Mrs Allam’s evocation of life in the village at the beginning of the twentieth century is wrapped in the cosy glow of nostalgia, a picture which was rudely shattered by the outbreak of the First World War, the Great War, the War to end all wars, though of course it did no such thing.
Elsfield’s involvement in the Great War involved a great deal more than knitting socks, as had happened during the Boer War. There were men from the village who fought and died ‘for King and Country’, as it says on the Elsfield Roll of Honour in the church. Able Seaman I. Bedding was one of 73 sailors of the 700 crew who died when his ship HMS Triumph was torpedoed on May 20th 1915, during the bombardment of the Dardanelles. Private R. Ballard, who died of fever at Chisleden Camp at the end of May 1917 was another casualty of war. Frank Gammon, who had left Elsfield to be a policeman and later found himself fighting with the Australians in the 52nd Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force was killed in action on October 16th, 1917, possibly at the battle of Ramadi in present day Iraq. Eighteen other men from the village also served in the war: two more from the Ballard family, three Merrys, and two Joneses who were both gunners. Other families in the village sent sons or husbands: Clarke, Clements, Cox, Elkington, Hatt, Hedges, Heritage, Massey, Maltby, Sadler and Webb. So the village was well aware of the turmoil the war had brought and every day families here, as elsewhere in the British Isles, must have been fearful of the post arriving with bad news of a loved one.
At the beginning of the war, the government had estimated that there would be no problem with food supplies because although by this time 80% of wheat and 40% of meat was imported it was assumed that the power of the navy was such that enemy forces could not disrupt the flow of goods into the country. In the first two years of the war this was the case. More land was put into growing wheat and harvests in 1914 and 1915 were good. However, in 1916, the yields dropped because many of the farmers had abandoned the crop rotation which they had been practising in the past. In consequence there was a poor harvest, and the potato crop failed. Imports were also difficult. Grain which had been brought in from the Black Sea area had been blocked by Turkey who had allied themselves to Germany, and the Dardanelles were now closed. German U boats were also taking their toll of American and Canadian wheat in the Atlantic and the situation began to look serious.
In December 1916, the Food Production Department was appointed to organise and distribute agricultural inputs such as labour, feed, fertiliser and machinery, and to increase the output of crops. Schools were co-opted by the Food Production Scheme and Elsfield children collected blackberries in September 1916 and by the end of November had collected 516 and a half pounds. They had also amassed 30 bushels of acorns and the school mistress recorded that “the collection of horsechestnuts is complete.” They were still collecting blackberries as part of their school duties in the autumn of 1918 but happily the war was almost at an end and the following year saw an extra week’s holiday in the summer to celebrate peace.
In 1917, to increase food production farmers were given a guaranteed price for their wheat and oats, though not for barley, as a concession to the temperance movement. A minimum wage for farm workers was also established and the wage was set at 25 shillings a week, which must have meant prosperity for the villagers of Elsfield, who had been used to much lower wages.
Why collect horsechestnuts? Acorns could be used as pig feed, but horsechestnuts are more of a problem. In his Flora of Britain, Richard Mabey states that the fruit of the horsechestnut, which originated in the Balkans, were used in Turkey both as a food and medicine for horses. During both world wars conkers were gathered to make into a starch. This is slightly poisonous if eaten but could be converted into acetone , which is used in the manufacture of cordite. German scientists have fairly recently discovered that aescin can be extracted from the nuts, and used to treat bruises and sprains. So the efforts of Elsfield children were either for use with the horses or for cordite.