At the beginning of the War, 300,000 pairs of socks and other knitted items were urgently needed to send to soldiers serving on the front line. Lord Kitchener and Queen Mary called on the women of Britain to help and on 18 August 1914 the Queen Mary Needlework Guild was launched. Millions of items were knitted throughout the war for soldiers at the front and for the Belgian refugees arriving in Britain. Mittens, socks, scarves, hats and balaclavas were all knitted by branches of the Guild, the Red Cross and similar groups set up across the country. It was stated that there was no part of the ‘Tommies’ uniform that could not be knitted. To cheer the soldiers up the knitters would put a little message inside the parcels to be sent overseas. The parcels would become known as ‘comforts’. The War Guilds registered with the Voluntary Aid Detachments and had cards to record their service. Women in the Guilds could also purchase a medal to mark their contribution.
Oswestry and Llangollen both had large War Guilds formed and run by local women in 1914. The Oswestry War Guild collected and raised funds, then outsourced the work of knitting to local women. All items were sent to a central point in St James’s Palace, London. It was run by four women: Lady Harlech (President), Mrs Bowman (Secretary), Ada Brookes (Secretary) and Sarah Grant (Treasurer). They provided a yearly report of the expenses, including the amount spent on wool.
The Llangollen War Guild was run by the formidable Mrs Best of the Vivod Estate. She collected items made by local women and wrote a monthly report in the Llangollen Advertiser detailing the different items sent in and the quantity. Joining her on the committee were: Mary Best, Miss Thomas, Mrs Jagger, Mrs Spencer, Miss Hurrell, Miss Barker and Mrs Davies. They would supervise the posting of parcels to local men at the front line, hospitals and army camps. Between January and July 1915 they collected and distributed 1766 knitted items.
The Llangollen Advertizer regularly reported on the work of the War Guild:
CLOTHING FOR THE SICK AND WOUNDED MEETING AT LLANGOLLEN, 14 August 1914
A meeting of ladies was held in the National Schools, on Tuesday afternoon, for the purpose of forming a Work Guild for War Purposes. Capt. W. Best presided, and opened the proceedings on behalf of Mrs. Best who, with the Hon. Mrs. J. C. Best, Mr. C. Richards, Misses Thomas (Llantysilio Hall), Mrs. Jagger, Mrs. Spencer, Miss Hurrell, Miss Barker, Mrs. Davies, and many others attended, the place of meeting having to be changed from the Church House, where it was originally summoned to be held, to the schools which were crowded to their utmost capacity. Capt. W. Best stated that the Vivod family had decided to give the material for the first consignment of clothes, and the garments had been cut out and, with cotton and other necessaries, were arranged in parcels ready for distribution. All they appealed for were willing hands and ready workers to do the necessary sewing. Over a hundred ladies at once came forward to form the Guild, which was composed of representatives of all denominations, there being a general desire, on the part of all present, to assist in some way or other. It was also decided to hold fortnightly meetings, in the Council Chamber, at the Town Hall, to receive the completed work, on the first and third Thursdays in each month. It was announced that Dr. Wilson has consented to give a series of instruction lectures in Nursing every Wednesday in the County Buildings during the next six week and another admirable step decided upon was to ascertain large householders in the district who are prepared to receive and nurse convalescents in their home, quite a considerable number volunteering to do this valuable work.
WAR GUILD WORK, 11th September 1914
The fourth collection of articles was held by Mrs. W. Best, on Thursday, Sept. 17th, at the Town Hall, Llangollen. The following articles for soldiers were received: Twelve bed jackets, twenty-nine night-shirts, ten bed socks, thirty- seven day shirts, sixty-two socks, hundred and twenty-five bandages, twenty jerseys, twelve hanks, two helmets, three mufflers, one belt, one mitts and one cushion also forty-three various articles of poor clothes suitable for the Belgians. The bandages and bed socks were sent to Queen Mary’s Needlework Guild. The bed jackets and night-shirts are retained at Vivod for convalescents in this district. Day-shirts Mrs. Best also retained being doubtful whether they were needed for the troops, but in answer to her enquiry to Queen Mary’s Guild she learns that “they will be exceedingly glad of them as so many are asked for that the stock is almost exhausted.” They will therefore be sent there. Socks, jerseys and woollen comforts Mrs. Best is forwarding by parcels’ post in installments to the Welsh Fusiliers in France. For the present Mrs. Best asks socks (with heels), jerseys, day-shirts, bandages (six yards long and tightly rolled), blankets, old or new; dressing gowns old, and warm clothes of all kinds and sizes for the Belgians. Mrs. W. Best wishes to thank all the workers and donors very much for their beautiful gifts, which are all sadly needed and will continue to be. The next collection will be on Thursday, October 1st, at three to five p.m.
LIBERAL LADY W0RKERS, 30 October 1914
A splendid response to the Appeal for war comforts for our sailors and soldiers was achieved on Wednesday night, when the lady officials of the Llangollen Liberal Club met to receive the work of the members. Mrs. Best received the things at the Town Hall, on Thursday afternoon. The next collection of garments will take place on Nov. 11th when all sorts of knitted and sewn garments will be gratefully received, and a special appeal is made for flannel shirts which are in great demand at the front.
Extracts from the diary of a VAD nurse tells us how important ‘comforts’ were to the soldiers:
“What a godsend to us is the tiny, tightly packed room known as the Red Cross Stores! To convey what its comforts have meant to the maimed, bruised men they have clothed, to realise what it means to have such a supply to draw from, no human words are in any way adequate.”
“We nurses know how much the gifts and comforts are appreciated, and we would emphatically assure all the women who have associated themselves with the distaff part of war work that every garment or article made, earned from some painracked man his grateful, heartfelt, though inarticulate, thanks. Every stitch they have made meant a few minutes’ greater comfort – and correspondingly less pain – from an aching body tortured on our behalf, for our defence and our birthrights. It is in no way a far-fetched statement to say that some garments – such as pneumonia jackets and cholera belts – have prolonged a man’s life.”
Smaller groups and committees were set up around the country to organise ‘Comforts for Soliders’. They made many items, including blankets, rugs, bags, knitted items and even sent parcels. Oswestry had its own committee. One of the members was Mary Bell Williams.