The First Few Weeks
After weeks of uncertainty, on August 4th 1914, war was declared on Germany because they had refused to honour Belgium’s declared neutrality.
Some mobilisation of our armed forces had already been underway throughout the summer but now all reservists were called back into service.
£100,000,000 was voted through Parliament for immediate wartime contingencies (by contrast, the German government voted through £250,000,000 for theirs) and a nationwide “call to arms” appeared in newspapers, Post Offices and Police Stations.
Nearer to home, Kent was preparing itself with the West Kent Yeomanry and the Royal West Kent (Queen’s Own) Regiment mobilising and marching off to their headquarters. A group of the Yeomanry, about 40 strong, gathered at the Fountain in Sevenoaks and sang patriotic songs ending with Rule Britannia and the National Anthem followed by three cheers for the King before marching off to their mobilisation centre. The Territorials had an even better send off as they marched from the Drill Hall to the railway station at Tubs Hill between crowds of cheering townsfolk. Sevenoaks Town Band abandoned the Seal Flower Show that day and came to the station to play the National Anthem as the troops departed.
Kent, as it always has been, was the access route to Europe and was now to see the military, the wounded, refugees, voluntary workers and all the paraphernalia of war crossing the county. That night in early August the Drill Hall played host to a detachment of a Cyclist Battalion on its way south to war and the next day more Cyclists were passing through the district. The local people were to turn out on many future occasions to cheer departing troops and offer solace and nursing to the returning casualties.
All young men were exhorted to respond to the national call to arms. Men between the ages of 19 and 30 years could get information at any Post Office or Military Depot and sign on for 3 years or the duration of the war. Obviously not everyone thought it would all be over by Christmas.
The 25th (Sevenoaks) Company of the National Reserve, a body made up of ex-servicemen who had no further obligation for military service, was soon busy too and told to report to the Police Station Yard on the evening of September 6th bringing a greatcoat, a blanket and a stout stick as they were to spend the night in Knole Park guarding a herd of horses bound for military service.
As well as the military mobilisation the local civilians were being organised to do their bit. The VADs, the Voluntary Aid Detachments run by the Red Cross, got to work setting up a hospital in the Cornwall Hall, as they did in towns and villages throughout the country, and appealed for donations of bedding, nursing and cooking equipment and money.
A local corps of stretcher bearers attracted around 50 recruits to the Liberal Hall in Bank Street where ex-ambulance men demonstrated the correct procedures for coping with the injured.
Sevenoaks Rifle Club offered their services at the open air range at Shenden every Wednesday and Saturday afternoons to instruct men in the use of the rifle. Club membership and the use of the rifles would be free for everyone but a small charge would be made for ammunition. St. John’s miniature rifle range at Bat and Ball similarly trained men in shooting skills.
Magistrates swore in Special Constables in Sevenoaks and the surrounding villages to replace the many policemen who were enlisting. Their many duties included guarding reservoirs to ensure a safe water supply, watching out for German spies and saboteurs and keeping their ears open for malicious rumours. One such rumour going the rounds alleged that the 3 years military service that men were signing up for would be followed by 9 years on the reserve. This rumour was, of course, attributed to German spies but was quickly denied before it could affect recruitment.
Older Boy Scouts welcomed the Chief Constables initiative that would release them from school to act as messengers. The Government recognised the Boy Scouts and Sea Scouts as non-military bodies but called upon them for public service. Later reports showed that the boys carried out their duties with every care, with a sense of responsibility and enthusiasm.
The gentlemen of the district were asked to place their motor cars at the disposal of the government. A certain Colonel Walker suggested that they should advise their chauffeurs, who would now be unemployed, to register for National Service. He would personally make the necessary arrangements with the War Office.
Another request was for gentlemen with gardeners who could be spared to allow them to assist in the harvest, which was well under way by then, or to help cultivate allotments for families whose men had gone to war.
Others as well had sympathy for the soldiers’ families in the absence of the breadwinner and the rector of Sevenoaks started a fund to provide for those in need, indeed a lady and gentleman had already given him £25 for this purpose.
Essenhigh-Corke and Co. Ltd., a photographic shop in London Road, Sevenoaks, offered a free photograph to all Military and Naval men and all ladies of the Red Cross, in their uniforms. They could come at any time as no appointment was necessary. Perhaps some of these photographs were among those in the WW1 exhibition at the Sevenoaks Library in 2014.
And to show that patriotism was alive and well everywhere, even in the most ardent feminists, the Women’s Unionist Association called off their fete arranged for August 19th in “Montreal”. They decided to stop campaigning for as long as hostilities lasted and devote themselves instead to providing succour to those who would suffer as a result of the war.
Finally, prayers for Divine intervention were said in every church with calls for denominational differences to be put aside in order to combine their prayers and unite in the face of the enemy.
The war was underway
This information comes from the Sevenoaks Chronicle, the Parish Council minutes, records and recruiting posters of the time.
© Sheila Hocking