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This weekend our nation will come together to mark the 100th anniversary of the Armistice. It’s likely to be the last time that the First World War is remembered with such focus and intensity right across the world. For many it will feel like a final ‘farewell’ to a terrible time of conflict that we can now lay to rest.
At the Co-op we’ve been remembering how our colleagues of yesterday responded to the challenges of the Great War and thinking about what lessons we can learn from our forebears.
Jobs, wages and no profiteering
In 1914, the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS), as we were then known, employed thousands of people in Manchester and across the country at our head offices, factories and depots. In those days we were a major manufacturer of everything from biscuits to boots.
By mid-August of 1914 350 CWS employees had already enlisted. We promised to hold their jobs open for them until their return and to pay to their dependents the difference in soldiers’ wages while the war lasted. By 1918, with 6,000 CWS employees in uniform, it amounted to a commitment worth more than half a million pounds, a vast sum of money in those days and equivalent to around £35m in today’s money.
By September 1914 CWS had won the contract from the War Office to manufacture 200,000 tunics, trousers, caps and 63,000 blankets. We provided all of this to the government at cost.
CWS was the largest flour miller in the country and while some millers ended all contracts, predicting an upsurge in price due to supply and demand, the Co-op honoured all of its existing agreements and sold more than a million sacks of flour in the first six months at less than market prices. We had no intention of making profits from the war, either through clothing or food.
By the end of the conflict in 1918 we’d lost more than 800 colleagues, with many more left physically injured or mentally scarred, or both.
Recently, I found this account by Private Charles Jeeves who served in D. Company, 1st Northamptons, and was an employee at the C.W.S. boot factory at Rushden. He was wounded on May 9th 1915 and soon after wrote an account to his old boss at the Co-op, recalling what had happened to him:
“Hundreds of our men were lying around me, either killed or wounded, and they were firing on those that lay there to make sure of finishing them off. I laid through this for fifteen hours, during which time our people bombarded again, and another regiment attempted to take the same trenches and lost, if possible, heavier than we. They were sending over shells during the whole of the time I was laying there, and they were bursting all around me, and I could hear the wounded shout as they were continually being hit, and I expected to be struck again at any minute, but was one of the fortunate.”
Memorials and white poppies
In 1930 a national CWS War Memorial was built in one of our new office buildings on Corporation Street in Manchester. Many other CWS premises around the country built their own memorials in the years following the end of the war. Over the decades we’ve stepped in when some of these memorials have been at risk.
The Co-operative Movement as a whole hasn’t only commemorated the sacrifices of warfare. We’ve also led the call for greater efforts for peaceful reconciliation to conflicts. The wearing of white poppies was first launched by the Co-op Women’s Guild in 1933 before being taken up by the Peace Pledge Union. The white poppy remembers not only the military casualties of war but the civilians too.
On Thursday of this week, at a ceremony our support centre in Manchester, our colleagues of today read out the 810 names of our ‘fallen’ CWS colleagues from the Great War. The names included 32 workers from the Rushden boot factory, the less fortunate comrades of Private Charles Jeeves.
This Sunday morning all our Food stores across Britain will join with the nation’s two minute silence. Many of our funerals homes have created window displays honouring the wartime local history and our colleagues will be attending local remembrance services.
But our support for veterans is all year round through our 1% Co-op Membership reward which is helping local causes that work with today’s veterans.
The challenges of the decades to come
By reaching back across a century, we’ve reminded ourselves that when it’s mattered most, we’ve been in tune with the greatest concerns of our members, colleagues and our customers. We must continue to be a business that thinks and acts like this as we face the challenges of the decades to come.
As the ‘war to end all wars’ finally retreats from living memory, we remember with pride our colleagues who lost their lives, or whose lives were changed forever, by the conflict. And we take inspiration from the decisions we took a century ago that demonstrated our community minded thinking and our commitment to business integrity.
Co-op Group CEO