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Staffordshire's First World War secrets revealed in new project

By Staffordshire Newsletter  |  Posted: August 13, 2014

George Astle, second right, and his fellow bakers

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Staffordshire archivists are revealing the stories of conscientious objectors in the Great War in a new project.

The tales include conscripts who objected to the war on moral grounds, and men whose jobs were deemed too important for the Home Front for them to be sent to France, which have been found in a rare collection of appeal tribunals against conscription in the First World War. 

All military appeal tribunal records across the country were ordered to be destroyed after the war – but an oversight meant those in Staffordshire survived. Now, the Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent Archive Service will be opening up access to the records.

The service has received £37,600 from the Heritage Lottery Fund to start the project in September. Staffordshire Appeals: Opening access to Staffordshire’s Great War Local Military and Appeal Tribunals will be looking for volunteers in the autumn to help go through the fascinating collection of over 20,000 records. Around 15,000 will be made freely accessible online.

The examples onclude George Astles, a van driver at a bakery in St Edward’s Street in Leek. He had previously been discharged from military service before conscription. Bakery owner Jane Maskery said the business – and the people living in the surrounding area – would suffer if he was now called up as most of her staff had gone to war.

She said: “He is my van man and in my business it is absolutely necessary to have one. I supply bread to about 18 shops in town and country. When not on his rounds with the van he is otherwise fully employed in assisting me generally. My staff has suffered considerable depletion, three being now with the colours. The man has been discharged from military service and I claim that it is in the national interest that he should be continued in his present occupation. I have no-one to replace him and the Tribunal is fully aware of the difficulties of obtaining a suitable substitute.”

John Beer, from Fleet Street in Burton, was a conscientious objector. He said: “A conscientious objector to taking human life, I am a vegetarian. Put me in non-combatant class else I will starve to death.”

Staffordshire County Council’s communities leader Mike Lawrence said: “This is a unique project as we have a rare collection of WW1 records here in Staffordshire which provide an invaluable insight into communities at that time and the working and private lives of those called up to service. In almost every other area of the country military appeal tribunal records were destroyed after the war and so this collection will be of great interest both here and nationally.

“2016 is the centenary of the introduction of conscription during WW1 and so we are pleased to make this collection accessible at this time. Thanks to the backing of the Heritage Lottery Fund and a team of volunteers this project will index over 20,000 individual entries and put over 15,000 online.”

Reyahn King, head of Heritage Lottery Fund West Midlands, said: “These rare archives detail individual appeals against being conscripted into the forces giving us a better idea of the impact of conscription on people’s lives and their reactions. The project will provide access to a valuable source of information about local men, their families, work and home lives as the First World War was underway.”

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