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.
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.
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.
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’.
- Dictionary of National Biography
- Ancestry: RC Colman service records.
- Long, Long Trail
- Mark Lloyd, The London Scottish in The Great War