Bradford’s struggle to keep the home fires burning

Bradford Royal Infirmary, pictured here during the war, cared for wounded soldiers who came back from the front.
Bradford Royal Infirmary, pictured here during the war, cared for wounded soldiers who came back from the front.
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A new book examines the impact the First World War had on the people of Bradford and how they reacted to the escalating conflict. Chris Bond spoke to its author.

WHEN war broke out in 1914 you might assume there was a lot of anti-German sentiment flying around in our towns and cities.

In some instances there was. One of the first reports was of damage caused to German bakers’ shops in London’s East End, and elsewhere there were other isolated incidents involving windows being smashed and buildings vandalised.

Given that Bradford had such a prominent German population this could have led to more clashes in the city. But Dr Kathryn Hughes, author of a new book, Bradford: Remembering 1914-18, says for the most part this wasn’t the case. “There was some anti-German feeling but perhaps not as much as other places.”

At the start of the war Germans living in the city were rounded up and taken to Bradford Moor Barracks, but rather than suffering privations they were treated with respect. “A lot of them were businessmen and they employed people in the city, and what’s interesting is they were put up in the officers’ quarters while the regular soldiers who went to the barracks to pick up their equipment before heading off to fight, were put up in stables and outhouses,” says Dr Hughes.

The attitude towards Germans living in Britain hardened following the sinking of the Lusitania in May, 1915. It caused outrage and sparked riots against German homes and property across the country.

But again Bradford escaped the worst of it. “There were some Germans who worked at Lister’s Mills and a group of mainly female workers followed them home and there was a bit of a scene but nothing more.”

What’s also interesting is that claims for compensation in Bradford under the Anti-Riot Act, brought in after the sinking of the Lusitania, were much lower than in places like Leeds, Rotherham and Sheffield. “This was probably due to the long history of having Germans living in the city and that some of the children of German families had gone off to fight on our side.”

It’s one of the many aspects of the war that Dr Hughes examines in her book. Like many cities, Bradford’s hospitals were used to house the wounded troops returning from the front.

The first group of around 50 soldiers were transferred from Leeds to the Bradford Royal Infirmary and the Royal Eye and Ear Hospital, on October 27, 1914. This was done under the cover of darkness. “It wasn’t because they were really badly injured, there were only three or four taken in on stretchers, the rest were walking wounded, but they didn’t want the soldiers getting over-excited,” says Dr Hughes.

By the end of February the following year a convalescent home called Field House had been turned into the city’s first auxiliary hospital.

But this was just a sign of what was to come.

By the time the war finished Bradford had at least 2,500 beds for wounded soldiers, with schools even being turned into makeshift hospitals.

Such was the scale of this influx that it’s estimated around 250,000 soldiers were treated in Bradford during the conflict.

As a result of this there was a growing demand for nurses in the city, although this wasn’t the only job women were doing. As well as working in the mills and factories a group of women set up street patrols to prevent young girls getting into trouble and in July 1915 they set up “The Khaki Club” which aimed to provide food for every man in uniform.

Volunteers who helped ferry injured soldiers to the local hospitals were able to use the club and regular concerts were held to help keep people’s spirits up.

However, as the war dragged on there was a slow, but noticeable shift in attitude and by 1918 there were several strikes and peace marches as a growing number of people began to question what they were fighting for.

Dr Hughes says one of the aspects of Bradford’s war story that she found the most poignant came afterwards with the Peace Day Celebrations in July 1919.

“Councillors had planned this big parade through the city with lots of lights and decorations but three days beforehand the military personnel pulled out in protest at the way they had been treated.”

Many war veterans had returned home and were struggling to cope. “A lot of them were unable to return to work, they were angry about the way they got their pensions and they felt there was no support network for them, they felt they had been abandoned.”

The timing of the event was perhaps unfortunate, too. “It was in July and although the Battle of the Somme had taken place three years earlier, a lot of soldiers from Bradford were killed in that battle and it was still fresh in people’s minds,” she says.

“It was too soon, the memory of the war was still there. So many people had died and their relatives were still in mourning.”

It’s these details and the reality of life on the Home Front that Dr Hughes wanted to highlight in her book. “A lot of people don’t know as much about the First World War, it’s been over-shadowed by the Second World War.

“They know about rationing and they know more about that story because it’s within living memory. But they don’t know so much about what life was like for ordinary people in places like Bradford and that’s something I really wanted to show in the book.”

Bradford – Remembering 1914-18, published by The History Press, is out now priced £12.99.