Written by Dr Steven Woodbridge, Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University
By late 1914, it had become very apparent to people in Britain that the ‘great war’ would not be ‘over by Christmas’, as many had initially predicted and hoped. Moreover, as 1914 gave way to the new year of 1915, an increasingly pessimistic and, frankly, alarmist atmosphere began to develop on the Home Front in Britain concerning enemy intentions.
One sign of this was increased paranoia about German spies in the country. Another, and related, sign of the new pessimism was growing talk about the possibility of German military invasion. The most likely place for this, it was claimed, would be on the south coast of England.
Historians are familiar with the fear of enemy invasion that gripped many in Britain in the summer of 1940, during the Second World War. Much less research has been conducted by scholars, though, on the paranoia about invasion of the British Isles that had also developed within just six months of the start of the earlier world war. Yet there are quite noticeable similarities.
Interesting evidence of this can be found at local level in Surrey in early 1915. As a large County situated next to some key southern coastal Counties, the authorities in Surrey had to develop detailed contingency plans for how the whole area would deal with the impact of fighting on the south coast, and the potential mass movement of people and livestock this might entail. The plan appeared to give priority to ensuring successful evacuation of livestock (thus securing valuable food supplies), but minimising the movement of ordinary civilians, thereby avoiding clogging up major County roads or the main Surrey railway stations. On January 20th, 1915, for example, the local Surrey Comet newspaper, based in Kingston-on-Thames, published a lengthy article on ‘The Defence of the Realm’, which described for readers (as the paper put it) ‘How Surrey Would be Affected by Invasion’.
The Comet noted that a ‘preliminary notice regarding prospective measures to be taken under the Defence of the Realm Act in case of emergency’ had been issued and published in the press in the previous month. Moreover, said the newspaper, the Lord Lieutenant of Surrey was now of the opinion ‘that further information as to the measures being taken should now be communicated to the public’.
The measures, as the Comet summarised them, involved possible interference with ‘the normal routine of the population, the vehicular traffic, and the live stock of the County’, and this necessitated ‘careful preparation beforehand’, with ‘precautionary measures’ taken in advance. As the newspaper explained: ‘The County of Surrey can only be affected by a raid on the Kentish or Sussex coasts accompanied by a landing of the enemy’s troops. Even then it will not be immediately affected, but the first probable result might be a movement of population, vehicles and live stock from the Coast Counties into Surrey’.
The prospective measures would also involve an important role for the police: ‘Should it be necessary at any time to clear any portion of the County for military operations, notices will be sent through the police to individual owners in regard to various types of vehicles or live stock, etc., giving them orders for removal or destruction’.
Readers were also informed that ‘special routes’ had been laid out in these plans, ‘avoiding main roads for the removal of cattle’, and arrangements had been made for ‘local guides’, with ‘billeting stations fixed, and areas into which live stock will be removed selected’. Owners of animals, it was added, ‘would furnish their own herdsmen’.
As for the County’s civilian population more generally, a firm but also reassuring tone was struck in the official guidance, possibly designed to avoid creating mass panic in the event of nearby fighting: ‘The public are not required or advised to leave their homes when an emergency arises, but if any person contemplates doing so, it will not be wise to leave it to the last moment, as the railways may not be available for the movement of civilians and road traffic may be interfered with owing to military requirements’. The guidance added: ‘A general exodus of the population of Surrey would appear to be impracticable’.
Civilians were also warned that the actual defence of the County was to be in the hands of authorised forces only: ‘The civil population will not be allowed to bear arms unless duly enlisted in a Volunteer Corps which has been recognised by the War Office. A register of affiliated Volunteer Corps is being made’.
The First World War, of course, also saw a brand new development in warfare between the nations, where the Island of Britain itself became more difficult to defend and no longer felt ‘safe’: bombardment by German aeroplanes or Zeppelins. The guidance for Surrey thus also noted that ‘precautions should be observed by the inhabitants of towns in the possible event of bombardment by aircraft’. It was advised: ‘Inhabitants of houses should go into the cellars or lower rooms’ and, if an aircraft was seen or heard overhead, ‘crowds should disperse, and all persons should, if possible, take cover’.
Unsurprisingly, the same issue of the Surrey Comet which carried this official guidance also devoted it’s editorial column to commenting on the advice: ‘However unwilling most people are to contemplate invasion or an air raid as imminent, and however we may hope the event will prove that such confidence is well-placed, prudence suggests preparations and adequate arrangements beforehand, less the unexpected happens’.
The Comet editorial argued that, just for that reason, the public ‘are advised to study carefully’ the official notice issued by the Lord Lieutenant of Surrey and also by the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.
It is difficult to know or to measure to what extent local people in Surrey did indeed study such advice, but it is also worth noting that, just a few weeks later, the possibility of invasion by the Germans was still being raised by local officials in the County in order to keep people fully alert. In March, 1915, for example, the Mayor of Kingston, Alderman C.H. Burge, appearing alongside Mr. George Cave (Kingston’s Member of Parliament) at a special screening of the War Office recruitment film Wake Up! in Kingston, commented that the film dealt with ‘the question of invasion’.
Burge said that the purpose of the film was ‘to bring home to the minds of a certain section of the community the very real danger that would follow invasion of this country’. He said that ‘those who thought everything would be all right’, and who thought that there was no need for special preparation, were ‘the dreamers upon whom ruin might descend’, and: ‘He wanted them to realise that the German armies were as near to them as the town of Bristol…’.
Keen to see as many local men as possible sign up for military service, both Burge and Cave echoed the title of the film being shown, and evidently wanted (as they saw it) to shake people out of their slumber and complacency and awaken them to their patriotic duty. The war, proclaimed Burge, ‘was a national work, and each one could do something to the best of his power and ability for the motherland’.