Cambrai and the bells of St Paul’s

On 23 November 1917, the bells of St Paul’s Cathedral rang out – for the first time in years – at the news of a great British victory. The advances of the previous week gave people a real sense that the British Armies were making progress on the Western Front. That feeling was short-lived.

The crowd on the steps of St Paul's, 23 November 1917 (from Daily Mirror 24/11/1917)

The crowd on the steps of St Paul’s, 23 November 1917 (from Daily Mirror 24/11/1917)

The joybells of the London churches to-day gave voice to the popular rejoicing at a great victory on the Western Front. It is the first time the peals have been rung since the outbreak of War. The victory was the success of the Third Army under General Sir Julian Byng in breaking through the Hindenburg Line to a length of ten miles and a depth of four or five near Cambrai. It is the best news we have had for a long time.

That was Michael MacDonagh’s description of the event. He went on:

I went up Ludgate Hill to hear St. Paul’s carillon starting the City chimes at noon. This carillon is rarely rung. It has not been heard since it celebrated the declaration of Peace after the South African War. There was a big crowd on the Cathedral steps and in the forecourt. After the clock had struck twelve, the big bell known as “Great Paul” – the bell that tolls for prayers – first boomed out, and was followed by the full peal of bells, twelve in number, which were a gift from the City Companies. The people cheered and cheered, exchanging greetings and smiles. The bells of the other churches, joining in with St. Paul’s, helped to swell the wings of sound carrying the joyful news to offices, shops and warehouses.

Thanks to the black out and other precautions against air raids had silenced Britain’s church bells at night. In Westminster, Big Ben had been silent since 1914.

(from Daily Mirror 24/11/1917)

(from Daily Mirror 24/11/1917)

There really was a sense that victory was on the way. Georgina Lee, a solicitor’s wife in West London, wrote in her diary “Today I had my Union Flag flying for the first time to celebrate this Cambrai victory…For the first time, too, since the war began, the bells of St Paul’s and some other big churches rang a joyful carillon at midday, in honour of this first victory.”

The bells we not only rung in London, but across the country. In Essex, the church bells at Stondon Massey were rung for half an hour, while in Broomfield (near Chelmsford) a local man set off a wad of gun-cotton in celebration, making locals fear an air raid was in progress.

Men of the 11th Battalion, Royal Irish Fusiliers, with German prisoners near Havrincourt, 20 November 1917. © IWM (Q 3186)

Men of the 11th Battalion, Royal Irish Fusiliers, with German prisoners near Havrincourt, 20 November 1917. © IWM (Q 3186)

The attack was launched on the morning of 20 November, with 378 fighting tanks and their accompanying infantry advancing across trenches that the Germans had thought were impregnable. The attack on that day was enormously successful, breaching what the British called the ‘Hindenburg Line’ – to which the Germans had retreated to form stronger defences earlier in 1917 – for the first time.

It was a limited success, though. Further advances were much harder and (as throughout 1916 and 1917) the hoped-for breakthrough failed to materialise.  In the end the British army was left with a salient sticking out into German-held territory without an obvious defensive position.

On 30 November, the Germans launched their counter-attack. By the time the fighting had ended, they had recaptured virtually all the land lost over the previous ten days, at great cost to the British and Imperial troops. In the end the two sides ended up virtually where they had started, each with a successful attack, a failure to make a breakthrough and losses of around 45,000 men to show for it.

British tanks salvaged by the German Army after the Battle of Cambrai are prepared for transportation to repair shops in the German rear area. © IWM (Q 29882)

British tanks salvaged by the German Army after the Battle of Cambrai are prepared for transportation to repair shops in the German rear area. © IWM (Q 29882)

By 12 December, it had become clear in London that the great victory of late November had been reversed by the German counter-attack. Michael MacDonagh again:

London lies to-day under a cloud of despondency. We are told that the advance of our troops on the Western Front, over which we were rejoicing the other day, has been turned by the enemy into a retreat. Most of the ground gained is lost; thousands of our men have been killed or maimed and thousands made prisoners. What makes the news the more staggering is that it has for gloomy background the picture of one Ally, Italy, with a broken arm, and another, Russia, disappearing into the darkness of a Communist revolution. Yes, history does repeat itself. The words used by Horace Walpole in the eighteenth century have a direct application in the twentieth. “They are ringing their bells to-day; very soon they will be wringing their hands.”

1917 had been proclaimed as the ‘year of victory’. The reverse at Cambrai finally showed that it was not going to be, and indeed that it did not appear to be bringing peace any closer (despite the arrival of the USA in the war). Georgina Lee wrote in her diary as early as 2 December “the war seems farther from its end than it did three years ago.”

At Talbot House, in Poperinge, the annual debate on whether the war would end by the end of the coming year had registered a strong ‘yes’ vote in 1916 and 1917; held again in early 1918, the vote produced a tie – with only the chair’s casting vote producing an overall affirmative resolution that the war would end in 1918.


  • Michael MacDonagh, ‘In London during the Great War’
  • Georgina Lee, ‘Home Fires Burning’
  • Trevor Wilson, ‘The Myriad Faces of war’
  • R.B. Clayton, ‘Tales of Talbot House’
  • Daily Mirror

Thanks to David Underdown for the correction about the silent bells.

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Posted by on 23 November 2014 in Uncategorized


Armistice Day pandemonium in Westminster

Today, the nation will mark the anniversary of the Armistice of 1918. Millions of people will keep a two minutes’ silence in memory of the men and women who died in the Great War, and other conflicts. Armistice Day in 1918 in London was quite different as people, understandably, swarmed through the streets celebrating the end of the war. Swirling crowds, fireworks, bonfires and stolen artillery pieces were the order of the day!

The fighting on the Western Front ended at 11 a.m. on 11 November 1918. News of the Armistice immediately spread through London. Guns were fired to announce the occasion in central London; in Croydon, the air-raid warning maroons were fired, followed by the all-clear bugle calls; the Union Flag was run up the flagpoles of the town hall and churches simultaneously. In the City of London, ‘Within a minute the central streets were packed from side to side with wildly cheering crowds’ and the buildings sprouted flags and decorations.

Taking over a London bus in the Armistice day celebrations, 1918 (image from

Taking over a London bus in the Armistice day celebrations, 1918 (image from

Outside Buckingham Palace, 5,000 people gathered within five minutes. At 11.15, the King appeared on the balcony before a large and vociferous gathering.

Christopher Addison MP, the Minister for Munitions, described the scene in Westminster in his diary: “not only the inhabitants of the Government Offices, but as it seemed, the whole of London simultaneously “downed” tools and rushed into the streets – taxicabs, motors, lorries, buses and vehicles of every description were commandeered by joyful crowds, driven up and down – cheering whistling, singing, rejoicing.”

That evening, Vera Brittain was outside the Admiralty building on Whitehall where “a crazy group of convalescent Tommies were collecting specimens of different uniforms and bundling their wearers into flag-strewn taxis; with a shout they seized two of my companions and disappeared into the clamorous crowd, waving flags and shaking rattles”.

It was not quite a day universal joy. For some, the thought of what, or whom, they had lost prevented it being a day for celebration. Georgina Lee’s friend Florence Younghusband ‘was on top of a bus when the guns were fired. In front of her were two soldiers one with his face horribly scarred. He looked straight ahead and remained stonily silent; the other just bowed his head in his hand and burst out crying. The omnibus conductress dropped into the vacant seat next to Florence, leant her head to her soldier and cried too. “I lost my man two months ago, I can’t be happy today”, she murmured.’ Likewise, Vera Brittain simply wanted to be alone, realising that the young men she cared about and had wanted to share her future with were gone.

The mood of the day, though, was predominantly one of celebration. All across London, crowds gathered in public places. Mayors made speeches from the steps or balconies of their town halls. The festivities were not as extensive beyond Westminster and the West End, but many Londoners had streamed across the capital to be part of that crowd (around 100,000 are estimated to have taken to the streets to celebrate the Armistice). The King and Queen’s visit to the East End on 12 November was described as a ‘return visit’ after so many had come to Westminster the previous day.

The celebrations in central London continued every evening for the rest of that week. Addison noted that “crowds filled the streets from Trafalgar Square as far as Waterloo Bridge, still dancing and singing. Thanks perhaps to the still prevailing liquor restrictions, I do not remember myself seeing anybody who appeared to be drunk, although no doubt, like most other rules that week, the Closing Hour Regulations were a good deal disregarded.”

Despite this description of calmness, the Daily Express described a ‘pandemonium’ on 12 and 13 November, with ‘rivers of people’ and ‘whirlpools of dancers’, accompanied by concertinas, cornets, tambourines, wooden rattles and singing. On the 12th, a big bonfire was lit on Trafalgar Square against the base of Nelson’s Column; it was started at around 10 p.m. and fuelled by wooden road-blocks from the nearby roads, and a temporary wooden structure in the square was burned to the ground – later one of the captured German guns that lined the Mall was added to the flames!

That night, the whole square was full of people setting off fireworks and crackers. Another bonfire was lit in Piccadilly Circus, fuelled by advertising hoardings from the Pavilion theatre.

The flames of the Trafalgar Square bonfire actually caused permanent damage to the plinth of Nelson’s Column. After the war, the authorities decided that replacing the stone with new pieces would look worse than leaving the original damaged pieces in place. The damage is still visible on the western side of the plinth.

On the 13th, a number of German guns went missing. “One gun was taken for a riotous joy-ride on a great motor-lorry” and disappeared along the Strand towards the East End trailing a “Buy War Bonds” banner, according to the Express. Others were pulled by hand and abandoned nearby; many appeared in Trafalgar Square, one making it as far as Piccadilly Circus. Just before midnight, the gates of Admiralty Arch were closed to try to stop the departure of more of the weapons. Another bonfire was lit in Trafalgar Square, this time near the end of Cockspur Street. Some soldiers fetched another captured German gun, which was again added to the fire while the crowd cheered.

In the years after 1918, Armistice Day became increasingly a day for reflection and mourning rather than celebration – particularly once it became obvious that war in Europe had not been banished for ever. On 11 November 1918, though, the mood in London was primarily – and understandably – one of relief and rejoicing for the lifting of the immediate burden of the war.


  • Daily Express
  • Daily Mirror
  • Christopher Addison, Four and a half years
  • Georgina Lee, Home Fires Burning
  • Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth
  • Adrian Gregory, Silence of Memory
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Posted by on 11 November 2014 in Events, Places


The Darkness of Wartime

The autumn evenings seem to have become much darker recently. Spare a thought for those living a century ago, when black-out orders made the nights darker still.

As Londoners (and citizens across the south-east of England) approached the first winter of the Great War, the usual darkness of the season was accentuated by strict orders around the display of lights.

From early October, Lighting Orders restricted the display of lights outside. On 9 October, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police issued an “Official Warning” about lighting in London under section 7A of the Defence of the Realm Act 1914 (DORA – which gave the Government sweeping powers in wartime):

‘All external private lighting not needed to secure the safety of traffic should be discontinued.

‘Some businesses and other establishments are still maintaining interior lighting which is of too great intensity and illuminates the road way.

‘The Commissioner of Police is advised that such lighting represents, under certain circumstances, a source of danger to the particular neighbourhood and to the community at large.

‘The police have been given directions to take the actions necessary to ensure that the orders restricting lighting are carried out both in letter and in spirit.’

Hallie Eustace Miles described the scene of the city at night under these orders: ‘One hardly knows London at night now. Scarcely any street lights are allowed, and what lights there are have been painted with some dark stuff half-way down the glass to shade them, so that if there is a Zeppelin raid over London the raiders will not be able to distinguish the lists. London looks as if it was only lit by night-lights. It is, in a way, peaceful and dreamy looking, but very weird, and it is difficult for people to find their way about.’

One of those struggling to get about in the night was Liberal MP for Hoxton, Christopher Addison, who complained that he could not see the kerb in Westminster and had to search around for it with his foot.

Many people noted the contrast between the enforced darkness of houses and streets and the blaze of searchlights. In the wealth West End, Georgina Lee described the contrast in October: ‘In Onslow Square there is about one lamp left. All lamps in the streets have to be darkened at the top by shades, so as to be invisible from the sky. All shops have to reduce their lighting to a minimum. On the other hand powerful searchlights sweep above the city and precincts from all quarters, searching for airships.’

The contrast between the lighting regulations and the bright searchlights did not go without notice - wartime cartoon included in Georgina Lee's diary

The contrast between the lighting regulations and the bright searchlights did not go without notice – wartime cartoon included in Georgina Lee’s diary


The cartoonist's image was not an exagerratin: the front page of the Daily Mirror on 10 Sept 1915 showed London's searchlights (and Cleopatra's Needle) during an air raid

The cartoonist’s image was not an exaggeration: the front page of the Daily Mirror on 10 Sept 1915 showed London’s searchlights (and Cleopatra’s Needle) during an air raid


In November 1914, journalist Michael MacDonagh left the Lord Mayor’s banquet to find a city both dark and quiet: ‘Leaving Guildhall about ten o’clock, what a contrast was presented by its light and colour and warmth; the dresses and jewels of the ladies; the varied uniforms of the men, to the streets of the City – dark, empty, silent. Very few of the street lamps were burning, and these were so masked that their light fell only at their feet. As I walked through King Street and Queen Victoria Street to my office I could not catch even the faintest or most distant sound of traffic. The public-houses close at ten. The town clocks are silent and at night their dials are not lighted. Big Ben has ceased to sound the quarters and the hours since the middle of last month. So all the mighty heart of London was still. But the sky was being lit up and pierced by flashing searchlights. What a thought, amazing and affrighting, that if the period of war to life and property are ever to touch us they will fall from the sky!’

It was not all bleak and frightening, though, according to Mrs Miles: ‘Nearly all the lights in the shop windows are shaded with different colours, and these many coloured lights are reflected in the street and on to the pavements; when there is rain the puddles are turned into glorified iridescent pools, and the pavements and roads are like rainbows. The shop windows too, with the coloured lights cast down upon the goods displayed, look very mysterious and almost fairy-like. So we have our compensations.’

In January 1915, Addison remarked on the increasing darkness of London’s nights: ‘The streets in some parts of London are darker than ever. I heard an amusing story yesterday about some people in Kensington who were rather astonished that their streets were lighter than others. They were not comforted by the assurance that the authorities did not mind that they might perhaps provide an attraction or German aviators and so keep them clear of the Whitehall regions!’

The effect of the black-out can be seen in this contemporary painting of the first Zeppelin sighted over Piccadilly Circus - before the war a place of bright lights (by AC Gow (c)IWM ART 5216)

The effect of the black-out can be seen in this contemporary painting of the first Zeppelin sighted over Piccadilly Circus – before the war a place of bright lights (by AC Gow (c)IWM ART 5216)

By late 1915, assisted by the reality of Zeppelin raids, Mrs Miles was more fearful of the darkness: ‘The shops now close at 6 p.m., and, as every private house shows no light, the blackness that envelopes London is a sort of nightmare. I get home as early as I can, for the darkness horrifies me. Some people are becoming accustomed to it now, and are like cats – about to see in the darkness!’

After a winter of people struggling to locate the kerb, the Commissioner for Police suggested painting the kerbs white. It was for councils to decide and some (including in St Marylebone, as their minutes record) felt that it was unnecessary as the days were getting longer anyway. When the suggestion came again in November 1915, St Marylebone had already begun work whitening the kerbs.

The black-out, of course, continued through the war. As we saw in an earlier blog post, MacDonagh described the Palace of Westminster in late 1917, which ‘instead of being ablaze with lights on the river-front’, presented itself as only ‘a vague, shadowy mass even in the moonlight’.

Another witness to the sight in the latter half of the war was American journalist Milton Valentine Synder. Writing to his wife in Paris in February 1918, he described his arrival in London:

‘The darkness of Paris holds more than a candle to the blackness of London; it is positively dazzling by comparison. The intense gloom into which we were precipitated on our arrival last night was more than depressing; it was stifling! Riding from Waterloo to the hotel in a wheezy taxi […] I got my first impression of London by night in wartime. So impenetrable was the darkness that I did not know when we were crossing Waterloo Bridge. Then the curious sensation that there were thousands of people near you, but invisible.

‘The Strand was crowded with a double row of pedestrians four to six abreast walking slowly, talking in low tones. The occasional coarse laugh of a girl or the raucous hail of a soldier to his mate revealed the presence of the crowd and its composition – even without the aid of frequent glimmers of light as the shaded doors of the “pubs” opened to admit or exude customers – for it was not yet 9.30 P.M. closing time. A few carefully hooded lights indicated the theatres, which formerly presented blazing façades. It was not till I got inside the inner lobby of the hotel that I saw light for the first time since reaching London.’

The restoration of the lights and sounds of the night made a welcome return after 11 November 1918, a reminder through people’s senses that the war was over. Mrs Miles again:

‘Everything seems like a sort of Symbol of Peace; we can hardly believe that it really is Peace. It is so strange and significant to hear the church clock chime and strike again, and to hear the boom of Big Ben wafted to us after the long silence; we now notice sounds that we used to hardly hear before the Great War. When I see lights burning brightly from uncurtained windows, I feel as if we ought to ring up the police station, as we used to in the Zeppelin days when spies and traitors let their lights glare out upon the darkness if a raid was expected.

‘There are still the notices, with fingers pointing to “Air-Raid Shelters,” reminding us of the “Terror by Night,” which is now gone for ever, we hope and believe.’

… ‘This sense of safety is such a new feeling. It is now full moon, and, instead of dreading it as our greatest danger and looking up at it with indignant eyes, we say, “What a glorious moonlight night it is!”.’


  • Gavin Roynson (ed), Home Fires Burning, the diaries of Georgina Lee
  • Michael MacDonagh, In London During the Great War
  • Hallie Eustace Miles, Untold Tales of War-time London
  • Alice Ziska Snyder and Milton Valentine Snyder, Paris Days and London Nights
  • Christopher Addison, Four and a Half Years
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Posted by on 23 October 2014 in Events


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Frank Thomas Rapps: heroism, chance and a bloody nose

Chance and luck had a big impact on whether those serving in or near the front lines survived the Great War. No matter whether someone was a hero, a coward or somewhere in-between, a chance occurrence could kill or injure them, or save them by taking them away from the front line. Frank Thomas Rapps was a war hero but suffered accidents that kept him away from the front for much of the war.

Frank Thomas Rapps was born in Bromley in 1890, the son of shop manager Thomas and his wife Nellie. By 1911, he was a clerk boarding with a family in Deptford. Like his brother, Percy, he was a clerk for the National Telephone Company (from 1912 he worked for the London Telephone Service). In 1914, he was living in Mitcham, Surrey, and he joined the army at the beginning of the war. Unlike Percy, who we met in a previous blog post and who was injured playing football, Frank Rapps was injured in more obviously military activities.

Corporal F.T. Rapps, Daily Mirror 24 June 1916

Corporal F.T. Rapps, Daily Mirror 24 June 1916

He joined the 15th Battalion of the London Regiment, the Civil Service Rifles, at Somerset House on 28 August 1914 and went out to France with them in March 1915, as part of the 47th (2nd London) Division. In November he transferred to the 140th Brigade’s Machine Gun Corps unit (i.e. part of 140th Brigade, the one that the Civil Service Rifles were in). By the summer of 1916, Frank Rapps was a Corporal.

On 8 August 1916, Rapps was awarded the Military Medal. At the end of June, The Daily Mirror reported on the forthcoming award and noted that “A few months before war broke out he played football on the fields on which he has since fought the Huns.” Clearly he and his brother shared a fondness for playing football. It’s not clear when or how he earned the medal. The brigade were involved in the battle at Vimy in May 1916, so it is most likely that he earned the medal (which was only awarded for battlefield bravery) there, in a battle that a modern history of the Civil Service Rifles describes as a ‘disaster’.

A few weeks later, on 25 August 1916, the machine-gunners were near Franvillers being trained in using hand grenades. After an hour of throwing dummy grenades (i.e. the metal casings without explosives), the instructor called a halt – at precisely the moment that Private Jim Rutledge threw a dummy grenade. Corporal Rapps looked round to see who had called out and, despite shouts of alarm from Rutledge and others, did not get out of the way of the dummy grenade, which hit him in the face, breaking his nose. He was immediately treated by medics of the 4th London Field Ambulance (attached to the 47th Division) and then sent on to No 34 (West Lancashire) Casualty Clearing station at Vecquemont. He was then sent back to the UK.

After recovering from his injuries and being posted to the depot battalion at Winchester, Rapp applied to become an officer in early 1917. After officer training at Bisley, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Machine Gun Corps in July and posted to their 62nd Battalion. He arrived back in France on 14 January 1918.

In February 1918, Rapps and his men were helping to fend off German raids at Gavrille/Gavrelle in the Arras sector. A medical board report picks up his story:

“while enemy was raiding [the British] trenches, this officer scratched the bridge of his nose with barbed wire. It was dressed the same day he did not go sick. The wound did not heal and on 8th March he was sent to hospital when he states incision was needed on bridge of nose and then he was transferred to England.”

He left Calais on 24 March, just as the German Spring Offensive was pushing British forces back over the land captured at great cost in 1916 and 1917. Back in England he was treated at Worsley Hall in Manchester and was operated on by a nasal specialist for a defective septum. By May, the wounds had healed and he was able to breathe through his nose as normal. He was graded at C1 level of fitness (not fit enough for overseas service). A later medical board heard that he suffered from “attacks of epistaxes” after blowing his nose hard: he suffered from bad nosebleeds. The May medical board awarded him three weeks’ leave and he was ordered to the MGC depot at Grantham. A series of medical boards assessed that he would be fit again within three months. By the end of 1918, he was serving at the RAF’s school of armament at Uxbridge and was a temporary Lieutenant. He was discharged from the army in 1920.

After the war, Rapps moved back to Mitcham and in April 1922 he rejoined the London Telephone Service as a clerk officer. He married a Marion Broughton Wright in Camberwell in late 1926. They lived in Surrey until at least 1945. By the time of his death in 1963, Rapps was living in Hampshire; Marion had died a few years earlier, so Frank’s estate went to David Wright, a commercial artist (and presumably a relative of Marion’s)

This brave Londoner somehow managed to be put out of action twice by accidental injuries to his nose. After being rewarded for his bravery in 1916, he was injured in training and missed the Battle of the Somme – and remained at home throughout the doomed Third Battle of Ypres in 1917. Back at the front and in action in February 1918, he was accidentally injured again and missed the whole of the rest of the war. Just one example of how chance and luck could play a major part in a soldier’s service and survival in 1914-1918.



  • Long, Long Trail
  • FT Rapps service record (National Archives)
  • Daily Mirror 24/6/1916
  • Jill Knight, The Civil Service Rifles in the Great War
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Posted by on 16 October 2014 in Award-winners, Ordinary Londoners


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London and the recruiting boom

Recruitment to the army is one of the defining images of 1914 in Britain and in London in particular – Kitchener’s call to arms and the queues outside recruiting offices. A week-by-week breakdown of recruiting rates reveals that the pattern of enlistment in London was not quite the same as across the UK as a whole.

"Is your home here? Defend it!" A poster depicting the recruiting districts in the UK (Library of Congress archive)

“Is your home here? Defend it!” A 1915 poster depicting the recruiting districts in the UK (Library of Congress archive)

September 1914 was the peak month for recruitment to the British Army during the Great War. Half a million men joined the army during the month, most of them during the first week and a half. On 11 September, the army increased its physical requirements of recruits. This (possibly coinciding with a natural end to the extreme levels seen after the news from Mons arrived at the end of August) resulted in a very rapid decline in recruiting. Over 190,000 men joined up nationwide in the first week of September, but only 40,000 did so in the week of the 15th to the 21st a fortnight later.

London’s recruiting pattern was basically the same as that of the UK as a whole, with the peak weeks of recruitment being the first two weeks of September, followed by a decline. An interesting facet of the figures, though, is that the peak was less pronounced in London than in the UK as a whole. One way to observe this is that the peak weeks (1-7 and 8-14 September) saw London’s recruits make up a smaller proportion of the UK-wide figure than in any other week in August or September (see graph below). Overall, just under 18% of August’s recruits came from London and just under 15% of those who joined up in September.

Weekly recruiting rates for London and that figure as a percentage of the UK enlistments that week, Aug-Sept 1914

Weekly recruiting rates for London and that figure as a percentage of the UK enlistments that week, Aug-Sept 1914

Another way, that tells a different aspect of the story is that of the men who enlisted across the UK in the period 4 August to 28 September, a third joined up in the first week of September. For London alone, the figure is 25%.

London’s peak of recruiting was very large, but it was less extreme compared to the weeks either side of it, when London provided proportionately more of the nation’s recruits. Historian David Silbey (in his book The British Working Classes and Enthusiasm for War in 1914-1916) describes the recruiting boom as behaving like a ripple coming out from London in August and early September, with London disproportionately affected in August.

The pattern after September was not even. In October, over 22% of all recruits came through the London recruiting district (which covered the Metropolitan area of Greater London, not just the county of London as it existed in 1914). The figure fell below 15% for the next three months, before settling around 18-23% for the rest of 1915. From the 1915 average of 20%, the proportion fell under conscription to around 14.5-16% in the remaining years of the war. The wartime average was 17%.

So, what does this tell us? First of all, it tells us that the pattern for recruitment was different in London to the UK as a whole, with more enlistments in the first weeks and less of a pronounced peak in early September. Second, it tells us that around 17% of recruits came through the London district, which is around what one would expect for a region (Greater London) housing around 7 million of the nation’s 44 million people.

Note on War Office recruiting figures: the figures for August and September do not tally exactly between the daily and monthly returns. The daily figures have been used here for August and September – allowing for a weekly breakdown – the monthly figures are quoted from October onwards. The proportions of recruits brought in through the London recruiting district were broadly the same though: 18.5% in August 1915 and 14.63% in September in the monthly return, compared with the above-quoted daily return figures of just under 18 and 15% respectively.


Posted by on 28 September 2014 in Recruitment



Signor Bellomo and the Bosche at breakfast

Over 90,000 German military personnel were held as internees or prisoners of war in Great Britain in 1914-18. One day in October 1917, one of them walked into a restaurant on Jermyn Street.

Paul Scheumann was a German army Lieutenant, held captive at Yatesbury airfield in Cherhill, Wiltshire, with over 700 other German servicemen. He was in charge of a working party of German prisoners of war (prisoners were used for manual labour near to their camps during the war) and, one day in October 1917, he crawled under the camp wire to retrieve a suit he had made out of army blankets and hidden near to the camp. He then went and bought a mackintosh Chippenham and got the train to London.

Lieutenant Scheumann arrived in London late on Tuesday 16 October. He went out and bought a kitbag, some boots and new clothes then went to the theatre, before checking into a hotel in the West End. He checked out the next day after lunch and moved to Bellomo’s private hotel at 102 Jermyn Street, Piccadilly.

Andrea Bellomo, the owner and proprietor, was an Italian citizen in his 40s who ran the hotel with his English wife, Nellie. When Scheumann checked in at 4pm, Bellomo was immediately suspicious: “I at once noticed”, he told reporters later, “that although he described himself as a British subject, his accent was distinctly that of an educated German” What’s more, when the new arrival gave his name and address he wrote it out as “Thomas Mann, Bristol, High Street 145”:

The suspicious hotel registration entry

The suspicious hotel registration entry 

Bellomo told reporters that “The ‘145’ being placed at the end of the name of the street aroused my suspicions, as all Germans write the number thus.” He also felt that the handwriting looked German (especially the ‘1’ in ‘145’). He allowed ‘Mr Mann’ to check in but kept an eye on him. That evening ‘Mann’ again went to the theatre, apparently to see ‘Trelawny of the Wells’ at the New Theatre.

At breakfast the next day, Scheumann/Mann “appeared somewhat anxious” and Bellomo consulted a British staff officer staying at the hotel who “had also noticed the man’s clothes were apparently ready-made, and he had a distinct German accent, and that he had the appearance of an officer.” Bellomo called the police and when a Sergeant Cole arrived and had been told of the suspicions, one of the waiters “ran up, saying ‘That man is a Bosche’.”

Cole and Bellomo spoke to Scheumann/Mann, who claimed to be Swiss. The English PC and the Italian hotelier did not believe this for a minute and the man was arrested “quite cheerfully” after being challenged. According to Bellomo, “I gave him some sandwiches, and said, ‘You’re lucky to be treated in this way. I hope you’ll tell your friends how well we treat German prisoners here.’ He [Scheumann] laughed, and went off with Sergeant Cole.”

Andrea Bellomo, the hero of the story

Andrea Bellomo, the hero of the story 

Andrea Bellomo applied successfully for British citizenship in 1919 but only lived until 1927, when he died in Cranbrook, Kent, where he and Mrs Bellomo had moved after the war. Nellie (Ellen Maria) Bellomo lived on in Cranbook until her death in 1963.

It is intriguing to think that a German officer was able to spend 36 hours at large in London, dressed in a home-made suit and speaking with a noticeable German accent. The vigilance of Bellomo and his guests and staff helped to send Scheumann back to his prisoner of war camp. He was, though, only one of many Germans at large at that time, as escapes were surprisingly common: newspaper reports of Scheumann’s capture also noted the details of two more escaped German prisoners of war.



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Posted by on 25 September 2014 in Ordinary Londoners


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DEG Quelch, far from Flanders

We are used to the image of British servicemen in the Great War trudging through the mud of Flanders. Not all served on the Western Front. Many served in the Middle East, the Balkans and Italy; others ended up in India and Burma. D.E.G. Quelch was one of a lucky few who ended up in a paradise far from the Flanders mud.

British soldiers, and those of the Empire and Dominions served all around the world during the Great War. In early 1918, there were 3.77 million British (as opopsed to imperial or dominion) soldiers in the army, of whom 2.3 million were serving overseas. Of that number 2.17 million – more than 90% – were serving in the theatres of war around the world: France and Flanders, Italy, Mesopotamia (Iraq), Salonika, Palestine and in East Africa. Another 17,237 were manning garrisons around the Empire and 98,645 were serving in India and Burma (along with 388,599 native Indian troops).

Among those in India and Burma were a number of London battalions. For example, the 25th London cyclists were based in India in 1916-18 – part of the battalion stayed on and were part of the garrison of Amritsar during the imposition of martial law by British forces there that culminated in the infamous massacre at the Jallianwala Bagh

Another London unit in Asia was the 18th (London) Battalion of the Rifle Brigade. One of their non-commissioned officers was Douglas Edwin Gerald Quelch, who was a married 42-year-old employee of the London County Council tramway department when he volunteered for the army in 1914. In late 1916, he wrote to the editor of the LCC’s staff magazine (published in Jan 1917), describing some elements of his war experience

Sir,-Before leaving Rangoon I received a copy of the Staff Gazette and read with much interest the doings and whereabouts of some of the staff. I thought it quite an excellent idea, which should help to bring old members into touch with one another. Since leaving England I’ve been in Malta, Egypt, India and Burmah, and now on special duty in charge of a detachment at Table Island, about 350 miles south-west of the Irrawaddy mouths and 150 miles north-east of Port Blair and the Andamans, in close proximity to the Cocos Islands (well known in connections with the Emden raids). The island, or rather islands (as Table is joined to Slipper at low tide) are uninhibited jungles, the only attempt at civilisation being the wireless station. Landing is only made by small boats owing to the dangerous nature of the coast.

We are quite out of touch with everything outside as we get no news or mails except when a steamer calls with fresh supplies, every two months or so.

Deer and other wild cattle are plentiful, also turtle, and fish of all sizes and colours. Unfortunately swimming is almost impossible owing to the large numbers of sharks. Cocoanuts and bananas are very plentiful. Companies of my battalion are at Rangoon and at the Andamans, but we fully expect to leave for Europe in January. I might mention that there [are] over one hundred L.C.C. employees in this battalion. Kind wishes to all old friends and a speedy return.-Yours faithfully,

D.E.G. Quelch,

Sergeant, Rifle Brigade

(Tramways Department)

Quite a contrast to his native Camberwell!

The islands Quelch described as in the Coco Island group, at the north of the Andaman Islands. The Wikipedia entry describes the islands in the group:

The Coco Islands consist of the main Great Coco Island and the smaller Little Coco Island, separated by the Alexandra Channel. Table Island, a third small island located near Great Coco Island, previously housed a lighthouse but is uninhabited. Slipper Island is an islet located off the NW point of Table Island.

The Cocos may have been known in 1917 in connection with the Emden, a German cruiser that marauded around the Bay of Bengal in 1914. Today, they are better known for the alleged use by (or sale to?) China.

Quelch’s unit do not appear to have made it to Europe in 1917-18. Twenty three men from the 18th Rifle Brigade are listed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as having died in Burma in 1916-1919, along with another eight commemorated in India. Like Quelch, these men were mainly over military age, being in their forties and even older when they died (one was 61). Many of them had originally joined other battalions (often in the London or Middlesex Regiments) as volunteers or from the National Reserve but were transferred to the 18th Rifle Brigade for this garrison duty in India and Burma. Almost all were Londoners.



Adamson and Hudson, London Town Miscellany vol 1

Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire.

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Posted by on 5 September 2014 in Ordinary Londoners


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