Part 2: 1914 - Rugby goes to war with Germany

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In this series of 12 articles, Rugby historian Nigel Stanley traces the part played by thousands of Rugby’s men, women and children in the Great War, saluting over 1400 local men and Rugby School old boys who lost their lives in the war.

Part 2: 1914: Rugby goes to war with Germany

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Cheering crowds in Rugby

Events in Europe at the start of August 1914 had a rapid impact in Rugby. On Monday 3rd August, Bank Holiday train excursions from Rugby ran as usual, but most from Coventry were cancelled to allow mobilisation of army regiments by rail. The Howitzers were recalled to Rugby from their annual camp in Kent and assembled at their HQ in Rowland St, New Bilton, with their horses in a field nearby. Meanwhile, RWR 7th Battalion ‘E’ Company was recalled to Rugby from its camp in North Wales, and mobilised fully on 4th August, the day Britain declared war on Germany. Late in the evening, a huge crowd assembled outside the drill hall on Park Road to accompany the troops as they marched down to Rugby railway station. Tremendous cheering greeted their departure. Two local Socialists, objecting to the looming war, tried to harangue the crowds in Rugby Market Place on 9th August, but were led away by police for their own safety.

Rugby’s war losses begin

The German invasion of Belgium in August 1914 made rapid progress. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) now sprang into action to defend Belgium and France. Royal Warwickshire 1st Battalion landed in France on 22nd August and was soon in battle at Le Cateau in Belgium. Rugby now lost its first casualties in the war, Privates William Busson of Sun Street and Walter Goodman of Hillmorton. The BEF, despite brave efforts, could not halt the German advance, and held only the Belgian town of Ypres. From now on, thousands of British troops died in battles around Ypres. In October, RWR officer Captain Bernard Montgomery was severely wounded. He later became famous in World War Two as “Monty”, victor at El Alamein and Field Marshal. Many bodies were lost without trace, but were later commemorated on the Menin Gate in Ypres, where over 20 Rugby names can be seen today, including four from Hillmorton. Rugby’s losses near Ypres later in 1914 included W J Bathe and H Oldershaw, L/Cpl W H Adams of Dunchurch, J P Shaw of Hillmorton, W J Hutt of Clifton, and G H Ellis of Newbold. Belgian losses of life and property in the devastating German invasion had been much heavier. Belgian refugees arrived in Rugby, and by 1915 several hundred were accommodated in Clifton, Newton and elsewhere. They stayed for the rest of the war, supported by the charity of Rugby people.

Waves of new recruits

On the outbreak of war, new army regiments were created by Lord Kitchener, and appeals issued for volunteers. In Rugby, recruiting offices were set up in ‘E’ Company’s drill-hall on Park Road, and in New Bilton, and hundreds of Rugby men answered the call, such as Albert Ashworth on 19th August. Patriotic recruiting meetings were held at venues such as Rugby’s roller-skating rink. At one meeting, Rev. J H Lees of Regent Place Baptist Church agreed that it was a ‘holy war’, and that as ‘crusaders’, others should follow the 35 young men from his congregation who had already volunteered. Boys at Lawrence Sheriff were allowed time off school to help with war tasks, and at the drill hall (as W.H. Dunkley later recalled) they “filled in forms with information shouted by the doctor, who would be busy sounding the anatomy of endless files of naked patriots.” By October, nearly 2,000 Rugby men had volunteered for the forces, including 1,100 from the BTH factory. One new regiment to take Rugby’s recruits was the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry, created in August 1914, and later to suffer heavy casualties in battles near Ypres. Rugby’s volunteers also enlisted in many other infantry regiments, along with the Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers, Royal Navy and other units.

Rugby’s war horses

Horses had no such choice over their fate. Early in 1914, the Advertiser reported that German and French military agents were buying up the best horses in the English Midlands. By the autumn of 1914, horses around Rugby were being rounded up for the British war effort, mainly to be shipped over to battlefields in France. The Advertiser reported how the horses and carts of local businesses and farmers were being bought by compulsory purchase for army use, and how the army was looking for another 70 shire horses in the Rugby area. The prize-winning heavy horse belonging to Rugby Co-operative Society was just one of hundreds of Warwickshire horses sent off to the war. Most were never to return.

Christmas 1914

The German attack on France had been halted by French victory at the Battle of the River Marne. By the end of 1914, trench warfare had developed on the Western Front, with trenches stretching from the French coast south to Switzerland. Rugby’s losses of men were still low, but there were now many injured troops at hospitals in the town. During the ‘Christmas truce’ on the Western Front, Warwickshire officer Captain Robert Hamilton organised a football match, which the German unit won 3-2. At home, sporting fixtures were severely disrupted by the war, but as the war progressed, many matches were played by military units stationed in Rugby. The Advertiser reported a quiet Christmas in Rugby, but also fears of heavy losses to come in the New Year.