The Clarion and the outbreak of war in 1914 Hilda Thompson’s ‘Spoilt Holiday’

I’m devoting this episode almost entirely to an account which appeared on the front page of the first wartime Clarion on 7 August 1914. It’s by Hilda Thompson, daughter of A.M.or Alex Thompson – aka ‘Dangle’ – who by that time was virtually editing the paper.

The outbreak of the First World War was traumatic for so many involved directly or indirectly. There had been wars – notably the Crimean War in the 1850s and the South African, or Boer War, in 1899-1902 as well as various ‘colonial’ conflicts. But there had not been a general European war which one way or another dragged everyone into it and was impossible to ignore for 99 years. Since the final defeat of Napoleon I at Waterloo.

I suspect pretty well everyone, at least in those countries most directly involved,suffered from some variety of trauma, if only intermittently, for the

rest of their lives. My mother was eight, going on nine, at beginning of August 1914. I’ve long believed that her worrying conviction that my brother and me would end up having to fight in a third world war reflected not only the fact that my Dad had been away in North Africa and Italy with the Eighth Army for much of the second conflict – and most of my early childhood – but also the unexpected shock of what happened at the beginning of the earlier war.

After 1914, and then reinforced in 1939 who could anticipate anything less awful? Fortunately, her fears never came to fruition – which is one of the many reasons I’ve always been a supporter of what is now the EU – in spite of its many shortcomings.

But first we need to remind ourselves of the chronology in order to understand Hilda’s piece better. The war had longer term origins – which are still very controversial – but what immediately triggered what has become known as the ‘July crisis’ was the murder of the archduke, Franz-Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne, and his wife in Sarajevo on 28 June by a Serbian nationalist teenager, Gavrilo Princip. Sarejevo was the capital of Bosnia, once part of the Turkish empire but since the late 1870s

under Austrian-Hungarian occupation and since 1908 formally annexed by the Dual Monarchy. There’d recently been two Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913. There had been a degree of ‘proxy warfare’ by the Great Powers, especially from those Balkan rivals Austria-Hungary and Russia. But while many anticipated a third Balkan conflict few believed it might escalate into a much wider European war.

For example in his book Inside the Left, published during the Second World War Fenner Brockway wrote

The war of 1914 came suddenly. Ten days before it started I spoke at Oldham and my audience thought I was an hysterical scaremonger when I said that we were near war.

Things seemed to quieten down a little in July following the assassination but the Austrian-Hungarian rulers were convinced that Serbia was responsible for the awful act and determined that the Serbs should be ‘taught a lesson’ They began shelling Belgrade, the Serbian capital, on 29 July. Russia mobilised in Serbia’s support and on 1 August Germany, Austria-Hungary’s ally, declared war on Russia on 1 August, invaded Belgium in order to attack Russia’s ally France, against which it declared war. on 3rd and Britain declared war against Germany on 4 August.

For me more than any other later or contemporary account it’s Hilda Thompson’s story that is the most unexpected, even rather shocking, evidence of how unprepared for the outbreak of war almost everyone in Britain was. The title of her piece was ‘A Spoilt Holiday.’ It began ‘We had intended making a tour of the Harz Mountains, partly on foot, partly by train; and our intention had been to stay at least a month.’ It is not quite clear who exactly the ‘we’ were, apart from Hilda herself, but they had left Liverpool Street station late on Thursday 30 July and arrived in Hannover at about 1.30 the following day. While having a meal in a café they became aware of people excitedly reading ‘printed bills’ that were being given out in the street.

These, it quickly became apparent, announced ‘the Kaiser’s decree for the immediate mobilisation of the army.’ Still undeterred, they bought train tickets for Hildesheim and continued their journey, though at the station ‘the disorganisation caused by war was already felt.’ Sometime after midday the next day, Saturday, 1 August, they were advised by the landlord of the place where they were staying to return home immediately. He was himself ‘under marching orders’

Reluctantly agreeing, they took a train back to the Hook of Holland hearing en route that Germany had declared war on Russia. They worried that they might be marooned in Germany with trains unable to cross the border into the Netherlands. But in spite of such fears they reached home safely. Of their attitude at the start of their aborted journey Hilda Thompson wrote, ‘There were rumours of war, as everyone knew but no one in England had taken the matter seriously, and we felt that the excitement would add to the pleasure of our trip.’


Next time. More from the Clarion on the outbreak of war in 1914.

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