Written by Dr Steven Woodbridge
Christmas arrived early for some former soldiers in the suburbs of south-west London in late 1918. One hundred years ago, on Christmas Day, 1918, the Surrey Comet newspaper carried a report about the opening of a new clubhouse for discharged servicemen in Kingston-on-Thames, Surrey.
The new clubhouse had been officially opened at 48, London Road, Kingston, a few days earlier, on the evening of Saturday, 21st December, in a formal opening ceremony conducted by Mrs. Cooper Turner, accompanied by her husband, Lieutenant F. Cooper Turner. The latter was President of the Kingston and Surbiton branch of the ‘Comrades of the Great War’ organisation, and the Comet noted that its members now had a place where they could ‘meet and discuss matters of interest and enjoy a little social intercourse’ at centrally located premises.
Although there has been some brief coverage by historians of the ‘Comrades of the Great War’ at national level, very little is available on the evolution of branches of the organisation at local level in towns and cities across the British Isles. A brief exploration of the Kingston and Surbiton branch can partly help to address this gap in our knowledge.
First of all, however, what was the purpose and aims of the ‘Comrades of the Great War’ (CGW) organisation? CGW had been formed in late 1917 at an event held at the Mansion House in London, in order to lobby for, and protect, the rights of ex-servicemen and women who had served in His Majesty’s armed forces and been discharged. It was founded by Edward Stanley, 17th Earl of Derby, who sought a rightwing alternative to the recently formed ‘National Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers’ (founded in 1916, and affiliated to the Trade Union movement), and also to the ‘National Federation of Discharged and Demobilized Sailors and Soldiers’ (which had been founded in April, 1917).
The President and leader of CGW was the Conservative MP Colonel Wilfred Ashley (1867-1939) (see photo), who was also secretary of the Anti-Socialist Union (ASU), a group which feared the spread of Socialism and Bolshevism in Britain. Ashley felt CGW could help steer ex-soldiers away from being seduced by the ‘radical’ propaganda of the other rival ex-service organisations.
He was aware that unemployment was high among veterans, especially those who had been left disabled through war injuries. The National Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers, in particular, was calling for better pensions for those who had served. Similarly, the rapidly rising Labour Party was also beginning to campaign on such issues. Many veterans had also expressed disappointment over the seemingly unfulfilled promises made by the wartime Government concerning how many more houses would be built and made available for ex-servicemen and their families. Ashley was worried that ex-servicemen’s groups on the Left would try and exploit such discontent and, indeed, were already ‘politicising’ veterans. He wished to ensure that CGW would be more neutral in such matters.
Ironically, after a number of years of fairly intense competition between CGW and the other two ex-servicemen’s groups, CGW eventually combined with those same organisations, together with the Officers’ Association (which had been formed in 1920), and the four organisations formally became one single veterans movement in May, 1921, entitled the ‘British Legion’, which, of course, still exists today.
The first indications of CGW activity in the Kingston and Surbiton area came in mid-December, 1917, when it was reported that, ‘with the object of inaugurating a local branch of this new organisation’, a meeting had been held at the Gables Theatre in Surbiton (now the site of Hillcroft College, behind Surbiton Station). Mr. G. Pegram presided at the meeting, and a local branch committee was formed. Just a few weeks later, in January, 1918, it was reported in the Surrey Comet that a ‘well attended’ general meeting of the new Kingston and Surbiton branch of the CGW had been held at the Gables Theatre, with Canon F.B. Macnutt, former Senior Chaplain to the British Forces in France, presiding. The honorary secretary, Mr. Herbert Frost, reported, ‘amid applause’, that during the six weeks the branch had been in existence its membership had increased from 22 to 230.
Significantly, at the same meeting, Captain Towse, V.C., of the central organisation of the CGW, spoke to the local members and ’emphasised the fact that the “Comrades” were a strictly non-political body’. According to Towse, the main object of each branch was to unite discharged and demobilised soldiers in ‘a bond of mutual help’ and ‘comradeship’, and ‘to assist the dependents of men and women of all grades of the Services’ who had given their lives for King and Country. Capt. Towse also explained that the organisation ‘must not be confused with Trade Unions’. The ‘Comrades’, he claimed, ‘were out for the sole purpose of helping ex-servicemen, and in so doing they were not working against any other organisation, association or union’.
The following month, the Surrey Comet carried an interesting report about the wider activities and evolution of the CGW across Surrey. According to the newspaper, a meeting had been held in London in early February, 1918, ‘with the object of ventilating the aims and objects of the Comrades of the Great War, and with the view of adopting the scheme for the County of Surrey’. Lord Midleton presided, and ‘a considerable number of important people in the County were present’. Lord Midleton had explained the aims and objects of the CGW organisation, together with Capt. Towse (again representing the CGW national executive), while Colonel Young explained what had been done in Surrey. A resolution put to the meeting was unanimously adopted to appoint a special committee to increase CGW activity in Surrey, and it was noted that: ‘A branch for Kingston and Surbiton was established at the Gables Theatre, Surbiton, a few weeks ago, and there is also a branch at East Molesey’.
A sense of urgency can also be detected in CGW developments at local level in Surrey, including in the Kingston and district area. This was undoubtedly due to the emergence of rivals. In February, 1918, for example, a branch of the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Sailors and Soldiers had been formed for Surbiton and Kingston, and any ‘discharged servicemen desiring to enrol’ were invited to communicate with W.R.G. Tucker, at Orchard Cottage, South Place, Surbiton Hill. Also known as the ‘Silver Badge Men’ (from September, 1916, a silver badge was issued to service personnel who had been honourably discharged due to serious wounds or sickness), the organisation tended to be more outspoken concerning what they saw as the unfair treatment of ex-servicemen, especially those men who had lost limbs.
Tucker became Hon. Secretary of the group, which held its first general meeting in early March at the Surbiton Lecture Hall in Maple Road, Surbiton. Reliable figures on local membership and support are difficult to find, although in November, 1918, it was reported that, at a monthly meeting of the Silver Badge Men held in the Fife Hall, Kingston, ‘about 100 members were present’ to hear addresses by two parliamentary candidates for the Kingston Parliamentary Division, who were subjected to ‘a good deal of good-humoured heckling’. The same account of the meeting stated that the local National Federation branch now had a membership of nearly 400, which was about fifty or so more than the CGW by that stage.
Meanwhile, the CGW had followed its own ‘non-political’ path. In early March, 1918, it was announced that Lieut.-Colonel F. Cooper Turner, J.P., had accepted the position of ‘Commandant’ of the Kingston and Surbiton branch of the CGW, and the branch appears to have made some further progress over the next few months. The ‘social’ side to the branch certainly seemed healthy. Indeed, it appears that the social and cultural activities were viewed as more important than any dabbling in ‘politics’. In May, 1918, the CGW were able to hold their second ‘smoking concert’ at the Gables Theatre, with an ‘excellent programme’ of acts arranged for the occasion by Mr. Herbert Frost, the local branch secretary.
Clearly, however, a more permanent base for the local CGW branch was urgently needed if it was to grow yet more and provide regular support and social ‘comradeship’ for members, particularly given the local emergence of the rival National Federation. In June, 1918, it was reported that there had only been ‘a fair attendance’ at a general meeting of the branch of the CGW held at the Gables Theatre. Lieut.-Colonel F. Cooper Turner, presiding at the meeting, and speaking in his capacity as Commandant, said ‘every effort’ was being made to find suitable premises for club purposes ‘where the comrades could spend a comfortable hour of recreation’. Interestingly, though, branch secretary Frost was still able to report that the branch had over 300 members and was ‘still enrolling’.
But the search for a headquarters and club-room appears to have dragged on for a number of months. It was not until well into the autumn that a property was found. In early November, the Surrey Comet revealed that the CGW were making an appeal for funds to provide a club-room for the branch, as ‘suitable quarters’ had now been obtained in Kingston. The estimated expense of furnishing the premises (at 48, London Road), plus rental and lighting, for a period of three years, was ‘about £600’.
Publicity material for the appeal provides further insights into what the CGW stood for. Again, it was stated that the aims and objects of the organisation were to ‘bring together’ the discharged and demobilised sailors and soldiers of the district ‘in a bond of mutual help’, and to ‘continue that spirit of Comradeship so predominant in the Trenches’, while also safeguarding the interests of all naval and military men and the widows and orphans of these who had fallen.
In the appeal for funds, the CGW branch Hon. Secretary Herbert Frost also called for gifts of furniture, including a Billiard Table: ‘Will any lady or gentleman kindly present one as a memorial to a Fallen Hero? An inscribed plate will be affixed denoting the donor and in whose memory it is given’.
It is also evident that, as a more conservative type of veterans organisation, the CGW could rely on support from Establishment notables. In early December, 1918, in a report on a meeting at Kingston Congregational Hall to celebrate both the first anniversary of the branch and the fact that it would be opening premises shortly, a message from Lady Haig, wishing success to the branch, was read out by the Commandant, F. Cooper Turner. The first Annual Report of the branch, presented by Hon. Secretary Frost, stated that membership was now at 359.
Coverage of the opening of the new CGW premises in Kingston is also worth noting. A tone of optimism was in evidence. The Surrey Comet observed to its readers that the Comrades of the Great War organisation was ‘one of the products of the War which bids fair to play an important part in national affairs in coming days’, and was ‘making great headway’ in many parts of the country. Moreover, the Comet suggested that nothing had been more marked during the War ‘than the spirit of comradeship which has been evoked by the sense of a common danger and a common patriotism’.
Reflecting on the new post-war peace, the newspaper also argued that: ‘Men of all classes have served side by side in the ranks, and have manifested an equality of self-sacrifice in the interests of their country, and it is of the greatest importance that the feelings of mutual confidence should be maintained and deepened in the time of peace when so many perplexing problems have to be faced’.