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.
Carts bearing potatoes to the 'Weighbridge', St Helier harbour, Jersey (Societe Jersiaise)
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.