“Re-engagement after the War is over, or when they are able to re-enter the service of the Society, is guaranteed – signed, The Committee”
That’s what the bottom of a notice to employees of the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS – the fore-runner to today’s Co-op) said on September 4, 1914. This notice said that every colleague who worked for CWS would be paid in full for their time in service and that they would have their job available when they came back.
This was something The Society had promised before in the Boer war. With around 6,000 colleagues enlisted by 1918, this guarantee was estimated to have cost £650,000 (that’s over £35m in today’s money).
Back then, CWS was a different society to what we know today. Across offices, factories and depots, thousands of colleagues manufactured everything from boot laces to biscuits – supplying independent Co-ops across Britain and the world.
In September 1914, the War Office awarded CWS the contract to supply 200,000 tunics, trousers and caps for our soldiers, along with 63,000 blankets. In line with our ethics, CWS made no profit on these goods.
In fact, CWS millers ended up losing money because, despite a surge in prices for flour, they continued to honour contracts that were set before the war started. These are examples of the better way of doing business that still sits at the heart of our purpose today.
But beyond the overall war effort that CWS supported, there are the stories of those colleagues who fought on the front line. Take Private Bates from the ‘Sun’ flour mills in Old Trafford. He was on one of the first boats to leave England. As an account of his exploits from 1914 recounts, his role as a scout meant he “was the eyes and ears of the Army, and as such had to penetrate into a score of perilous positions.” It went on to say that his injury at the battle of Ypres through shrapnel in his thigh gave him “the opportunity to take a well-earned rest.” Sadly, this attack killed 8 of his comrades.
“Five days and nights without any sleep”, “no change of clothing for ten weeks”, “we lived as best we could on apples and pears” are all personal accounts from Private Bates told in The Co-operative News from November 1914. But the one that must truly recount the horror of this war, and why we should never forget, is this: “You may guess how we suffered when I say that out of eleven hundred men, 640 failed to answer the roll call.”
The final number of CWS employees killed was 810. Please remember them on this 100th anniversary of the Armistice.
Colleague Communications Manager
If any colleague feels affected by anything, remember that our Employee Assistance Programme is here to help: 0800 069 8854