BIRMINGHAM: 'GODMOTHER' OF ALBERT IN PICARDY


After the First World War many British towns and cities became involved in ‘adoption’ schemes to provide help for the devastated battlefield. Many of the places adopted were on the Somme and Birmingham adopted Albert in 1920. Today Albert still has a ‘Rue de Birmingham’ and the almhouses paid for by the citizens of Birmingham still exist although with a different use.


In April/May 2008 my article on the ‘twinning’ was published as ‘Birmingham: Godmother of Albert in Picardy’ in ‘Stand To!’, the journal of the Western Front Association (no 82). The five pages of the article are available below with kind permission of the WFA.


  

INTRODUCTION

 

British involvement in the Somme did not end with the armistice. British towns and cities became involved in ‘adoption’ schemes to provide help for the devastated battlefield. This article is a case study of the link between Albert and Birmingham. In 1914 Albert was a small Picardy town of about 8000 inhabitants situated on an old Roman road between Amiens and Bapaume. The Ancre flowed under
its basilica. It had failed to become a ‘Lourdes of the North’ for pilgrims impressed by a medieval legend despite the desire of
Pope Leo XIII who coined the term in 1898.



WARTIME ALBERT

 

Although almost captured by the German advance in September 1914 for most of the rest of the war Albert was only two miles from
the front line. In March 1916 it came within a new British sector of the front line and as such had a vital importance as an administration, control, billeting and supply town. It also provided medical facilities. For British troops moving up or down the line Albert was always associated with the landmark figure and its associated legend of the ‘Leaning Virgin’ on the dome of its basilica dedicated to Notre Dame de Brebieres.


The future Brigadier-General James Jack was in Albert on 29 April 1916…


‘This red-bricked, or colour-washed town, considerably mutilated by bombardments, is occasionally under long-range fire. One shell has caught the church spire, bending the figure of the Virgin Mary as if it might topple down at any minute. Many of the streets are, however, little the worse for the War and there are quite a number of inhabitants still in the place’. (1)


On 26 March 1918 Albert was taken by the Germans during the Kaiser’s final offensive. Fearful that the Germans could use the tower of the basilica for observation it was knocked out by a British shell on 16 April. The virgin fell but the war did not end!


On 22 August 1918 Albert was recaptured by the 8th East Surreys.  G.H.F.Nichols wrote…


‘Albert was ours again; but it was a tragically unfamiliar Albert in which the men found themselves in the glare of that day’s hot August sun. Streets, once picturesque and lively with the business of British military life, had become mere paths littered with rubbish, lined with stumps of walls and wrecks of buildings, and undermined in every direction with land-mines and charges. The basilica from which the golden image of the Virgin and Child had hung for so long was there yet, and its vast nave still dominated the town, but it had
become a mere huge forbidding shell of red brick. In front of it lay a wrecked German plane, and here and farther on, near the Singer factory, dead British patrols; and everywhere were German dead. ….it was difficult not to feel , as one looked around the hideous wreckage of what once had been a pleasant, stately little town, that he (the Boche) had found a fitting tomb’. (2)



POST-WAR ALBERT

 

The appearance of Albert at the time of the Armistice is best summarised by a plaque in the Hotel de Ville which reads ‘Il ne
subsiste alors que le nom, la gloire et les ruines’.
 Somme towns and villages were devastated by the war and post-war the inhabitants
suffered acute privation.  Martin Middlebrook writes…
 ‘The devastation was so complete that, at first, the French government planned to make the whole area into a national forest, without attempting to rebuild the villages or reclaim the land, but gradually, the former inhabitants started to return. Slowly the area returned to life. Working from old plans found at Amiens, the new villages and even most of the individual houses were built on the exact sites of their predecessors. Special labour units were sent to clear the land and fill in the
old trench systems. It was feared that the numerous tunnels and dugouts might attract bandits so orders were issued that all the entrances to these were to be blocked. In the course of time most collapsed’. (3)


The national forest idea was linked to a possibility declaration that the area was a ‘red zone’ like the area around Verdun because it was too dangerous to rebuild. The inhabitants of Albert resisted this suggestion.


TIMES REPORTS

 

On 6 January 1919 Charles Adeane reported in the ‘Times’ on his tour of the Somme department. The headline above the story included ‘Ruined French Farms’ and ‘Need of British Help’. Albert was noted as one of six places that was ‘absolutely uins’. ‘They are cast down as if by an earthquake’. On 4 October 1923 Boyd Cable reported on his journey from Albert to Loos in a report for the Times. He began his tour in Albert…


‘Anyone who saw Albert today for the first time would be appalled at the sight of its many broken buildings and heaps of tumbled masonry; but those who knew the Albert of the end of the war must wonder rather at the large amount of it that has been rebuilt…If my eyes saw rather the rebuilding and rebuilt, the amazing progress of reconstruction, those who first see the area now can the better
realise how much more awful and appalling was the appearance it wore in and immediately after the war. Albert is still badly broken up but at least it has retaken shape in streets and squares of new houses where many only knew a pave road bordered with a high wall of rubbish, stones and brick that had been cleared off the track through the town and thrown up to either side…….It would seem easier to pull everything down and rebuild it rather than “restore” it as some say is to be done’.



ORIGINS OF THE ADOPTION IDEA


Post-war large British towns and cities offered assistance to this damaged region and French communities were ‘adopted’ or twinned. In July 1920 Birmingham adopted the town of Albert. The general ‘adoption’ initiative appears to have originated in a shadowy
organization called the League of Help. An important meeting was held in the Mansion House, London on Wednesday 30 June 1920 attended by Lord Mayors and Mayors of British towns and cities. The Times reported…


‘The meeting has been arranged by the British League of Help, which has undertaken to seek out for each war devastated town and village in France a British god-parent’ community to give it practical aid and sympathy in its reconstruction’. (4)


It was stressed that large sums were not needed as reparation was the responsibility of the German Government under the terms of
the Treaty of Versailles.
 The Lord Mayor of Birmingham probably attended this meeting and took the idea to the General Purposes Committee of the City Council who approved the idea. Some other places had already adopted a town or village in France where
they acted as ‘marraine’ or godmother.


 

BIRMINGHAM - WHERE TO ADOPT?


The Birmingham Post reported on Wednesday 21 July 1920….


‘M.Marcel Braibant (French deputy for the Ardennes) was recently in Birmingham and was present at a garden fete of the Anglo-French Society. On this occasion he told a moving story of the pitiful condition of the devastated regions. In one place in particular referred to by him the inhabitants are living in acute misery; for want of beds they sleep on straw. Their one cry is for work, but to provide work…..one must have money to buy tools, machines and materials, and the unfortunate people have scarcely enough to buy food.  What they want as well as money is sympathy and friendship’.


An editorial supported the suggestion of adoption as Birmingham had already contributed generously to a European Famine Fund. It had been suggested that a place beginning with the letter ‘B’ would be a suitable adoptee.  The same issue carried a letter from Ethel Brooks, the chair of the Birmingham Anglo-French Society. She wrote….


‘We in this country who have not suffered from enemy invasion, and can still lookupon our beautiful country unspoilt, cannot realise the harrowing feelings of those who see only ruin and desolation around them. It is not sufficient for us only to sympathise with these afflicted people; we must render them practical help’.


Lady Brooks, a magistrate, was the second wife of Sir Arthur David Brooks, a wartime Mayor of Birmingham. The Birmingham Anglo-French Society existed by November 1918 and was probably modelled on an earlier London society. Each year the Birmingham group ran social activities, lectures, rambles as well as an annual dinner and an annual fete. In 1925 it had 320 members. In the early 1920s the French ambassador was its Honorary President and the Vice-President was the Vice-Chancellor of Birmingham University, Sir Charles Robertson. 



BIRMINGHAM ADOPTS ALBERT



On 21 July there was also an informal gathering at the Council House to discuss proposals to put before a public meeting. Chaired by
Lord Mayor William Adlington Cadbury, those attending included aldermen andcity councillors, members of the Anglo-French Society, the Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club, the Cosmopolitan Club and ex-Territorial and City Battalion officers. A committee was formed to take the idea forward and to identify the town for ‘adoption’ and its most pressing material needs. It was to be chaired
by Alderman Sir David Brooks with Gerald Forty as the Honorary Secretary.Gerald Forty was a prime mover in the Albert adoption scheme. He was a Cheltenham-born businessman who had moved to the city in 1902 to manage a branch of his father’s firm. During the Great War (aged 37 at the outbreak) he became an officer in the Worcestershire Regiment and served at the War Office. He was also one of the founders of the City of Birmingham Orchestra. In 1934 he was awarded the Legion of Honour for his contribution to the Albert project. He died in 1950. 


On Tuesday 27 July 1920 this Executive Committee met following the visit by a deputation to the headquarters of the British League
of Help in London to find out which towns were available. They were told that Albert was the most suitable.


‘The reasons suggested in favour of Albert were its ruined condition, its association with the Birmingham “City” Battalions and other Warwickshire units, and the fact that its industries rendered it a town which Birmingham could readily assist, inasmuch as its chief needs are machine tools, agricultural implements and other metal and hardware goods”. (5)


 

DELEGATION VISITS ALBERT 1920


It was decided to send a deputation to Albert in mid-August. The delegation of six included a Birmingham Post journalist who wrote two
detailed articles for his newspaper. He joined Mr and Mrs Gerald Forty, Mrs J.A.Kenrick, Lieutenant Colonel Crosskey and Lieutenant Colonel Deakin, who had commanded the 3rd City Battalion of the Warwickshire Regiment. They were greeted by M Piffre, the Mayor of Albert, who had owned the largest works in the town pre-war, employing 600, and produced ironwork for lifts and other
branches of engineering. The Birmingham Post journalist recorded the ‘pitiable plight of Albert’.



THE ROYAL WARWICKS AND ALBERT


The link between the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and Albert cannot be fully established. Various battalions did fight on the Somme
in 1916 including the Battle of Albert in the first phase and with men drawn from regular, territorial and New Army backgrounds. However, only 20 men buried in the three Albert Commonwealth War Graves Cemeteries (6) were from the Royal Warwicks out of a total of 1981. Let Private Joseph Hiley stand for all of them. He was in ‘B’ Company of the 10th Battalion and was the son of Mr and Mrs Joseph Hiley of 110, Deakins Road, Hay Mills, Birmingham. He died on 31 July 1916 aged 21. In addition the names of 1803 Royal Warwicks are on the Thiepval Memorial. (7) C.S.Collison has noted that the 11th Battalion was relieved in thetrenches by the 5th Royal Fusiliers on July 16 1916 and “returned to Albert and were billeted near the wrecked railway station”. It is very likely that many Warwickshire men passed through Albert or were billeted there at different times during the war. Ray Westlake indicates the following battalions passing through or bivouacing in or close to Albert….
1/5th  ,1/6th ,1/7th and 1/8th Territorials ,10th and 11th Service Battalions (8)

 

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Punch October 4 1916


British cavalry in liberated Albert in September 1918. The Virgin has disappeared


Percival Bower, Lord Mayor of Birmingham, at a crucial time for the adoption

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