The assassination of the Austrian heir and his wife by a youthful Servian had caused but a mild sensation. A few big headlines in the morning newspaper, some desultory talk among the public, and the topic died. Boxing was the subject of most interest, the press having boomed some recent contests between heavyweights, notably Carpentier, a Frenchman, and 'Gunboat' Smith, an American. Preparations for a forthcoming bout between Carpentier and an Englishman, Ahearn, were widely discussed.
Home rule was also big in the public eye. Would Ulster with 10,000 armed volunteers revolt under Sir E Carson if the Bill became law? Would Redmond's National Volunteers respond to the challenge? Gun-running had caused a riot in Dublin in which soldiers had fired fatally on a mob. A surfeit of sensations at home in fact had shut the continental ferment out of the press.
Great was the surprise at the news of Austria's ultimatum to Servia and her threat of invasion. The consequences of the action rushed immediately like a flame over Europe and, of course, over our newspapers. Russia backed Servia. Germany threatened Russia and commenced instant mobilisation. France, perceiving danger, took similar precautionary measures. A European conflict of appalling dimensions became imminent and Britain began to see storms ahead for herself.
General talk favoured the hope of British neutrality being preserved. War seemed incredible, inconceivable. 'Why should we fight?' people said. Little else was talked of, but everyone was rejoicing that we were out of the danger zone.
Then Germany declared war on Russia. The credit system collapsed. The bank rate rose to 8%. Our interests in the position became apparent. People began to shake heads and see possibilities of the worst character.
I spoke to a boy, Andrew Todd, early in the week who was in the yeomanry. 'If war breaks out, the territorials will be mobilised,' he said. I did not believe him, until he assured me emphatically. 'Still,' he said, 'I don't suppose we shall be called up.'
Our family came back from Tarbert on Saturday (our father and mother were in Ireland) and they spoke of the shock the news of the increase of the bank rate had been to a CA on the steamer, who had been ignorant of the rush of events. Food prices were as usual when I went out late on Saturday night to buy provisions for the house. The newspaper bills saying 'War inevitable' were taken still as scare headlines.
Germany had invaded Belgium; Austria had attacked Servia. Public opinion remained calm.
The Sunday weekly newspapers came out as usual. 'Reynolds' had big bills 'Britain must avoid war' but already the storm had burst. The unaccustomed sound of a newsboy shouting 'Special Times' on a Sunday afternoon sent me sprinting to the street. The first of the war specials had come out. I read it feverishly and in a grave mood handed it to the family who were in the parlour entertaining Jessie Lothian and two of her cousins, girls who had sailed up to Dundee from London.
The paper's excitement about warships in the North Sea infected the girls. We all read the papers together over each other's shoulders. We foresaw that the girls would not be able to return by water to London and so it turned out. They had to cut short their holiday and take the train.
The paper told of the mobilisation of the naval reserve and their proposed departure at 9.40pm and we talked of going to see them off. Fortunately we refrained. A mob gathered with similar intentions at the station, and the rough element becoming noisy at being kept outside the gates, had to be dispersed by police baton charge. A friend of mine, Fraser, returning from Dunoon was kept in by the crowd for an hour in a state of extreme impatience, having left his house keys in a dairy which was soon likely to close for the night.
The newsboys made huge hauls on this Sunday's editions. I spoke to one who had been sent down to Rothesay and had made 19 shillings. 'They were tumblin' over ye to get them there,' he said. 'The folks was mad for them.' But his friends remaining in town had made, some of them, between four and five pounds. Some of the newsboys were half drunk and hoarse as crows for days after.
The morning papers made it clear that there was little hope of British neutrality, news that immediately caused panic in the country. An extraordinary rush on provisions began at once and prices were rocket-like. Sugar was 2d on Saturday, by Monday night it was 7d, next day it rose to 8d, then 9d. Grocers were sold out in a day. We joined the rush by purchasing stocks of sugar, flour meal etc, sufficient for a month or two, but at increased prices. Annie [Robins' sister] had difficulty in getting them.
I went down to our cousins and there we discussed maps and campaigns.
The excitement throughout the town was intense. People bought edition after edition of papers. Our boys saw Austrians at their consul's office, preparing to leave the country. Annie saw a Frenchman at the station, ignorant of English and feverishly anxious to get somewhere, no-one knew where; last seen scurrying frantically up the platform in the direction, no doubt, of France.
Sir E Grey made a statement in parliament that made it evident that the British fleet at least was to be engaged to protect France. Feeling was now strong against Germany's 'aggression', an opinion which the newspapers were vigorously exciting into jingoistic war fever.
War was not yet declared but the talk of the day was full of it. Maps had the interest of novelty and vivid explanation of the German campaign in Belgium filled our office. There was an aged history book, dating from before the Franco-Prussian war, with maps that still showed Alsace-Lorraine as belonging to France. This was requisitioned to settle burning arguments as to the contours of Europe until finger smudges and pencil marks strayed all over it.
Newspapers were being tremendously cut down. While none of the Glasgow papers came to the extremity of the Paris Petit Journal, which came out in a sheet of two pages, the Daily Record and the News and Times came out in four pages only. Even so, they were bought in thousands. Newsboys pervaded every street of the city from morning till night shouting monotonously.
Already the difficulties of acquiring our staple stock of provisions had made themselves a nuisance in the hospital [where Robins worked]. We were ordered to get in enough for two months but for a while it seemed we could get nothing. Eventually, business settled down again and provisions were sent up once more.
At night mobilisation notices for reservists and territorials were posted throughout the town. I saw groups of people in Sauchiehall Street gazing quietly at the posters in the lamp-light. There was no sign of excitement save for the unusually large crowds strolling in the streets and the motor-cars with officers in uniform rushing at high speed hither and thither. Cousin Mary came home in the afternoon from Kilwinning. She had been unable to sleep the night before through thinking of the war, but there had been no excitement in the country except in the way of a rush on provisions, which had taken place everywhere. After midnight we were awakened by hoarse shouting from a newsboy passing along Alexandra Parade. 'Midnight Special – Britain declares war on Germany.' So we learned of the culmination of the expected trouble.
All day territorials to be seen proceeding to their centres of mobilisation in the town. A thousand men were called up from the tramway. There were not many from the police, but I saw some, half-intoxicated from the farewell cups they had quaffed, bidding goodbye to their cheering comrades. Many schools were requisitioned as barracks for the territorials and they were to be seen leaning on the walls conversing with admiring friends or sitting on the window sills shouting 'Haw Bella!' to passing girls. They were busy going round the town commandeering horses and it was amusing to see boys quite unaccustomed to the ways and fashions of that fierce animal tramping gingerly alongside huge Clydesdales at the full length of the bridle rope. I met four in a small teashop, Glasgow Highlanders. One said that whenever his horse reared up 'I went four storeys.' Although only supposed to be liable for home defence, they had volunteered for active service and were hoping to be sent to Belgium.
Stobhill was being got ready for a territorial hospital, 1,000 beds being requisitioned. We were soon kept busy handling a rush of transfers. Groups of people were to be seen in the streets discussing the war news. One argument between an old white bearded man of 70 and a boy of 22 I found amusing. There was great disgust against the German aggression and violation of Belgian neutrality; and a good deal of hysterical jingoism beginning.
In the picture houses, patriotic songs were loudly cheered and sung. One was kept bobbing up and down as 'God Save the King' was repeated throughout the performance though it sometimes happened that the anthem went grotesquely with the film that showed on the screen. And at the bands, audiences joined in 'Rule Britannia' and cheered vociferously, apparently under the impression that they also were thus helping to save the country's honour and fame from German desecration.
Children everywhere were seen playing at war. Boy Scouts and Boys Brigades were aching to get into service; and one heard of crowds enlisting and of youthful aspirants for bullets measuring themselves all over.
Rumours of the wildest description swept through the city, of battles and disasters, of British and German fleets destroyed or triumphant. We had a note meanwhile from father in Ireland saying 'What a blessing it was not civil war,' which caused us to smile.
Glasgow was an armed camp in appearance. Territorials in hundreds were in the streets, leading lines of horses, riding motorcycles, driving motor-cars and waggons, strolling, flirting, marching, loafing. For a time the telephone exchanges seemed almost monopolised by the military. A workman told us that for a week past the officials had been working feverishly putting up telephones along the countryside to all sorts of small cottages and farmhouses. In the stables next door uniforms were frequently seen as the horses were being taken over by the territorials.
We got in most of our extra stores into the hospital, Mr Balmer heaving a sigh of relief when the seven bags of sugar arrived after 6pm. The carter was drunk and in turning his horse allowed it to fall on the slippery asphalt slope; but this, like other discomforts throughout the town, such as a defective tram service, the closure of banks, the rise of prices, the shortage of change (postal orders being put into currency), interruption of train service, and so on, one took philosophically and with stoicism.
Stories came out of great Belgian victories at Liege in defence of the Meuse against German invasion and the public became confident, losing some of the nervousness, which had been so evident at the prospect of having to tackle such a vaunted opponent as Germany.
I had a talk with Tom Johnston of Forward. He emphasised the number of Social Democrats in the German ranks and insisted that they were so against the war that they would certainly fight with little enthusiasm and make for safety at the earliest opportunity. (Forward had taken a strong anti-war attitude. Whether it could continue it remained to be seen.)
He felt sure that if Germany were dishonourably defeated, the foundations of royalty and aristocracy there would be severely shaken, and a republic might rise from its ruins. He was confident that, in any case, the socialist movement would receive an impetus from the reaction after the war. I hinted that the militarist party was even more likely to have its hand strengthened in the fear of a repetition of the catastrophe but he would not see that danger. From the parish chambers I saw troops with guns marching through the streets, two pipers leading them. Others were to be seen leaving by train.
Rain poured heavily all day and we were kept busy taking in the rush of patients from Stobhill. We heard afterwards that our father and mother this morning had realised for the first time the interruption of transport on seeing in a paper that the last boat to be depended on left Belfast that day. Hurriedly packing, they drove miles in an open car in the rain, arriving at Ardrossan at 10pm, having had to answer all sorts of questions as to destination, intentions etc on embarkation.
There were the usual crowds in town at night but no patriotic displays, no processions, flags or songs. Glasgow was taking things very quietly.
There were plentiful bloody details of the fighting at Liege in the papers but nothing new. I was on duty at the hospital and passed the time drawing a cartoon for Forward. Boys were selling papers in the streets up till 11 at night even out Alexandra Parade. One saw the territorials marching out, probably to church parade, but I heard nothing of any special ceremonial in honour of their approaching departure at the churches.
Horses were still to be seen being led through the streets, the round white paper stamp denoting military purchase on their hindquarters. The mobilisation and movement of troops throughout the country are kept entirely out of the newspapers, which were padded out with reports of the continental fighting. Parliament was sitting and voted 100 millions of money; Kitchener was installed at the war office; the Irish volunteers, nationalist and Ulsterist, were being taken over by government for home defence. Appeals were posted all over the country, and at every convenient hoarding and wall in town for 100,000 men to enlist. Talk was begun in the papers for formation of a civil guard in Glasgow.
Business was settling down again to make the best of our conditions, and there was less of the excitement consequent on the outbreak of hostilities. Our national stolidness had reasserted itself at the earliest possible moment.
On Friday evening I took a bicycle run around Kirkintilloch, Kilsyth, Croy and Condorrat. The calm of the countryside at eventide was delightful. I spoke for a time to an Irishman of nationalist leanings. He insisted that the Ulster disturbance was chiefly a 'newspaper' war. He said: 'Why, there's no difference there since I left the old place 19 years ago. They're eating together, sleeping together (the protestants and catholics), drinking together and I seen catholics helping protestants home that have maybe taken a drop too much, just the same as when I was a boy. But if you'll believe me, the only difference I saw was when young fools were leppin' about in a park with guns.'
Along the country road one saw groups talking together and heard words oddly in passing, 'Germany' and 'war' and 'Belgium' and 'territorials', that showed the universal trend of conversation.
As I came home in the dusk the lights of the bandstand in Alexandra Park attracted me from the roadside and I was in time to hear the band blare out 'Rule Britannia' to the accompaniment of cheering and 'God save the King' honoured with usual fervour.
I was awakened by the monotonous tramp tramp tramp of passing troops at half past six in the morning. A long column of some thousands was marching to Falkirk. In endless repetition they swept briskly past the windows khaki-clad, knapsacks, rifles and accoutrements over their shoulders. The continuous beat of so many feet in regular time was impressive. After them trailed waggons of all sorts with horses of every variety. Fortunate the men of the army service corps who would sleep on the sacks piled on their lorries and carts. For most of the men had slept but little. The impromptu barracks were rowdy places, while the night previous they had been busy packing and preparing.
It was told to me afterwards that the sight of them arriving in Falkirk was pathetic, some with boots over their shoulders and barefooted, limping in late at night. Few were fit for heavy marching. The 20-odd mile tramp was too hearty a beginning. Later in the day other parties were to be seen following of ambulance corps, artillery, army service corps etc. By night the town was empty of uniforms, the streets resumed the appearance of peace. No doubt the departure helped to allay the uneasiness of the public, for the resumption of routine became noticeable. Papers recovered advertisements, prices sank heavily, one forgot to talk of war. Normal interests asserted themselves.
12 and 13 August
These were days in which the principal war interests took the form of rumours. No intelligence had been published in the press of the movement of British troops. Not a word was printed to give authorisation to the general conviction that our troops were already in Belgium and probably engaged with the Germans. Nevertheless many stories were told of relatives receiving notice from the war office of deaths at the front. One heard of instances from varied quarters. Then a story spread all over the country of shocking losses to Scottish battalions. Hundreds were said to be wounded of Camerons and Seaforths while in different stories the Black Watch and the Scots Greys were declared to be 'annihilated' and 'wiped out' and 'horribly cut up.' The newspapers published denials of these stories, though there remained a suspicion that there must have been some ground for the rumours and that British troops had probably participated in the fighting already.
An example however of how rumour gallops was the story Mary [Robins' sister] had to tell of Stobhill overflowing with wounded soldiers, the truth being that there were five inmates, two of whom had fallen off horses, two had colds and one had been ill from over-smoking. Meanwhile there were 10 doctors on the spot and 180 nurses, and 1,000 beds in readiness.
Mary, by the way, had joined the rush to learn first aid and ambulance work and was assiduously attending every night at classes on the other side of the city.
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