KEVIN GORDON - How the First World War was announced to Sussex

An advert encouraging young men to join up.
An advert encouraging young men to join up.

On August 2, 1914, a Peace Committee was established in Heathfield.

It hoped to arrange a great demonstration of over 300 people ‘against our army being employed’. On August 3, the Lewes Brotherhood sent a telegram to the Prime Minister: “The Lewes Tabernacle desire for you, true wisdom and Christian knowledge and pray that England will observe strict neutrality”. The day after the telegram would have been received, Asquith declared war.

The Sussex Express was published two days after the declaration of war, which, although it must have been a concern to every Sussex citizen, did not feature until page 7 of the newspaper. There is a short mention of the Prince and Princess of Munster leaving their home at Maresfield Park to return to Germany and Boy Scouts from East Grinstead curtailing their camping holiday in Belgium.

The previous few days saw heavier than usual traffic on the cross-channel ferries between Newhaven and Dieppe. On Monday, August 3, a large group of Frenchmen boarded the RMS Dieppe to return to France to join the colours.

There was a large crowd of Newhaven people on the docks to wave them off and they were given three hearty cheers. The following day all ferry services were suspended. Newhaven was taken over by the Admiralty and became one of the busiest harbours on the south coast throughout the war years.

The Sussex Express editorial says: “The supreme test for England has come” and, under a transcript of the words of “Sussex by the Sea”, the headline “SUSSEX CALM AND RESOLUTE – stirring scenes throughout the county”.

Although the paper acknowledges that Sussex is a few hundred miles from the theatre of war (it was to get much closer) and that the ‘unprotected coast may be threatened by the enemy (it was) it urges people to ‘pursue their ordinary vocations in shops and offices and in preparing for the harvest’. There was a brief report saying that, although the declaration of war may have an impact on food prices, it was unlikely that there would be a shortage of food and that there was no cause for undue anxiety.

The paper reports that ‘Sussex folk have been deeply stirred by the great events of the last few days but have responded with alacrity to join their country’s call’. Men had rejoined their ships and their regiments and the Territorial Army had interrupted their summer camps to return home for more serious preparations.

A photo in the paper shows a group of Territorials being waved off from Lewes Station. They were members of the Cinque Ports Volunteers and the Garrison Artillery and were en-route to Dover to meet the rest of the regiment. It was noted that ‘Hardly a family in Lewes but has a near or far relative in the Artillery or Rifles.’ Similar scenes were happening at other towns across Sussex.

The army needed horses and the ‘Army Remount Department’ visited farmers across the county in order to buy horses. Mr Kidd, the Master of the Southdown Foxhounds, patriotically placed all of his horses at the disposal of the War Office. The RAC asked motorists to contact them if they wished their cars to be used for ‘home or foreign service’.

The Red Cross had already established a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD). This was formed of mainly women and they were to do important work in the troubled years to come.

The Mayor of Lewes had been asked to assist the VAD who needed ‘garments for the sick and wounded, material for hospitals, stretchers, badges, flags and bandages’. The Town Clerk announced that money could not be given from town rates and a public appeal was started.

The Sussex Express reported that ‘throughout the county of Sussex, in busy town and quiet hamlet, in the hall of the country squire and in the labourers cottage, among all conditions of men and women there was a universal spirit of courage and determination’.

“A nation of war is sustained not only by the might of its army and fleet but by the steadiness, contentment and courage of the people who remain at home. Sussex can be a source of strength to England!’ Stirring stuff indeed.

One advertisement dominated the Sussex Express, indeed every newspaper across the country.

A request for men between 18 and 30 years old to join the army. YOUR KING AND COUNTRY NEED YOU. None of the men who answered the call would have known of the horrors to come.