Imagine being stuck in Belgium in charge of a bunch of boy scouts when war breaks out. Such was the predicament of Chiswick’s District Scoutmaster Mr H.S. Martin in August 1914. He managed to get the camp packed up and the boys on the boat train from Brussels to Ostend; ‘there was pandemonium in Brussels where shops were closing and soldiers were commandeering every available horse;’ but when they arrived at Ostend the connecting boat already had 1,400 passengers aboard and left without them. They slept overnight on the quay and waited for the next boat, which came at 08.30 the following day. They were among 2,000 waiting for it; ‘soldiers with fixed bayonets were sent down but the crowd was too great for them … the fights were indescribable but the deck was eventually reached and at 10.00am the boat steamed out of the harbor amidst a volley of cheers’.
His account of their hasty return to England was published on 7 August 1914 in the Chiswick Times and is one of many such accounts collected by local historian John H Grigg into a new book ‘All Quiet in the Western Suburbs’, a chronicle of how Chiswick and the surrounding neighbourhood was affected by the First World War, as seen through the letters sent home by soldiers and the articles in the local press.
It’s taken John many years of scouring the archives to collate these first hand accounts and it makes a fascinating read, not just for researchers and would-be historians but for anyone with an interest in the war or in the history of where they live. It could be very dull, as many of the letters deal with the mundane, but it’s beautifully edited and contextualized by John. The troops couldn’t write anything too graphic as it would have been censored, so the reader of necessity ends up reading between the lines:
9 August 1918 ‘Had the misfortune to be taken prisoner of war. Very pleased to hear Polly Clements has joined the tanks. Pleased to hear George Mason has joined up and he should be a sergeant …’
And what was life like as a prisoner of war????? How did he come to be taken prisoner? How was he treated? While at times frustrating, John says ‘Nevertheless there are descriptions of the horrors of war and life in the trenches’ as well as a clear picture of what life was like for those back home. ‘Theses are accounts direct from the men in the ranks and give some insight into how they sustained themselves in the midst of the horrors of war, with thoughts of loved ones, music and happier times at home’.
‘All Quiet in the Western Suburbs’ begins with the months leading up to the war when spy fever gripped the land. There are accounts of ludicrous situations where blameless folk are accused of spying, just going about their ordinary business. One lad, 19 year old William Ellis, was shot dead while stealing walnuts beside the Great Western Railway. He ran away when challenged and was shot by a soldier guarding the railway, who was subsequently commended for doing his duty so promptly. John describes the panic buying in the High Rd as the war started and how the news of peace was received in Chiswick at the end.
The book, published in paperback by Youcaxton History Publications is available direct from John. Email him at John.Grigg535@btinternet.com
Price £14.99 You can read the first chapter here.