“It was the bank holiday weekend. The streets were crowded; most of the town’s two hundred boarding houses had been posting ‘no vacancies’ notices in their windows for weeks, the al fresco concerts on the seafront had been well attended, and the local newspapers were proclaiming the ‘huge success’ of the holiday.
“All the seasonal joviality, however, could not hide a general sense of unease that had crept over the crowd as the evening wore on.”
These opening sentences in the introduction to Alan Simmonds’ new book, A Small Town in a Great War, capture the sense of tension amid ordinary life continuing in a south coast seaside resort, tension which was to be vindicated two days later when Britain declared war on Germany, following its invasion of Belgium.
The latest in a series of publications by Littlehampton Local History Society, Dr Simmonds’ account of everyday life in the town during the conflict draws on a wealth of resources ranging from local newspapers and interviews by Littlehampton Museum of townspeople in years gone by, to official documents held at the National Archive in Kew and the West Sussex Record Office at Chichester.
Among the fascinating illustrations are a recruitment poster for ‘Kitchener’s Army’, declaring that ‘Your King and Country need you urgently’ and seeking volunteers for a new battalion being added to the Royal Sussex Regiment, who are urged to go to recruiting offices across Sussex, including Gloucester Place, Littlehampton and the Drill Hall, Arundel.
The poster was printed within a couple of weeks of that crowd gathering in Surrey Street, prompting the question how many of those in the throng went to sign up, and how many would ultimately come home safely?
Dr Simmonds book looks at the impact the 1914-18 war had on the town and the harbour, which was to become a hive of activity during the conflict, while in part two he concentrates on the atmosphere in the town, which was not entirely gloomy by the Easter holidays of 1916, the boarding houses were once more fully booked in South Terrace and Littlehampton was said to be ‘besieged’ by holidaymakers.
Propaganda was rife, and warnings about spies were circulated around the town. What Dr Simmonds describes as Littlehampton’s ‘first taste of spy fever’ came almost as soon as the war started, when a troupe of musicians from Germany, who were performing for the lifeboat parade in August, 1914, were arrested, never to be seen again.
Three months later, a German, who actually considered himself to be Polish and who had been living in Western Road, was prosecuted for failing to register as an alien and given two months’ prison. The account of the court proceedings, reproduced from the Littlehampton Observer, makes interesting reading.
Satirical cartoons from the time, included in the book, add bite while lightening the mood of those grim times.
In this centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War, this is a fine overview of how our town was affected by the war intended to end all wars, but which would be followed just 21 years later by another global conflict.
A Small Town in a Great War in on sale, price, £10, at Littlehampton Museum, Church Street; the Look & Sea Centre, Surrey Street; and, until early February, the Littlehampton Gazette office in Beach Road, Littlehampton.