Monthly Archives: August 2014

A strange good-bye, Paddington Station 1914

British Tommies heading for the Western Front were not the only people to leave London by train in the Great War.  On 17 August 1914, the Austrian Ambassdor departed the capital from Paddington Station accompanied by a strange chorus.

When a nation declares war on another, they expel the other country’s ambassador. On 6 August, the German ambassador Prince Lichnowsky left his residence at 9 Carlton Terrace, watched by a small but quiet crowd of Londoners.  The Prince had been quite pro-Britain and was disappointed in his nation’s role in bringing about the war – as he set out in his book about his time in London.

After the United Kingdom declared war on Austria Hungary on 12 August, the Austrian Ambassador Albert, Count von Mensdorff-Pouilly-Dietrichstein also had to leave. Count Mensdorff too had tried to avert war. He had been ambassador since 1904, but had also been an attaché as far back as 1889. After 25 years in London, he had to go back to Vienna. He reportedly received a telegram from King George V saying that he would be welcome back in London in future.

Count Mensdorff by Philip Alexius de Lazlo (c)NPG

Count Mensdorff by Philip Alexius de Lazlo (c)NPG

On 17 August, the Count left the Embassy in Belgrave Square, watched by a crowd of people – mostly British but with a few Austrians. According to the Manchester Guardian’s account, one Englishman stepped forward to bid the ambassador ‘Good-bye’.

Count Mensdorff arrived at Paddington Station, where members of the public were not allowed onto the platform. However, a group of 30-40 Austrians and Germans had managed to get onto a neighbouring platform and began to sing their national anthem, which had the same tune as the more famous German anthem Deutschland uber Alles.

Journalist Michael McDonagh was there and wrote: “It was indeed a strange experience to hear the two enemy National Anthems sung together by enemy groups and filling a London railway station with the commingling strains.”

It really must have been a strange sight – and sound – to hear the two groups trying to outdo one another in singing the national anthems of nations on opposite sides of the Great War.


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Posted by on 17 August 2014 in Famous People, Places


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London’s first casualties in France, August 1914

The British Expeditionary Force arrived in France in mid-August 1914. Part of the force was the first overseas wartime contingent of the Royal Flying Corps. Sadly, two of London’s first Great War casualties were among these airmen: E.W.C. Perry and H.E. Parfitt. Their deaths on 16 August was later part of a major controversy over the attitude of the RFC to its pilots’ safety.

The Royal Flying Corps was established as the aviation arm of the British Army in 1912 (the Royal Air Force only came into existence in 1918, combining the RFC and the Royal Naval Air Service). When the BEF set out to France, the RFC actually set out ahead of them, beginning their journey and assembly on 13 August. The serviceable aircraft of 2, 3, 4 and 5 Squadrons set out form the south of England – also not without incident as Lieutenant R.R. Skene and Air Mechanic R.K Barlow were killed taking off near Dover.

E.W.C. Perry, experienced aviator and the first British officer to die in France in August 1914 (image from his Aero Club certificate)

E.W.C. Perry, experienced aviator and the first British officer to die in France in August 1914 (image from his Aero Club certificate) 

The aircraft that did make it to France gathered at Amiens (which was to play a significant part in Britain’s war in later years). One of the pilots was 23 year-old Evelyn Walter Copland Perry; the only child of barrister Walter Copland and his wife Evelyn Emma Perry, he was born in London and – after attending Cambridge University – returned to his parents’ house at 29 Thurlow Square and began working at the Royal Aircraft Factory. While there, in 1911, he gained his Royal Aero Club certificate. He joined the Special Reserve of the Royal Flying Corps, from which he had been mobilised when Britain entered the Great War. After leaving the Royal Aircraft Company, Perry (or Mr Copland Perry as he is known in some sources) went to Brooklands to work with Tommy Sopwith on his aeroplanes, then flew an Avro aeroplane to Portugal and tested aircraft for the Portguese army. Returning to the UK, he began producing aeroplanes himself, with a Mr Beadle.

Perry wrote a letter home from Amiens in August 1914, “full of his extreme enjoyment” of the flights he had undertaken thus far in his war service (according to de Ruvigny’s roll of honour). Leaving Amiens, he was accompanied by another Londoner, Herbert Edward Parfitt. In 1911, Parfitt had been an engineering labourer, born in Battersea and living there with his parents William James Parfitt and Clara Jane Parfitt; William was a printer’s compositor.

Perry and Parfitt were among the last to take off from Amiens on 16 August. As they took off in their BE8 (number 625), the aeroplane stalled at about 150 feet from the ground – losing speed from climbing too quickly or with too little power. The aircraft turned over on its side and fell to the ground, where it caught fire. Both men were killed. They were the first British airmen ever to die in a theatre of war; Perry was also the first British officer fatality of the war (the majority of British servicemen who died before or on 16 August died in the UK). They had a full military funeral in Amiens with flag-draped coffins escorted by soldiers and senior officers, as well as members of the RFC. On 26 August, a memorial service was held for the two men at St Thomas Church, Orchard Street, Portland Square – possibly organised by Perry’s grieving parents (the church is no longer there; its site was roughly where the back of Selfridge’s is, now covered by the shop and Edwards Mews).

The BE8 in which Perry and Parfitt died (image from Mike O’Connor's book Airfields & Airmen: Somme)

The BE8 in which Perry and Parfitt died (image from Mike O’Connor’s book Airfields & Airmen: Somme) 

The sad deaths of these two young men came to a kind of prominence two years later when Noel Pemberton Billing, described by the Dictionary of National Biography as an “aviator and self-publicist”, used their case as an example to attack the Government. Billing had served in the RNAS early in the war, including in a raid on a Zeppelin base in 1914, but resigned his commission in order to publicly criticise the conduct of the air war. He fought and lost a by-election in Mile End in January 1916, but was elected in March in East Hertfordshire. That month he accused the authorities of ‘criminal negligence’ over a series of accidents and incidents that had caused the deaths of air crew. He was particularly critical of Royal Aircraft Company aeroplanes (of which the BE8 was one).

Among the cases cited by Billing in Parliament in March 1916 was that of Perry and Parfitt. He referred to the case only obliquely, referring to the tendency of the BE8 to side-slip and nose-dive, with fatal consequences. The Committee that investigated each case set out what happened to Perry and Parfitt  (quoted in Flight magazine):

“Mr Perry, on leaving Amiens, appears to have stalled his machine, i.e., to have attempted to climb too fast with the result that the machine lost speed, turned on its side, fell to the ground, caught fire, and Mr Perry was killed. Mr Perry was pleased with the performance of his machine on the flight to France, and spoke of it as the pick of the bunch. The aerodrome at Amiens is particularly large. Mr Perry was an experienced pilot. The type of machine has been abandoned. It was not successful and was somewhat under-engined, and was apt to lost speed quickly in the air. It was abandoned because it was not fast, and not sufficiently better than other machines then in use to justify its continuance at the Front. It is still used for training.

Conclusion.- There was no negligence in giving this type of machine to an experienced pilot, as Mr Perry was; although with the 80 h.p. Gnome engine with which it was then fitted it required careful handling, especially in climbing, to prevent its losing flying speed.

“In considering whether the use of a particular type of machine was or was not negligent, it is necessary to bear in mind the enormous progress that has been made during the war in the development of aeroplane engines by ourselves and by other nations engaged in the war, although even yet no absolutely reliable type has been evolved. The question of negligence in the use of a particular type of machine must always be determined with reference to the types of machines and engines available at the date when a given accident occurred. It might be quite proper to use in the early stages of the war and aeroplane whose use to-day would be wholly wrong.”

In other words, they thought that it looked bad in retrospect (in 1916), but stressed that it was not a bad aircraft by the standards of the day. The fact that it was soon replaced, and that training was notoriously dangerous (and this type was only used for that until 1916), suggests that the BE8 was not an effective aeroplane (it should not be confused with the RE8, which saw service throughout the war).

The account given in de Ruvigny’s roll of honour (presumably supplied by Perry’s parents) is that Perry was happy with the aeroplane in which he flew over to France, but had to give that one up before leaving Amiens. This change of aeroplanes is corroborated by Mike O’Connor’s book Airfields and Airmen: Somme, which says that another pilot flew BE8 number 625 to France. This contradicts the implication in the official account that Perry was previously perfectly happy with the BE8 in which he had his fatal crash, somewhat undermining the official account (note that the account says he was happy with the aeroplane he flew out in, without explicitly saying that it was number 625).

Whether it was negligence, a simple accident or pilot error, this death of two young airmen before they had even encountered the enemy was desperately sad. The Perrys lost their only child; on his gravestone is the inscription ‘First on the Roll of Honour; all glory to his name’.

The Parfitts lost their middle son of three (they also had three daughters). A few months later, Walter William Parfitt, Herbert’s older brother, also died. He had been in the navy before the war and was serving on HMS Bulwark when the ship exploded in the Thames near Sheerness at 7.50 am on 26 November 1914. An inquiry into the accident found that the ammunition had exploded, probably because it was stored badly and close to a boiler room. Staggeringly, the Parfitts lost two sons in the first four months of war in accidents unrelated to enemy action that were both the subject of official inquiries in the subsequent months and years.

In Amiens, on 16 August 2014, there was be a short remembrance ceremony for E.W.C. Perry (and, I hope, H.E. Parfitt). Perhaps people in London will also be remember these two young men who set out from this city to fight in the war but who died so prematurely on their way to the battlefield.


  • Flight magazine, 1916
  • The Times
  • Mike O’Connor, Airfields and Airmen: Somme
  • Joshua Levine, On a Wing and A Prayer
  • Long, Long Trail
  • CWGC
  • Ancestry service and census records

Posted by on 17 August 2014 in Ordinary Londoners


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Westminster’s air raid plaques – a war memorial that never was

After the Great War a vast number of war memorials were erected across London, the UK and other combatant nations across the world. Most commemorated those who had died (also commonly, but less frequently, those who fought and returned were remembered), others marked sites of important events in local war experiences. In the City of Westminster, an abortive scheme was launched in 1919 to commemorate the air raids on London.

The Zeppelin air raids on England killed 1,400 and injured 3,400 people between January 1915 and May 1918. Hundreds of the victims were Londoners in the thirty raids that hit the city. The City of Westminster Council established that in their area (a much smaller area then than now, mainly the area around Parliament and Whitehall and between Kingsway and Green Park) there had been 78 fatalities and 167 injuries due to raid raids. The bomb map produced by the City Engineer shows 54 bombs dropped (22 on 18 December 1917 alone) and 60 other sites where damage was caused by dud bombs or anti-aircraft shells.

Great War bomb sites in central London (from a post-war Harmsworth atlas)

Great War bomb sites in central London (from a post-war Harmsworth atlas)

In February 1919, a councillor called Philip Conway put forward a motion to the council stating

“That it be an instruction to the Works Committee through the City Engineer or as the Committee may think best to prepare a list and map of places and properties within the City which were struck by bombs during Air Raids with a view to obtaining the consent of the owners or occupiers thereof to the placing of suitable memorial or identification tablets for the purpose of reminding in perpetuity the Citizens of Westminster and of the Empire of the brutal, horrible and cowardly character of our principal and present enemy Germany and to submit a scheme and report forthwith.”

The council adopted the resolution and, apparently intending the scheme to be London-wide decided to send it on to all other Metropolitan borough councils. (n.b Germany was still the enemy because technically the war was still ongoing; after the Armistice of 11 November 1918, the war continued in law until 1921)

The Council’s Works committee reported back in July with a design for a plaque, which was to state:

City of Westminster

Near this spot bombs were dropped by

German Air Raiders


Total Casualties …Killed and …Injured.

“Lest We Forget”

They also reported that five quotes had been received for making them, ranging “from £10 10s 0d each to £16 10s 0d each for tablets of varying degrees of artistic merit in various kinds of metal.” The £14 version was picked, to be erected at 19 sites, a total of £266, plus £7 12s to put them up. The Council approved the scheme and the spending.

The scheme was up and running in Westminster, then, but it was less popular elsewhere. “Replies have been received from the Borough Councils of Chelsea and Hammersmith supporting the proposal, though the latter did not propose to take any action, no place in the Borough having been struck by enemy bombs.” Meanwhile, nine boroughs had “replied, not supporting, viz: – Bermondsey, Camberwell, Deptford, Lambeth, St Pancras, Shoreditch, Southwark, Wandsworth and Woolwich. The remaining 17 Borough Councils and the Corporation of [the City of] London have not so far expressed any opinion for or against the proposal.” The scheme was not popular in those boroughs where there had been air raid damage. We might also wonder whether the cost of the scheme did not appeal to the less well-off southern and eastern boroughs, compared with Westminster which (then as now) contained a lot of businesses.

The full map of London bomb sites

The full map of London bomb sites

In January 1920, the works committee felt that “Upon further consideration of the matter we thought that the desired purpose might possibly be served by putting up a tablet on the spot where the first enemy bomb fell in Westminster and another at the spot where the last fell. The Commissioner of Police states that the first enemy bomb in Westminster fell on the Lyceum Theatre at 9.26 p.m. on the 13th October, 1915, and the last on No. 26A, King Street, St James, at 12.30 a.m. on 20th May 1918.”

The Lyceum bomb was, of course, part of the raid that cause Mr Petre, the local pub landlord, such strain that he later committed suicide; the King Street bomb was the only one to fall in Westminster in that raid, although 49 were killed nationwide that night.

Damage caused by the second bomb to fall in Westminster, on Wellington Street near the Lyceum

Damage caused by the second bomb to fall in Westminster, on Wellington Street near the Lyceum

The City Engineer was sent off to inquire about erecting plaques at these two locations, but had little success. The works committee reported to the Council on 20 May 1920 (exactly two years after that last bomb):

“We instructed the City Engineer to report the exact positions where the tablets should be fixed, and whether all necessary consents of parties concerned had been obtained, and he informs us that he has received a letter from the Lyceum Theatre stating that the Directors do no approve of a tablet being fixed at the Theatre.

“With regard to 26A, King Street, the occupiers, Messrs. Robinson, Fisher & Co., have suggested a position which the City Engineer thinks too high to be suitable. The point as to what would be a satisfactory position has not yet been settled with them.

“It will be seen that the Council’s intention cannot be carried out as the proprietors of the Lyceum Theatre are opposed to the fixing of a tablet, and having regard to the circumstances we think the proposal had been be left in abeyance. Moreover, the price of the tablets now quoted is £30 as against £14 each some months ago.”

The Council agreed to put the scheme permanently on hold. Although there are sporadic memorials of the Great War air raids, Westminster Council’s attempt to have a London-wide commemoration failed in the years after the war.


  • City of Westminster Council minutes 1919-21
  • Map of bomb damage sites, Westminster Archives.





Posted by on 12 August 2014 in Air Raid, Places, War memorials


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Your King and Country Need YOU: the initial rush to the colours

One of the abiding images of 1914 in London is the crush of men trying to join the army. The biggest rush to enlist came at the end of August, but the initial rush overwhelmed the recruiting machinery and so created a memorable image.

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

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

Over the first five days of war – 4th to 8th August 1914 – nearly 8,200 men joined the British Army (not including the existing reservists and Territorials who were called up). In London alone, 2,152 men joined up in those couple of days.

August 6th saw the first ‘call to arms’ published, Lord Kitchener (the Secretary of State for War) called for 100,000 men to join up ‘for three years or the duration’ and recruiting posters went up around London. These were not the ones with Kitchener’s face on them, those posters (by Alfred Leete, based on a cover image for the magazine London Opinion) were not widespread and appeared on in late September. The first posters were text-based, as were most 1914 recruiting posters. One read: “Your King and Country need – YOU”. Another restated the call to arms.

An example of the first wave of recruiting posters in 1914 (c) Library of Congress

An example of the first wave of recruiting posters in 1914 (c) Library of Congress

The crush and long queues at recruiting stations caused much frustration, particularly at the central London recruiting office on Great Scotland Yard and the headquarters of the various Territorial units. City clerk Bernard Brookes waited for two or three hours on Buckingham Palace Road on 7 August to join the Queen’s Westminster Rifles (16th battalion of the all-Territorial London Regiment): ‘After much swearing outside the building, we were “sworn in”’. On that day, 7 August, The Times reported new offices opening in Camberwell, Islington, Battersea, Fulham, and Marylebone.

The men who joined up included both completely new recruits like Brookes and people with previous military experience, either Regular or Territorial. Among the latter was shipping clerk Ronald Charles Colman. Colman was 23 years and 6 months old and had joined the London Scottish (14th battalion, London Regiment) in 1909; he left the unit in 1913 after his 4 years’ Territorial service was up. When war came in 1914, he immediately rejoined at their headquarters, signing up at 59 Buckingham Gate on 5 August 1914 and passing the medical examination. He was immediately ‘embodied’ (i.e. mobilised) and after little more than a month, he and his comrades were in France (arriving on 16 September 1914) a few days after Colman had signed the ‘imperial service’ declaration that was required at that point for Territorials to be sent overseas, since they had joined units designed for home defence.

The London Scottish were the first Territorial unit to go into action alongside Regular soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force. On 31 October (Hallowe’en) 1914, they went into action at Messines, in the south of the Ypres Salient. The Scots went moved to Wystschaete from 8 a.m. to reinforce the 4th Cavalry Brigade (who were fighting as infantry). They advanced into a dangerous gap in the British line, suffering casualties all the way and resisted attacks by the Germans through the night, denying them access to the road to Ypres.

The Messines 1917 blog‘s concludes that “the efforts of the London Scottish had won time and ultimately prevented a far superior force breaking through to Ypres. The Scots had lost 394 of their 700 officers and men in their short time on the ridge.” A famous photo shows some of the London Scottish at their roll call the next day, when only 150 men answered their names – although stragglers made the numbers up to over 300 uninjured survivors in the end.

One of the casualties that day was Pte R.C. Colman, whose injury is summarised in his medical records:

Fracture of ankle (Rt)

“In action near Ypres 31-10-14. Man states that when advancing a shell burst near him, and he was thrown heavily injuring his right foot either by the fall or his foot being struck. There is considerable thickening of [right] ankle. There is also some tenderness and after walking any distance there is pain”

He was treated at the 4th Cavalry Field Ambulance before being sent back to the UK. He was in hospital from 6-11 November at St Bartholomew’s in London, before being transferred to the 3rd barraltion of the London Scottish (3/14 Londons). In May 1915, Colman was discharged as no longer physically fit for military service, after only 274 days of wartime service, just 47 of which were spent on the Western Front.

Colman’s injuries, although they were serious enough to stop him from serving as a soldier, did not constrain his ambitions elsewhere. According to the Dictionary of National Biography, “Colman began to take up the acting career which had fascinated him since amateur dramatics in childhood. He made his début with Lena Ashwell at the London Coliseum in 1916, playing a black-faced herald in a short sketch called The Maharani of Arakan by Rabindranath Tagore; he was soon after that taken by Gladys Cooper into her Playhouse company for minor roles, which Miss Cooper considered he played ‘with amiable but remarkable clumsiness’. Very soon, however, his natural good looks were recognized by a film producer and by 1919 he had appeared in three short silent dramas, despite a casting card that read ‘does not screen well’.”

He did suffer from the wound though, as the DNB notes “he was to spend much of the remainder of his life and career attempting, often in considerable pain, to conceal [the limp caused by his war wounds] from audiences and cameras alike.” Ronald Colman went on to star in films like Beau Geste (1926) and Bulldog Drummond (1929). He has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles, one for his film work and one for theatre.

Post-war photo of Ronald Colman, veteran of the London Scottish at Messines, 1914

Post-war photo of Ronald Colman, veteran of the London Scottish at Messines, 1914

Ronald Colman was, in a sense, one of the lucky ones. The volunteers of 1914 were the most likely to be killed or wounded during the war (because they served for longer and probably also because of the poor quality of the early trenches and the Tommies’ lack of helmets before 1916). When he was wounded, it was enough to get him out of the war but not enough to prevent him being an enormously successful star of stage and screen. He died in California in 1958; the Times called him ‘the most complete gentleman of the cinema’.



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Posted by on 6 August 2014 in Famous People, Recruitment


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That fateful day, London 4 August 1914

In Belgium, Germany’s mighty army pressed on in its invasion. In London, politicians and the public reacted to that invasion with indignation. It was clear to most that –for good or ill- the United Kingdom would enter the European War, as it is was referred to at that stage. In Westminster, the crowds that had gathered in the first days of August came to a peak on 4 August.

Crowds outside the Houses of Parliament (Illustrated London News picture, looking south down towards Millbank)

Crowds outside the Houses of Parliament (Illustrated London News picture, looking south down towards Millbank)

Times journalist Michael MacDonagh was there. In the crowds around Parliament Square, Whitehall and Trafalgar Square, he noted an atmosphere of ‘real passion’. ‘Young men in straw boaters were in the majority. Girls in light calico dresses were numerous. All were already touched with war fever’. They sang patriotic and anti-German songs. ‘There were opponents, of course. Making my way through the crowds to Trafalgar Square, I found two rival demonstrations in progress under Nelson’s Pillar – on one side of the plinth for war, on the other again! The rival crowds glared at each other. Cries of “The War does not concern us; we must keep out of it!” were answered with cries of “Down with Germany, the violator of Belgium!”.’

Even in the heart of London, then, the mood was not a unanimous support of the war. As we’ve seen, historians such as Adrian Gregory, Catriona Pennell and Niall Ferguson have noted, ‘war enthusiasm’ was far from universal in Britain – as others have shown in France and Germany. (The mention of straw boaters gives some indications of the unrepresentative nature of the crowd; straw boaters were not the hats of the working classes!)

Many people were concerned about the impact that war would have on the economy, particularly the poor. Liberal MP Christopher Addison (writing up his thoughts a few weeks later) remembered that, “What haunted me was the plight of the people of Hoxton. It was a constant nightmare to us.”

The UK’s ultimatum demanding German withdrawal from Belgium was due to run out at midnight in Berlin, 11 p.m. in London (GMT – British summertime came later in the war).

When the fateful hour struck, the central-London crowd – notified by the tolling of Big Ben – cheered and sang. Thousands gathered outside Buckingham Palace, as we have seen.

Buckingham Palace, on the evening of 4 August 1914 (Daily Mirror)

Buckingham Palace, on the evening of 4 August 1914 (Daily Mirror)

This crowd greeted the war with cheers. Crowds elsewhere gathered to hear the news at telephone exchanges and military bases (there being no way of finding out otherwise without waiting for the next day’s newspapers) and to cheer on the Territorial soldiers who were being mobilised ready for war. The Ilford Recorder reported that ‘Little knots of people gathered outside the local Territorial offices, and at various points all the way down the High-road from Chadwell Heath to the Clock Tower and railway station… awaiting the fateful declaration of war, and it was not until long after the momentous hour of midnight had struck that they began to disperse’.

In Croydon (according to the borough’s war history) ‘There was bewilderment at first, but there was no panic. … Nor was there any war-fever, that enthusiasm which finds expression in flag-flapping, cheering, boasting, and the singing of patriotic songs. It was, as one acute observer remarked “a war without a cheer;” it was too serious a matter’.

It is difficult to judge the balance of opinions. How can we distinguish between information-seeking members of a crowd and hoping to celebrate the start of a war. The crowds in central London commanded attention because they were large events; the non-appearance of the vast majority of people in those crowds was less eye-catching. The general sense one gets from contemporary sources is that people were resigned to the war: some felt that it was too risky because of the economic disruption it would cause, others thought it would be redemptive and counter the social malaise of the Edwardian period. After Germany invaded Belgium, though, actual opposition to Britain entering the war was minimal.

No-one knew how long war that Britain entered on 4 August 1914 would last (and there was no dominant view as to its length). In fact, it lasted 52 months. Around a million people served in the military out of Greater London’s population of seven million. Perhaps 120,000 of them did not return. The city also faced shortages (leading to rationing), black-outs and air raids by Zeppelins and aeroplanes. Part of what makes the photos of men and women in the streets on 4 August 1914 and men volunteering for war is that we know with hindsight what a vast struggle it would be – and that it would not be the war to end wars (in HG Wells’ phrase of 1914).

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Posted by on 4 August 2014 in Events, Ordinary Londoners, Places


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The Gathering Storm: London, Sunday 2 August 1914

August 2nd, 1914, saw major public displays of opinion regarding the European War that most people clearly saw on the horizon. In Trafalgar Square, a rally for peace was held – and heckled – while nearby the first crowds gathered outside Buckingham Palace.

In the first post on this blog, I described how the demonstrations in Trafalgar Square changed from the peace rally of 2 August to the crowds greeting the start of the war on the 4th. Today, on the anniversary of the peace rally, I describe the scenes of that Sunday in more details.

Keir Hardie speaking from the plinth of Nelson's Column

Keir Hardie speaking from the plinth of Nelson’s Column


The rally on the 2nd started at 4 p.m. The Times, in its unfavourable coverage of the event, described the audience and speakers as including many foreigners – notably Germans and French. However, the list of speakers suggests otherwise: MPs Keir Hardie, G.N. Barnes, Arthur Henderson, Will Thorne and Mr R Cunninghame Graham and future MP Ben Tillett, along with a Mr Hyndman (presumably the socialist Henry Hyndman), Mrs Despard and Miss Mary McArthur. Their speeches called for peace but were also largely directed at the secretive nature of the international diplomacy that had brought about the Alliance system and the war crisis (this was a theme that continued in the left-wing critique of the war).

The speakers were joined by parties who had marched from St George’s Circus in Southwark, East India Docks, Kentish Town and Westminster Cathedral. The paper describes the meeting as entirely disrupted by a crowd singing patriotic songs and a rival meeting by Admiralty Arch. The Daily Express described the Trafalgar Square gathering as being made up of “the usual small section of Socialistic cranks. A dangerous collision between such persons and ordinary citizens” only being “averted by a copious draught of rain.”

Catriona Pennell, in her excellent book in 1914, describes how different papers came to wildly different conclusions. The Conservative press (like the Times) described a failure, while Liberal and left-wing papers described a resounding success. The Labour Leader deemed it to have been the biggest rally in Trafalgar Square in years. The Manchester Guardian described a huge crowd extending down Whitehall, with only a minor diversion from some youths hanging Union Flags from buses nearby. Then, as now, what one finds out about an event is strongly influenced by the source of ones information.

The Conservative press were much keener to describe the first of the large-scale gatherings of crowds outside Buckingham Palace. “As if by common consent,” according to the Express, “the Sunday frequenters of the Park and the West End began to converge on the Palace at about ten o’clock. Every minute the crowd grew, until the space in front of the Palace was black with people.” After some ringing of ‘Rule Britannia’, the King and Queen appeared on the balcony, greeted with the National Anthem. Nearby a large Union Flag was unfurled from the top of the Criterion Restaurant and an impromptu re-affirmation of the Entente Cordiale took place in Leicester Square. The Manchester Guardian stressed that there was ‘no war fever’ in the crowds.

These were not the only war-related activities in London that day: French and German reservists (i.e. those who had done compulsory military service in those nations and been placed in the reserves) were called up on Sunday the 2nd.

According to a report in the Express, hundreds of waiters were leaving London to rejoin their nations’ armed forces. “From the Savoy Hotel alone no fewer than 140 of the staff who had been called on for service left with their kit. Most of the 140 were Frenchmen, and among them were eighty cooks.”

They also listed rough numbers for those leaving other hotels and restaurants:

  • Hotel Cecil 50
  • Ritz           50-60
  • Carlton       30
  • Piccadilly Hotel 30
  • Hotel Metropole 30
  • Midland Hotel    10
  • Claridge’s         12
  • De Keyser’s Royal Hotel 50

Others lost six each: Frascati’s, Prince’s Restaurant, Coburg Hotel, Strand Palace Hotel, Hotel Great Central.

The Liverpool Echo described emotional scenes in London as French reservists left their families behind. The Express described the scene at the Charing Cross boat-train platform: “The stations was crowded with German reservists – barbers, waiters and musicians – all making their way back to rejoin the army. A group of people surrounded the notice boards announcing that the trains from Flushing to Germany were suspended.” Other notices also indicated difficulties getting to Germany: the Belgian railways were controlled by the military, and the route to Germany via Herbesthal was suspended. The Manchester Guardian described the departure of the Germans on Sunday and French on Monday as being in the same “noisy spirits”.

Interestingly there is no indication of trouble at the station as these Germans sought to go and join their army. That is not to say that anti-German feeling had not already surfaced. Bernard Brookes (who enlisted in the British Army soon afterwards), went into his office on 3 August – even though it was a Bank Holiday – to see if anything needed doing. His account of it shows mixed feeling about his German former colleagues: “Although the Firm I am with in Belgian, the Representative Principal and many in the business were Germs. Some of them had already left for Germany to fight against us, but there were still several at the Office who had not got the pluck to return and fight for their country.”

Sunday 2 August saw the war crisis really striking home for Britons. The next day’s bank holiday was to be extended, foreign reservists leaving London were soon joined by British naval reservists joining the Fleet. It was still not certain that Britain would enter the war, but it was already having an impact on life in London.


  • Catriona Pennell, A Kingdom United (2012)
  • The Times, 3/8/1914
  • The Daily Express, 3/8/1914
  • Manchester Guardian, 3 and 4/8/1914
  • Sgt Bernard Brookes, A Signaller’s War (2012)
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Posted by on 2 August 2014 in Events