My great-grandparents John Stanley Wright and Mary Ann Harper had six sons between 1883 and 1899, so all of them were of an age where they might have served in World War I. Five of them did serve, and all of those survived, which was a blessing denied to very many families. But no family in Britain came through the war years unscathed or unchanged...
Their eldest son Stanley Charles Wright (1883-1915) had followed his father's trade of House Decorator/Painter before the war broke out; but by September 1915 he was engaged in war work as a beltman in a gun factory. It's most likely this was at the BSA factory in Armoury Road, Small Heath, not far from where he lived with his wife and four children in Castleford Grove off Blackford Road, in Sparkhill, although Birmingham was well known for gun manufacture even before the war so he could have been working further afield in the Gun Quarter to the north of the city centre. His death certificate shows that he died of endocarditis (inflammation and/or infection of the heart or the heart valves, often a result of rheumatic fever). I can't imagine how his wife coped with four children under 9, but she was one of many who would face the same struggle during and after the war.
The second son John William Wright (1888-1950) also followed his father's trade. He enlisted in Birmingham in June 1916 and entered active service in January 1917. The timing of his enlistment suggest that he was a conscript, as conscription was extended to married men in May 1916, and by then he was married with a single daughter and another child on the way. His military discharge documents show that he served as a Private in Egypt and the Middle East with the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry (as part of the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force) from March 1917 until September 1918 and was finally demobilised in March 1919. He suffered some bouts of sickness ('sandfly fever' and 'debility') but was not wounded. He applied for a pension in late 1919 and stated: "Is generally quite weak and nervous and has pains in back." However, the Medical Board found that he had no disability, although he'd lost a little weight since enlistment and his GPC (General Physical Condition) was Poor. They rejected his claim for a pension, and he returned to his work as a House Painter & Decorator.
Sons number three Frederick Wright (1891-?) and four my grandfather Robert Wright (1896 - 1967) seem to have enlisted in Birmingham as single men on the same day sometime between July and September 1915. Their service records have not survived, but their medal rolls card have and they were allocated consecutive regimental numbers in the Worcestershire regiment. Fred and Bob would have been volunteers — not in the first wave of eager young men scared that the war would be over before they got their chance to join in, but in the wake of the National Registration Act and before the Derby Scheme and conscription. Both of them transferred from the Worcesters to the Machine Gun Corps, served in France and were demobilised in March 1919, Frederick as a Sergeant and Robert as a Corporal.
On 27 October 1917, the Stafford Advertiser reported:
"D.C.M. Winner:- Sergt. Fred Wright, Machine Gun Corps, son of Mr J. Wright, 67, Rotten-row, has been awarded the D.C.M for gallantry in action. A brother L.-Corp Robert Wright, is also serving with the Machine Gun Corps in France, and another brother, J.W. Wright, is in Egypt."
The D.C.M. citation read:
"For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He kept his gun in action under fire in spite of heavy casualties. He stood by his gun during an intense bombardment during a threatened counter-attack, and by his coolness and courage greatly assisted in repelling the attack."
In the absence of service or pension records, I can't know if Fred or Bob were wounded, although Bob had breathing problems in his later year that I was told as a child were because "he had been gassed in the war."
At the outbreak of the war, sons five (Frank Leslie Wright 1898-1961) and six (James Daniel Wright 1899-1986) were both in Canada, having travelled as 'Home Children' sent by the Middlemore Children's Emigration Home in Birmingham in 1912. (Their parents had separated and their mother could not afford to keep her five youngest children, so three of them were sent to Canada). Many Middlemore boys enlisted voluntarily, some out of patriotism, some of them for the chance to visit their families again. Frank Leslie signed up in New Brunswick, in February 1918, and was assigned to the #9 Overseas Siege Battery although it isn't clear if he travelled abroad. At 19, he was too young to be a conscript, so he must have been a volunteer. James Daniel also has a service record, according to Library and Archives Canada but it hasn't been digitised yet. He would not have been old enough to be conscripted until 1919, but could have volunteered earlier.
In all this, I haven't mentioned their five sisters: Ellen, Mary Agnes, Susan Jane, Dorothy and Ethel Violet. Poor Dorothy died shortly after arriving in Canada as a 'Home Child' in 1912 but the rest (even the youngest Ethel Violet) were single and old enough at some point in the war to take up war work in the factories of Birmingham, or pehaps as nurses (Mary Agnes was a nurse in the 1911 census, and Ellen was also possibly working in a hospital at that time). Although documentary evidence for women during WW1 is not easy to come by, I doubt they came through the war unchanged. At least three of them emigrated to Canada as single women in the 1920s — was that built upon confidence in their own abilities that they'd learned in the war years?
I never had the chance to talk to my grand-father or his sisters and brothers about their life in the war, and there is so much I will never be able to learn, but even a glimpse into the choices and struggles they were faced with makes me fervently grateful not to have lived through those times.