The Cannock Area in World War One: The Deggs of Hednesford

Introduction
Today, the First World War is seen as a colossal failure: it is characterised by many as being ‘needless’, as having poor military and political leadership that resulted in heaps of corpses, as being a war pregnant with over-sentiment and one in which nothing was achieved at its end conflict other than providing a platform for the Second World War. Nothing is that simple, and when great tomes have been written on the subject then my articles are not really going to answer these questions – I just want this article to be of local interest rather than an academic one.

This article, the first of an intended series, was originally meant to be on local men – in this case John Henry Degg – and the Battle of the Somme, however, as it grew to encompass the wider Degg family I decided to change my approach and examine the stories of these men in context of what was happening both locally (from Great Wyrley and Cheslyn Hay to Cannock and Hednesford) and nationally through the entire war. So, for example, the next article will be on the rather uncomfortable story of William Parnaby (who lies in Cheslyn Hay’s cemetery), and through whom I would like to look at voluntary and compulsory recruitment.

Hednesford Town, 1976. Dave Degg has the spotted ball at his feet. (Cannock Library)

Hednesford Town, 1976. Dave Degg, John Henry’s grandson, has the spotted ball. (Cannock Library)

Anyway, this first article is a bit of a mammoth one – but bear with it. It the story of John Henry Degg, and his wider family, from High Town, Hednesford. I chose the Deggs for a few reasons: first, John Henry epitomises the opening day casualty of the Battle of the Somme – one of 19,240 dead – but I wanted to show that he was a person and not just a statistic; second, I have used his family experience in order to give some local and general military and political background not only to the battle, but the entire war; finally, I promised his grandson, Dave Degg, an ex-Hednesford Town player and bar manager at Old Wyrley Hall, that I would. The cost to Dave would be for me to incorporate a few embarrassing photos of his and the club’s 1976 campaign into the introduction :).

Dave an the Hednesford Town players show off their sophisticated training techniques prior to the '76 season. (Cannock Library)

Dave and the Hednesford players show off their sophisticated training techniques prior to the ’76 season. (Cannock Library)

Henry, Agnes and the Brothers Degg: 1878 – 1914
John Henry Degg was born in October 1879, being baptised at Cannock St Luke’s church on 2 November. His father was the grandly named Henry Washington Degg. Henry was the son of mining parents from Stoke way, in fact he was born in Fenton himself, but the family had moved to the Hednesford area around 1865 and yes, Henry followed his father down the pit. In 1878, at the age of 21, Henry married Agnes Rollings; she was a year younger and, it appears, from the Stonnall area. In 1881 the family of three were living in New Street, Cannock. Henry’s brother, John, was lodging with them.

1881 census for the Degg family in Cannock. (National Archives)

1881 census for the Degg family in Cannock. (National Archives)

A lot would happen over the next decade. The family would move out to Platt Street, High Town. Today, High Town, located between Chadsmoor and Hednesford, behind the Bridge pub on the Belt Road, hasn’t disappeared as a name, but has been swallowed-up as an area – back in 1901 it was an island of a mining community located between the now defunct West Cannock Colliery pit 3, pit 2 and the East Cannock Colliery. It is likely that Henry worked at one of these.

High Town, 1902 - an island of a mining community between the West Cannock and the East Cannock Colliery. (www.old-maps.co.uk)

High Town, 1902 – an island of a mining community between the West and East Cannock Collieries. (www.old-maps.co.uk)

The 1891 census shows that John Henry was joined by three further siblings: Charles (born in 1882), Norman (born in 1886) and Oliver (born in 1890). Henry’s brother John was also living with them (or back living with them), along with his two children Ernest and Florence. He had married Elizabeth Thomas in 1885, with the couple having two children before she passed away in 1890.

In 1896, Henry and Agnes were delivered of baby girl whom they named Blanche. In the same year, Henry’s brother John (also a coal miner) was remarried after the death of his first wife, Elizabeth. He married a widow, Sarah Kelsey – her husband James having passed away in 1893. In 1901, Henry Washington Degg and his family were still living in Platt Street. Henry was described as a coal hewer on the census, as was son Charles, whereas Norman, the next senior son, was a horse driver in a coal mine.

By 1901, John Degg’s family had moved to Church Street, Cannock. Ernest Degg and two of Sarah’s children were living in the house, whereas Florence Degg was living with her deceased mother’s sister and her family in Derbyshire.

As for John Henry, well he would start on a new life – although that would be just down the road on Platt Street! At the tail end of 1900 he married Agnes Minnie Picken. Agnes, the daughter of a miner herself, had lived in High Town all her life. She too was 21-years-old at this point.

We know John Henry both liked to put himself about and enjoyed the odd wager – that is because he fell foul of the law on a few occasions. On 16 January 1900, John Henry Degg was arrested for disorderly behaviour. At 11.20 pm, PS Whitehouse went to the scene of a disturbance to find Degg using ‘bad language’ to someone he wanted to fight. John pleaded guilty and was fined 6s. On 20 January 1907, Degg was again arrested and fined – 2s 6d; this time, he and five others from the area were caught gambling in the street – illegal at the time. Likely, this was playing ‘pitching pennies, which is a game where players would throw coins against a wall and the closest would win. Oliver Degg was fined for the same reason around the same time.

John Henry Degg and family in Bradford St, High Town,, 1911. (National Archives)

John Henry Degg and family in Bradford St, High Town, 1911. (National Archives)

We know that by 1911 John Henry’s family had relocated, well moved just around the corner to Bradford Street! The area has completely changed now – all of the old buildings that John Henry would have recognised have gone and newer housing stands instead. John and Agnes would have five children over the next decade: Agnes Amy in 1901, Charles Henry in 1903, Bertram in 1905, Blanche Evelyn in 1908 and Henry Washington in 1910. They would go on to have Olive in 1913 and, just months before he was killed, a John Henry jnr in early 1916 (Dave’s father). In 1914 John Henry was working at the East Cannock Colliery and the 80 Bradford Street address would be where he attested from in early 1915.

Bradford Street, High Town, today - the Deggs would not recognise it.

Bradford Street, High Town, today – the Deggs would not recognise it.

In 1903, Henry and Agnes had another son – Harold. By 1911, the family are living at 99 Platt Street, but Oliver and Harold are the only two children (Oliver being 20-years-old) still at home. Henry and Oliver are both miners, while Harold is at school. The household is completed by two lodgers – also miners – which helped pay the bills no doubt.

Henry’s brother John was living with Sarah at 117 John Road, Chadsmoor. John was still a hewer of coal and, I believe, may well of become the secretary of a homing-pigeon club based at the King’s Arms in Hednesford. His son Ernest had become a bricklayer and was now living up in Ellesmere Port, I could not trace Florence with certainty.

He had two step-children. By 1911 Edith Kelsey had become an elementary school teacher with the Cannock School Board and was a noted singer. Harold had gone into the army in 1907 and, having served with the 1st South Staffordshire Regiment for three years at home (Lichfield and Aldershot), was posted for a year to Gibraltar. After this, he spent three years in South Africa. His term of attestation was done in 1914, but the Great War came and, after a brief sojourn home for just two days, he went to France – disembarking on 4 October.

Henry’s son Charles had emigrated to the USA around 1905. He became a naturalised citizen of the United States in 1914, I assume to escape the possibility of being called back to Britain. He married Anne and had a daughter that they named Agnes almost as soon as he landed.

Norman had married Martha Walker in 1906. By 1911 the couple lived in Lovetts Buildings, High Town, and had got three children: Norman, Roland and Dorothy. Interestingly, Norman travelled to visit his brother in Pennsylvania in July 1910 on board the Friesland – he was still was abroad according to the census in 1911. He returned a little later to resume mining at the East Cannock Colliery. The couple would have two more children before the war, Samuel in 1912 and Harold in 1914.

Blanche had become a domestic servant for a retired engineer and his wife in Hednesford.

The War and the Brothers Degg: 1914 – 1 July 1916
And so the War arrived. There was no radio or television of course, but while the actual lead up to the conflict would have been reported in the national daily papers available in the Cannock area, it was not really covered in the Cannock Advertiser and the Cannock Courier as both were weekly edition newspapers. In these papers, July 1914 saw more interest in habitual mining accidents, thoughts on a railway station for Bridgtown, Landywood’s public lighting and, further afield, home rule in Ireland.

There had been a feeling for sometime that there would be some kind of show-down with Germany due to the expansion of her fleet, however, when war actually came it was a swift decline into chaos – from the response by the Serbians to the Austrian ultimatum on 25 July 1914 to the declaration of war by the British on Germany on 4 August.

Reservists flock to the colours, Cannock Advertiser 8 August. (Cannock Library)

Reservists flock to the colours, Cannock Advertiser 8 August. (Cannock Library)

The declaration of war was met in general with a unity in the Press and a patriotic outpouring of the population. Cannock would be no different. The Territorial forces and reservists were called-up, Kitchener called for volunteers and within days the British Expeditionary Force was dispatched.

Contrary to most people’s view of the war the opening phase was mobile and the initial reports of fighting published in the Cannock Advertiser were clearly taken from national bulletins – bulletins that were censored (though eased as the war went on) under the Defence of the Realm Act. Those reports regarding the loss of ships in the Advertiser seemed accurate, like the Amphion, Abuokir, Cressy and Hogue, after all I guess if a ship is sunk it is definitive; those regarding the situation at the front in the August and September of 1914 seem far more confused – giving an impression that the Germans were constantly being routed, falling back and on the verge of collapse. Stories of German barbarism were also being printed and on 24 October one did make it into the Advertiser on how Germany were a ‘disgrace to civilisation’.

An example of exaggerated reporting - the Battle of the Marne did see the end of the Schleffan Plan, but the Germans hardly admitted defeat. (Cannock Library)

An example of exaggerated reporting printed in the Advertiser – the Battle of the Marne did see the end of the Schlieffen Plan, but the Germans hardly admitted defeat. (Cannock Library)

Whether it was Kitchener’s appeal for men, Foreign Secretary Edward Grey’s remarks on the outrage against gallant little Belgium (whereas the effect on British trade and its economy may not twang the public sentiment of fair play), pressure from local recruitment meetings, exposure to seemingly endless lectures in Cannock on German Imperialism or the fear of missing ‘the big show’ as it ‘would be over by Christmas’ (an impression the newspapers could be accused of fostering by the optimistic reporting), Oliver was the first to sign-up on 25 August. This was after the retreat from Mons and before the battle at Le Cateau. He went into the 7th South Staffordshire Regiment, a battalion that had been raised in Lichfield that month. The Battalion was sent to camp at Grantham.

A recruitment cartoon in the Advertiser, 19 Sep 1914. (Cannock Library)

A recruitment cartoon in the Advertiser, 19 Sep 1914. (Cannock Library)

The Advertiser claimed 120 local men from Cannock and Hednesford joined-up in the first month, which was typical of the response nationally. Also, like the national picture, recruitment would slow down (more so locally than nationally according to the Advertiser) after the first few months of the war – hence the need for conscription in 1916. Interestingly, more married men joined up locally than single men – make of that what you will :).

A recruitment cartoon in the Advertiser, Sep 1914. (Cannock Library)

Mr Phillips and Don the Dog raising money for the Tommies, 1914. (Cannock Library)

Another aspect of national and local life were the charities and events that started to be hosted en masse. On a grander scale, the Prince of Wales’ Fund was established (with local branches) to help those in need and Red Cross societies were formed swiftly in Wyrley and Cheslyn for example. Churches would put on fetes and clubs whist drives to raise money for soldier comforts. Mr Phillips toured with his dog Don and his daughter collecting money and cigarettes for the men at the front. Funds were also established for specific reasons, such as for local prisoners of war and Belgian refugees – of which some came to the Cannock area.

While Oliver trained, and John Henry and Norman mined, the German Schlieffen Plan (to encircle Paris, knocking them out of the war) broke down at the Marne in early September. Around 15 September the first crude trenches appear and the war became static as both sides dug in. The last action of the mobile war was to become known as the First Battle of Ypres. The battle took place 19 October – 22 November and destroyed the old regular army and, not for the last time, the optimism of victory. On 29 October, during this battle, Harold Kelsey was reported as wounded and missing. He was later declared dead, with no body found. His effects split between his mother and sister. He was later awarded the 1914 Star, the Victory and War medals and his name is recorded on the Menin Gate.

Harold Kelsey, step-son of John Degg, was a regular soldier and killed in October 1914. (Cannock Library)

Harold Kelsey, step-son of John Degg, was a regular soldier and killed in October 1914. (Cannock Library)

Maybe due to this loss of optimism, Norman Degg was next to sign-up. He attested into the 9th South Staffordshire Regiment at Hednesford on 11 January 1915. He went off for basic training, likely as Oliver was finishing and moving on to more advanced training.

Between January and March 1915 khaki became more of a familiar sight in Cannock and Hednesford. The first reason for this was the formation around that time of a Hednesford and a Cannock branch of the WWI version of the Home Guard – the Volunteer Training Corps (VTC). If I remember correctly, recruitment saw around 50 men in the Cannock branch and 80 in Hednesford after around 6 months. Further, the military camps on Cannock Chase were opened for business; the construction of the huts had been met by continual wranglings by the workers over pay – not the united front the government would want. When occupied, the camps would bring money into the local economy.

Cannock VTC orders for patrols etc September 1915. (Cannock Library)

Cannock VTC orders for patrols etc September 1915. (Cannock Library)

Back at the front, there was no doubt that trenches saved lives. By their nature trenches would support the defensive side in an engagement, however, it was clear to all sides that in order to achieve some kind of victory the men would have to get out of their protective trenches and assault the enemy lines – which the generals knew this would be costly in lives. The first larger scale attempt involving the British was at Neuve-Chapelle in March, which ended in disaster due to poor communication, a lack of artillery, poor infantry/artillery coordination and a lack of shells – which would be for the first but not the last time.

It was around this time this time that our John Henry Degg joined-up. He was attested into the 1st Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment. Sadly, like his brothers, there are no surviving war records, so everything is compiled from other sources.

John Henry Degg - killed on 1 July 1916 (Cannock Library)

John Henry Degg – killed on 1 July 1916 (Cannock Library)

On 22 April the Germans opened up what became known as the Second Battle of Ypres. There were initial successes, but the Degg boys may have been more horrified when they heard that the Germans were using poison gas and the British were defending with home made mortars and bombs created from jam jars. As the Ypres battle raged, the British opened-up at Aubers Ridge in Artois on 9 May, followed by Festubert on 15 May; both ended in failure due to a lack of shells and ammunition. Both the Artois and Ypres campaigns finished on 25 May.

25 April also saw the opening of a promising campaign at Gallipoli. The campaign was pregnant with possiblity, not least an attempt to knock Turkey out of the war, yet it too became a stalemate of trenches and dug-outs within the month. Finally, Sir John French, head of British forces, broke to the public the hitherto concealed situation about the lack of munitions in mid-May. As a result the Liberal government was forced into a coalition, with Lloyd George becoming the Minister of Munitions. Optimism was low and the Deggs hadn’t got to the front yet.

Lloyd George on the shell shortage, as reported in the Cannock Advertiser in 1915. (Cannock Library)

Lloyd George on the shell shortage, as reported in the Cannock Advertiser in 1915. (Cannock Library)

So the front was at a standstill and the munition supply frightening. In June 1915 the Cannock area again faced a male depopulation as hundreds went off, after an appeal for those skilled in mining techniques, to form tunnelling battalions.

Norman Degg found himself transferred on 15 August from the South Staffordshire Regiment to the 1 Garrison Battalion, Notts & Derbyshire Regiment (Sherwood Foresters). This Battalion was raised in Lichfield in the July. This was the same day as the census was conducted under the National Registration Act, which listed information on every man and woman between 15 – 65 years of age. Its purpose was the first move towards conscription, as it identified how many men of military age were still civilians and so could be drafted and who would best serve, due to their skills, on the home front.

On 25 September the British commenced their biggest attack on Loos, as a part of the combined Anglo-French ‘Third Battle of Artois’. The attack was hampered by the familiar problem of a lack of artillery ammunition, poor communication, poorly trained soldiers and a poor handling of the reserves. Even the first use of gas by the British ended in failure as it blew back across our own soldiers. All of this saw Sir John French replaced by Douglas Haig.

What Oliver knew of this is uncertain, as he was sailing for the Dardanelles around this time. He arrived – I assume joining the rest of the Staffordshires at Gallipoli – on 6 October. A few weeks later Norman set sail for Malta, before going on to Egypt. He arrived in the theatre of war on 7 November.

Gallipoli was a disaster and was evacuated in the December, but I suggest it may have one more trick to play. On 26 November there was a blizzard and according to the Battalion war diary 130 men of the 7th South Staffs reported sick – many with frost bite. I think there is every possibility that this is where Oliver contracted the ‘sickness’ that would lead to his honourable discharge later.

Frost bite victims at Gallipoli, November 1915. (IWM)

Frost bite victims at Gallipoli, November 1915. (IWM)

A step forward was taken in December 1915, when at the Chantilly conference it was decided that the 1916 campaigns should be better coordinated, with Britain (and Commonwealth), France, Russia and Italy all launching major offensives at the same time in order to spread German and Austrian forces as thinly as possible.

The site chosen for the British offensive, although French-led, was to be the Somme, as this was where the British and French forces converged. This plan was thrown out of kilter when the Germans launched an attack on Verdun in February 1916. As this battle turned into one of attrition, the French needed help and so the Somme offensive became a British-led offensive and was aimed more at helping to relieve the pressure on Verdun.

Logistically, as we have seen, the lead up to the Somme had been a difficult path. First, the dearth of artillery shells had now ‘seemingly’ been resolved by Lloyd George’s Ministry of Munitions. The second logistical problem had been the shortage of man power that had led to conscription starting some months before. Many of the regulars and territorials of 1914 had now been killed or wounded, but the volunteers that answered the call to arms in 1914 and 1915 were now heading to the front for their first taste of action – so the immediate man power issue had ‘seemingly’ been resolved.

An image from 'The Battle of the Somme', released in Cinemas in 1916. (IWM)

An image from ‘The Battle of the Somme’, released in cinemas in 1916. (IWM)

Optimism for success amongst the soldiers may have been very high, although the generals knew how unprepared they really were. In the days before the battle over 1.5 million shells were fired at the 18 mile British/German front (the French also attacked to the south of the British) to smash what the generals again knew were formidable defences. It was believed that this would kill or neutralise the German forces and that, as all the barbed wire would be cut, the British forces were instructed to walk across no-man’s-land – not to run.

Confidence may not have been so high had they known that the Germans were intercepting British communications and they knew pretty much all of the battle plans and tactics, that a huge number (estimates vary) of the shells fired were duds and the German bunkers were so much deeper, safer and better built. When the whistle blew at 7.30 am, the Germans were waiting and scythed the British forces down in what became the worst day in British military history. Amazingly, it was presented to the public in the newspapers as a success.

We don’t know when John Henry Degg arrived in France, other than it was sometime in 1916. He may have avoided the German offensives in the Ypres area early that year, but would have known about, and likely shared the national concern over the Easter Rising in Dublin and the loss of ships at Jutland. He may have been cheered by the news that sister Blanche had married Thomas Price. Thomas was a Hednesford man, a bricklayer by profession.

Was Gt Wyrley bombed by a Zeppelin in 1916? (Walsall Local History Centre)

Was Gt Wyrley bombed by a Zeppelin in 1916? (Walsall Local History Centre)

Closer to home, he would have known that the Cannock area was under lighting restrictions after the January/February raid on the Black Country and, what he most likely would have known before the battle, that his brother Oliver had been repatriated due to sickness – well, frostbite. Likely he also knew that this repatriation had resulted in the amputation of both feet and Oliver was currently recouperating in the Alexandria Hospital in Cosham, or Brighton Hospital. The loss of his feet sounded suspiciously like a result of frostbite from Gallipoli to me, but I may be wrong. What was clear, Oliver’s war was over.

All we know is that on 1 July John Henry was killed – we don’t know exactly where, when or how – but most divisional casualties were caused by machine gun fire that day. He was on of 150,000 men that rose from trenches and attacked in waves. Thanks to the long, long trail website we do know what the 1st South Staffordshires did that day (http://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/battles/battles-of-the-western-front-in-france-and-flanders/the-battles-of-the-somme-1916/the-capture-of-mametz-1-5-july-1916/)

The attack on Mametz. (Long, long trail website)

The attack on Mametz. (Long, long trail website)

The job of the 1st South Staffs was to advance across the German front line (Bulgar Trench), past the second line (Cemetery Trench), then capture Mametz and push on past the deep Dantzig Alley communication trench and to take the third enemy line, Bunny Trench. The 1st South Staffs started opposite the Bulgar Point strong point which was destroyed in the mine explosion just before zero hour. They crossed the narrow no man’s land but came under fire from German machine guns in Dantzig Alley as they approached Cemetery Trench and the edge of the village. By 8 am, the Staffords were well into the village ruins.

However, German resistance began to stiffen and the leading men were forced back on Cemetery Trench. Dantzig Alley and Fritz Trench were re-shelled, but it was not effective and did not even stop some German counter-attacks from Mametz itself. The effort was repeated at 12.25 pm – more successfully. Parties of the South Staffs and 21st Manchesters were also able to reinforce those Staffords still on the edge of Mametz.

At 2.30 pm, a fresh attack was launched to assist the battalions now held up in Cemetery Trench, Shrine Alley and in the outskirts of Mametz. At 3.30 pm, after 30 minutes artillery support, the German garrison of Mametz began to surrender. By just after 4 pm, the whole of Mametz had fallen and within another hour the situation was quiet. The South Staffords were in Bunny Alley by 7.30 pm. The Brigade had succeeded in all its objectives. The Division reported that things were very quiet and that further advances towards Mametz Wood could be made if fresh troops could come up, but none did and the moment – tragically – was lost.

John Henry Degg's death as reported in the Courier in July 1916. (Cannock Library)

John Henry Degg’s death as reported in the Courier in July 1916. (Cannock Library)

The Brothers Degg and the Loss of Optimism: July 1916 Onward
The offensive had to continue in order to help the French at Verdun, but after the losses of the first few days the offensive became more localised (targeting villages and woods for example) but nevertheless relentless: Albert, Bazentin, High Wood, Delville Wood (Devil’s Wood), Pozieres, Guillemont, Ginchy, Flers-Courcelette (first use of tanks), Morval, Thiepval, Le Transloy and finished at Ancre when the weather turned foul. These offensives were more successful, but costly – by the November the British had suffered 420,000 casualties. There were of course targets and objectives, however, by the end of the campaign in the November, those for the first day had not been reached.

Poem and memorial to John posted for several years after his death in the Advertiser (Cannock Library)

Poem and memorial to John posted for several years after his death in the Advertiser (Cannock Library)

The national newspapers available in the Cannock area claimed the day was a success – it wasn’t of course – and articles such as Pte Tranter’s ‘impressions’ only added to the sense of optimism. Agnes may have took some initial comfort from this, even though the huge numbers of returning wounded and the growing casualty lists seemed to suggest otherwise. John Henry was buried in the Dantzig Alley Cemetery and £2 9d was sent to Agnes as initial compensation. She would, in October 1919, receive a further £4 and, later, his War and Victory medals.

Harry Tranter's letter to his brother - turned into an exaggerated article in the Advertiser on 8 August. (Cannock Library)

Harry Tranter’s letter to his brother – turned into an exaggerated article in the Advertiser on 8 August. (Cannock Library)

It is possible that Oliver was back with Henry in Hednesford by the time the battle finished in the November, but it is also possible that Norman was too. Mysteriously, on 2 October, he was transferred from garrison duty in Egypt to the 15th Battalion Training Reserve in England; however, on the 29 November he was transferred again ‘on compassionate grounds’ to Class W Reserve. This meant that he was classed as more important in civil life than in the army, so I assume he returned to work as a miner. He was not entitled to a uniform and was liable to recall to the colours. I suspect this was something to do with the tragic death of his wife Martha around the time John Henry was killed.

Dissatisfaction with the Somme campaign especially led to the fall of Asquith as Prime Minister. In the December he was replaced by David Lloyd George, a man more suspicious of Haig and his generals. Agnes of course, like around half the men at the front, wouldn’t have the vote – so how much this actually meant to her, and maybe Oliver, is difficult to say.

Silver War Badge award to Oliver Degg, Jan 1917. (National Archives)

Silver War Badge award to Oliver Degg, Jan 1917. (National Archives)

Oliver was issued with his silver war badge on 3 January 1917. The war badge was issued to those in reserved occupations or honourably discharged soldiers so people knew they had served or were unable to; you would have thought that the fact that Oliver had no feet may have been enough. The month saw Germany renew its unrestricted submarine warfare – this would result in further food shortages and increased prices. While rationing would be a way off, price rises hit the poorest and poorest would include the Deggs – especially Oliver, likely he had some small war pension but there is no welfare state to help him.

The opening months of 1917 also saw Norman Degg marry Alice Fisher.

Hopes may have risen both at the home and war fronts when the Germans withdrew to what became known as the Hindenburg Line from the February to the April 1917. Optimism was again short lived when it was clear that the withdrawal was tactical (shorten their defensive line) and their new defences were indeed formidable. The stalemate seemed absolute. Again, hopes rose with the American declaration of war in April, but they were hopelessly unprepared as an army and they had no more than a token force in place in late 1917. This had to be balanced against the fact that Russia went into revolution and concluded a peace with Germany. This was more of an immediate problem, as it released the troops on the eastern front for that on the west.

Also in April, the British launched an offensive in Arras to tie in with larger French offensives to the south. The French failed and their army actually mutinied – whereas in Arras initial phases went well. Tactics had moved on since the Somme: night attacks, tunnelling closer to German lines (where the geology supported), better artillery/infantry coordination (creeping barrages etc), better gunnery and shells of the right type to destroy wire (and better fuses so less duds) and smaller groups of assault troops rather than waves. Saying that, casualty rates remained high and, like at Arras, still failed to find a breakthrough.

It would be interesting to know how Oliver and Norman felt they fitted in on their return. Many veterans, or those on leave, felt the home front was completely detached from the experiences of the front. Most people’s view of the Somme battle (around half the population) were taken from the sanitised propaganda film ‘The Battle of the Somme’ shown from August 1916 (this significant film will be covered in a future article). Further, deserter’s names were printed in the newspapers with little sympathy for their circumstances and soldiers that cut-loose when on leave, or wounded, were met with similar feelings from magistrates when fined for drunken behaviour.

The Battle of the Somme film - August 1916 was shown everywhere locally. (Cannock Library)

The Battle of the Somme film – August 1916 was shown everywhere locally. (Cannock Library)

To be fair, the home front had had it hard too. By the end of 1916, your name could appear in the newspapers for being fined over failure to comply with lighting restrictions or for appealing to a tribunal over your call-up. Sporting fixtures had been abandoned, pub licensing hours curtailed and alcohol content of the drinks reduced (due to the absenteeism it caused) and industrial action was frequent.

March 1917, Cannock UDC starts to take uncultivated land for growing. (Cannock Library)

March 1917, Cannock UDC starts to take uncultivated land for growing. (Cannock Library)

The newly formed Women’s Land Army, after overcoming farmer’s reluctance, were now engaged in growing food – as the U-boat campaign really started to hurt. In 1917 alone the government took in 2.5 million acres into farming. Locally, Food Control Committees were formed by Councils to monitor food production and use – and for the public, gardens were used for growing food and space turned over for allotments. In Wyrley, Harrison’s pit promised to provide allotment land for its workers. Cheslyn Hay started a communal kitchen, as did Landywood in October 1917.

The formation of the Women's Land Army in 1916 - and the resentment of male farmers! (Cannock Library)

The formation of the Women’s Land Army in 1916 – and the resentment of male farmers! (Cannock Library)

The U-boat menace led to Lloyd George agreeing to the Ypres offensive (to take the bases on the English Channel) on 31 July 1917. Ypres did lead to some success, but too little and, again, at such a high cost. It didn’t clear the U-boat bases and simply became bogged down in mud. Is it any wonder that the home front didn’t appreciate tactical changes when all campaigns seemingly ended in failure and the deadlock remained intact. Cambrai, successful until a German counter-attack, just reinforced this. As 1917 turned to 1918, the soldiers too were demoralised.

Third Ypres as reported by the Advertiser. (Cannock Library)

Third Ypres as reported by the Advertiser. (Cannock Library)

Back home, February 1918 saw the introduction of rationing of certain foodstuffs and coal in Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Walsall and Cannock amongst other places, which simply added to the war weariness.

February 1918 saw the real start (extension) of rationing in Cannock. (Cannock Library)

February 1918 saw the real start (extension) of rationing in Cannock. (Cannock Library)

Saying that, the German suffering was worse. The country was facing starvation at home due to the naval blockade, the fear of the collapse of allies Austria, Turkey and Bulgaria and the potential rising numbers of Americans arriving in France. Their backs against the wall, Germany planned a massive offensive for 21 March.

Agnes Degg, John Henry's eldest child, goes to war in March 1918. (National Archives)

Agnes Degg, John Henry’s eldest child, goes to war in March 1918. (National Archives)

Three days earlier, on 18 March, Agnes Amy Degg, John Henry’s eldest child, joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. She should have been 18 to sign-up, but was only 17 years-old – now I see this either has a simple need for the work (money), or she was adamant that she wanted to do her bit to revenge her father. The Army Auxiliary Corps became a part of the Women’s Royal Air Force on 1 April 1918. She appeared to be assigned as a cook to the 2nd Squadron School of Aeronautics, and appeared to head off to Bath (although I can’t locate an Air Force facility there in WWI). She signed-up for home service only.

And so back to the front, where Operation Michael was launched on 21 March. The attack was brilliantly successful and the British front-line was broken – the Germans advancing into open country. The aim was to split the British and French forces and so nearly succeeded. This attack petered out on 5 April, but had crossed all the old Somme battlefields of 1916 – making John Henry Degg’s death look pointless. It didn’t get a mention in the Advertiser.

Further attacks followed, Ypres being next hit, and the British situation was grave. More men were called for and reservists like Norman Degg were called back to the colours. On 12 April 1918, he was called back to the Royal Defence Corps – which was garrison duty. On 29 April he was moved from Oswestry to the Tyne Garrison in Sunderland. By June the Germans had run out of impetus and the Americans were starting to appear on the battlefield in force. Norman may have been relieved that on 2 July he was given an honourable discharge due to an eye condition.

Norman Degg's pension record showing his discharge for nystagmus. (National Archives)

Norman Degg’s pension record showing his discharge for nystagmus. (National Archives)

It is clear that Norman had suffered from nystagmous in both eyes since around 1909. Nystagmous is the involuntary rapid movement of the eyes and I would guess is why Norman went into a Garrison Battalion in 1915. He was returned to being a reservist to serve out the rest of the war.

Amiens reported in the Advertiser - there was no feel that the war was coming to an end though. (Cannock Library)

Amiens reported in the Advertiser – there was no feel that the war was coming to an end though. (Cannock Library)

The German’s last offensive was at the Marne, where they were stopped in 1914. Their collapse in August heralded the end of the war loomed, yet the British public were initially wary of such good news. The British launched an attack outside Amiens on 8 August and the war became a long and bloody retreat for the Germans – and the British forces – until the armistice was signed in November. The final twist of the war would see Charles Degg complete a draft card for the US Army in September 1918, but he would never go on to fight.

Charles Degg's draft card for US Army, Sep 1918. (Ancestry)

Charles Degg’s draft card for US Army, Sep 1918. (Ancestry)

While it was a question of when and not if the end would come as Bulgaria, Turkey and Austro-Hungary fell one after the other, like the brief opening chaos to the war, the final moments were again swift. There was at this stage a more optimistic mood among the public – but the war was becoming increasingly bloodier and both the home front and the soldiers were now, from August, facing a more virulent strain of Spanish Flu. The Flu killed far more world-wide than the war, and it was the bloodiest year of the war. In Cannock it closed the schools and near 100 died from it and pneumonia in November alone – one in six being a school child.

The virulent flu returns (Cannock Library)

The virulent flu returns (Cannock Library)

The unsigned armistice was reported by the Advertiser on 9 November. The actual signing and a local round up of reaction was reported the following week. People were on tenterhooks all over the weekend and people just started to loiter around the town, expectantly. When the news arrived the churches rang their bells and collieries and factories sounded their hooters, flags were unfurled and the ‘miner’s wives of Chadsmoor’ decked their homes magnificently. Local schools were closed and family pets were even adorned as tools in the celebrations. Even the Petty Session Court was adjourned. On the night crowds gathered in Cannock and Hednesford for street revelries.

The end - at last. (Cannock Library)

The end – at last. (Cannock Library)

By the end of 1918 Britain was exhausted and economically depressed – which was shown when the peace celebrations were organised in July 1919, many places, like Walsall, scaled back considerably their earlier plans. We don’t know if Oliver, Norman and the other Deggs celebrated the armistice or Peace Day in 1919, but I have a feeling they may have done. I really believe the family would have been at the unveiling of the Hednesford war memorial – with John Henry’s name on – in 1922.

So, after all of this, did the War change anything? Yes, it did. The sacrifice at Mons, Loos, the Somme, Ypres and Amiens secured the vote for all men in 1918. Ironically, they didn’t fight for that – but that is what came from it. The brilliant and effective way that the women responded to war-work secured partial voting parity in 1918 (women over 30 and also those married), then full parity in 1928. The war also saw the breaking of the power of the aristocracy, with the dissolution of manor courts. So, 1928 is when democracy comes to Britain. Other nations saw their monarchies fall, we got a social revolution. The sad thing is that we have betrayed the war’s legacy – as so few of us go out and vote anymore.

Family Aftermath
So what happened to John Henry’s family? His father, Henry Washington Degg, passed away aged 70 in 1927 and his mother, Agnes, aged 80 in 1938. His uncle, John, passed away aged 82 in 1944, his second wife Sarah having passed away in 1921 aged 67 years. John’s son Ernest served in the Royal Navy from 1916 and I believe passed away in 1940 at the age of 54. Florence I could not trace with certainty, but I suspect she too went to America where she married as a Florence Dawkin, cousin to Charles Degg, was living with them according to the 1920 census. Harold Kelsey we know died at Ypres in 1914, whereas Edith died, unmarried, in 1942 at the age of 56.

John Henry’s brother Charles and his wife had second child, Oliver, in 1915. In 1918 the family were living at Newell in Fayette County, Pennsylvania. By 1920 they had moved to Jefferson in the same County and at this time Charles was described as a barber. The couple, I believe, had a third child in 1922. By the 1940s the family had moved out to Raymond in Washington state – where Charles died in 1965. Norman lost his son Harold in 1919 but went on to have four children with second wife. He passed away in 1962. Blanche stayed in the Cannock area, passing away in 1981. Harold, I believe, married Sarah Bishop in 1927 and had several children. He passed away in 1988.

John Henry’s wife Agnes remarried in 1918, as many war widows with children were forced to do as there was no welfare state; that isn’t to say love was not involved. Her new husband was Elijah Thompson; it seems he was dead by 1940, as she marries for a third time – one Albert Fox. I suspect she died in 1972.

What of his children? After her affair with the WRAF, Agnes Amy went onto marry John Parton in 1920 and the couple had four children. Agnes died in 1994. Charles Henry died in 1946, at the age 43 years. Bertram married Nellie Leach in 1927. The couple had one son, I believe. Bertram passed away in 1979. Blanche Evelyn married William Smith in 1928 and the couple had at least three children, I believe. Blanche died in 1973. Henry Washington married Doris Turner in 1934. He lived at 42 Market St, Hednesford, where he died in 1950. Doris remarried. Olive married Harold Allen in 1934. He passed away in 1940 and Olive married Albert Fry in 1941. The couple had, I believe, three children. Olive passed away in 1991. John Henry married Minnie Lippitt in 1940. The couple had two children – one of which was David. John Henry jnr passed away in 1983.

This article is in memory of the Degg family. It is dedicated both to Dave Degg, a top bloke, and to the brilliant staff at Cannock Library, who make researching a pleasure.

My thanks to:
Cannock Library
Dave Degg
Walsall Local History Centre
Ancestry.Com
National Archives
Long, long trail website – http://www.longlongtrail.co.uk
https://www.old-maps.co.uk/#/
Imperial War Museum