The Evening News in 1914: Portsmouth goes to war

I’ve begun looking at microfilm copies of the Portsmouth Evening News from 1914, to try and get some kind of handle on what was happening in those heady days, and what public mood and reaction was like to the climactic events that took Britain to war.

In July 1914, the crisis in Ireland was dominating news. In early 1912 the Liberal Government had proposed Home Rule for Ireland. Unionist in Ulster objected to the possible creation of an autonomous government in Dublin, and later that year the Ulster Volunteers were formed. In 1914, faced with the threat of civil disobedience, the Army in Ireland was ordered to prepare to act against any violence. Many officers and men refused to act, including the future General Sir Hubert Gough and Sir Charles Fergusson. The following scandal forced the Chief of the Imperial General Staff Field Marshal Sir John French, to resign. The Irish crisis was very much dominating news in July 1914, and the stormclouds gathering over Europe were received only very minor coverage.

During July many of the areas Territorial Force units were on their annual camps. The Hampshire Fortress Royal Engineers Electric Light Companies were training with their searchlights at Southsea Castle, and the Wessex Royal Artillery were ‘enjoying’ what was described as a ‘dismal’ camp at Okehampton in Devon. The 6th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment were in camp at Bulford on Salisbury Plain. The reports from these camps made little or no mention of European Affairs. Elsewhere the traditional English summer season carried on regardless, with the horse racing at Goodwood and Cowes week planned for early August.

However, by the end of July, with the mobilisation and counter-mobilisations taking place among the European powers, the threat of war was beginning to be taken more seriously. The Kings Harbour Master posted a lengthy ‘notice to mariners’ in the Evening News, warning that there would be stringent restrictions on watercraft in Portsmouth Harbour and the Solent, and that navigation lights were subject to being turned off without prior warning.

Whilst usually naval movements in Portsmouth were publicised in the Evening News, with the coming of war these movements were taken out of the public domain, with the editorial of 30 July 1914 stating ‘…especially in a town like Portsmouth is extreme reticence necessary’. A special late edition on the same day reported on the Austrian invasion of ‘Servia’. On 31 July Russia mobilised, and the King, of course a naval officer and a keen sailor, called off his annual visit to Cowes Week.

On 1 August the 6th Hampshires were still in camp on Salisbury Plain, but were expressing ‘great excitement’ at the news from abroad. Goodwood was much quieter, as a great many naval and military officers have been recalled to re-join their units. Not all in Portsmouth were excited about the prospect of war, however. On 3 August an article in the Evening News advertised a Labour and Socialist protest against the war in Town Hall Square, to be held at 7.30pm the next day. Also on 3 August naval reservists were streaming into Portsmouth, and the submarine depot’s sports day was postponed indefinitely. The Government was to order full mobilisation the next day.

The Evening News of 4 August, the day that Britain finally found itself at war, carried a slightly bizarre notice, announcing that ‘owing to the serious aspect of affair, Lady Fitzwygrams garden party on August 8th will not take place’. The Evening News began publishing late special editions, as the demand for the newspaper was reaching unprecedented levels. The day’s News also contained the first direct appeal for recruits, initially for the Territorial Force. Colonel A.R. Holbrook, the local recruiting officer, appealed for 680 men to join local TF units. A large ‘your king and country need you’ advertisement also drove the message home. The Labour and Socialist protest of the same day was described as an anti-climax, and ended with the police having to intervene after trouble flared with pro-war crowds.

By 5 August, the war news had been promoted to the font page. Traditionally, 1914-era newspapers carried adverts on the front, and news inside. The local TF units had been mobilised, and the 6th Hampshires had returned from their summer camp, receiving an enthusiastic reception at the town station.

On 6 August it was reported that the Portsmouth Board of Guardians – ie, those who ran the Workhouse – had offered their facilities to the Government, and other local buildings such as schools were rumoured to be about to be requisitioned. The Corporation, it eas reported, had been badly disorganised by the indiscriminate enlistment of many of its employees, leaving many vacancies behind. There was also a notice explaining ‘how the join the army’, directing recruits to local barracks, the post office or recruiting offices. This was very much in line with national patterns, where during August most recruits enlisted in either the regular Army or local Territorial units. By the end of August it was reported that over a thousand men in Portsmouth had enlisted.

Whilst the first Pals type Battalion was raised by Robert White from among financial workers in the City of London, it was in Liverpool that the idea really took off. Lord Derby organised a recruiting campaign and managed to recruit over 1,500 men in two days. Speaking to his men, he said ‘this should be a Battalion of Pals’. Within a few weeks Liverpool had raised four Pals Battalions. Inspired by Lord Derby’s enthusiasm, Lord Kitchener encouraged other areas around the country to raise similar units, writing letters to local authorities to suggest the idea. The normal machinery for recruiting men into the Army was swamped. Kitchener also had a very low regard for the Territorial Force. Hence the solution was to recruit completely new Battalions, in what came to be known as Kitchener’s New Armies. A key part of these New Armies were the locally raised, or Pals Battalions.

As I have previously recorded, Portsmouth was the only town south of London to recruit what might be called Pals Battalions. Yet the impetus for recruiting a Pals Battalion in Portsmouth began much earlier than most of the more famous northern Pals Battalions. A report in the Evening News in late August stated that a Portsmouth Citizens Patriotic Recruiting Committee was being formed, and that a public meeting would be held in the Town Hall on 3 September 1914, when it was resolved that a Portsmouth Battalion should be formed. Among the speakers encouraging recruitment were Admiral Lord Charles Beresford, the town’s MP. The Town Hall was packed, with an overflow meeting on the steps being relayed the proceedings by megaphone.

Hence Portsmouth was among one of the first towns to raise its own Battalions. By comparison, recruiting began for the Sheffield Pals on 10 September, and for the Accrington Pals on 14 September. Lord Kitchener soon wrote to theMayor to accept the Towns offer of raising a Battalion. The Evening News began to publish lists of recruits to the Battalion. Ominously, around this time the News was also publishing the first casualty reports from the Western Front and the first Royal Navy ships to be sunk.

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16 Comments

Filed under Army, Pompey Pals, western front, World War One

16 responses to “The Evening News in 1914: Portsmouth goes to war

  1. Neat stuff! It’s interesting to see the disinterest in “European affairs” even as events moved inexorably towards war. It’d be interesting to see what the French and German papers were saying at the time. I do know that the Germans were, at least on the surface, trying to calm down any over-reaction on Austria-Hungary’s part.
    I suppose you could always do a “prequel” of “The Guns Of August”, on the various countries’ outlooks in the June-early August time period. Unless it’s been done before, of course – which it probably has (and most likely to death). :D

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