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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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Happy New Year from the Railway Companies

Following swiftly on from the Season of Good Will comes the annual Season of Rail Fare Increases. On 2 January 2013 year, ticket prices will increase by an average of 4%. In January 1917, the increase was up to 50% and it was accompanied by a decline in services.

In December 1916, the Board of Trade announced new regulations with wide-ranging impact on travellers. Railway companies announced changes to take effect in the New Year:

  • Increase in fares by up to 50%
  • Limit passengers’ luggage was limited to 100lb (this was to reduce the work of the depleted number of railway porters, many having enlisted)
  • Abolition of cheap excursion tickets (many had already disappeared in 1914)
  • Running fewer trains, and slower services (some trains to run more slowly, but also more Express services cut than stopping services)
  • Reduction in dining cars
  • No longer allowing ‘reservation of seats, and compartments, and saloons for private parties’

These changes were not aimed at commuters, though. They were intended to reduce the amount of pleasure travel to free up capacity to support the war effort. The increase in fares did not apply to season tickets, workers’ tickets (i.e. those before a certain time in the morning), traders’ tickets and ‘zone tickets’. They also did not apply to the Underground (unlike in 2013) other than where it went outside London, such as beyond Acton on the District line.

There were also numerous station closures, many of them temporary for the duration of the war.  For example, the London, Brighton and South Coast railway company announced the reduction in services between the capital and the closure of stations on that line. These included South Bermondsey, Old Kent Road, Tooting Junction, Merton Abbey, and Selsdon Road in London, and further stations in Brighton.

The London and North West Railway also announced the closure of a number of stops, including some in London:

List of stations and halts closed by London and North West Railways (Times 22/12/1916)

List of stations and halts closed by the London and North-Western Railway Company (Times 22/12/1916)

At the end of January, the Times reported that the changes had been successful in their aim of reducing non-work travel. Travel was down 20% overall and there had been a particular impact on the level of travel between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. In addition, many more people were using season tickets (which had previously not given a significant discount on travel in London). Another change that accompanied this was that people were asked to show their season tickets to the inspector, where before a declaration that one had a season ticket was enough!

The Railway Companies’ New Year’s gift of increased fares is not a modern phenomenon. The increase in 1917 – and the reduction in service – was a particularly dramatic one. Where modern fare changes seek to get people onto off-peak services, the 1917 changes were aimed at reducing unnecessary railway travel in wartime.

 
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Posted by on 1 January 2013 in Famous companies, Ordinary Londoners

 

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The Christmas truce

The iconic image of Christmas in the Great War is the 1914 Christmas truce.  Londoner Cyril Drummond took part in this historic truce on the Western Front while serving as a Royal Artillery officer and took this amazing photo of men of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment fraternising with soldiers from the 134th Saxon Regiment:

Men of Warwickshire and Saxony meet in No-Man's Land - (c) IWM

Men of Warwickshire and Saxony meet in No-Man’s Land, photo by C.A.F. Drummond – (c) IWM

The Warwickshires were not the only ones, of course. The excellent Long, Long Trail page about the truce lists battalions from six British and Indian Divisions that took part, units that included the London Rifle Brigade (1/5th Londons), the Queen’s Westminster Rifles (1/16th Londons) and Kensingtons (the 1/13th Londons, whom we’ve met in Eric Kennington’s wonderful war art). Rather than try to tell the story, which other websites already do well, here are a few accounts from those London units:

Eighteen-year-old William Henry Francis Ollis of the Queen’s Westminsters wrote to his family in Croydon about the truce (the letter was published in the local paper and reproduced on the excellent Christmas Truce website):

What an extraordinary effect Christmas has on the world. Peace and goodwill amongst men during peace time one can quite understand but peace and goodwill amongst men who have been murdering one another for the past five months is incredible and if I had not seen for myself the effects of Christmas on these two lines of trenches I should never have believed them. All day yesterday the German snipers were busy and unfortunately to some effect…(censored)..progressing well. That is by the way. The point is that when darkness fell all firing ceased. The Germans sang and shouted and cheered, and we sang and cheered. We called Merry Christmas across to one another. The German lines were lit up with huge flares and we could see each other plainly. A few hours before we were jolly careful to keep our heads below the parapet and now we were sitting on it, throwing cigarettes and tobacco to our enemies who wandered out into the middle of the lines. In some places we are only about 100 yards from them and we kept up conversation all night. By the way they offered to play us at football. I shall be able to tell you heaps more about the wonderful change that has come over with the dawn of Christmas when I get back. Today not a shot has been fired and the frost is still thick on the ground. Quite a welcome change after the wet. We are quite happy and hope you are the same. Your ever-loving ‘Terrier’ Billy.

Corporal Leon Harris, who had come to London before the war to work in Selfridge’s, wrote home to his parents in Exeter of the experience he and his comrades in the Kensingtons had, beginning on Christmas Eve (also published in the local press and  reproduced on the excellent Christmas Truce website):

This has been, the most wonderful Christmas I have ever struck. We were in the trenches on Christmas Eve, and about 8.30 the firing was almost at a stand still. Then the Germans started shouting across to us, ‘a happy Christmas’ and commenced putting up lots of Christmas trees with hundreds of candles on the parapets of their trenches. Some of our men met some of theirs half way, and the officers arranged a truce till midnight on Christmas Day. It was extended till Boxing day night and we all went out and met each other between the two lines of trenches, exchanging souvenirs – buttons, tobacco and cigarettes. Several of them spoke English. Huge fires were going all night and both sides sang carols. It was a wonderful time and the weather was glorious on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day – frosty and bright with moon and stars at night.

The account of a soldier in the London Rifle Brigade is reproduced in a Guardian article on the subject:

First of all I must describe in detail what will, I believe, live in history as one of the most remarkable incidents of the war.

On Christmas Eve at about 4pm, we were in a line of advance trenches waiting to be relieved, directly it was dark, when we heard singing and shouting coming from the other trenches at right angles to us which line a hedge of the same field. Then the news filtered down. German and English officers had exchanged compliments and agreed on a truce, and then started giving one another a concert. We all sang every song we could think of, a bonfire was lit and everyone walked about as though it were a picnic. After we were relieved and got back to the breastworks (about 200yds?) behind the firing-lines, we could hear the German band playing Old Folks at Home, God Save the King and Onward, Christian Soldiers.

On Christmas Day, men and officers went in between, and even entered each other’s trenches and exchanged smokes and souvenirs. I am sorry we were relieved; it must have been a marvellous sight. All I could manage was a German cigarette given me by one of our platoon who accompanied our platoon officers to the line. One regiment, I hear, tried to arrange a football match for this afternoon, but I don’t think that came off. We are opposed to Saxon regiments and the whole affair is most striking, when you consider that a week ago today there were some hundreds of casualties through the attack and the dead still lie between the trenches.

By this truce we were able to get the bodies and the Germans were good enough to bring our dead out of some ruined houses by their trenches, so that we could give them burial here. I personally shall be very pleased when we go up tomorrow night, not to have that sight before us again.

One of Coulson’s comrades, David H W Smith, collected and kept the signature of one of the Saxon soldiers he met during the truce, Arthur Bock of Leipzig.

The truce was a refreshing change for those in the front line. But it did not last long and it was not repeated the next year, as the war ground on. For a few days at the end of 1914, though, some of the men on the front line broke the rules and met with their enemies as humans, many of them as Christians, all of them far from their families. A truly remarkable event.

 
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Posted by on 24 December 2012 in Events, Ordinary Londoners

 

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The Royal Naval Division memorial

In the corner of Horse Guards Parade, partly hidden behind the Admiralty Citadel is a memorial to an unusual Great War fighting force: the Royal Naval Division. These naval men served as infantry at Gallipoli and on the Western Front.

The Royal Naval Division memorial

The Royal Naval Division (RND) was an odd hybrid unit, seamen serving as and alongside footsoldiers. It was both a category of naval personnel and a fighting unit of the British Army, although the two were not for long the same thing. The history and the make-up of the Division told well elsewhere, but a brief summary is that Winston Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, formed the Division from surplus naval troops (mainly reservists) as the Germans rapidly invaded Belgium in 1914. The Division first saw action in the (unsuccessful) defence of Antwerp in October – many of the RND escaped over the border to the neutral Netherlands and were interned there.

Recruiting poster for the RND

Reconstituted, and following further training, the Division was sent to Egypt in 1915 and landed on the Gallipoli peninsula on 25 April in the first landing of British troops there. They served throughout the campaign there before being sent back to the Western Front in 1916, where the Division served out the rest of the war, fighting in most of the major battles.

The RND at Gallipoli – full page photo in page 1 of the Daily Mirror (15/7/15)

During this time, though, the battalions that made up the Division were – as in other Divisions of the British Expeditionary Force – moved around and the RND as a fighting unit became less naval in its make-up (the memorial remembers those from the army units that served in the RND as well as the naval personnel). Its original battalions bore names evocative of British naval history: Nelson, Hawke, Drake, Collingwood, Benbow, Hood, Howe and Anson.

In 1925, a decade after the landing at Gallipoli, Winston Churchill unveiled a memorial to the officers and men of the Division who died during the war, alongside him was Sir Ian Hamilton – the commander of the Gallipoli campaign.

Churchill and Hamilton at the unveiling ceremony (Daily Mirror 27/5/25)

The memorial was constructed at the corner of Horse Guards Parade, at the back of the Admiralty building. Its inscription lists the places that the RND served and bears the words of a sonnet by Rupert Brooke – the Division’s most famous casualty.

BLOW OUT YOU BUGLES, OVER THE RICH DEAD / THERE’S NONE OF THESE SO LONELY AND POOR OF OLD / BUT, DYING HAS MADE US RARER GIFTS THAN GOLD / THESE LAID THE WORLD AWAY: POURED OUT THE RED / SWEET WINE OF YOUTH; GAVE UP THE YEARS TO BE. / OF WORK AND JOY, AND THAT UNHOPED SERENE / THAT MEN CALL AGE: AND THOSE WHO WOULD HAVE BEEN / THEIR SONS, THEY GAVE THEIR IMMORTALITY

The view of the memorial in 1925, looking towards the Mall (Daily Mirror 27/4/25)

The same view today, blocked by the citadel.

The memorial under construction (Times 6/4/25)

Two South Londoners served as naval soldiers with the RND and had very different war stories:

Able Seaman H. Hardcastle, from Vauxhall, was a serving naval rating in 1914, but was drafted into the RND for the fighting on the Western Front.  He later rejoined his ship and saw action at the Battle of Heligoland Bight, where (according the National Roll of the Great War) the ship was sunk and Hardcastle was taken prisoner.  After a second attempt to escape, he was recaptured and moved to a punishment camp. Eventually he was sent to Holland and repatriated in England in November 1918.

Unlike Hardcastle, virtually all of Able Seaman Alexander Frederick Smith‘s war service was in the RND.  He was a surveyor from Catford and enlisted in the Public Schools Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment.  After Antwerp, most of the original Hawke Battalion, RND, had been killed, captured or interned, and the battalion was reformed incorporating men from the Public Schools Battalion in its D Company. Hardcastle served in Gallipoli throughout the fighting there and then as an anti-aircraft gunner on the Island of Imbros. After a few months in the UK from July 1916, he was sent out to France and Flanders in December and was killed in action on 18 February 1917, at Miraumont during the battle of the Ancre. He is commemorated on the Theipval memorial to the missing in France, and on the war memorial in St George’s Church, Catford.

The Royal Naval Division memorial has had an odd history since 1925.  It was removed from Horse Guards Parade in 1939, when the Admiralty Citadel was built between Horse Guards Parade and the Mall, and only re-erected in Greenwich in 1951. Forty years later it was moved back to Westminster and restored to its original location – albeit dwarfed by the citadel.

Sources:

UK National Inventory of War Memorials

Page on the RND on a site about Jack Clegg, one of its number

And (as ever) the Long Long Trail webpage on the RND

 
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Posted by on 29 November 2012 in Ordinary Londoners, War Dead, War memorials

 

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