Alnwick in WW1

Soon after the declaration of war on 4th August 1914 much of the Regular Army was sent to France and the Territorial Army was mobilised. [The Territorials were originally supposed to be for home defence only, but the needs of the Army on the continent meant that most would eventually serve overseas.]

The local Territorials were the 7th Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers (7th NF). In Alnwick they met and trained in the Drill Hall on Fenkle Street.

As well as mobilising the Regulars and Territorials, there was also an urgent drive to recruit more soldiers. Within a week of the outbreak of war, notices appeared in the the local paper announcing that the recruiting station at Alnwick Town Hall would be open from 9.00am each day.

The volunteers from Alnwick and other towns in the area were mainly enlisted into the 7th NF Territorial Battalion. The new recruits were billeted in Alnwick until a sufficient number of men had been gathered, when they were then sent by train to the battalion training camp that had been established at Gosforth Park.

The Alnwick and County Gazette (A&C Gazette) reported on 19th September 1914:

About one hundred and twenty recruits, including several men who had seen service, and who had been undergoing a short period of training, were despatched to join the 7th Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers at present lying at Gosforth Park and Byker. They left the Drill Hall in Fenkle Street fully equipped, and they were played to the railway station by a section of the drum and fife band, being followed by a large and patriotic crowd of the towns people.

While the military was being mobilised and expanded, what we would now call “civil defence” was also being organised. The A&C Gazette reported in its 8th August edition:

The four special constables in Alnwick have got notice to be in readiness for duty.

The history of the Special Constabulary (the Specials) goes back to the days of Charles II, when an act was passed that allowed ordinary citizens to be sworn in as temporary peace-officers if there was a threat of major disorder. Over the years the scope and authority of this body was increased, and it became known as the Special Police.

Boys were recruited into a messenger service. The local paper reported that Boy Scouts and Church Lads Brigade provided a team of 18 “fine healthy boys” within the first few weeks of war. It is unclear whether the messenger service was ever used.

On 17th August, the Duke of Northumberland hosted a public meeting at the Corn Exchange where he launched the Lord Lieutenant’s War Fund. In the days before any significant state funded welfare system, this fund would have helped to relieve some of the distress caused by the war. The fund grew quickly. By 29th August it amounted to £42,759, and it continued to rise in subsequent months.

Hospitals were also prepared for injured soldiers. Local ladies volunteered for nursing duties. They were known as Voluntary Aid Detachments (VAD) and were organised by the Red Cross.

Lady Victoria Percy, one of the Duke’s daughters, organised the local VAD, establishing a hospital in the Duchess’s School on Bailiffgate. This opened in January 1915 as the 8th Northumberland V.A.D. Hospital. Locally there was another hospital, the 1st Northumberland V.A.D. Hospital, at Howick Hall.

Meanwhile, on the outbreak of war, three German ships were lying in  Amble harbour. These were impounded and later sold. The German sailors who were on board at the time were held in the Alnwick Union Workhouse until November 1914 when they were sent to an internment camp at Wakefield for the remainder of the war.

The cinema in the Corn Exchange would sometimes show patriotic news films from the Front.

On 5th August 1914, the day after war was declared, a detachment of the Northern Cyclists Battalion arrived in Alnwick to provide for local defence. They were billeted in and around the town, using Green Batt House as their officers’ mess.

The Cyclist Battalions were Territorials and had been formed prior to 1914 to provide for reconnaissance and communications, though they were equipped as infantry. Locally they would have been expected to respond to any invasion attempt, prior to the arrival of reinforcements.

Recruits for the 7th NF stayed in the locality until there were a sufficient number to be transferred to other, more advanced, training areas. The local paper reported in October 1914 that:

several hundreds of young patriots who remain billeted in the town are daily and enthusiastically fitting themselves for the grim art of war. They have been regularly put through athletic exercises and drill formations, with a route march now and again. They are now being instructed in musketry and have practice at the Stobby Moor and Moor Laws ranges.

While they were waiting in Alnwick, these new soldiers were not just trained in military subjects. In the evenings:

French lessons are being given to the soldiers remaining in Alnwick in the New Parish Hall. The two lessons already given have been largely attended. Lady Margaret Percy [another of the Duke’s daughters] has very kindly undertaken to conduct the lessons.