On August 4th 1914 the declaration of war between Great Britain and Germany was announced in a short statement by the Foreign Office at11 p.m. On that morning day, the Tuesday edition of the Accrington Observer & Times, (which served Haslingden) carried front page news about the conflict in Belgium and the threat of war. The newspaper reported on Britain’s attitude to Belgian neutrality and the German ultimatum to Belgium.
It told its readers that the British fleet was ready for any emergency action. However, one brief paragraph at the bottom of the page headed ‘Better News’ offered some hope as negotiations were ‘in progress’ between the German and Belgium governments.
But as the people of East Lancashire were reading the news on the morning of August 4th the die was already cast.
News of the fateful declaration of war was carried in Friday’s edition, 7th August, of The Haslingden Guardian, (the sister paper of the Rossendale Free Press), and reprinted the next day in Saturday’s edition of the Free Press.
Interestingly, news of the outbreak of war was only on page three! As usual for those times, the front page of the large ‘broadsheet’ style newspapers was devoted to classified advertisements. (Unusually, the Accrington Observer & Times carried news on the front page of its midweek edition, while the front page of its weekend edition was, as usual, full of classified advertisements.)
However, before readers reached page three they had page two, with the majority given over to what the Accrington Observer & Times called ‘Our Ladies’ Page’. This was dominated by Chapter XVIII of their serialised story ’The Wizard of the Turf’ by Nat Gould. The local Free Press carried Chapter X of its own serialised story ‘for Ladies’: ‘Loved for Herself’ by Charles D. Leslie along with some fashion features including: ‘The Mirror of Fashion’
Page two of The Free Press also had a gardening column and several local news reports, including, one very detailed report of an intriguing court case in which a Cowpe man, John Watkins, had been fined £5 for indecently assaulting a 15-year-old girl who was on her way home from the pictures at Waterfoot.
Other reports on page two included a young woman’s suicide and how Rossendale holiday-makers going to Blackpool were held up for three hours by a train derailment at Preston.
Page two also reported that, despite the war cloud bursting over Europe, North West holiday makers still enjoyed their Bank Holiday trips, with ‘No Vacancy’ signs at all the hotels and boarding houses in Southport and 40,000 visitors arriving in 24 hours at Douglas, Isle of Man, from 27 large steamers.
Morecambe had many visitors with one attraction being the exhibition at Morecambe’s old harbour of the White Star liner ‘Majestic’. It had been sold for scrap for £26,700 to the Thos W Ward yard and went on display before being scrapped. The captain of the ‘Majestic’ was Edward Smith who went on to captain the Titanic on its catastrophic maiden voyage in 1912. When the Titanic sank, the Majestic was called back into service on the transatlantic run before being sold to the Morecambe company in 1914.
Only when the reader reached page three was there news of the war, with the headline ENGLAND DECLARES WAR ON GERMANY. The brief report on what led up to declaration of war was followed by a paragraph on Prime Minister Lloyd George’s insurance scheme to encourage shipping to keep at sea and so maintain the supply of food and materials for the country.
Astonishingly, news of war related items only took up 75% of page 3. There was an item on ‘Mobilisation’ and another on how the Railways were being put under the control of the government for military purposes.
One report compared the German fleet with the British Navy; in the North Sea, Britain’s 42 battleships outnumbered the German’s 36 and the same was true of cruisers, destroyers and submarines. With a total of over 475 ships and submarines, and more being built, Britain had almost twice as many warships as Germany. Another article discussed the strength of the French Army, one of Britain’s Allies.
There was an item on food reserves and why there was no justification for exorbitant price rises due to speculators making people panic buy.
A report ‘ALL THE EMPIRE ARE READY TO HELP’ told how the countries of the British Empire were offering money and men in support of the ‘Mother Country’; Canada was preparing to mobilise 30,000 men, while Australia was organising an expeditionary force of 20,000. South Africa, New Zealand, India and Malta also all offered support.
Interestingly, on the same page the editor decided to print a letter from W.A.F giving 11 reasons why the nation should avoid ‘Anti German Spirit’. The writer argued that Germany wanted peace and had no quarrel with Britain.
Beneath this was an article on a letter from The Free Church being read out in Wesleyan Churches and Sunday Schools in Rossendale which urged Christians both to ‘support the King’s government’ and pray that God will turn everyone away from ‘the dread evils of a pitiless war’. It is interesting that, even in the midst of such patriotic fervour at the declaration of war, the editor should choose to include these two items!
Looking back from the twenty-first century to the newspapers of 1914, we might wonder why the reports were relatively low key. Perhaps, the answer lies somewhere in the belief that the outbreak of war not a catastrophic event and that ‘It would be all over by Christmas’! How wrong that belief was. Within a few months, the reality of the cost and consequences of modern warfare shook the entire country, from ordinary Rossendalians to powerful national leaders.