Monday, 4 August 2014

Flying the Flag for the Empire

A call from the King in August 1914
Image credit: A Call to Arms 1914  © IWM (Art.IWM PST 5080) 


Budleigh Salterton residents line the bridge on Leas Road to watch young men departing for the front from the railway station
Image credit: Fairlynch Museum

Traditionally, historians have taken the view that when Britain declared war on 4 August 1914 it was in a mood of patriotic euphoria, shared by people in towns and cities all over Europe.

It’s probably true that few took the views expressed by thinkers like Albert Einstein, left, in Berlin and Bertrand Russell in London - that Europe, “in her insanity has started something almost unbelievable”, and was about to descend into a state of “primitive barbarism.”   

At the beginning of the Great War, no agreement had been reached by politicians at Westminster about whether the country should have a system of national conscripted service. In 1914, British Army units, unlike those of Germany and France, were made up exclusively of volunteers.

The traditional picture of the patriotic euphoria which has been held to have swept the nation and inspired so many to volunteer for war is well conveyed by the images of young men in uniform departing from railway stations like Budleigh Salterton.  For contemporaries it seemed as though most of the town had turned out to see off the volunteers.  There was, recalled Budleigh’s Jim Gooding, “pride that our country was about to be  drawn in to fight an enemy aggressor.” 

Anti-German feeling among British people was extreme following the invasion of Belgium, but in truth Germanophobia had been flourishing since the previous century.  Kaiser Wilhelm’s 1896 telegram of support for the Boers of the Transvaal had seemed to confirm German ambitions for expansion and influence in South Africa, and a naval arms race had started between Germany and Britain.

Well before the start of the war, people had been alarmed by the threat to the Empire by German ambitions as presented in the British press. For many years they had been fed a diet of thriller and ‘invasion’ novels characterised by the portrayal of evil German spies involved in sinister plans to destroy Britain.

Many blame the deterioration in Anglo-German relations on the influence of the press. One journalist in particular led the way in portraying Germany as a threat to Britain. As early as 1894 Alfred Harmsworth, proprietor of the Daily Mail, had commissioned author William Le Queux to write The Great War in England, which featured Germany, France and Russia combining forces to crush Britain.   "This is the book that frightened the life out of many British people, proclaiming a German threat a decade ahead of the First World War," wrote historian Max Hastings.

Left: The first edition of William Le Queux’s The Invasion of 1910. Over one million copies were sold

Twelve years later, with Harmsworth’s support,  the exercise was repeated,  resulting in the publication of the best selling The Invasion of 1910. The book originally appeared in serial form in the Daily Mail in 1906. Well before its appearance in the newspaper the public had been fed a diet of thrillers in the same vein. 

Some, like George Tomkyns Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking (1871) or H.G. Wells’ The War in the Air (1907) depicted a country invaded by a well organised enemy; others, like Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands (1903) portrayed evil German spies involved in sinister plans to destroy Britain. 

“Next to the Kaiser, Lord Northcliffe has done more than any living man to bring about the war,” wrote A.G. Gardiner, editor of The Star newspaper.

In Budleigh Salterton the threat to the British Empire may have been more deeply felt because of the military and colonial traditions of the town.  Indeed Devon in general may have reflected this feeling more than most English counties because of the way in which it attracted retired people with a military background. 

It is worth noting that of the 109 male residents listed in the 1919 Kelly’s Directory for Budleigh Salterton, including Great Knowle and Little Knowle,  21 are given with a military rank.  

Anglo-Indian connections in Budleigh Salterton were especially strong. Many Budleigh residents had been born in India. They included  people like Georgina Porter and Priscilla Hull, both associated with Fairlynch Museum; also artists like Joyce Dennys and Cecil Elgee, and Nurse Phyllis Maltby who died in December 1918 and is listed on the town’s war memorial.  



More young men from the Budleigh area leave for the front in 1914 
Image credit: Fairlynch Museum

Yet along with the euphoria there was also, in Budleigh resident Jim Gooding’s words, “a mixed feeling about it all, the fear of what would be happening.” Dutch courage, he notes, would have played a part in the general mood.

“Photographs would be taken, sometimes not very flattering to the men in uniform, as they had been celebrating their being called up and were in no fit state to be photographed for such an occasion.” 

Away from such scenes, anxious people sought comfort in churches. The Devon & Exeter Gazette of 14 August commented on the “very impressive” service of the previous Sunday “owing to the heavy cloud of war hovering over us.”


 Image credit: Fairlynch Museum

For us in retrospect, one hundred years later, it’s with sadness that we gaze at this photo. Its bravely defiant caption - ‘Some Salterton lads off to help keep the Flag flying’ - is handwritten above a cheery cap-waving figure at the train window.

This was Private Frankie Cowd, the son of Charles Montague Cowd and Ellen Mary Cowd of 14 Fore Street, Budleigh Salterton. He was on his way to join the Second Battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers. Three years later, on 21 July 1917, he would be lying dead in the Mesopotamian desert, aged 22.   

‘The Great War at Fairlynch’ 2015 exhibition at Budleigh Salterton’s very special museum! Reviews included: “Wonderful display on WW1, informative, bright and relevant. Well done!! 


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