On August 3rd 1914, Germany attacked Belgium at a first step to invading France. At 11.00 p.m. the following day, Britain declared war on Germany. The regular army prepared to move to the continent and reservists rejoined their regiments. Meanwhile orders went out for the part-time soldiers of the Territorial Force to report for duty at drill halls around the county. On August 5th, amidst tears and cheers, they left their homes and families and reported to their local drill halls.
Plaque at Chepstow Drill Hall commemorating the departure of the local territorials
The first week of war saw a rush of volunteers. Sir Ivor Herbert, Lord Lieutenant of Monmouthshire, stated that 630 men from Newport and 150 from Tredegar had joined in the first week and claimed that the Director General of recruiting had told him “no other county had done anything like what Monmouthshire had done”.
In the early stages of the war a carnival atmosphere continued to surround the recruitment process and sporting metaphors were often used. One speaker at a recruiting meeting in Newport referred to Belgium as “the pitch”. When 120 new recruits left Abercarn on 2nd September “to all appearances they might have been going on holiday instead of on active service”. (SWG 4.9.14.)
Sizable numbers of men were joining up, even a month after the war had begun. By this time, with the Germans threatening Paris it was clear that the war was not going to fizzle out and that their services would genuinely be needed. On September 4th, 915 men were enrolled in Newport in a single day, while across the county 2,262 had joined-up over a three day period. It was reported that one hundred volunteers were on duty at Newport Recruiting Station to receive recruits from the different parts of the county. Meanwhile, the Lord Lieutenant was scouring Monmouthshire for doctors to carry out the necessary medical examinations. By early September, 8,000 men from Monmouthshire had volunteered. (WA 5.9.14, 12.9.14.)
Some ‘recruits’ came from unexpected quarters. John Parfitt, a collier in Newbridge, walked into the local police station and confessed that he had deserted from the Gloucestershire Regiment in 1912 and wished to rejoin his regiment. Magistrates at Abercarn Police Court agreed to his request. (SWG 14.8.14). Others returned from overseas to fight. These included a group of twenty ex-patriate Welshmen who returned from British Columbia in February 1915 to enlist in the 1st Gwents. (WA 13.2.15.)
Such was the flood of recruits that the army did not know what to do with them. Sir Ivor Herbert (who he?) caused something of a sensation when he spoke in the House of Commons to condemn the War Office for transferring many of them to the reserve and sending them back home. He pointed out that many men from Monmouthshire had arrived at Brecon barracks to find themselves being “ill fed, wretchedly housed” and sleeping under verminous blankets. Many had given up jobs worth £3 or £4 a week, only to find themselves being sent home to kick their heels on a mere 6d a day reservists’ pay. (WA 12.9.14.) Pertly as a result of this, recruiting had dropped to a relative trickle by the end of September. By mid October the number of recruits in Monmouthshire had fallen to as low as 16 on some days. (WA 26.9.14.)
FRANK RICHARDS (BLAINA): FROM OLD SOLDIERS NEVER DIE (1933)
I was a reservist belonging to the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. I had served in India and Burma. My job now was coal-mining. On 4th August 1914 I was at Blaina, having a drink in the Castle Hotel with a few of my cronies, all old soldiers …when someone happened to come in with a piece of news. He said that war had broken out with Germany and that the Sergeant of police was hanging up a notice by the post office, calling all Reservists to the Colours. This caused a bit of excitement and language, but it was too late in the evening for any of us to proceed to our depots so we kept on drinking and yearning till stop-tap.
IDRIS DAVIES (RHYMNEY): RADIO BROADCAST 1940
I saw the local territorial march through the streets (of Rhymney) to the railway station. They started from the Drill Hall … A crowd of children had gathered outside, and we were watching the soldiers very intently. When they began marching we started singing and shouting, and we followed the men in khaki through the streets. It was great fun, I thought, as I banged away at the empty tin in my hand. But I always remember one incident of that summer morning. As we marched along I saw an old woman on one of the doorsteps weeping. She had three sons in khaki and they were marching past the door.
CHEERS AND TEARS IN CHEPSTOW (South Wales Weekly Argus 8th August 1914)
The European crisis aroused the greatest excitement at Chepstow and the Argus office was besieged with people eager to read the latest news. The Army and Naval reserve men went off with a good heart and the Territorials responded with alacrity. They assembled at the Drill Hall on Wednesday morning and extraordinary excitement and activity prevailed in the town. Inside the Drill Hall all the bustle and haste and the work of preparation went forward smoothly. Dr Thompson was in attendance to carry out the medical examinations and he found it necessary to reject very few of them. About 20 additional recruits, several of whom had seen foreign service … were enrolled for the stipulated period, and these brought the total strength up to about 120, with Captain Evill in command.
Tremendous enthusiasm prevailed as the hour of their departure approached and the streets were lined with people from all parts of the district. The fife and drum band led the way and en route to the station handkerchiefs were waved and farewells exchanged. The crush at the railway stations was enormous and the site was a memorable one. The Territorials themselves were in high spirits, but their were some touching scenes on the platforms. As the 4.30 steamed away loud cheers were raised by the thousands of people who thronged the station and the approaches. Then we all trooped back into town wondering how long they will be away.
ANOTHER VIEW FROM CHEPSTOW (Chepstow Weekly Advertiser 8th August 1914)
Orders were received by the local company of Territorials to mobilize at the Drill Hall at 11 o’clock on Wednesday morning … It soon became known that the Territorials were leaving by the 4.30 p.m. train, and as this hour approached the streets leading from the Drill Hall to the station became thronged with crowds of enthusiastic people who cheered wildly, the flutter of handkerchiefs, hats etc, making a scene that will be long remembered … Literally every corner of the station was occupied, and the cheers that followed the patriotic townsmen were deafening. The men were in the highest spirits and only too eager to be in the fray. Should they be privileged to get into the firing line we are certain they will uphold the traditions of our town.
THE TERRITORIALS LEAVE NEWPORT (South Wales Weekly Argus 8th August 1914)
The territorials were in lively mood and sang ragtime ditties … On the opposite platform the scene was not such a merry one … There were fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters assembled there, and the drawn and pale features of more than one matron told of anxious hours and perchance a sleepless night. Many cried pitifully, and made no attempt to hide their grief, and when at last the train steamed slowly away … pathetically brave smiles hid many heavy and aching hearts.