased further in 1918 when its three battalions were designated as Volunteer Battalions of the Worcestershire Regiment.
The character of the organisation changed significantly from Autumn 1916 when it became a standard condition that men given conditional exemption from military service had to join their local VTC. Tensions developed as many were unwilling recruits and had to be reminded that their exemption was conditional upon them attending the regular drills and training sessions. At this stage there was a large influx of market gardeners from the Vale of Evesham who, along with bakers from Droitwich, claimed that they were already having to work up to 90 hours per week and resented further demands on their time. At the same time, the VTCs were increasingly asked to undertake more and more duties.
The initial purpose of the VTC was to provide initial training for prospective members of the armed forces and to train others against the possibility of invasion. The government emphasised that this was a 'training' organisation and would only be recognised as a combat force if invasion occurred (when they would be paid as members of the fighting services). With marked similarity to the situation in the Second World War, the volunteers, however, wanted to take a more active role in the war effort. The government seemed to make this as difficult as possible and initially the men had to buy their own uniforms and weapons. Nonetheless, as pressures on manpower increased, VTCs began to take on duties previously undertaken by the army. In Worcestershire they not only guarded railways and munitions factories. In utmost secrecy, for over two years men of the Worcestershire Volunteer Regiment manned anti-aircraft guns on the southern approaches to Birmingham, in order to guard against Zeppelin attacks. In 1917 the resistance of the government broke and they began to be equipped with khaki uniforms and with rifles. The latter were commonly Pattern of 1914 (now commonly abbreviated as P14) rifles although the Worcester battalion had a number of Ross rifles. In 1918 a special services company took up positions on the East Coast as part of a cyclist battalion and was issued with SMLE rifles. This was the final impetus to giving them the status of volunteer battalions of their county regiment.
For the government, the local volunteer status of the men remained an issue throughout the war. The Royal Defence Corps was formed in March 1916 and local newspapers carried adverts for recruitment from from August 1916 (although the formation of the RDC is mistakenly given in many internet sources as August 1917). This body was intended to perform the same duties as the Volunteer Force but with the advantage that the men (aged 41 - 60) served full-time under military discipline and could be posted anywhere in the country. The basis of the Volunteer Force was further eroded in April 1918 when the upper age limit for conscription was increased to 51.
The VTC was restricted to men but the local organisation had strong links to the militaristic Women's Volunteer Reserve. The Countess of Coventry was the President of the county association and a number of wives and daughters of VTC officers became involved in the movement.
Permission to form a Cadet Corps for boys 14 - 17 was granted by the Army Council in July 1915. Units were established in Worcester, Pershore and Dudley, but it did not appear to have had widespread success in Worcestershire where it faced competition from existing youth organisations, such as the Church Lads Brigade and Boy Scouts, that were already offering similar activities and with better resources. The Church Lads Brigade had, for example been given official status as a cadet organisation by ther War Office in 1911, practiced drill and 'war games', and had begun to re-equip with khaki uniforms in 1913. See HERE for some of their badges.
Detailed information on the local operation of the VTC and Volunteer Force is sparse and scattered, with the best source often being local and parish magazines. These are obviously useful but have to be used with caution. There is a modern trend to write histories of the First World War that uncritically string together quotations from local newspapers. Yet these were both censored and reflect contemporary prejudices rather than necessarily present an accurate picture of events or concerns. The true history of the war that emerges from a foresnsic study of such newspaper reports can be surprising to sterotypical visions of the period, borne out of 100 years of repeated propaganda. Together with Mick Wilks and Col. Pat Love, I am currently researching the history of the Worcestershire VTC, which became the Worcestershire Volunteer Regiment in 1915 and whose battalions were finally accepted as volunteer battalions of the Worcestershire Regiment in 1918. The study also includes the much-neglected Women's Volunteer Reserve.
The following pages give an introduction to the basic structure of the Worcestershire Volunteer Force and examples of memorabilia that may possibly survive in someone's attic. Any information, especially photographs of the Worcestershire Volunteers, will be gratefully received and fully acknowledged in the final publication.
The First World War saw the creation of a range of new women's organisations, often influenced by the earlier suffragette movement and initially under the umbrella of the Women's Emergency Corps, founded by the Hon. Evelina Haverfield.
In September 1914 Haverfield began to plan the Women's Volunteer Reserve (formally launched in London in December 1914). This was intended to break away from the traditional areas of domestic suppport and was a uniformed, militaristic, body trained in weapons handling. By January 1916 it claimed 6,000 members in 40 branches, with a stong base in the Midlands.
Members wore khaki uniforms (at a time when khaki was banned in use by the VTC) and branches were organised as battalions with military ranks. Somewhat ironically, given the contemporary debate over the need for uniforms in the VTC, the Worcestershire Recruiting Officer, Captain L.H. Green commented at one WVR recruitment meeting: ‘The uniform was like a ceremonial. It was the outward and visible sign of a frame of mind. The uniform of the WVR was the sign of an attitude of mind that meant to be efficient, fit to do everything for the cause of the heart.' (Worcester Daily Times, 29 April 1915)
The avowed aim was to train a body of fit and disciplined women, aged 18 - 50, who would not panic during air raids or invasion, but were trained in first aid, signalling, driving and crowd control. They were also taught to shoot rifles. Although theoretically open to all, the high subscription and cost of uniform meant that, in practice, this became a middle and upper class organisation.