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. 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.