Park Guns and the Reedswood Tank: Walsall’s War Trophies Part 2

Part one of this article dealt with the first set of war trophies displayed in the old Borough of Walsall, those being the two guns taken from Sevastopol during the Crimean War and procured by Walsall Corporation in 1857. They remained in place on the Bridge for around 21 years before they were removed after a unanimous vote. Their removal, according to the primary motivator William Henry Duignan, was because they were an out-and-out glorification of war and, as such, were an offence to the Christian doctrine; others disagreed, letters printed in the local newspapers at the time showed their correspondents saw the guns simply as a part of our wider history – divorced from any deeper political or religious meaning.

The Russian gun carriages abandoned at the back of St Peter's Church (waste ground between Croft St and what is now Hospital St), photographed by Meikle in 1890.

The Russian gun carriages abandoned at the back of St Peter’s Church (between Croft St and what is now Hospital St), 1890. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Peace replaced war, when Sister Dora’s statue was erected on the former site of the guns in 1886 and, after such a resounding condemnation of such ornaments by those in power, one could be forgiven that Walsall would never again sport such trophies. Despite the British being involved in several conflicts over successive decades – the Boer War being the most famous – for nearly 40 years this would be the case. Eventually, however, there came along a conflict that would make even the Crimean campaign look like a cock fight in a barn. The sheer scale of the First World War would see a universal outpouring of grief never before experienced. It would also see a flood of surplus ordnance enter the country, from hand guns to howitzers, with many going on to be displayed in public.

Public celebrations in Willenhall, Peace Day 1919. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Public celebrations in Willenhall, Peace Day 1919. (Walsall Local History Centre)

World War One: Aftermath and Commemoration
It isn’t the place of this article to supply a background to the conflict as I did with the Crimean War, but I do want to examine how it changed public perceptions to commemoration or, in some cases, not. The end of the war would see both traditional and new ways of public commemoration on a national scale. The end of the ‘war to end all wars’ was celebrated twice, the first occasion being when the armistice was signed on 11 November 1918. It was celebrated a second time as ‘Peace Day’ on 19 July 1919; the day being chosen by a public committee, as hostilities had now formally ceased after the signing of the Versailles Treaty on 28 June.

Bonfire on Pelsall Common, believed to be for Peace Day. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Bonfire on Pelsall Common, believed to be for Peace Day. (Walsall Local History Centre)

The public around Walsall met both events with street parties, bonfires and other spontaneous outpourings of sentiment seemingly, as Minnie’s letter to her brother indicates, all in good spirits. Minnie describes Peace Day as being wet due to the continual rain, but there was plenty of beer to be had and a band was playing, with accompanying dancing, in the Arboretum. The good nature of it all was suggested by Minnie’s comment that ‘there was one soldier but if you had seen him you would have never stopped laughing at him’.

Minnie describes the Peace Day celebrations to her brother, Joe. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Minnie describes the Peace Day celebrations to her brother, Joe. (Walsall Local History Centre)

In general, Peace Day passed off well all over the country; in a few places, Swindon being one, it did get out of hand and some rioting (and looting) by disgruntled soldiers ensued. Many of the opponents saw Peace Day as a waste of money, money that could better be spent on the returning soldiers, destitute families and other more worthy causes. Indeed, originally four days of celebration were planned but in face of such opposition it was scaled back to a single day.

Such opposition was listened to and one change the First World War would usher in was the formation of a body to address the needs of the fallen, wounded and returning soldiers and their families. The British Legion was formed in 1921, after the joining together of several smaller organisations that had formed during the conflict and to some degree overlapped in their purpose: the Officers’ Association, the Comrades of the Great War, the National Association of Discharged Soldiers and Sailors and the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Sailors and Soldiers. It was granted a Royal Charter in 1971, becoming the Royal British Legion.

The Title Page of Walsall County Borough's Roll of Honour (Walsall Local History Centre)

The Title Page of Walsall County Borough’s Roll of Honour (Walsall Local History Centre)

As I said, due to the scale of death, this conflict changed the commemoration of the fallen universally. During the war itself services were often held to mark the passing of the 4 August each year, as this was the day Britain had entered the conflict in 1914; however, immediately after the war, on 9 November 1919 the Remembrance Day commemoration was officially inaugurated by George V. The following year the Whitehall Cenotaph was unveiled as a national memorial.

For the first time on a more local scale, parishes, towns, cities, churches, schools, companies and services looked to record all of those that had had represented them in the struggle and/or had fallen in an effort to grieve and try to bring some purpose and meaning to the sacrifice. My parish, Great Wyrley, and the Walsall Borough started this even before the conflict had ended, while others did it after the event. The format could be either a Roll of Honour in scroll or book form, a fixed memorial or often both.

Walsall Council met on 24 July 1919 and resolved to create a memorial that included the names of the Borough’s fallen and, if possible, the service to which they were attached. They also resolved to acquire playing fields throughout the then Borough (effectively Walsall and Bloxwich). On 22 December 1920 they resolved, at a cost of around £2,000, to approach H.H. Martyn & Co Ltd (Cheltenham) to erect a cenotaph in Bradford Place and also approach Frank Baker & Sons Ltd (Birmingham) to get seven bronze tablets, with the names of the around 2,000 fallen soldiers on, placed in the the Town Hall. The tablets were budgeted at a cost of around £1,530. The cenotaph and the tablets were unveiled on 1 October 1921.

The inhabitants of Bloxwich, Leamore and Blakenall raised their own fund and, with support from the After-War Fund, erected the cross outside Bloxwich Church. It was unveiled on 5 November 1922.

The Walsall Roll of Honour , commissioned in 1920. (Walsall Local History Centre)

The Walsall Roll of Honour , commissioned in 1920. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Finally, two Rolls of Honour in book format were commissioned at a cost of £150. The families of fallen soldiers were invited to complete a card for inclusion – this was in effect a pro forma, with all the necessary categories of information required pre-printed on it.

There are many instances of mis-spelling on war memorials and there are lots of reasons for this. The cards were of course handwritten and this could lead to misinterpretation – the card for Richard Hempsell below could appear at first glance to be for Michael Hempsell due to the style of the handwriting.

The completed card for Richard Hempsall. (Walsall Local History Centre)

The completed card for Richard Hempsell. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Other places adopted a similar approach, although it would be wrong to think that such memorials and rolls of honour were always compiled with funding from enthusiastic support. Some places, like Cannock, struggled somewhat to get the funding from a war-weary public and others, like Chadsmoor, didn’t get one at all. Chadsmoor’s memorial was only erected recently, a century after the event.

Cannock War Memorial. 2014.

Cannock War Memorial. 2014.

A final, general point on war memorials: ironically, war memorials are actually about the living rather than the dead and, as such, depending what the family (or branches of a family) of a fallen soldier may want, a soldier may not appear on any war memorials or conversely, on several.

William Jones is one such example. Jones was an itinerant miner and after his death in 1915 his widow moved from place to place, yet he never appeared on any memorial – possibly as she felt that he didn’t belong on the memorial to where she had moved to, or she simply wanted to forget the war. Recently, I have had him placed on the New Invention memorial as that was where he lived when he signed-up for service. William Simpson is the opposite; a Yoxall man by birth, he appears on the Great Wyrley memorial as he lived there with his wife and children and also on the Kings Bromley memorial as his mother and siblings lived there.

Willenhall Park (Walsall Local History Centre)

Willenhall War Memorial Park (Walsall Local History Centre)

Many communities opted for other forms of reflective commemoration. Willenhall Urban District Council had long been open to the idea of a local park and decided to establish a memorial park, as well as having war memorials. The park was formally opened in 1923. Walsall’s Memorial Park, located near St Matthew’s Church, was officially opened in 1952.

Tree-planting at Bloxwich Park (Walsall Local History Centre)

Tree-planting at Bloxwich Park (Walsall Local History Centre)

Smaller communities, as well as having memorials, engaged in tree-planting: Blakenall, Great Wyrley, Cheslyn Hay, Bloxwich and Barr Beacon are local examples of this.

Tree-planting at Blakenall Church (Walsall Local History Centre)

Tree-planting on Peace Day at Blakenall Church (Walsall Local History Centre)

Acts of commemoration did come in other forms, one of which is the building or refurbishing a functional public building. Great Barr is a good example of this, the community built a War Memorial Hall by public conscription in 1923. While the original Hall burnt down in 1964, it is a community space that can be rented for meetings and functions and also houses the local war memorial.

War Trophies
So, to the story of the war trophies and how they fitted into commemoration as a whole. I use the term ‘war trophy’ to describe any piece of ordnance, British or foreign, that was used for display in an outdoor public place rather than a museum. The story of the trophies is, to me, one of love and hate: originally, I believe, they were seen as morale boosting and acceptable, however, after the conflict I believe they became an embarrassment as the same gamut of opinion arose that saw the removal of the Russian guns. The trophies began to dwindle, but it would be World War Two that would see the ultimate demise of the remaining trophies in Walsall and Bloxwich as it did in many other places in the country.

The story starts back in 1916. On 31 July, with the Battle of the Somme raging for a month, Mayor Slater reported to the members of the Council that he had tried to obtain ‘a captured enemy gun for exhibition in Walsall, but that, so far, he had not been successful’. The only reason for this, as far as I can tell, is that the gun would act as a massive moral booster and as a symbol of allied dominance – especially considering that the town had been bombed by Zeppelins some months before. I could not trace the arrival in Walsall of any captured gun until after the War.

31 July 1916, Mayor Slater seeks to obtain a German gun (Walsall Local History Centre)

31 July 1916, Mayor Slater seeks to obtain a German gun (Walsall Local History Centre)

In 1917 a War Museum Sub-Committee was established to look into the question of war trophies and exhibiting them. It met a few times but achieved very little, as no site could be found for exhibiting any material.

While not a war trophy as such, on 24 March 1918 Walsall was visited by one of the six tanks the War Office had been using to tour the country to help sell war bonds and raise money for the war effort. Julian the Tank visited London, the Midlands and all over Scotland in his mammoth drive. Julian, number 113, arrived by rail at the Midland Railway Goods Yard after a stint in Worcester. He was paraded down Tasker Street, Wednesbury Road, Bradford St and along The Bridge to the Town Hall, where he sat outside the town hall for a week and helped raise over £832,000 alone. Clearly a motivator, the massive crowds can be seen in the picture below along with Mayor Slater. It is claimed that Julian was gifted to Aberdeen after the war and survived until 1940.

Walsall Tank-Bank week - February 1918. The last time anything parked outside the Town Hall! (Walsall Local History Centre)

Walsall Tank-Bank week – March 1918. It was the last time anything parked outside the Town Hall and the caretaker is telling him to move it.  (Walsall Local History Centre)

From January 1919, the Council started to accept war trophy gifts from a variety of sources. The War Trophy Sub-Committee continued to advise the Council accordingly. In January, the War Office had forwarded a damaged German machine gun, ammunition box and belt to the town for permanent preservation. On 26 January, the 1/5th South Staffordshire Regiment offered a set of German body armour and this too was accepted. February saw the arrival of a German gun and carriage by way of the Assistant Director of the Ordnance Stores, South Staffordshire Regiment and on 3 March another gun, a 105 mm, along with its carriage was offered by the 2nd Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment and was accepted by the town.

While these offers were coming in and being accepted, nothing really seems to have been discussed as to what to do with the acquisitions. In late March 1919, after a long while, the War Museum Sub-Committee met again. It simply reported that there was no interest within the town for having a museum of war memorabilia. It also reported that many other towns nationally felt the same way and interest in such would be better served by a national rather than local museum.

The offering of ordnance to the Council from January 1919 led to the formation of a Sub-Committee in the May (Walsall Local History Centre)

The offering of ordnance to the Council from January 1919 onward (Walsall Local History Centre).

As April arrived, so did the offer to the town from the National War Savings Committee of a surplus tank; an offer that was accepted on 7 April and, in this case, a discussion did take place quite quickly as to where to place it. The suggestions placed before the Council on 2 June were for a site in Bradford Place, the Arboretum (on the current site of the town stocks) and for a site in Reedswood Park. The initial vote saw 5 votes for the Arboretum, 8 for Bradford Place and 13 for Reedswood, so the Arboretum was dropped and a second vote took place in which Reedswood defeated Bradford Place by 14 to 9 votes.

May saw the arrival of a bicycle and a mounting for a trench machine gun, as well as another field gun that was to initially be cared for by Walsall but ultimately destined for a General Campbell of the South Staffordshire Regiment.

July 1919 saw the arrival of the offered tank, which was number 241 and not Julian which has often been claimed. The Council decided to place the tank near to the place where the flag pole was currently positioned. Today, the site is the grass mound off the path between the park lodge and the Reedswood Lane/Miner Street entrances. The tank was originally placed by itself.

The location decided for the tank at Reedswood Park. (Walsall Local History Centre)

The location decided for the tank at Reedswood Park. (Walsall Local History Centre)

With the fixing of the tank in Reedswood Park and the Peace Day celebration, July 1919 saw the zenith of the popularity of war trophies in Walsall in my opinion. I say this because Minnie’s letter to her brother gives a fascinating piece of detail as to the presence of a German gun at the Peace Day celebrations. Minnie writes that ‘the best part of Peace time was when the soldiers fetched the German gun out and started running it around the town, I should have had a ride on it…’. This mention in her letter indicates strongly that one of the guns recently received had been placed on public show – or at least was easily accessible to a bunch of merry soldiers – and was seen on the day as a victory symbol and even a toy, rather than the murderous weapon it undoubtedly was.

Minnie writes about the German gun. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Minnie writes about the German gun. (Walsall Local History Centre)

On 3 November 1919, the Council formally accepted the offer of two Austrian 77 mm field guns that had been captured at the Battle of the Piave River in June 1918 (in Italy) by the South Staffordshire Regiment. By January 1920, no sites had yet been chosen for the exhibition of the procured guns. The General Purposes Committee were advised in May 1920 that two more guns had arrived (possibly the said Austrian guns, or possibly those captured at St Quentin), and again on 14 June that an Austrian gun had been unloaded at Liverpool – reporting was beginning to get a little confusing.

In my opinion, something deeply significant happened on 7 June 1920: the Council approached the Walsall branch of the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Sailors and Soldiers (the British Legion had not yet formed), with a view to having a public reception for the two guns that had arrived or been accepted in May. The view of the branch was clear: ‘the captured guns should be placed in position without any public recognition or expense to the town’. I believe they went straight into the Wolverhampton Street depot, where the other trophies were likely mounting-up.

The topic of the war trophies then seems to drop from the various Council minute books, until their current status was revealed on 30 July 1923; at this time the Borough Surveyor wrote to the Town Clerk stating that he had ‘about six German guns at the Wolverhampton Street Depot which he would like removed’. The Council’s response was to resolve that two of the guns should be placed in Bloxwich Park and the other four at Reedswood. It was a quick decision and that seemed to be that, only it wasn’t.

Plea from the 30 July 1923 (Walsall Local History Centre)

Plea from the Borough Surveyor on 30 July 1923 (Walsall Local History Centre)

Interestingly, in September 1923, Bilston put its tank up for sale. The tank had been on display in Hickman Park. The decision to accept the tank three years previously had only been carried by a majority of one vote and, while it had been received with all due pomp and ceremony, the explanation tablet made especially for it had never actually been fixed to it. It was a swift fall from grace; the Council had decided that the site was more needed for playing space than a trophy.

Back in Walsall, the Baths and Parks Committee elected to have the tank repainted in July 1925, yet the guns remained dormant at the Wolverhampton Street depot. In the same month, the same Committee minuted that they were of the opinion that the public didn’t want the guns on display. You get the feeling that they were already something of a nuisance, being a moral dilemma to the Council and a physical irritant to the Borough Surveyor.

The Surveyor wrote again to the Town Clerk, as nothing had actually happened after his last moan. In September 1925, action was taken. It was agreed, despite the Baths and Parks Committee being of the opinion that the public didn’t want the guns on display, that three guns would go to the Arboretum, two to Reedswood (next to the tank) and one to Bloxwich Park.

Frustration for the Borough Surveyor, 1925. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Frustration for the Borough Surveyor, 1925. (Walsall Local History Centre)

The original site for the Bloxwich gun was going to be in the garden, Walsall side of the tram shelter; this was later changed to being in the park itself, but in the shrubbery around the wall of the Bloxwich National School. The guns were seemingly in place by January 1926, although the feeling I have is that the guns were only set-up in order to create space at the Wolverhampton Street depot.

A photograph taken sometime after September 1925 and before 1935, as the two guns are located near the tank. (Walsall Local History Centre)

A photograph taken sometime after September 1925 and before 1935, as the two guns are located near the tank. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Controversy followed, as the old feelings re-emerged. The No More War Movement, a pacifist organisation, had started back in 1921 and Walsall had its own branch. In November 1928, the branch wrote to the Council regarding the ‘desirability of removing all war trophies from the parks and playing fields of the Borough. Now that the Kellogg Pact has been signed, whereby the great powers renounce war… it is desirable that Local Governments should remove from the minds of the people such monuments to militarism as tanks and guns. They are not ‘things of beauty’ and their removal would be a step… in helping the Peace Movement throughout the world.’ Burying their head in the sand, the Baths and Parks Committee simply moved onto the next business.

So, nothing changed in the short-term but over the next few years the composition of the Council did, which brought in a new outlook. A proposal by Alderman Sutton in 1930 to have the tank removed was defeated ‘by a short head’, but when he re-proposed it in July 1934, further change had taken place and this time he was to be successful.

The Reedwood tank, removed in 1934. (Walsall Local History Centre)

The Reedswood tank, removed in 1934. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Sutton, in his proposal, described it as that ‘abominable tank… by no means a thing of beauty… a blot on the landscape’, he went on to say that the only purpose it served was as ‘a target, or a platform for a target (in the form of old bottles and jam jars), for the kiddies to throw at’. He mooted that the two guns should also go, as neither the tank or the guns were a suitable adjunct to a children’s playground.

His proposal was enthusiastically received, not only that, but the newspaper reports seemed to indicate that there was enough support to from the other Council members to remove all of the guns from all of the parks; however, the other guns would be granted a reprieve, as it was only Reedswood under discussion at that Council meeting – Reedswood being ‘the worst job of the lot’ according to Alderman Sutton. Interestingly, Sutton is reported in the newspaper as saying that while all the guns should go, the other guns are at least ‘camouflaged’ by their positioning. This speaks volumes to me – remember, the Bloxwich one was placed in a shrubbery.

Despite the recognition by the Councillors regarding the affront that could be taken by the capturing regiment, the Reedswood tank and captured guns were swiftly condemned; mind you, condemning was one thing, disposing of it another.

The Council were clearly unsure what to do with it, so the Town Clerk wrote to the War Office. In November 1934 the War Office said that the tank could be disposed of, but only if broken up for scrap. The Council offered the tank for scrap and took the £10 offer made by Thomas Glaze (Engineers) Ltd of Walsall. One thing you can be sure of is that Thomas Glaze were likely very careful: when Alloa Council broke their tank up in 1926, a shell that was still inside the tank went off – luckily, nobody was hurt!

The money from Thomas Glaze Ltd was donated to the British Legion. I can find no evidence for it, but it is more than likely that the two accompanying field guns were scrapped at the same time.

War Office

War Office’s reply to Walsall Council, November 1934 (Walsall Local History Centre)

While nothing further was to happen to the guns until 1940, it is clear that questions regarding them were still being asked. In May 1937, the Baths and Parks Committee recommended that all guns be removed from the Borough parks. In the June, Joseph Leckie, one time mayor, wrote to the Council and offered to pay for an explanation tablet for the guns in the Arboretum that commemorated their capture by the South Staffordshire Regiment at the crossing of the St Quentin Canal in 1918. The Committee then discussed moving the guns to another site in the Arboretum, but nothing actually happened.

Interestingly, Leckie stated in his letter that he would pay for a second tablet to be placed at the site of the stocks. This is interesting as the stocks site was where the guns were supposed to have gone, but clearly they didn’t or all of them didn’t – adding credence to Sutton’s words that the other guns were ‘at least camouflaged’. Also, interestingly, Leckie seeks no publicity for the offer – perhaps he understood that it wouldn’t be popular.

Leckie writes to the Council offering explanation tablets for the Arboretum guns, 1937 (Walsall Local History Centre)

Leckie writes to the Council offering explanation tablets for the Arboretum guns, 1937 (Walsall Local History Centre)

The Baths and Parks Committee returned to trying to ignore the question, which they did successfully until the perfect opportunity arose to rid themselves of their ‘troublesome priest’. World War Two broke out in 1939 and 1940 saw a huge drive domestically to salvage any metal for the war effort. Walsall swiftly decided to melt down its remaining guns at the Arboretum and Bloxwich Park; Lichfield did the same, but also disposed of its Crimean guns at this point.

The instruction to the Cleansing Department to scrap the remaining guns, 1940 (Walsall Local History Centre)

The instruction to the Cleansing Department to scrap the remaining guns, 1940 (Walsall Local History Centre)

With this, the story of Walsall’s First World War trophies comes to a close. Walsall was similar to many other places in that it seemingly acquired trophies, then debated after a time whether such things were in fact ethical. While it displayed its tank, the guns Walsall acquired were displayed only from 1925 and even then begrudgingly, with some hidden in shrubbery, as the Council felt that the public were already against such things.

Some places, like Bilston and Alloa, had disposed of their tanks in the 1920s, while others, like Barnoldswick and Walsall, did so in the 1930s. World War One war trophies do still survive of course, but now tend to be in specialist war museums rather than on general display.

While displaying trophies was acceptable to the people during the conflict, public sentiment changed swiftly after the conflict as people sought other ways of remembrance and commemoration. The volte-face in public feeling was summed-up by Barnstaple Council when they voted to remove their guns in 1936: one Councillor simply stated, ‘up and down the country guns and tanks were being disposed of because they had at last realised that the next worse thing to losing a war was to win a war and it was nothing to gloat over to find trophies of a modern war displayed in front of the people.’

Many 19th century cannon are still on public display (some have even been recast) and I think this is because there is now a distance between such ‘olde worlde’ cannon and modern weaponry that allow people of today to see them as a quaint part of history rather than the killing machines they actually were. Duignan did not see the cannon in this way, as he had lived through the Crimean conflict and his actions show that he viewed them in the same way the public saw the guns and tank directly after the First World War.

It is interesting to note that the Russian guns lasted around 21 years, the same amount of time as the earliest of the World War One guns to arrive in Walsall.

If you haven’t seen it:

This article was sourced from the collections at the Walsall Local History Centre and the Newspaper Archive available via Find My Past.