With local history, it’s all a bit winding and interleaved. Sometimes, you start researching one thing, and follow a straight line; and then, all of a sudden, things you never expected crop up, and you end up researching something utterly different.
So it is here with David Evans, who started researching a fairly straightforward piece about a local band of musicians, only to find himself studying a wartime tale of American army brutality in Whittington Barracks, of all places.
The link – that the Double Diamonds played in Lichfield for US troops stationed at Whittington during World War II – has led to something we shall be exploring more here in the coming weeks. It isn’t strictly our patch, but we think the story remains largely and shockingly untold, with only one local history blog ever appearing to reference it.
I thank David for his tireless work on this, and of course Peter ‘Pedro’ Cutler, too. There is lots of work going on behind the scenes here on this and I look forward to sharing the results here with you all.
The Double Diamonds of Walsall Wood
This remarkable photo of the southern part of Walsall Wood in 1926 actually shows where Joe and his wife lived. He and his wife, a local girl, had married in 1914 and Joe had found work as a coalminer in Huntington coalmine, near Cannock. However, as with many young men at that time, he chose to enlist in the Army and this he did in March 1915 at the Hednesford Army Recruiting Office. He may have expected to join the Staffordshire regiment and be based at Whittington Barracks, near Lichfield, as many of his friends from Walsall Wood had done, in fact.
Perhaps to his surprise and disappointment, he was detailed to join the Northumberland Fusiliers Regiment and was despatched to join the Regiment in Newcastle upon Tyne that month. Within the same month he had gained his lance corporal stripe and was detailed to help to train the raw recruits in the use of the rifle.
In September 1916 he was sent off to France; to the on-going, awful battle of the Somme. He was transferred to the newly-created Machine Gun Corps in December 1916. It was as a machine-gunner that he was seriously wounded and was returned to a specialist military hospital in England for treatment. He was not able to return to frontline duties and was discharged from the Army in January 1919.
He returned to the same way of life, work and housing conditions that he had left in 1915. For him the War to End All Wars had brought him very little. The 1926 photo shows Walsall Wood just before the General Strike broke out and brought its turmoil and distress to all the miners and their families.
Joe and his wife lost two of their young children during these hard,hungry years of the 1920s and 1930s.
In 1937 Joe his wife and their two daughters and two sons did see a dramatic improvement ..at long last. The local council in Brownhills were building a few new houses in the village. By 1937 several hundred of the 1000 built in the urban district had been constructed in Walsall Wood.
Joe and his large family moved in to their new three-bedroom home with its bathroom, indoor toilet, blackleaded kitchen range and hot water, (but no brewhouse). Joe could enjoy a bath in a real bathroom, not in a tin bath in front of the coal fire in the kitchen, as had been the norm for the miners when they returned to their homes at the end of their shift.
For a few years during the second world war the lads in the family and a few of their friends created their own musical group which they called ‘The Double Diamonds’, which consisted of two 120 bass piano accordions, a trumpet, a piano, a hawaiian electric guitar, percussion. They wore blue satin shirts, Latin American ruffle sleeves, and bright cummabunds, and they played for the Americans at the Lichfield Guildhall Dances.
In 1943 two of the group were conscripted into the army and the group broke up. These two conscripts saw military action; one was taken prisoner in the far east. The other, Joe’s son, took part in the D-day invasion. He lost his life in the battle for Caen and is buried in a military cemetery there.
Whilst researching the materials for the article on the Royal Oak beer house, I was pleased to meet a kind local man, a professional researcher in his own right, in fact. In the course of the conversation about my research of The Double Diamonds, the name of Whittington Barracks arose. He loaned me a book which gave a full description of the notorious court marshal of the officers in charge of the American Army’s base there during the Second World War.
Sometimes, research into one thing can open the door on something utterly different.
I asked Peter ‘Pedro’ Cutler if he would check through local newspaper archives to see if anything was noted there about the Double Diamonds playing Whittington Barracks. I gave him a list of names, and casually added the name of the Officer in Charge of Whittington Barracks US Army base.
We are extremely fortunate on the Brownhills Blog to benefit from the wonderful work of Peter ‘Pedro’ Cutler whose unfailing patience never ceases to amaze.
This is what he found.
This is an interesting and shocking fragment of history, touched on by the venerable, but dormant, Tamworth Time Hikes. It deserves wider exploration, which is why, I believe, Mark posted his original piece in 2011.
Lichfield: The U.S. Army on Trial by Jack Gieck. University of Akron Press, 374-B Bierce Library, Akron, Ohio 44325-1703, 1997, 277 pages, $39.95.
On 1 December 1945, the US Army convened a general court-martial in London to inquire into allegations of brutality and murder. These atrocities had been committed, not by black-uniformed Nazis in the hellish concentration camps of the Third Reich, but by American officers and enlisted personnel—and not upon our erstwhile enemies but upon other Americans at the 10th Replacement Depot near Lichfield, England. At the end of the war, the commandant, Col James Killan, and the guards of the depot were accused of running a ‘concentration camp for American soldiers.’ For a while the story simply smoldered on the back pages of Stars and Stripes, overshadowed by the trials of Nazi war criminals then going on in Nuremberg. But on 5 December 1945, the story hit the front pages with the announcement that nine guards would be tried on charges of ‘cruel and inhuman disciplinary treatment of stockade prisoners during the winter of 1944–45.’ This trial became only the first in a succession of trials—the initial emergence of a blossoming scandal that the press on both sides of the Atlantic would term the ‘Lichfield trials.’
When the author, at the time stationed in Germany, arrived in London on leave, determined to attend at least some of the trial, he didn’t realize that this would be the start of a 40-year project to record the events. Chronicling a series of courts-martial through extensive interviews and transcripts, Lichfield starkly documents beatings, shootings, and, above all, the clash between Colonel Killan and the assistant trial judge advocate, Capt Earl J. Carroll of the Army Air Corps. This clash of personalities turned into a clash of adversaries, with witnesses returning to the stand to confess to perjury and the colonel attempting to create a mistrial, suborn perjury, or excuse his behavior because he was ‘just following orders.’ Coming at the same time Nazi war criminals were being tried and sentenced to death at Nuremberg, this excuse echoed hollowly in the newspaper accounts of the day. Throughout, the author quotes transcripts of the proceedings—including blatant perjury, some of it later recanted—that coalesce into a frankly chilling picture that made this reader wonder if, in those days, the term military justice were really an oxymoron.
More than simply a chronicle of a trial, Lichfield clearly shows why the military justice system was revised after World War II. The author avers that the trials really resulted in the reformation of the military justice system’s Reader’s Digest–sized 1928 edition of the Manual for Courts-Martial (in which only eight pages of the Articles of War constituted the law) to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, revised annually. This reformation included all those things that today’s military personnel take for granted, including something the defendants at Lichfield did not enjoy—a military defendant’s right to a jury of his or her peers, a third of whom can be enlisted personnel if the defendant is an enlisted person.
In an oblique fashion, through the actions of the commandant and the guards, the author also explores the corollary of the Nazi defense at Nuremberg: a soldier’s right—indeed, his or her obligation—to refuse to obey an unlawful order. In short, Lichfield is a fascinating read—a remarkable story of a little-known incident in the closing chapters of World War II. It is compelling not only for attorneys or someone interested in trials, but also for every military person interested in the military justice system at work.
Maj M. J. Petersen, USAF, Retired