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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 investiture

In a previous blog post we saw that tens of thousands of Londoners were awarded decorations for gallantry or good service. What were the ceremonies like?  Here are three personal accounts, one by a recipient and two by observers, of ceremonies at Buckingham Palace.

Seaman William Williams receives his VC from the King at Buckingham Palace (Daily Mirror, 23/7/1917)

Seaman William Williams receives his VC from the King at Buckingham Palace (Daily Mirror, 23/7/1917)

Edward Brittain earned the Military Cross on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916. Waiting to go over the top, his trench was crowded by men wounded earlier in the attack (Edward’s unit was not in the first wave) and the men in front began to panic. As he told his sister Vera, “It looked like a regular rot, and I can’t remember just how I got the men together and made them go over the parapet. I only know I had to go back twice to get them, and I wouldn’t go through those minutes again if it meant the V.C.” About 70 yards into the advance, Edward was hit and could go no further, despite his best efforts. Crawling into a shell-hole he was hit again. After a while he crawled back towards the British lines past the bodies of the dead and wounded from that morning’s attack. After 20 minutes crawling he was helped back into the trenches by two stretcher-bearers. When he was sent back to the UK to recover from his wounds, Edward ended up in the hospital where Vera was a nurse, 1st London General Hospital in Camberwell.

On 24 August, Edward received a letter saying that he was to be awarded the Military Cross for his bravery on 1 July. He wrote to Vera in December 1916 about what happened when he arrived at the Palace to receive his award:

“I came up to town on Tuesday the 16th, went to Buckingham Palace on the 17th at 10.30 am. Mother came with me in the taxi from home and I dropped her just outside the gates and drove in alone; I ascended a wide staircase and deposited my hat and stick in a sort of cloak room, keeping my gloves (your gloves), went up more stairs, was asked by an old boy in a frock coat what I was to receive, was then directed to another old boy who verified my name etc and told me to stand on one side of the room – a large room with portraits of royal personages round the walls. There were 3 C.M.G.’s, about 12 D.S.O.’s and about 30 M.C.’s* so it was a fairly small investiture.

“We were instructed what to do by a Colonel who I believe is the King’s special private secretary and then the show started. One by one we walked into an adjoining room about 6 paces – halt – left turn – bow – 2 paces forward – King pins on cross – shake hands – pace back – bow – right turn and slope off by another door. The various acts were not read out, but the Colonel just called out ‘Receive the C.M.G.’ etc. Colonel so-and-so.

“The King spoke to a few of us including me; he said “I hope you have quite recovered from your wound”, to which I replied “Very nearly thank you, Sir”, and then went out with the cross in my pocket in a case. I met Mother just outside and we went off towards Victoria thinking we had quite escaped all the photographers, but unfortunately one beast from the Daily Mirror saw us and took us, but luckily it does not seem to have come out well as it is rather bad form to have your photo in a ½ d rag if avoidable.”

Edward Brittain MC and his mother, leaving Buckingham Palace

Edward Brittain MC and his mother, leaving Buckingham Palace

The crowd at the gates of Buckingham Palace for a VC investiture, July 1917 (Daily Mirror, 23/7/1917)

The crowd at the gates of Buckingham Palace for a VC investiture, July 1917 (Daily Mirror, 23/7/1917)

Michael MacDonagh attended an investiture outside at the palace the following summer. This was a VC ceremony, with fewer recipients and a crowd of the public watching – and listening to the accounts of the acts for which the honour was being awarded:

“I attended to-day one of the public conferring of War honours by the King in the forecourt of Buckingham Palace. […] It was the Investiture of the Victoria Cross – that plain cross of bronze with the simple motto “For Valour” which is the most honoured and coveted military decoration in the world. The recipients were nine soldiers – an officer of the Royal Flying Corps, an officer of the Royal Army Medical Corps, five sergeants and two privates of the Line.

“The forecourt was flooded with sunshine when at a quarter to twelve o’clock the King in the uniform of a Field-Marshal came out of the Palace attended by his Staff. The guard of honour was provided by the Grenadier Guards. With them was the band of the regiment. The soldiers who were to be decorated were seated on chairs. Civilians present were chiefly wives, mothers and children of the soldiers. From the pavement outside the great sweep of the railings of the forecourt, and from the high steps and terrace of the Victoria Memorial, crowds of spectators obtained a view of the ceremony.

“As each recipient of the Victoria Cross was presented to the King the official account of his valour was read by an officer. Neither the name nor a word of the record could be heard by the public outside the railings, but they cheered and clapped their hands all the same, well knowing that each story might worthily be proclaimed in trumpet tones to listening London. The King pinned the Victoria Cross on each hero’s breast, and having held him in conversation for a few moments gave him a warm clasp of the hand. The exploit of the non-commissioned officers and privates was the same in each case – putting out of action enemy machine-gun nests that were holding up a British advance.

“There was one absentee, Captain Harold Ackroyd, R.A.M.C., who was killed in action. Utterly regardless of danger, he worked continuously in the front line during several battles, tending the wounded, bringing disabled officers and men to a place of safety under heavy machine-gun, rifle and shell fire. When the widow and little son of this gallant officer were presented to the King and the widow received her husband’s Victoria Cross, the cheers of the spectators were particularly warm and prolonged. The Military Cross had also been bestowed on Captain Ackroyd. It was handed by the King to the boy.”

Harold Ackroyd VC MC

Harold Ackroyd VC MC

Remarkably there is a video of this investiture (see from 1.55), showing some of the men receiving their VCs, and Captain Ackroyd’s wife and son being given his VC and MC. Ackroyd’s Victoria Cross was awarded for his extreme bravery in tending and rescuing the wounded in the first two days of the 3rd Ypres (aka Passchendaele); so impressive was his heroism that 23 separate recommendations for him to receive the honour were submitted. Sadly, he was killed less than two weeks later, searching for wounded men behind the front line.

By 1918, the ceremony had become even more of a public event, with a large crowd

* CMG is the medal of a Commander of the Order of the St Michael and St George (although, see Yes Minister), DSO is the Distinguished Service Order, and MC is the Military Cross.

Sources:

Alan Bishop (ed) Letters from a Lost Generation: First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends

Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth

Michael Macdonagh, In London During the Great War

Spartacus biography of Edward Brittain

VictoriaCross.org.uk on Harold Ackroyd

 
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Posted by on 26 June 2014 in Award-winners, Places

 

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Cheering the Royals 1914-style

The start of August 1914 was a time of great emotion in London.  As we saw in the first post on this blog, there were a number of crowds in Westminster in the days before the war and on August 4th.

This photo, published in the Daily Mirror on 6 August 1914, shows the crowd outside Buckingham Palace late on the evening on the 4th – just after war had been declared:

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

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

The photo shows the scene after war had been declared and the King and Queen (George V and Mary) had come out onto the balcony, joined by their son the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII), who had recently become an officer in the Grendadier Guards. They seem to be on the right-hand balcony (looking from the Victoria memorial) rather than the larger middle balcony used by George VI on VE Day and by the current Queen on big state occasions since then.

Two things to note about this photo. The first is that there really were huge crowds in Westminster late at night on 4 August 1914 to great the declaration of war. The second is (as noted in the earlier post about Trafalgar Square) the social make-up of the crowd: it is mainly a young middle/upper class crowd, as shown by the number of straw boaters being waved around. Hats were a handy way to identify men’s social class in 1914.

The war was greeted with cheers by some, but more by young well-off men than by those whose jobs might be affected by the disruption of war or for whom providing for the family (as the bread-winner or the person shopping and cooking) would become much harder as prices rose in response to the war. It is unlikely that any Londoners really envisaged the kind of war that was beginning that night 99 years ago, but a great many greeted it with fear. Worried individuals and families do not make for exciting newspaper images and copy, though, so we are left with images of jubilant crowds.

 
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Posted by on 6 August 2013 in Places

 

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Gertrude Jarratt, Victoria Cross widow

Today the latest lists of honours to military personnel have been published; of the 131 medals, 130 were to living recipients. In the Great War, a quarter of the Victoria Crosses (Britain’s highest award for bravery) that were awarded were posthumous. Since these recognised the gallantry of men who died in or shortly after the deeds they were rewarded for, the medals were presented to their families. Among these stand-in recipients were Gertrude Margaret Jarratt and her daughter Joyce. This is a short attempt to tell their story.

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Posted by on 23 March 2012 in Award-winners, Women

 

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