Looking at major events in the Great War history of London, Trafalgar Square is as good a place as any to begin, and August 1914 is clearly the best period to highlight.
Trafalgar Square was the site of two large gatherings of people in the last few days of peace. They had very different characters:
2 August 1914 – Peace rally.
On Sunday August 2nd, a crowd gathered for a rally for peace. The speakers included the wonderfully-bearded former MP for West Ham South, Keir Hardie (above). Public opinion was divided over the war at the time, many wondering why Britain should get involved in a war rooted in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Labour politicians like Hardie were vehemently opposed to the war, many were out-right pacifists while others opposed involvement in this specific conflict. Liberals were divided – which was particularly important as they were the government of the day, led by H.H. Asquith. Attorney-General (and Walthamstow MP) Sir John Simon threatened to resign if Britain entered the war, but was talked out of it by Asquith.
Unfortunately, it was a wet day as we can see below (so much for the last glorious summer of the pre-war era!). There is a video of this rally at the First World War Archive.
This was one of the last major public rallies for peace. On the same day, the Germans demanded the right to enter Belgium; this was denied and on 3rd August, then invaded. The invasion of ‘Gallant Little Belgium’ significantly changed public opinion in Britain. Liberals were more inclined to support a war against an aggressive Germany.
4 August 1914 – War enthusiasm.
Throughout the day on August 4th, people talked about the war. Crowds gathered in Westminster to find out what was going on and to support British intervention in the war.
The crowds were there when Sir Edward Grey, the foreign secretary, sent Germany an ultimatum to leave Belgian soil on that fateful Tuesdsay. These crowds were also filmed – see this footage from Pathe. There was still a crowd when the deadline was reached and Britain declared war on Germany at 11pm.
The idea that this was part of a nationwide spirit of ‘war enthusiasm’ has been comprehensively challenged (see Adrian Gregory in this book, Niall Ferguson and Catriona Pennell among others). These crowds were not representative of the nation as a whole – note the youth of the men and the number of straw boaters, these were not the hats of the working classes! (Boaters are also prominent in the peace rally photo as well, of course). It is important to remember that in the days before the radio, people could not get updated news other than in public places – the square, the post office, the cinema or the town hall. People gathered to find out as well as to express opinions (see Jeffrey Verhey’s book on Germany in 1914). Not everyone in London was enthusiastic about the war – but these Westminster crowds certainly.
Other ‘enthusiastic’ crowds appeared in London – usually trying to see off Territorial Force troops from local barracks. Further afield, people slept through the momentous declaration and woke to discover the news from newspapers and public announcements on the morning of the 5th.
As many times since 1914, Trafalgar Square was central to public displays of opinion. In recent times we can easily recall Trafalgar Square as the site of poll tax riots, anti-war demonstrations and student protests. It has also seen the parade of the Ashes-winning England cricket team and the celebrations of London winning the Olympic games. Many of our national moments culminate in gatherings in gatherings in the square. It is both rhetorically and literally the centre of London (just behind the statue of Charles I is a marker of the official centre of London). As we shall see later, it played its part in London’s Great War story too…