On 28th July 1914, the day that the Austro-Hungarians declared war on Serbia, Reverend W E Peters of St Saviour’s Church set off, with a family party of six, to visit ‘places of interest on both sides of the Rhone Valley’. Reverend Peters’ letter in the following month’s Parish Magazine outlined the events that took place in the 23 days before their eventual return to the parish of Stoke-Next-Guildford.
Our holiday in August 1914, will ever stand out as one of the most strange experiences of our lives. The most welcome sight and sound came to us on Friday the 21st [August], at 4 o’clock, when we saw the white chalk cliffs of dear old England, and the sound that greeted our arrival at 4.30 was the National Anthem, started on shore, but more heartily sustained on board the R.M.S. We felt then that the anxieties of the past three weeks were at an end, and in God’s good providence we were free to move about without enquiries, suspicions, or passports. We have since our arrival here learnt a little of your anxiety on our behalf, an anxiety unfortunately increased by the absence of communications and the non-delivery of letters. From July 28th to August 21st friends, home, and country have been cut off from us, and we from them. The absence of letters and authentic information about the doings at home has been one of the most trying parts of our experience. All we knew was England had declared war with Germany on account of aggression on Belgium, a fact which was immensely appreciated by the Swiss, for they, too, are a small people and feel they have their rights to be respected by the greater powers, and that on account of the war Bank of England notes were of little value. This isolation made us feel ourselves strangers in a strange, but very kind, land. Soon things righted themselves, and the Swiss Bank changed our £5 notes at a discount of 2 [francs] (i.e., 1/8). But what about our friends? our home? our country? Where was our navy? our soldiers? We longed for news – we had to be patient and wait. Let me give you some personal details which perhaps you will pardon under the circumstances. We – six of us in our party – left London at 2 o’clock on Tuesday, July 28th. All was quiet in France until we were near to Belfort, when we noticed soldiers at every station, but without arms. At Belfort itself all was quiet, only more soldiers were lounging about – it was then about 3.30am. The train passed on to German territory, where we were asked if we were German subjects. No. Anything to declare in your baggage. No. In five minutes we were off through Mülhausen to Basle. At the former soldiers were visible in numbers, and hundreds of carriages and trucks, all empty, filled the side lines. On Wednesday morning at seven we breakfasted in Basle, and then we met our tourists in holiday attire in large numbers, as usual in August. At Lucerne until the Friday all was well, the holiday spirit prevailed; we travelled all day through the Brunig pass to Rosenlaui above Meiringen. The journey was delightful – harvest in full swing, old and young busy. A fellow traveller told us he had just come through Germany and he did not like the German spirit, and had we noticed how many Germans at Lucerne were returning to their homes. At Rosenlaui on Saturday no news reached us, but on Sunday morn the cook and driver appeared in uniform. We asked what this meant, and they said that their Government had thought it wise that the first corps should be mobilised to protect their neutrality between Basle and Mülhausen. We left on Monday, walking down to Meiringen, and chartered a carriage for the Grimsel Hospice – a wild spot in the mountains. Here we were alone, six persons to occupy an hotel for 60. The next day we chartered the only horse available to take our luggage and two of the party over the pass and down into the Rhone valley. We reached the enormous hotel at 11.30, were received by the manager, who looked crestfallen. Can we have rooms? Certainly. I have cut off 120 beds but I still have 60 left. No one here. At lunch eight occupied the huge salon laid for 120. At two we decided we must leave at once and hurry on to Brigue. No horses to be had! but at 2.30 the diligence* will pass, the last for the season, and if there are any seats take them. It came, and we found to my joy six seats available. Here we learned Germany had declared war on Russia and France, but no news of England. We arrived at Fiesch at six, and waited for our luggage from the Eggishorn Hotel. It came by mule the next morning, and then we proceeded in the special diligence from Munster to Brigue, where we could join the train. Brigue is on the main line from Lausanne to Milan, via the Simplon Tunnel. Here we realised the gravity of the situation, and what war means. The station was crowded with hundreds of Italians hurrying home, and tourists seeing some convenient centre to reach England. We decided on Geneva as farthest from the seat of war, and we reached it on that evening in time for dinner. On the way a Swiss officer, our fellow traveller, informed us, with evident pride, that England had declared war on Germany, especially to help little Belgium. In Geneva we waited until the 19th for an open door to escape. The tales which were circulated of the difficulties on the way deterred us, but when, by experience, the lines were better worked we started by the 5.25 a.m. train, stopping at every station from Geneva to Paris, 388 miles in 30 hours. Our ride through Paris, and our walks in the afternoon and evening of the 20th impressed us greatly. All was so quiet, so solemn, so deserted. Half the shops were closed; large hotels fitted as hospitals; cafes and theatres closed, and the people eager for news. From Paris to Bologne we found thousands of acres of corn cut, but not carried. Horses were non-existent, only old men and women in the fields. The prospects were dreary in the extreme. At Arras we heard that the Oxfords (1,000 men) had preceded us by 10 minutes. “Such fine men.” At Boulogne we came in touch with our own soldiers guarding the approach to the jetty, and quite at home in their unfamiliar surroundings. A pleasant trip across the channel of 90 minutes brought us to our own beloved shores, where we found abundant evidence of the seriousness of war. We indeed feel thankful to be at home again, and we are deeply touched by your anxiety on our behalf, and please accept our hearty thanks for your kindness, sympathy, and prayers. How long this present war will last, or what we may be called upon to do or bear we cannot foresee, but I feel sure we shall all, young and old, rich and poor, respond readily, heartily and instantly, to the call of duty and country, and do all we can to alleviate the sorrows and sufferings of our fellow countrymen.
*The diligence was a type of horse-drawn stagecoach.
St Saviour’s Church, Stoke-Next-Guildford, Parish Magazine, August and September 1914, SHC Ref: 1946 Box 10.