Jersey Royals: Ian Ronayne Describes How the Channel Island Was Torn in the First World War between Its Role as Potato Producer and Its Patriotic Duty to Send Men to Fight
Ronayne, Ian, History Today
Today, for better or worse, the global finance industry dominates the Channel Island of Jersey. Ninety years ago, as the Great War ended, agriculture was equally dominant, but had just been through one of the most challenging periods in its history. The war had presented it with both opportunity and threat; and trying to manage both had stretched Jersey almost to breaking point.
Jersey responded to the outbreak of war in August 1914 with patriotic enthusiasm. Recovering swiftly from the shock interruption of a particularly fine (and particularly profitable) summer, it rushed to demonstrate loyalty to the Crown. Within weeks, there were collections for war-related causes, offers of men for military service and--to the dismay of many--reduced pub opening hours. Behind the scenes, however, was a festering problem. The first impact of war had set the Island's flagship industry reeling. Literally overnight, agriculture's two main sources of labour had all but disappeared.
The first was lost when the Royal Militia of the Island of Jersey was mobilized for local defence. The Militia was the Island's equivalent of the Territorial Army--with one crucial difference. Service in this ancient and illustrious corps was not voluntary, but compulsory; every man between the ages of sixteen and forty-five had to join. By the end of August 1914, most were standing guard over the Island's coastline and were only later released back to civilian life on a roster basis. The second loss was more significant and more permanent. France's war mobilization had dragged away the thousands of low-paid Breton farm workers imported to supplement the local labour force. Jersey stood on its own.
To their credit, that autumn farmers adjusted to the reality of life brought about by these new constraints. Looming ahead, however, was a new threat--and one to bring the contentious dilemma of production versus duty to the fore. Jersey's lack of a recognizable military unit at the front had been a vexing issue for some islanders. With communities all over Britain raising so-called Pals' Battalions, was it right to keep most young Jerseymen at home? Elation at the decision in December 1914 to form an overseas contingent quickly turned to dismay as appeals for volunteers received a distinctly muted response. Moreover, those Militiamen prepared to volunteer came overwhelmingly from the Island's urban parishes. From the countryside, there was virtually none. Embarrassed, the Island's government hastily intervened. Their official recruitment campaign, however, only served to heighten the problem. Apologists quickly leapt to the countryside's defence, claiming that food production was equally important in times of war, while others saw only a stain on Jersey's honour. 'Are we roused,' demanded the Island's Dean, 'or only turning in our sleep?'
The argument only abated when 230 volunteers--the lowest number acceptable to the British Army departed finally in March 1915. …