RSS

Tag Archives: 1914

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).

Advertisements
 
Leave a comment

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

 

Tags: , , , , ,

Walter Tull and the black Great War heroes of the British Army

October is black history month in the UK. I will be including a few posts relating to black history and Great War London. First up is the most prominent black Londoner of the war, Walter Tull, and some of his fellow black British Army heroes of 1914-18.

Water Tull’s story is fairly well-known know, and is related in depth on websites including ‘Crossing the White Line’ (link). In short, he was born in Folkestone in 1888, the son of a Barbadian carpenter and his English wife. After both parents died while their children were young, Walter and his brother Edward were sent to the Children’s Home and Orphanage on Bonner Road, Bethnal Green. A keen footballer, the young Walter began playing for local Clapton FC in 1908-09 and was signed up as a professional footballer for Tottenham Hotspur the following season. Although he played well, racists incidents occurred at matches, and he was dropped from the first team. He found a new home, though, at Northampton Town FC, for whom he played 110 matches and scored 9 goals.

After the Great War began in summer 1914, there was much criticism of professional football for keeping men out of the army. In response a ‘Footballers’ Battalion’ was formed in the Middlesex Regiment (the 17th Bn) on 12 December. Tull was one of its earliest recruits, joining in London on 21 December and given the number 55. His rapid promotion over the next few months (lance corporal in February, corporal in June and lance serjeant in July 1915) is evidence of his leadership quality. The battalion – and L/Sgt Tull – arrived in France in November 1915, just in time for a freezing winter in the trenches. He served with them until April 1916 when he was admitted to a field hospital suffering from ‘acute mania’ and eventually sent back to the UK.

After a break in the reserve 27th and 6th battalions, Tull was clearly well enough to serve again and he arrived in the 23rd (2nd Football) Battalion on 20 September 1916, mid-way through the battle of Flers-Courcelette – part of the Battle of the Somme. He served with the unit through the battle of Le Transloy in October. In late November he filled out an application to be commissioned as an officer. A month later, his application was approved and he went to Scotland for officer training – despite a specific rule in Army Orders restricting officer status to men of ‘pure European descent’. He was the first black or mixed-race officer in the British Army.

Walter Tull’s application to become an officer

Rejoining the 23rd Middlesex as an officer, Tull was popular and effective. The unit fought through the 3rd Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) before being sent to Italy in November. In clashes on the river Piave, he was praised for his “gallantry and coolness” by Sir Sidney Lawford (commander of the 41st Division), who wrote described his heroism: “You were one of the first to cross the river prior to the raid, and during the raid you took the covering party of the main body across and brought them back without a casualty inspite of heavy fire.” He was recommended for the Military Cross, but was not awarded it.

Walter Tull and two fellow-officers

The 41st Division returned to France in February-March 1918, just in time for the German Spring Offensive, which was launched on 21 March. A few days in, during the First Battle of Bapaume, Tull was killed in action by a machine-gun bullet that hit him in the head. His body was buried by comrades, but as the Germans advanced the 23rd Middlesex retreated and the grave was lost. Tull is now commemorated on the Arras memorial to the missing. (A brother of his also died in the war: William, who is buried in Folkestone)

Walter Tull was an impressive man – coming from an orphanage to become a well-regarded officer is impressive enough, let alone doing so against a military law-book that denied non-white men the right to be officers. There is a campaign to award Tull the Military Cross posthumously, based on the assumption that it was denied purely because he was not white. While this may be the case, I find it unlikely that it was that simple – his commission was approved not only by officers who knew him but those (in administrative and training posts) who had never seen him in action, overlooking both his West Indian origins and his treatment for ‘mania’. The fact is that medals recommended were not always awarded: for example, Siegfried Sassoon was reportedly recommended for the Victoria Cross but did not receive it.

More pertinent to the Tull case is the intriguing example of Private John Williams, whose picture appeared in the African Telegraph in March 1919 with the title ‘The Man whom White Soldiers Call “The Black V.C.”.’ The caption then describes Williams as having been awarded the DCM, MM, Russian Cross of St George, French Médaille militaire and Légion d’honneur. He doesn’t appear to be wearing quite that many medals in the photo, but is certainly decorated and carrying four wound stripes. His ‘many brave deeds’ would supposedly have been enough to “earn any European the V.C.”

“The Black VC” Pte John Williams DCM MM (c)British Library

It is not clear whether Williams was British, West Indian or African, although having been honoured by the French he must have served in a British unit (rather than the British West Indies Regiment, which fought in the Middle East but only did support work in France and Flanders). It seems odd that his story has been forgotten while Tull has become a cause célèbre.

Another intriguing African Telegraph photo is this one – also from the African Telegraph – of ‘A West African Soldier “Walking Out” in London’. The story tells of the number of African soldiers in the British Army, who became known as “Coloured Army Knuts” (knut being a slang term for showy young men).

A West African soldier in London (c)British Library

“Some of these young men left their studies to join the British Army upon the outbreak of hostilities and rendered a very good account of themselves in the trenches and fields of Flanders, many of them wear coveted distinctions, and one form Oxford University won the M.C. for a particularly daring deed with the Tank Corps.”

If this report is accurate (I have no reason to think it false, but have not been able to corroborate it with other sources), then there was a Military Cross awarded to a black man during the Great War. This man’s background – as an African at Oxford University – was very different to Tull’s, but he must have been an officer or at least a Warrant Officer to be awarded the MC. Who was this man?

Telling the stories of these decorated black soldiers in Britain’s Great War army is not an attempt to do down Tull’s story. He was very impressive and brave; we should remember him and his sacrifice. But we should not assume that his lack of reward for his bravery was necessarily due to racism. Nor should we forget the other black soldiers who fought with great bravery in the same army.

___________________________________

Update: since writing this, I have become aware of at least one black/mixed-race officer who was commissioned before Tull (and was also killed in action). Read more about G.E.K. Bemand on this blog post, where I tell his story and consider his and Tull’s parallel stories.

_____________________________________________________________

Sources:
On Tull – resources on the website Crossing the White Line; Tull’s service record online at Movinghere.org.uk.
The Long, Long Trail.
BL photos tagged ‘black history month’

 
11 Comments

Posted by on 1 October 2012 in Award-winners, Ordinary Londoners

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Cricketers at war

Today, England and South Africa start their pivotal third Test match, which will decide which is the world’s number one team. London’s two county cricket teams (Surrey and Middlesex) are also playing each other at the Oval.  In 1914, cricket was one of the sports whose players were called upon to join up for the duration of the war. By December 1914, cricketers form the England, South Africa, Middlesex and Surrey teams had joined up.

The war disrupted the cricket season, leading to its abandonment and the enlistment of many cricketers – both amateurs and professionals. On 11 December 1914, the Times published a list of players who were serving in the armed forces. The Surrey and Middlesex names on the list were:

Surrey

Middlesex

These include England players like the legendary ‘Plum’ Warner and Percy Fender, as well as a few players from the Dominions – including Londoner Reggie Schwarz, who played cricket for South Africa and rugby for England.

‘Plum’ Warner at the crease, 1910. (c) ESPNcricinfo

Several of these men were Londoners whose stories may well appear in future blog posts.

The full list of players from all the counties (click to enlarge).

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on 16 August 2012 in Famous People, Ordinary Londoners, People

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

A national war shrine

Today is the anniversary of Britain’s entry into the Great War. I have written before of the scenes in London in early August 1914, so will today turn to the scenes four years later, when a national war shrine was unveiled in Hyde Park.

Read the rest of this entry »

 

Tags: , , , , ,

Trafalgar Square, August 1914

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

 
6 Comments

Posted by on 14 January 2012 in Events, Places

 

Tags: , , ,