The Gathering Storm: London, Sunday 2 August 1914

02 Aug

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


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