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Podcast 2: Outbreak – 4 August 1914

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And in that case was a white suit, with blood all over it. And he said to us, he said, ‘Ship’s company! This is war...'

After weeks of speculation and mounting tension, Great Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914. In this podcast, you’ll hear how people reacted to this news. Charles Chabot was living in Bangkok, Thailand and was unsure about how to react.

We’d been playing a series of rugby football games and as a final game of the session the Germans had challenged the rest, and this was to be followed by dinner at the German Club. We were all seated around the table, mixed up obviously, there was a German here and next to him there was an Englishman and next to him there was a German and next to him there was a Frenchman and so on, and so on, and we were starting the rugby football dinner, and it was very like other rugby football dinners have been from time immemorial. A bang at the door, and a runner from the French Embassy with the extraordinary news of outbreak of war… None of the chaps here had ever seen a declaration of war before, we didn’t know what we ought to do, whether we ought to seize a knife off the table and plunge it into the next chap or what! But after a little bit of discussion we decided that as far as we were concerned the war was going to start tomorrow and it wasn’t going to start tonight, and the party proceeded and that was that.

The 4th of August 1914 was a Tuesday. It followed a bank holiday weekend when many people went away. Fourteen year old Arthur Tevendale was in East Sussex.

I remember so well that the one and only hotel at Rottingdean they had a waiter or somebody who was a German. And when the news came through by telephone to say that war had been declared against Germany, I can see him now rushing out into the road there and wringing his hands and in his guttural English saying, ‘It is madness!’ He was really shocked.

Frederick Holmes was 17 when he heard of the outbreak during a carefree holiday.

I was on the river, boating. The River Nairn at Northampton, it was a favourite place for boating. And we were there when we heard from the river bank that war had broken out. Well, I was with two other fellows on the boat and oh, I think we were all excited and we anticipated we may have a go!

Elizabeth Lee, who was 22, hardly gave the news of war a second thought.

At the particular day when war was declared, I was on holiday, lots of people were on holiday – and it came suddenly. I was away staying with some friends and it was on the newspaper placards when Dad came home at night and he said, ‘War has been declared on Germany!’ People who followed politics of course expected it, but I don’t think I bothered much about it; you don’t when you’re young and having a good time!

In London, there were scenes of patriotic enthusiasm when people realised they were at war. Angela Limerick, a teenager at the time, remembers what she witnessed.

It was all very unreal of course, I mean all very exciting. I remember when war was declared going outside Buckingham Palace and cheering with all the crowds as the king and queen came out on the balcony and being frightfully excited and thinking it was splendid that we were going into the war and all the rest of it. So different from the outbreak of the last world war, where there was none of that.

In Leeds, too, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive, as Horace Calvert, a 14 year old from the city, describes.

It was a lovely August 4th morning. I was going from home to work for seven o’clock. As I got to the end of Richmond Road, there was a newsagent’s shop and outside was a big placard, ‘War Declared on Germany’. In the evening I went to Bellevue Barracks. There were crowds round there, everybody was excited. It was very patriotic, songs and singing and all that – ‘Rule Britannia’.

In some cases, the patriotism spilled over into acts of violence against German businesses. George Wilkinson describes two such instances in County Durham.

In one part of Crook where we lived there was some German butchers there and people went and had a riot and smashed their windows and smashed them up and so forth, I remember that quite plain. And there was another butcher who’d been supplying, they went and smashed his as well because he’d supplied this German butcher with meat. Which was just idiocy.

For members of the armed forces, war meant a chance to put all their training into practice. Percy Snelling was a trooper in the 12th Royal Lancers.

We were delighted. We had been preparing for the previous fortnight for the annual cavalry manoeuvres which would take us down into the south of Salisbury Plain. And it wasn’t so very popular. And when we heard that war was declared, everybody was delighted. And we thought it far more amusing to go and see some part of the continent than to go on manoeuvres. Literally cheers went up from each side of the barrack square, from the men, when somebody gave out that war was declared.

It was the same for Britain’s new enemy, as German naval officer Lieutenant Commander Dehn explains.

We didn’t know until the last moment whether or not England would come in, but we were not surprised when we heard this news. And we took it up very, very cheerfully, because after all if you are a commissioned officer in the forces you don’t want to drill all the time and learn, you want to show what you’ve learnt. On the other hand we fully realised that the size of the German fleet was practically nothing in comparison with the almighty British fleet.

A member of that fleet, William Vorstius of HMS Antrim, was told of the outbreak of war in a very sobering way.

In the morning our admiral, Admiral Sir Charles Madden, he had everybody brought up and he said to us about the war being declared. And he had with him – I’ll always remember it – a case. And in that case was a white suit, with blood all over it. And he said to us, he said, ‘Ship’s company! This is war’. Not what we’d been doing, playing around, he said, ‘This is war’. He said, ‘I was wearing this when several men was killed’ – he was in the Japanese war.

Not all servicemen realised the outbreak would affect them. Private Maydwell, who later fought in France and Belgium, was at Krugersdorp, South Africa when he heard.

I remember we was on manoeuvres at Krugersdorp and I was walking down the road in the cool of the evening, relaxing, when a motor driver came along all grim and dirty with sand, ‘Can you direct me to brigade headquarters? England’s at war with Germany’. Well I told him where to go, but the fact that England was at war with Germany didn’t convey a thing because 7,000 miles away meant that we shouldn’t become involved.

Even those who were children at the time of the outbreak clearly remembered their feelings that day. Heinrich Beutow was a schoolboy in Germany.

I was in a small German garrison town in 1914 and I remember very well the tremendous enthusiasm. Of course, we schoolboys were all indoctrinated with great patriotism when war broke out. My father was an active infantry officer and I shall never forget the day when they marched out to the trains. All the soldiers were decorated with flowers, there was no gun which didn’t show a flower – even the horses I think were decorated. And of course all the people followed them. There were bands playing, flags flying, and a terrific sort of overwhelming conviction that of course Germany now would go into war and win it very quickly.

Find out more about the First World War at iwm.org.uk. We’d really like to know what you think of these podcasts. Please rate us or leave a comment on iTunes. Listen out for Podcast 3: Joining Up