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The 1914 recruiting boom

The first week of September was the peak of the recruiting boom in 1914, in London no less than in the rest of the UK. Nearly 200,000 men joined the armed forces in that week, including over 21,000 in London.

Recruiting lining up outside the Whitehall Recruiting Office in London, August 1914 (c)IWM

Recruiting lining up outside the Whitehall Recruiting Office in Great Scotland Yard (see the same view today here) London, August 1914 (c)IWM

One of our abiding memories of 1914 is the recruiting boom or ‘rush to the colours’. Contrary to some popular impressions, this was not simply based on some notion that the war would be ‘over by Christmas’.  The peak came after the news arrived at home that the British Expeditionary Force had suffered great casualties at Mons and were now in retreat. People rushed to the colours at the moment of utmost danger, not because they all thought it was going to be a brief, glorious lark.

Weekly recruiting figures for London and for the rest of the UK

Weekly recruiting figures for London and for the rest of the UK (based on War Office records at National Archives)

Looking at each of the first nine weeks of the war from the declaration of war on Tuesday August 4th, it is clear that the peak came in the fortnight after news from Mons arrived. This news was not the only factor: the increase in unemployment in wartime, a general sense of duty, and for some a sense of adventure also played a part, among other individual factors affecting each man joining the army that summer. However, the timing suggests that the risk of defeat (and fear of invasion) played a large part.

That first week of September, 191,000 men joined up across the UK, almost as many as had joined up in the whole of August (195,000). In London, the 34,730 had joined up by 31 August and another 21,870 joined in the first week of August.

It is worth remembering that even the recruiting levels in August were vast compared with peacetime. In each of the last few years of peace, between 25,000 and 30,000 men had joined the army (including Territorials) each year, between 4,000 and 5,000 of them in the London recruiting district (which included areas that were then in the surrounding counties but are now in London, such as Stratford in East London/Essex). Every week from 11 August to 21 September saw a larger intake than each of the preceding years had done – the peak week of 1-7 September brought in more than six times the peacetime level of enlistments!

If we look at the daily figures we can see that it was the middle of that week that saw the absolute peak nationally, with over 27,000 enlisting on Wednesday 3rd and over 29,000 on both Thursday 4th and Friday 5th.

Daily recruiting figures

Daily recruiting figures

Interestingly, though, the peak days in London were slightly different. In fact the peak day here was Tuesday the 9th, when 4,833 men joined up in the London recruiting district (more men than had enlisted here in the whole year up to the end of September 1912). The only other days when over 4,000 joined up were Tuesday 1st and Wednesday 3rd. It is not clear why these dates were the peaks, but local fluctuations in towns and cities could be based on an intensive local recruiting effort (such as a large meeting or campaign by a local army unit) or the effects on local employment of the war, or indeed of the weather or seasons – such as the end of harvest in the countryside.

The recruiting boom of 1914 was a unique event in British history, with hundreds of thousands of men joining the armed forces (and particularly the army) in the space of a few days. It is a poignant moment in retrospect as we know about the battles that faced these men over the next four years. Those men who joined up in August and September 1914 fought, and many died, in some of the most famous and bloody battles in British history.

We can look at the statistics and timing and get some sense of why so many enlisted at that point, but each man’s story up to the point that he entered the recruiting office was unique, just as each man’s experiences after enlistment were different.

 
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Posted by on 7 September 2013 in Recruitment

 

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The wounded from the Big Push

The Big Push on the Somme in 1916 was greatly anticipated back in London. Its first physical manifestation, though, was the flow of wounded servicemen flooding back through the capital’s railway stations.

"Outside Charing Cross Station, July 1916. Casualties from the Battle of the Somme arriving in London" by J Hodgson Lobley (c)IWM

“Outside Charing Cross Station, July 1916. Casualties from the Battle of the Somme arriving in London” by J Hodgson Lobley (c)IWM

The flow of wounded from the Battle of the Somme began almost as soon as the battle itself, with trains full of casualties arriving in the first few days of July 1916. Hodgson Lobley’s painting captures the scene as the wounded from the battle arrived at Charing Cross.

A picture published in the Daily Mirror on 4 July suggests that the crowds were slightly less orderly, but also shows the interest taken by the crowd in the arrival of these casualties of war.

(Daily Mirror 4/7/1916)

(Daily Mirror 4/7/1916)

Pathe’s film archive also shows a similar arrival of wounded servicemen at Charing Cross, possibly  also that summer.

 
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Posted by on 16 August 2013 in Events, Ordinary Londoners, Places

 

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Will You March Too?

As conscription loomed, the Government tried to convince men to volunteer or attest their willingness to serve in the army before they could be forced by the state to join up. Posters appeared across London and elsewhere in Britain asking ‘Will You March Too or Wait Till March 2?’

(c) Library of Congress

(c) Library of Congress

The Military Service Act 1916, passed into law on 27 January, made all eligible single men (those aged 19-40) liable for military service on 2 March 1916. It ended the Derby Scheme, set up in late 1915, which had allowed men to ‘attest their willingness to serve’ – essentially volunteering to be conscripted. At midnight on 1/2 March, the Derby Scheme ‘groups’ (arranged by year of birth) were closed and eligible men not in them were assigned to the equivalent ‘classes’ in which they could be called up as conscripts.

The more bellicose newspapers and propagandists made much of this deadline – insinuating that only those men who attested would be able to apply for exemption from military service (as we have seen, this was not the case). The Government and army recruiters were happy to play along. Posters like that above appeared around the country (including a Welsh version). The phrase ‘Will You March Too or Wait Till March 2’ was plastered up outside Town Halls. The posters appeared around the base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square – as shown in this photo, replaced on 1 March with one reading ‘Last Day: March the First’.

The final pre-conscription recruiting campaign poster was widespread enough to be satirised by Punch magazine. On 1 March 1916, a cartoon showed two ladies looking at the ‘March Too’ poster:

Topical humour from Punch, 3 March 1916

Topical humour from Punch, 3 March 1916

 
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Posted by on 2 March 2013 in Recruitment

 

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A Bermondsey family’s war effort: the Holtons

We tend to think of families in the Great War in terms of the service of the sons, brothers or fathers in the armed forces. They were not necessarily the only ones to play a part, though – many women went to work in munitions or other jobs as more men left civilian life. One example of this is the Holton family who lived in Bermondsey.

In 1911, leather finisher James W Holton and his wife Sarah Ann (nee Longhurst) lived at 33 Marcia Road, off the Old Kent Road, with seven of their children, who ranged in age from 11 to 24. They had married on Christmas day 1883 and had a total of 16 children before James died in 1913 (Sadly, seven of their children had died before 1911, another two lived elsewhere).

The Holtons listed at 33 Marcia Road in 1911

The Holtons listed at 33 Marcia Road in 1911

Reginald George Holton, a 14-year-old errand boy in 1911, was working as a warehouseman in 1915 when he went to East Dulwich to enlist in the Royal Field Artillery. He was a 5 feet 4 inches tall, with a tattoo on his right arm. Before going to the front, he got in trouble for going absent without leave for a week in November 1915.

Part of Reginald Holton's service papers

Part of Reginald Holton’s service papers

Despite his indiscretion, he joined 167 Brigade’s artillery in France as a drvier on 12 December 1915 and remained on the Western Front for the next three and a half years. In May 1916, Driver Holton joined the D battery of 162 Brigade’s artillery.

Meanwhile Sarah Holton and her youngest daughter Ethel went to work for John Bell, Hill and Lucas, Ltd, making gas masks in their factory on Tower Bridge Road, Bermondsey. The company were pharmaceutical chemists in peace, so well placed to make gas masks to keep up with the advances in chemicals used in gas warfare in the Great War. They had opened their London Works on Tower Bridge Road in 1909.

According to the National Roll of The Great War, Sarah worked in the factory for three years (presumably from 1915 until the end of the war) and was joined there by 17-year-old Ethel from August 1917 until September 1918.

In the Holton family – like many others – at least three members took part in the war effort. Reginald drove for the artillery in France and Flanders, while his mother and sisters were making gas masks to counter the gas shells fired by his counterparts in the German artillery.

 
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Posted by on 16 February 2013 in Ordinary Londoners, Women

 

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Len Smith, war artist

It was impossible for any man enlisting as a soldier in the Great War to imagine what experiences he was to have. Not just in terms of the horrors that many of them witnessed – or suffered – at the front, but also in the wide array of things that servicemen did in the war. An example of both is Londoner Len Smith, artist, infantryman, sniper, and camouflage designer.

Private Len Smith (image from his diary)

Private Len Smith (image from his diary)

Arthur Leonard Smith was born in 1892 and grew up in Walthamstow. On 19 September 1914, during the ‘rush to the colours’ following the news of the Retreat from Mons, he joined the London Regiment – in the ‘Shiny Seventh’ battalion. After the war, he wrote his fascinating experiences up in a book, based on his wartime diaries, accompanied by wonderful little illustrations.

Len’s wartime experiences were basically divided into three blocks.

One of Nobby Clark's letters: "Dear Mum, please send me a cake, ten bob and a Christmas Herald. p.s. don't forget the Christmas Herald." - one of Smith's wonderful little illustrations

One of Nobby Clark’s letters: “Dear Mum, please send me a cake, ten bob and a Christmas Herald. p.s. don’t forget the Christmas Herald.” – one of Smith’s wonderful little illustrations

From his arrival in France in March 1915, Smith served as an ordinary infantryman in the 7th Londons. He fought through Festubert and Loos in 1915, the latter being a particularly harrowing experience and a fatal one for many in the Shiny Seventh. He describes the scenes simply, not hiding the horror of the scene but sometimes using understated language, he tries to keep a sense of the narrative of the events. At the slag heaps at Loos:

“They [the Germans} put up a really murderous machine gun barrage – it sounded like very heavy rain on a window – and their shelling was lively and accurate. The distance to our objective was quite 600 yards – and it is extraordinary what drill and discipline can make of men. Although without the slightest means of cover, we got over the ground as if at drill. Men were toppling over on either hand riddled with bullets – yet none wavered or dreamed of hanging back – but kept on steadily until the enemy’s barbed wire was reached. This was unhappily not sufficiently well smashed by our guns, and caused a hold up – the high coal crassiers were lined along the top with snipers and so they had us just where they wanted us – and it was only by sheer luck that any of us got down into the German trench; it was slow, perilous work gingerly picking one’s way through the mesh of wire and then there came the short rush with the bayonet. This is just where everyone who is left finds himself fogged in trying to recollect exactly what did happen in that first mad minute.”

In 1916, he became a sniper for his Brigade, and an official front-line war artist and observer. He made drawings and maps of enemy positions from carefully-chosen vantage-points in no-man’s land (although he was never – as a bizarre claim on the book’s sleeve, from a Telegraph article, claims – working ‘behind enemy lines’).

Len’s sketch of Vimy Ridge in 1916 (from the Telegraph article on his book)

"Advanced Dressing Station. Manned by heroic doctors and nurses" - another of Smith's wonderful illustrations

“Advanced Dressing Station. Manned by heroic doctors and nurses” – another of Smith’s wonderful illustrations

Following an illness in 1917, he ended as one of a small number of British soldiers directing French women working in the construction of camouflage to disguise all sorts of installations – such as artillery batteries – hiding them from the view of German observers and aviators. Although generally a cushy job, he still had to go and visit the units and hardware he was disguising, which could be a dangerous-enough job (hence the need for camouflage!). He was also in charge of groups of Chinese labourers – about whom he is not wholly complimentary.

In late 1918, he entered newly-liberated Lille and helped the Belgians to erect new roadsigns, replacing the German wartime ones. He also saw women who had consorted with the enemy being punished by their compatriots, a scene that would be repeated across Western Europe in 1945.

Smith’s book is a fascinating read, I thoroughly recommend it – it is available for download online, or as a published book entitled ‘Drawing Fire’. It neither avoids nor dwells on the horrors of war and it shows the sheer variety of experiences that an individual – albeit a lucky individual to survive virtually unscathed at the front from 1915 to 1917 – could have in the British Army on the Western Front.

 
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Posted by on 25 January 2013 in Ordinary Londoners

 

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The Kaiser’s Own

In previous posts we have seen how some ‘alien enemies’ were attacked by their fellow Londoners, and how others joined up to fight for Britain. Others, naturalised citizens or British-born with parents who were aliens ended up as labourers in the Middlesex Regiment’s Alien Labour units.

In 1916, Army Orders established two new battalions in the Middlesex Regiment. These would contain recruits who were British citizens but the children of immigrants from nations with whom Britain was at war; the men were promised that they would not have to bear arms against the enemy. The units were named the 30th and 31st battalions and they served only in the UK. Some additional similar Labour Companies were also formed in 1917 and served in France. The units were known (rather cruelly) by some as “The Kaiser’s Own”.

Crest of the Middlesex Regiment

Several Londoners served in the 31st Battalion – which ended the war based in Croydon.

Hugo Max Norman Hotopf was born in Northumberland in 1881, the son of Hugo and Johanna who were German immigrants naturalised as British citizens in 1895. By the start of the Great War he was married, living in Lewisham, and had a son – William Hugh Norman Hotopf, born June 1914. Norman was working as a dye expert for the rather Germanic-sounding Badische Company in Brunswick Place near Old Street.

In 1916 he appealed for exemption from military service at the Shoreditch Military Service Tribunal, explaining that he was a chemical expert whose work was helping the British war effort. The Daily Mirror (19/8/1916) picked up on the story after Hotopf recounted his time before the war (in 1905-13) working at the chemical works at Ludwighafen, which the British had bombed in 1915.  The fate of that appeal is not reported, but he was eventually conscripted into the 31st Middlesex.

Hotopf’s appeal reported in the Daily Mirror, 19/8/1916

After the war, the Hotopfs continued to live in Lewisham, adding a daughter (Ruth) to the family in 1919. They retained links with Germany, though, with Norman junior spending part of his youth there before going to Cambridge University. In March 1938, Norman senior and his wife (then living in Forest Hill) attended a farewell dinner held for German ambassador Herr von Ribbentrop in London. They also went to Germany, where Norman senior died in April – in Bühlerhöhe, Baden-Baden. Norman junior became a prestigious professor of psychology.

Oddly, a neighbour of Hotopf’s  in Queensthorpe Road, Sydenham was also in the Battalion. Walter R Kinge lived at number 20, a few doors down from Hotopf at number 14, and served in the 31st Middlesex.

Alois Frederick Pfeiffer was born in around 1889 in Bermondsey, son of Alois Pfeiffer from Bavaria and his English-born wife Emma (technically, she became German when she married Alois). Alois senior and Emma were licenced victualler’s assistants in 1901 – they worked in a pub – and at some point after her husband’s death in 1905, Emma became the landlady of the Leather Exchange Tavern in Bermondsey.

When the Great War came along, two of Emma’s sons served in the British Army. Frederick Charles Pfeiffer served in the 2nd/4th London Regiment, which went out to Egypt in August 1915 and on to Gallipoli in October. Frederick died there in November aged 24. His elder brother Alois junior ended up in B Company of the 31st Battalion, Middlesex Regiment.

In February 1919, Alois junior was still in the unit and his mother made an appeal for his release on compassionate grounds. Frustrated by slow progress, Emma Pfeiffer went to her MP – Harold Glanville – who brought up the case in parliament. Eventually, Alois F Pfeiffer returned to Bermondsey and lived in London for several more decades.

Unlike Hotopf and Pfeiffer, Edward Kehlstadt was actually born in Germany, in the town of Gebweiler, Alsace (now in France). When he became liable for service in the British armed forces in 1916, he was a stockbroker’s clerk living with his English-born wife Blanche in (aptly, or unfortunately) in Berlin Road, Catford – renamed Canadian Avenue in 1918. Edward Kehlstadt joined the 31st Middlesex in March 1917. After training, he joined the 3rd Infantry Labour Company in France in June 1917; he served with them for more than a year. Following a spell of leave back in the UK in the summer of 1918, he went back out to France, but only until September 1918.

Edward Kehlstadt’s record of service

After being admitted to hospital with boils, Edward Kehlstadt was sent back to England at the end of September and back to the 31st Battalion. A few weeks later, he died in Cavendish Bridge Voluntary Aid Detatchment (VAD) Hospital in Shardlow, Derbyshire, on 21 October 1918. A few days later, he was buried in Ladywell cemetery.

Blanche Kehlstadt wrote to the War Office requesting a badge of the Middlesex Regiment as a memento of her husband’s service with the unit. Edward’s name appears on the war memorial at St Mary’s Church, Lewisham, where he and Blanche had married in 1909.

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These three men, two English with German parents, one German-born but naturalised as a British citzen, were all Londoner’s who served in ‘The Kaiser’s Own’. It is impossible to know, but interesting to ponder what their feelings were about serving in an army that was fighting their – or their family’s – homeland. Did Hotopf’s links to Germany make him reluctant to join up? Did Kehlstadt the Alsatian-Londoner feel German, English, or even French when he served in the Labour Company in France? Wars hold millions of stories about millions of men, women and children. These three men and their families had a different war from those around them, with closer ties to the enemy than most had they were not trusted to (or were sympathetically allowed not to) fight at the front, but still served their country.

 
 

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Too young to fight: Herbert J Bryant

Many young men and boys tried to enlist in the armed forces underage in 1914 and 1915. Some did so repeatedly. Herbert James Bryant was one of them, briefly joining two different units in 1915 before eventually being conscripted in 1918.

In the first 17 months of the war, the British armed forces were made up (at least legally) of voluntarily-enlisted men. Many who enlisted in this period were underage boys, many making into the army at the age of 13 or 14 – Richard van Emden describes the experiences of some of them in his book Boy Soldiers of the Great War.

Willesden lad Herbert James Bryant was one of those boys who managed to get into the army in 1915 despite being underage (He may well have tried unsuccessfully before then, but there is no record of it).

In June 1915, Bryant joined the Middlesex Regiment, telling them that he was a brass worker aged 18 years and 11 months. How obvious it was that he was too young is hard to say, but this young 5 feet 4 inch fair-haired and blue-eyed boy did not last long in the army. On his first day with his unit, 10 June, he absconded and disappeared for a week until the civil police picked him up on the 18th. The next day he was discharged for having lied about his age.

Bryant's (short) record in the Middlesex Regiment

Bryant’s (short) record in the Middlesex Regiment

Not to be discouraged, he enlisted again (describing himself as a painter’s labourer) two months later on 31 August, this time in the Royal Fusiliers – joining their 27th (Reserve Battalion). In the three months before he was again discharged for lying about his age, Bryant was repeatedly punished with confinement to barracks and cessation of pay for unauthorized absences and malingering.

When Bryant was sent back to civvie street on 28 December 1915, the nation was on the verge of adopting conscription to replace the voluntary enlistment that was not finding sufficient recruits. In theory, with a National Register compiled in August 1915 and a new official system for recruitment, it should have been much harder for underage boys to get into the army.

It took another 28 months for Bryant to get back into the army. Although he was ‘deemed to have enlisted’ in June 1917 (under the terms of the Military Service Act) he was not called up until April 1918, the delay presumably due to his employment at Small Arms Factory in Acton. He had certainly grown up since 1915, now being 5 feet 7.5 inches in height with tattoos on his forearms: a heart and an anchor.

Bryant's details when he was conscripted - including previous service and date of birth

Bryant’s details when he was conscripted – including previous service and date of birth

Despite his ‘A1’ fitness, Bryant was never sent to the front. After four months in the 5th Reserve Cavalry Regiment, he transferred to the Tank Corps, eventually joining the 19th Battalion on 21 September. After being granted home leave for Christmas 1918, he was discharged from the army on 13 March 1919.

Join the Tank Corps - 1919 recruiting poster (c) IWM

“Join the Tank Corps” (1919 recruiting poster (c) IWM) – Bryant rejoined the Tank Corps around this time.

Bryant was not done with military service, thought, and rejoined on demobilisation. He stayed on in the Tank Corps, serving in the 20th and 5th Battalions in 1918-20, during which time he again got in trouble repeatedly for overstaying his leave, absence and neglect of duty. Eventually his service was cut short but a series of illnesses: after contracting from gonorrhea, he also suffered from variocele and was then discharged suffering from ‘Disordered Action of the Heart’ (“DAH”).

Herbert James Bryant was one of the many boys who tired to join the army underage in 1914 and 1915. Eventually he did join up, conscripted in 1918. Oddly, though, he may still have been underage. His Tank Corps service papers give his date of birth as 25 June 1899 (which led to his official enlistment on his 18th birthday in 1917, before his call-up). Strangely, it seems that he was still only 16 when he joined up in early 1918, though. On the 1911 census, Herbert Bryant is listed as a 9 year-old; he does not appear in the 1901 census and his birth was registered in summer 1901 rather than 1899.

1911 census entry for Herbert Bryant's family - note his age: 9 year.

1911 census entry for Herbert Bryant’s family – note his age: 9 year.

It seems mostly likely that he gave a fake date of birth in the National Register in 1915 (just before he joined the Royal Fusiliers) and was called up on the basis of that information three years later. That means that he was originally accepted into the Middlesex Regiment in 1915 at the age of 12 or 13.

Whether it was a sense of duty, a desire for adventure or social pressure that drove boys like Herbert James Bryant to enlist is hard to say, and their motives probably varied just as much as those of other enlistees. What is clear is the Bryant was keen to join up, repeatedly lying about his age to get into khaki, apparently even fooling the conscription system in 1918.

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Thanks to David Underton for pointing out that DAH in the Great War stood for Disordered Action of the Heart, rather than its modern meaning Diffuse Alveolar Hemorrhage.

 
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Posted by on 4 January 2013 in Ordinary Londoners, Recruitment

 

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