The French town with a ‘Rue de Birmingham’ How Albert on the Somme came to be adopted by the city
THERE’S a long street in the sleepy French town of Albert, a community that nestles close to the Somme killing fields, with an unusual name.
Cafés line the pavement of Rue de Birmingham – a name that reflects the town’s bonds with the Second City.
It is not the only reference to Birmingham. In March 1926, the city raised the impressive sum of 500,000 francs for the Birmingham Pavilion, a row of almshouses in the French town for those impoverished by war.
Birmingham ‘adopted’ Albert in July 1920 as a show of solidarity following the Great War carnage. It was not a unique move. Wolverhampton adopted Gommecourt where the Staffordshire Regiment’s four ‘terrier’ battalions attacked on the Somme.
Stafford, meanwhile, adopted Bellinglise, setting for the famous St Quentin canal offensive. Gloucester adopted Ovillers and La Boiselle, where a truly gigantic mine crater blown by the Allies still takes tourists’ breath away today.
Albert was almost captured by the German advance in September 1914, and, for the majority of the war, was only two miles from the frontline.
Back then, the small Picardy town had a population of 8,000. By 1916, Albert was a vital hub for the British troops, a centre of administration, control, billeting and supply.
For Tommies, the ‘Leaning Virgin’ figure on the dome of the town’s basilica became a landmark.
Future Brigadier-General James Jack wrote of Albert on April 29, 1916: “This red-bricked or colourwashed town, considerably mutilated by bombardments, is occasionally under long-range fire.
“One shell has caught the church spire, bending the figure of the Virgin Mary as if it might topple down at any minute.
“Many of the streets are, however, little the worse for the war and there are quite a number of inhabitants still in the place.”
Albert was, in fact, taken by the Germans during the Kaiser’s final push of March 26, 1918. Fearing they could use the basilica tower as an observation post, the British destroyed it with shells.
The Germans’ stay did not last long. Albert was retaken by the 8th East Surreys on August 22, 1918.
One officer wrote: “Albert was ours again, but it was a tragically unfamiliar Albert in which the men found themselves in the glare of that day’s hot August sun. Streets, once picturesque and lively with the business of British military life, had become mere paths littered with rubbish, lined with stumps of walls and wrecks of buildings and undermined in every direction with land-mines and charges.
“The basilica from which the golden image of the Virgin and Child had hung for so long was there yet, and its vast nave still dominated the town, but it had become a mere huge forbidding shell of red brick. In front of it lay a wrecked German plane.
“Here and farther on, near the Singer factory, were dead British patrols and everywhere were German dead. It was difficult not to feel, as one looked around the hideous wreckage of what once had been a pleasant, stately little town, that the Boche had found a fitting tomb.”
Nationally, the idea of adopting French towns ravaged by the Great War was put forward by an organisation calling itself The League of Help.
The league proposed the scheme at a June 30, 1920, meeting held at London’s Mansion House.
The Mayor of Birmingham was present that day.
The Times reported: “The meeting has been arranged by the Brit- ish League of Help, which has undertaken to seek out for each war devastated town and village in France a British ‘god-parent’ community to give it practical aid and sympathy in its reconstruction.”
The meeting heard that British towns and cities did not need to part with large sums as part of the adoption scheme.
Under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany had to find the cash to rebuild shelled French townships.
Birmingham acted quickly. The Birmingham Daily Gazette of July 22, 1920, reported: “The suggestion that Birmingham should adopt a French town in the devastated area was considered at an informal meeting held at the Council House yesterday, and were not only heartily approved but a committee was appointed to formulate definite proposals.
“Interest in the scheme, which had been under consideration in the city for some time, was quickened at a recent meeting of the Anglo-French Society. A representative from the Ardennes told the moving story of the privations and trials of the little town of Bethel.
“The inhabitants wanted a ‘Marraine’ – a godmother – to take an interest in them, to help them to buy tools, furniture, agricultural implements, seeds, etc. and he ventured to appeal to Birmingham to adopt this small town.
“The Lord Mayor, Alderman William Cadbury, presided at yesterday’s meeting and, following an interesting discussion, it was felt that Birmingham would be more directly interested in a town in the devastated areas with which the Warwickshire regiments had been associated.
“Such association would appeal to the imagination of the townspeople, and it was, therefore, decided to refuse the application of Bethel.”
On August 10, the same newspaper reported: “A Paris message says that the French Central Committee of British Adoptions was informed on Friday by the City Birmingham that it would adopt the town of Albert.”
If the burghers of Birmingham selected Albert on the basis that the Royal Warwickshire Regiment was holed up there, they may have been handed duff information.
Only 20 soldiers from the Warwicks are buried in Albert’s three war cemeteries.
It is highly likely, almost a certainty, that members of the regiment marched through the town or were billeted there, but concrete evidence is hard to find.
> Rue de Birmingham was named to reflect Albert’s close bonds with the city after the Great War