Reflections on war and warfare: Week 23 (4 – 10 August 2014)

On 4 August 1914 Great Britain entered the First World War, declaring war on Germany after Germany had invaded Belgium and Luxemburg. Orders had been given in Great Britain the previous day for troops to mobilise and by the 7 August the first British Expeditionary Forces had landed in France. At the outbreak of war the Territorial units, which were the reserve of the British army, were given the option of serving in France. Many battalions volunteered, but as there was a question of the availability of Territorials for service overseas on 11 August a call was made for the first 100,000 men to enlist in Lord Kitchener’s New Army. It was a call that was answered within two weeks. Not everyone was willing to take up arms to fight and there were an estimated 16,000 conscientious objectors in the First World War. Within this number were those who were willing to serve as “non-combatants” and such service could take the form of work as stretcher bearers or ambulance crews on the front line. Such work was hazardous, as bullets, bombs and shells did not distinguish between combatants and non-combatants.

3 August 1914 Defence of the English Channel
Prince Louis of Battenberg assumed the post of First Sea Lord of the Royal Navy on 8 December 1912. As First Sea Lord, he was responsible to the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, for ensuring the readiness of the fleet and the preparation of naval strategy. In response to the events of July 1914, Battenberg was instructed to bring the navy’s ships to a state of war readiness. While the move was criticised by some at the time, it did prove beneficial once war was declared. In the passage below, written on the eve of Britain declaring war on Germany, the First Lord requests authorisation to make preparations for the defence of the British Channel.

“In consequence of declarations in the House this afternoon, I must request authorisation immediately to put into force the [combined] Anglo-French dispositions for the defence of the channel. The French have already taken station and this partial disposition does not ensure security.

My naval colleagues and advisers desire me to press for this; and unless I am forbidden I shall act accordingly. This of course implies no offensive action and no warlike action unless we are attacked.”

MS 62 MB1/T37/365 Handwritten minute from Winston Churchill to Asquith and Grey on the defence of the English Channel, 3 August 1914


4 August 1914 War is declared
“They were bidding farewell to Territorials. Everything at tension as England has declared war…”

MS 168 AJ 217/10 Journal of Samuel Rich, 4 August 1914


5 August 1914 “England has a good cause”
“Well it has come, and now that war is declared I feel that England has a good cause, I don’t think in view of Germany’s behaviour about Belgium we could hold our hand. The Germans think of themselves as supermen, the waging of war is to them above the decencies and restraints of ordinary people, for them victory is to be strong, no matter by what means it is to be gained.”

MS 336 A2097/1 Letter from Frederick Dudley Samuel to his fiancée and, subsequent wife Dorothy, 5 August 1914


5 August 1914 Service with the Territorials
“It is all very dreadful, but I suppose Nietzsche would approve, meanwhile I feel rather proud that I am one of those who have consistently tried to prepare against the time which has come and that the sacrifices I have made of sport and whatever else I have missed by being a Territorial, are likely to be bear print.”

MS 336 A2097/1 Letter from Frederick Dudley Samuel to his fiancée and, subsequent wife Dorothy, 5 August 1914


8 August 1914 Belgium
“The Belgians are doing wonderful things according to the papers. If only they hold on, the whole course of the war will probably be alleged or the position of Germany made worse than if she had never violated Belgium.”

MS 336 A2097/1 Letter from Frederick Dudley Samuel to his fiancée and, subsequent wife Dorothy, 8 August 1914


8 August 1914 Provision of relief in cases of distress brought about by the war
The declaration of war on Germany caused a great deal of distress among the British public. In particular, it had a sudden impact on dependents of reservists called upon to serve their country, as well as individuals who became unemployed or suffered a loss of earnings as a result of the war. On 7 August, the Prince of Wales announced the formation of a National Fund to provide relief in such cases of distress. Rather than being administered through a central office, the Prince of Wales National Relief Fund worked through Local Relief Committees with the assistance of existing charities and relief organisations. In the case below, a circular letter was sent by the Mayor of Stepney to the Jewish Board of Guardians requesting their assistance in the distribution of relief.

“The President of the Local Government Board has requested me to take immediate steps to establish a representative Local Committee for the Borough of Stepney to consider the needs of the locality and to coordinate the distribution of such relief as may be required in cases of distress brought about by the present war. I should be glad if you could see your way to assist me in this important work by becoming a member of this Committee.”

MS173/1/11/4/985 Circular letter from H.T.A.Chidgey, Mayor of Stepney, requesting assistance in the establishment of a representative Local Committee for the Borough of Stepney to provide relief in cases of distress brought about by the present war, 8 August 1914


11 August 1914 Volunteering to serve as a “non-combatant”
Hope Bagenal was one who felt that he could not bear arms, instead serving with the Royal Army Medical Corps on the Western Front, 1914-16, before being seriously wounded at the Somme in 1916.

“I thought about the matter, and I do not think I am wrong. I could not have joined last week… By Saturday all the London Territorial Regiments were full and had long waiting lists… I found at a meeting at the Red Cross last night that names of men were wanted for stretcher bearers to begin training at once, also for those willing to go abroad when called upon. I have put my name down for both and go to practices in the evenings. There were not many names.

It is true I believe that so many are going or waiting to join regiments of various kinds that there is a real demand for ambulance volunteers. If there is an equal opportunity of serving without contributing to the general slaughter – and a man prefers to choose that – I think he need not be considered less patriotic.”

MS 340 A3067/1/3 Letter from Hope Bagenal to his father, 11 August 1914

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