The French town with a ‘Rue de Birm­ing­ham’ How Al­bert on the Somme came to be adopted by the city

Birmingham Post - - FEATURE - Mike Lock­ley Fea­tures Staff

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

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