Written by Laurence Spring.
Even before the guns fell silent in November 1918, it was clear there was a need for organisations to help the veterans and their dependants once they had been discharged from the forces. To meet the need (although they were not the first), The Comrades of the Great War were formed in 1917 and a brief account of the origins of the organisation and its Surrey Division is given in its ‘Monthly Notes’ of Mar 1920 (SHC ref G173/108/92). According to the Notes, during the summer of 1917 a senior officer, probably Colonel Sir John Norton Griffiths, wrote to the papers ‘hoping that some organisation might be formed to cherish and keep alive after the War the wonderful spirit of comradeship and self sacrifice which distinguished our armies in the field’ (SHC ref G173/108/101). Colonel F De B Young visited the unnamed officer on the same day as the article appeared about setting up an organisation and shortly afterwards Young held a meeting to set up the ‘Comrades of the Great War’. At this meeting Young was appointed chairman, while Lord French, Lord Beresford and Colonel John Ward became trustees and subsequently a central committee was elected. After the General Headquarters had been established, Young was asked to oversee the formation of county divisions of the Comrades.
The stated aims (SHC ref G173/108/15/2) of the Comrades included:
- To perpetuate the memory and story of the gallant men and women who died for their country.
- To perpetrate the spirit of comradeship, patriotism and devotion which has characterised the Naval and Military Forces of the Empire and to foster these qualities in the rising generation.
- To watch and safeguard the interests of all ex-members of the Forces and to take such steps as are necessary to protect them now, during and after demobilisation.
- To press the claims of discharged sailors and soldiers to State and public employment; to enlist the cooperation of employers for the same object; and to support undertakings for the suitable training and employment of disabled men.
- To secure adequate pensions for discharged sailors and soldiers.
- To press upon Parliament the need of an appropriate scale of pensions for men discharged on account of ill health or incapacity arising from service.
- To help discharged men to prepare their necessary papers and to see that their pensions and allowances are in order.
- To promote the welfare of the women and children left by those which have fallen
- To see that all monies raised and contributed from any source for the welfare of sailors and soldiers are utilised for that purpose and not diverted to other objects
A county headquarters for the Surrey Division was established in November 1917 and the division was officially formed in March 1918, when it consisted of 1,075 members divided into just three branches and 15 posts (SHC ref G173/108/101), although a letter dated 3 January 1918, suggests it had 10 branches and 22 posts within Surrey with a membership of about 1,000. There had been more posts but financial restrictions meant that the organisation had to be cut back (SHC ref G173/108/9). A branch was to consist of over 100 members, whereas a post or ‘dug-out’ would have under 100 members, although in March 1920 the Chiddingfold Branch only had 76 members (SHC ref G173/108/92).
HRH the Duke of Connaught was to be the patron of the Surrey Division, while Lord Midleton became the first president. Divisional headquarters were originally at Adastral House (loaned by the War Office) but later moved temporarily to Lord Onslow’s property of Ely House, 13 Charterhouse Street, Holborn Circle, London. It was hoped to find permanent premises either in Kingston or Guildford, but no suitable buildings could be found in these two towns. The War Office lent the Surrey Comrades premises in Victoria Street, London, but after a short stay, a permanent base was established at 26 Eccleston Square in London, which was also the home of the organisation’s central HQ (SHC ref G173/108/101).
The Surrey Comrades were run by a Grand Council, with a Finance Committee and an Executive Committee, whose members were to be elected by the membership. Later a Finance and General Purposes Committee was established. In mid 1919 Lord Onslow succeeded Lord Midleton as president. The main driving force was the commander, which role was filled by Colonel F de B Young. Curiously the Division’s first secretary, Captain Davis, was a prisoner of war in Germany, having been captured in 1915. Lieutenant Colonel V H Mellor was later appointed as secretary. Each branch and post also had its own committee.
Funding the Organisation
Funding the Surrey Division and its various branches was a major problem. It was hoped that once the Comrades had been established subscription fees could be introduced which would meet the organisation’s running costs, estimated to be £1,000 per year. In the meantime it was hoped to raise £20,000 to place the headquarters on a ‘sound footing’ (SHC ref G173/108/20). Lord Aberconway promised £50 and the Duke of Sutherland £10 10s per year. However, not everyone was keen on the idea of paying towards ‘The Surrey Comrades of the Great War Appeal Fund’ and when Lord Onslow wrote to Colonel Young on 6 October 1919 he had to admit that he had received a ‘good many refusals’ (SHC ref G173/173/108/36, 43-44). Major Gordon Watney had promised £1,000 per year, but ‘thought fit to go back on his word’ (SHC ref G173/108/2/1). The secretary, Captain Davis, despite being a prisoner of war continued to correspond: in one letter he, being a freemason, suggested that the committee write to his lodge for funding. In July 1919 the Division suffered a further blow when it was informed that the Lord Lieutenant’s Fund could not make any further grants due to the ‘unrest in the industrial world that we see ahead of us’ (SHC ref G173/108/9).
It was suggested that the subscription for Combrades be 4d for its English members and three pence for its Scottish, Welsh and Irish members which would help finance the Comrades’ headquarters. Local groups could also impose their own subscription rates if they wished (SHC ref G173/108/59/4). Later the subscription was raised to a shilling and then on 11 December 1919 to 2s 6d, which was to be divided between posts and branches and the county and general headquarters (SHC ref G173/108/61/8).
With the end of the war membership increased rapidly, but on 23 March 1920 Colonel Young wrote to Lord Onslow complaining that ‘There are several of our branches which are in an unsatisfactory state, owing almost entirely to the fact that we have not been able to find any local man of substance or education to interest himself in this movement; and the men themselves are not only like sheep without a shepherd but I am sorry to say that in several cases the flock has contained at any rate a certain number of black sheep who have taken the lead, appropriated the funds and discredit the movement’. Unfortunately, Young does not say which branches contained the ‘black sheep’ but he continued ‘in these cases it is essential that something should be done to re-establish these places on a sound healthy basis’ (SHC ref G173108/55).
It was not only in the various Branches that there were ‘black sheep’. A Divisional report dated 23 April 1920 refers to the Divisional Secretary, G Graham, late lieutenant and quartermaster of the Cheshire Regiment who disappeared with £12 2s 7d from petty cash, whereas Divisional Secretary McCarthy, ‘absconded with one of the office typewriters’ and £31 18s 6d. The Financial organiser, M Knight, vanished with £50 from a collection made at a cinema. Fortunately, at the time of the report the money stolen by McCarthy and Knight had been recovered, but the money stolen by Lieutenant Graham had to be written off (SHC ref G173/108/97, 113).
When the Lord Lieutenant’s Fund (set up at the outset of the war to support those in need) was wound up in May 1920, the Surrey Division was given £1,000 in stock, to be used for the relief of discharged soldiers and sailors out of employment. The remainder of the fund was divided between a number of organisations: £3,000 of war stock went to the Surrey Convalescent Home for Men at Seaford, the Victorian Convalescent Home for Women at Bognor and the Children’s Convalescent Home for Surrey, also at Bognor, for at least two ‘endowment beds’ on condition that these beds be used by ex-soldiers, their wives or their dependants in the respective homes; a further £4,000 in war stock was given to ‘The Officers’ Association’ for the ‘benefit of officers, their families and dependents resident in the Administrative County of Surrey and the Borough of Croydon’; and £1,000 went to the Surrey branch of the Soldiers and Sailors Help Society; in addition £5,000 was allocated to a number of hospitals in Surrey and £2,000 to the Red Cross (SHC ref G173/108/102).
Branches and Posts
In a letter dated 10 September 1919 it was claimed that there were 46 posts and branches established in the county with a membership of about 13,000 discharged soldiers and that ‘many hundreds of letters containing all sorts of complaints have been received and attended to’ (SHC ref G173108/17/1).
By March 1920 the membership had risen to 14,400. Surrey branches were as follows, with meeting place and number of members given in brackets): Byfleet (Comrades, 200); Bagshot, Lightwater and Windlesham (Fighting Cocks Inn, 143); Camberley (Comrades, 179); Capel (Church Hall, 120); Caterham (Comrades, 318); Chiddingfold (The Institute, 76); Cobham (Boys’ School, 165); Coulsdon (Comrades, 320); Croydon (Comrades, 2,000 ); Dorking (St Martin’s Club, 104); Egham (none, 150); Epsom (Comrades, 250); Esher (none, 104); Godalming (Freeholders’ Inn, Farncombe, 244); Godstone (Comrades, 108); Guildford (none, 300); Hale and Heath End (Working Men’s Club, 264); Haslemere (Comrades, 380); Hersham (none, 280); Holmwood (Village Institute, 103); Horley (Comrades, 298); Kingston and Surbiton (Comrades, 1,298); Knaphill (none, 150); Leatherhead (none, 265); Limpsfield (Boys Home, 150); Merstham (Council School Room, 150); Mitcham and Merton (Old National Schools, 240); Molesey (Comrades, 268); New Malden (Comrades, 110); Norwood (none, 405); Oxted (Comrades, 222); Redhill (Comrades, 450); Reigate (Comrades, 375); Richmond (Comrades, 600); Ripley (Comrades, 107); Sutton (Comrades, 250); The Dittons (Comrades, 245); Virginia Water (none, 100); Wallington, Carlshalton & District (Comrades, 139); ; Walton on the Hill (Church Institute, 156); Walton on Thames (none, 200); Wimbledon (King’s Club, 300); Woking (Comrades, 326); Worcester Park and Cheam (none, 105).
There were also the following posts: Ash and District (The Greyhound, 70); Bourne (none, 30); Bletchingley (Village Institute, 40); Brockham and Betchworth (none, 51); Claygate (none, 53); Fetcham (Bell Inn, 31); Frensham (none, 50); Hammer (Comrades, 46); Lowfield Heath (Parish Room, 35); Nutfield (none, 26); Oatlands Park (none, 20); Ockham (Comrades, 36); Pirbright and Brookwood (White Hart Inn, 40); Richmond (Star and Garter) (none, no figure); Roehampton (none, no figure); Rowledge and District (none, 78); Westcott (none, 30); In additional there were 400 unattached) (SHC ref G173/108/92). Presumably the ‘Comrades’ mentioned above is a Comrades’ Hall and ‘none’ means that there was, as yet, no official meeting place.
For the meeting of the Ripley Branch, Lady Lovelace gave the freehold of a plot of land and donations of about £1,000 were made to build a Comrades’ Hall. Until the hall was finished the Ripley Comrades used a hall at the Talbot, while Sir Wilfred Stokes was converting another building to be used as a meeting house. In all, nearly 200 out of a total of 1,200 inhabitants of Ripley went to war and in November 1917, the village was one of the earliest to form a ‘post’ for Comrades, which in September 1919 became a branch. The newest ‘Post’ was the Bourne Post which had only been formed on 17 March 1920. ‘The Dittons Branch’ was an amalgamation of the Thames Ditton and Long Ditton Branches (SHC ref G173/108/92).
Among the various branch activities were concerts and dances and several Branches formed a football team, while Woking formed a Pierrot Troupe known as the ‘Whizz Bangs’. Bands were also established by Kingston and Surbiton, Redhill, Hale and Heath End branches.
It was also suggested that branches and posts, on the first Sunday in July, should arrange ‘services in places of worship, and for laying of floral tributes on the graves of Comrades who have fallen’ (SHC ref G173/108/101). These ‘Comrade Sundays’, as they were known, were certainly held in 1920.
Among those seeking employment was Captain John Wyatt of the East Surrey Regiment, who served in France between 25 May 1915 and 13 October 1915 (SHC ref 8227/2/9). After being wounded he was unable to return to his profession as a ‘teacher of physical culture’. Since ‘Brother Wyatt’ was 49 years old the local Comrades believed it would be very difficult to find employment for him, but suggested that he should contact the various Masonic Lodges who might be able to help him. Others were more successful, one unnamed officer being found employment at the Excise Department receiving a salary of £400, while another landing a job at the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries for £500 per year (SHC ref G173/108/71/1-5).
It was not just officers that the Comrades helped: on 22 December 1918, a Mr and Mrs May of 14 Chaldon Road, Caterham, wrote to the committee thanking them for their help and to inform them that Mr May had been ‘granted a pension of five shillings per week in respect of the loss of our son in France, killed in action, in October 1916’. On 6 October 1918 James Henry Waters of 2 Pretoria Cottages, Queen’s Road, Knaphill, Woking, also thanked the committee since ‘through your expert handling’ his pension had been permanently fixed’ (SHC ref G173/108/71/1-5).
Not all were as lucky. One soldier who was referred to the Comrades by Lord Onslow was Philip Woodyear of Cranley Lodge, West Clandon. He had enlisted on 9 November 1911 serving in the Army Veterinary Corps. He arrived in France on 13 August 1914 and was later transferred to the Labour Corps, before being discharged due to sickness on 15 March 1919, although his application says 15 February 1919. Despite this he was placed on the reserve list and so was entitled to an army reservist’s pay until 1923. However when he was awarded a pension of 5s 6d per week he not only had to give back his pay, but his pension only lasted until December 1919 when he was deemed well enough to work. In desperation he applied to the Comrades to intercede with the Ministry of Pensions for his reservist pay to be reinstated. On 6 August 1920 Colonel Young wrote to Lord Onslow that although he believed Philip Woodyear had a good case, ‘there is so much red tape about these matters that however deserving the case may be, it is impossible to screw anything out of the Ministry if they possibly can get out of it by any catch or quibble’. Whether the matter was ever settled is not known (SHC ref G173/108/117, WWI index card and Silver War Badge Register).
In 1918 there was clearly a need for an ex-service women’s section since ‘Many of these women had been and were being, discharged on medical grounds, their illness being aggravated through, if not entirely attributable to, war service. No pensions or compensation was given [to] them by [the] Government unless it could be proved that their illness or injury was caused by their service, and consumption and rheumatism diseases which many of them contracted were not amongst the schedule of diseases for compensation’ (SHC ref G173/109/3).
At the First Annual Conference of the Women’s Section of the Comrades of the Great War, as well as calling for annual subscriptions and handiwork competitions and classes the agenda included a call ‘To work in co-operation with all Women’s Associations especially with the ex-service women and Women’s Institutes’ and ‘That widows and dependants of ex-servicemen and women should be given priority over other classes of women workers, provided there is equality of efficiency with regard to Government employment’ (SHC ref G173/109/1).
The section was open to ‘the wives, widows, mothers, sisters of soldiers and sailors and of all members of the service past and present, also ex-members of the Navy, Military and Air Force Nursing Services, the QMAAC, WRNS, WRAF and VAD’. There was a minimum subscription of one shilling. Each Section’s aims included:
- To promote the welfare of all members of the Women’s section and of widows, orphans, and dependants of comrades and of those who have fallen, and also of dependants of those still serving.
- That members receive all the grants, pensions and allowances they are entitled to.
- To find work for its members as and when required.
- To look after the graves of the ex-servicemen and women
- To help in maternity matters and look after children’s welfare (SHC ref G173/109/5).
By January 1919 there were 111 Women’s Sections in the country with a membership of 14,000.
The Headquarters of the Women’s Section was based at 26 Eccleston Square, London. On 23 July 1920 its committee wrote to Lady Onslow asking her to become the president of Surrey and establish more sections within the county since there was just the Croydon Section, which had just 125 members (SHC ref G173/109/5, 92). However on 25 June 1921 there was still just the Croydon Section in Surrey. Later in 1920 Lady Onslow was also seconded onto the main Headquarters Committee.
The Comrades of the Great War was not the only organisation set up to help veterans and their dependants. There was the National Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers, the Officers Association and the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Soldiers and Sailors (SHC ref G173108/129). This latter group was set up to protest against the ‘Review of Exemptions Act’, which stated that a person discharged from military service could be conscripted again if they were considered fit enough. The Federation’s slogan was ‘every man once before any man twice’ (Niall Barr The Lion and the Poppy: British Veterans, Politics, and Society, 1921-1939 (Praeger, 2005) p.12).
In 1920 it was decided to amalgamate these groups into one and in February 1920 the Grand Council Meeting of the Surrey Comrades resolved that ‘every effort should be made by the Executive Committee to bring about unity among all ex-service men’s Organisations in Great Britain’. In July the Comrades sent six delegates to a conference to discuss the matter of amalgamation’. However, not all were happy with the prospect of amalgamation. On 29 October 1920 Colonel Young wrote to Lord Onslow:
‘Whilst I have always been out for amalgamation I have hoped that this would take rather the form of the absorption of the better minded men amongst the other organisations. It has often happened that members of these other organisations have joined our branches and when they got sufficiently strong they simply absorbed the Comrades into their own movement, and this was not the result of numbers but a set purpose when they started.
I think therefore that we must be absolutely uncompromising in standing out for the safeguards against wire-pulling by extremists and the making use of the organisation for purposes that are not in the best interests of the Empire. To my mind it all depends as to who are the supreme executive in authority: provided we get the right men we cannot go far wrong; but I trust that none of these men who belong to the other organisations and tried all sorts of dodges simply to utilize the grievances of the discharged as a lever to create unrest that is nothing more not less than revolution, may get into office’.
He went on to describe such men as ‘extremists, semi extremists’ and even that they were akin to ‘Bolsheviks’ (SHC ref G173/108/133).
Despite Colonel Young’s misgivings the arrangements for the amalgamation of the four associations continued. On Sunday 15 May 1921 the British Legion was formed, becoming the Royal British Legion in 1971. How the various branches of these Societies were incorporated is not known. The Epsom Branch of the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Soldiers and Sailors appears to have carried on as before, but under its new name, but then there was not a Comrades post or branch in Epsom at the time (SHC ref 6310/1).