WW1 – How Chiswick fared in the Great War

Local historian John H Grigg has researched the history of the First World War and how it affected Chiswick and the neighbouring areas and collated his material into a book: ‘All Quiet in the Western Suburbs‘ published in August 2018 to commemorate the centenary of the end of the war.

John spent years painstakingly going through the archives in the local libraries for articles in the local press. Most of the accounts published were letters from soldiers at the front. The following is taken from the first chapter of the book, which you can buy for £14.99 direct from John if you contact him by email at: John.Grigg535@btinternet.com.

All Quiet in the Western Suburbs, by John H Grigg

Chapter 1: When the war began

The First World War may have started in August 1914 but for many years local papers in the west of London had reported anxieties at local political, church and society meetings. At some meetings there were warnings that our navy must keep pace with Germany; at others there were calls for peace and friendlier relations with Germany. Local fears reflected those at national level.

But by 1914 Germany was seen as an enemy, war seemed inevitable, and stories of spies and plans for German invasion were rife in the newspapers which were the only means of communication – apart from word of mouth and rumour, and of course letters and postcards, much more a part of life then than now.

Spies and secret agents

Albert Holden, a post-card photographer of Goldsmith Road, Acton was preparing to take a photograph of Southsea Castle in May, three months before war broke out, when he was arrested by two soldiers under the command of an officer. He was taken under armed guard to the castle and kept for three hours while the plates were developed and examined. He was released and told he was fortunate ‘as the Isle of Wight, Portsmouth and Southsea are full of German spies.’ Mr Fenton, the Chiswick Fire Brigade Superintendent, was similarly detained on the Isle of Wight when he had foolishly snapped a torpedo boat coming into the harbour.

A Belgian soldier who had fought the Germans and had escaped to England was quartered in Grove Park Road, Chiswick. He was arrested by a London Defence Corps private for making a sketch of Tower Bridge. The matter went to court and the case was dismissed after the Belgian Consulate spoke up for the accused. Another man was arrested at Brentford Docks in possession of ‘plans’ that in fact were ‘harmless water colour sketches’.

This spy mania spread to fears that German agents were secretly preparing for an invasion, and at an Acton District Council meeting the Surveyor was asked if he would inspect the district to discover whether any concrete foundations had been prepared for German guns. The surveyor said the council had no power to do so and it was a matter for the military.

There was a sensation at Acton Wells when, acting upon information received, a large body of police raided the premises of C. Roder & Co., the London factory of a German music publishing company, and arrested 23 German workers. Most of the firm’s 200 employees were English. The information received was that the concrete roof was two feet thick and commanded a wide view over the Great Western Railway line and junctions.

When questioned by a press representative the firm referred the reporter to the architects of the building who said the suggestion that the roof could be used as a platform for guns was absurd. He showed a photograph of the saw toothed roof, which was composed mostly of glass, any concrete being only two inches thick.

Pigeon fancying was a popular pastime. John Klewhein, a Bavarian who had been in England since 1898 and had an English wife, lived in Hamilton Road, Brentford; he kept pigeons and the suspicion was that they could be used to send messages to Germany. It was explained that the birds were hatched in Brentford and if let out wouldn’t fly anywhere. Despite that he was fined £5 and the birds ordered to be destroyed.

In Bath Road Hounslow smoke was seen near a van and at once was thought to be the work German spies. Close observation proved it to be nothing more than fumes from a cartload of manure. The Fire Brigade, who had been warned, were relieved of anxiety.

The anti-German mania ran to demands that the public house near Acton Town Station called ‘The Crown Prince of Prussia’ be changed to ‘The Crown Prince of Russia’ and that Brandenburgh Road be renamed. It was later renamed Burlington Road. In Isleworth German sausage was transformed into breakfast sausage. But the mania lead to a tragic result in Acton.

Military Guards were placed on the Great Western Railway. 19-year-old William Ellis, who was apparently stealing walnuts from a garden and was challenged by a special constable, ran away along the railway. He was called to halt by one of the armed soldiers. He refused and was shot in a nearby brickfield. He died the following day in Acton Cottage Hospital. A verdict of ‘justifiable homicide’ was returned and the soldier was commended in the coroner’s court for doing his duty so promptly.

Aliens interned

Once war was declared on August 4th all unnaturalised Germans, Austrians and Hungarians had to register at Police Stations. 75 year old Henry Bettcher of 32 Heathfield Gardens, Chiswick, who had lived in England for 36 years, was prosecuted for not registering. He told Acton Justices that he had once been told by a judge that he was a British subject ‘for Jury service’ and it was not necessary for him to be naturalised. He was fined £10, an amount he could not pay immediately. As he was led towards the cells an English friend paid the fine and Mr Bettcher was released. So distressed was he by the proceedings that he collapsed and tragically died the following Sunday.

There were other cases reported in the local papers, including an Englishwoman who had married a German and didn’t realise that she had therefore ‘chosen’ German nationality. Registered Aliens were watched by the police and several were arrested and fined for travelling more than five miles from their registered addresses.

In October 1914 the Home Office ordered the internment of all un-naturalised aliens of enemy countries. One local woman whose German husband had been arrested and taken away had difficulty in finding him. Laden with food and other items that her husband might need, she went to Olympia, which had been commandeered as a detention centre. She was directed to Newbury and then to place after place, until she found him at the Aldershot concentration camp.

Panic in the High Road

When war was declared there was, like everywhere else, panic in Chiswick. There was a rush on the shops and several in Chiswick High Road ran out of supplies. One problem was getting stocks from wholesalers whose horses had been requisitioned by the government. In Brentford alone 150 horses were commandeered for the army from the council, hauliers, breweries and laundries, and a number of Brentford men were out of work as a result.

There was a run on the banks as customers withdrew deposits. A local bank manager said there was a tendency to ask for gold, but when it was explained that it was in the national interest to reserve gold, most took bank notes with a small proportion of gold and silver. Another bank manager said everyone was paid out in gold but many brought their deposits back later, repenting their hasty action

The government extended the bank holiday to get control of the situation, and when they opened again banks were generally insisting on seven days’ notice for deposit withdrawals in order to stop any panicky depletion of gold reserves.

Reactions to the War

Excited crowds gathered at level crossings and bridges, and a large number of people spent whole nights on the bridge near Brentford Station to cheer the troops as they passed by. Normal timetables were suspended to allow trains carrying troops, horses and guns to get through to Southampton.

German goods were boycotted and J Bosence, Jeweller of Chiswick High Road, was wrongly reported to the police as a German. He could, he said, trace his family back to 1066 in Cornwall. Another High Road trader, Harry Hallier, a baker, put an advert in the Chiswick Times offering a £10 reward to anyone providing information leading to prosecution of anyone saying he was a German.

Some responded by volunteering help for the war effort. Mrs Dorey, president of the Brentford Needlework Guild, after an appeal from Queen Mary, set to work making flannel shirts, socks, sweaters, cardigans for the troops and night shirts for hospitals. Another women’s group, the Brentford Women’s Working Association, which met every Thursday afternoon in Brentford Library, had by the middle of September sent 128 flannel shirts and pairs of socks for the 8th Middlesex Battalion B Company.

Stranded in Europe

August was the middle of the holiday season. There were stories of tourists in Switzerland endlessly delayed in returning to England, but the people really in trouble were those caught behind enemy lines. John McLaren, working in Germany, and Mr Haynes, working in Vienna, had problems getting back to London. Miss Waycott, a Red Cross Nurse working in Brussels, was trapped when the German army occupied the town.

Joining the Army

At first there was no great rush to join the army and a local vicar wrote to the Chiswick Times to say he was nauseated by the spectacle of be-flannelled young men enjoying cricket, tennis and river punting while others gave their lives in Belgium and France.

Men who had been in the regular army and were reservists were called up straight away. 150 London United Tramways Company employees were on the reserve and the company lost 10% of its work force. Over 200 naval reservists in Brentford were directed to report to Chatham and elsewhere.

A large number of reservists at Brentford Gasworks and the Royal Brewery were called up and both places announced that the men’s places would be kept open until the war ended – expected then to be by Christmas. The Gas Works would pay half wages for subsistence of their families, and the brewery undertook to look after their families while the men were away.

In September a huge recruiting rally in Acton Park attended by about 2,500 people resulted in 20 volunteers, but all but five were rejected on health and other grounds. Similar rallies in Homefields Park, Chiswick Town Hall and Chiswick Empire did a little better. Not many joined up at these rallies, but maybe they had an influence because men started to join up individually, and when reports arrived from the Expeditionary Force in France recruitment picked up. Servicemen’s letters appeared in the local newspapers. The false war of spies, secret German guns and the High Street panic faded once the deaths and casualties appeared. English casualties arrived at Chiswick Hospital and wounded Belgium soldiers at Devon Nook in Dukes Avenue, and it was reported that the Duke of Northumberland had placed a part of Syon House and grounds at the government’s disposal for convalescent wounded.

The Chiswick Times printed the names of close on 1,500 Chiswick men who had ‘responded to the call’ by the end of November. This included reservists, and those who volunteered for ‘Kitchener’s Army’ or the Territorials.

The Middlesex Regiment

Most local men joined either the regular army (Kitchener’s Army) or the Middlesex Regiment (Duke of Cambridge Own), known as the ‘Die Hards’.

The 10th Middlesex Territorial Battalion was based at Stamford Brook and the 8th Battalion in Hounslow. By the end of August 80 extra men had joined the Middlesex 8th Territorial Battalion at the drill hall HQ in Ealing Road, Brentford. The 10th Middlesex started the war with 700 men. Most of them were quickly sent with the 8th Battalion to Sheerness to assist in guarding the Medway and Thames defences. Crowds gathered to see them off. They marched off at 6pm by way of Young’s Corner, via Hammersmith, to Addison Road, where a special train awaited. Then they went to Sittingbourne for training where, by all accounts, they had a high old time. On 30th October the 10th sailed for India to release a regular army battalion for the war in France and remained there until the end of the war.

The 8th Battalion went to Gibraltar and then to France in March 1915 and later in the year they amalgamated with the Middlesex 7th Hornsey battalion. A second 8th battalion went to Egypt in August 1915 and then to France in June 1916 where the whole battalion went into quarantine for typhus. Records say the second 8th was then disbanded. A third 8th battalion remained in reserve in England.

Meanwhile, back in Stamford Brook a reserve 10th battalion was being raised that was over 1,000 strong by the end of 1914. This reserve in 1915 became part of the 53rd Welsh Division and sailed for Gallipoli in July 1915 where heavy losses were suffered. Later that year the division was evacuated to Egypt and was engaged against the Turks in Egypt and Palestine until the war’s end. A third 10th Middlesex Battalion joined the South African Brigade in France in 1917 and a fourth Battalion remained in reserve in England.

The War

When 1914 ended there was still hope that it would be over in a few months. We now know that it was not so. Parish war memorials honour nearly a million United Kingdom men who died in action or from disease and other causes in the struggle for power in Europe.

Sources: Chiswick Times, Acton Gazette, Middlesex Independent, Middlesex Regiment Records.