Worcestershire VTC The WW1 Home Guard
It is often forgotten that Britain had a Home Guard during the First World War - the Volunteer Training Corps, which became the officially-constituted Volunteer Force. Although this was not as large as its WW2 equivalent - around 350,000 men - it was important for much the same reasons - training young men prior to regular service, freeing troops to serve abroad and preparing to resist any invasion. Interestingly, at the highest level, guerrilla warfare was specifically seen as a role of the VTC - something the WW2 War Office fiercely resisted for its own Home Guard. How far this vision of tough fighters living off the land was ever achieved at a local level is a different matter. Even in 1918 some Worcestershire Volunteers struggled with the basics of living under canvas at their annual camp. Some had brought their 'prettiest pyjamas' and others claimed to be unable to wash dishes! There are, however, the same stories of utter exhaustion that typify recollections of the WW2 Home Guard. Some Worcestestershire Volunteers were spending up to four nights a week on duty or in training, plus the typical Sunday route marches. The history of the First World War tends to be the story of the men who went abroad to fight, and particularly those that were killed in action. Only more recently has interest grown as to the nature of the Home Front - and this has tended to focus on the role of women. The story of the men who stayed at home has yet to be told.
The VTC reflects a traditional vision of local patriotism that was frequently at odds with the government and Army Council. It was often accused of providing an escape route for those unwilling to serve abroad, by prioritizing family and business interests above those of empire. As such, it represented the final expression (before the introduction of conscription in 1916) of the traditional concept that it was the job of volunteer, professional, troops to fight a foreign war - and that such a war could be kept distinct from the life of a civilian population. The task of the VTC, like the militias before it, was to protect 'hearth and home' from both foreign and domestic enemies. It is often forgotten that the majority of young elibible men in 1914-15 did NOT volunteer to join the services - this is why conscription had to be introduced in 1916.
The stereotypical scenes of euphoric young men rushing to join the colours was a very effective propaganda tool, but one that quickly dissipated after September 1914. Nonetheless, it is a vision of national unity that was carefully cultivated both during and after the war; it remains a cornerstone of the popular history of the First World War. The centenary commemorations of the outbreak of the First World War have spawned a host of projects and publications that typically tell the individual stories of the men who served and were killed in action. Laudable as this is, such work tends only to repeat the traditional stereotypes. Fewer publications tell the story of the communities left behind, and the sometimes bitter exchanges in the conscription Tribunals as men argued that their proper place was in maintaining family, agriculture and industry. From the Summer of 1916 such men would be forced to join the VTC and this enforcement of 'voluntary' service greatly changed the character of the organisation.
Bizarrely to modern eyes, until 1917 the VTC were expected to buy their own uniforms, weapons and ammunition (mainly Martini-Enfield carbines and rifles)! Initially, Worcester VTC borrowed 'Long Lee' Enfield rifles from King's School OTC. Official attitudes began to change in 1916 when VTC units were given official status as regiments of the Volunteer Force and played a prominent role in the management of the system of exemptions from conscription. The issue of Pattern 1914 and Ross rifles together with Hotchkiss machine guns from 1917 was a clear sign of concern over the course of the war - particularly following the German spring offensive of 1918. This was even more apparent when those members of the Worcestershire Regiment who volunteered for coastal defence service on the Suffolk coast in 1918 as a special service company were issued with standard army webbing and the SMLE rifle and given training in trench warfare and gas protection. As a final sign of official recognition, in 1918 the volunteer regiments became Volunteer Battalions of their county regiment. The often tense relationship between the government and the VTC was to have a profound effect on the official suspicion surrounding the creation of the Home Guard in WW2.
Although designed primarily to train men for the fighting services and to guard against the possibility of invasion, some of its volunteers did see active service. For over two years men of the Worcestershire VTC manned anti-aircraft guns on the southern approaches to Birmingham and in 1918 a special services company took up positions on the East Coast as part of a cyclist battalion. Others guarded munitions factories or simply assisted in auxiliary hospitals.
From 1917 there was an additional reason for supporting a volunteer force placed fully under military discipline. The War Office believed that the war could not be won simply on the battlefields of the Western Front but that victory would also require the complete economic and social collapse of Germany. To that end, British intelligence began to fund socialist groups in Germany in the hope of inciting revolution. This was a dangerous tactic that might backfire - hence the need to strengthen the Volunteer Force at home, ready to fulfil the traditional role of the militia in helping to maintain the status quo.
© Copyright Malcolm Atkin 2015. Contents not to be copied or otherwise reproduced without permission.