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THE GREAT WAR, 1914 to 1918

Updated:  21 February 2013 
Little has been published about Plymouth and the Great War and there is a lot yet to be discovered.  Not only was it a home for troops but it also provided hospitals and munitions. 

Some of the principal events of the War in Europe are listed to give perspective.


Soldiers of the Great War era in camp at Staddon Fort, Plymouth

Soldiers of the Great War era in camp
at Staddon Fort, Plymouth.


On Sunday June 28th 1914 Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the Hapsburg thrones, was assassinated at Sarajevo.  Austria, with support from Germany, declared war on Serbia. Russia, allied to Serbia, mobilised its troops, as the result of which German declared war on Russia.  France, allied to Russia, did the same, with the same result. 

Britain was desperately trying not to get involved but then Germany invaded neutral Belgium.  The British hate dirty tactics like that and, when Germany refused to withdraw their troops, Britain declared war against them on Tuesday August 4th 1914.  To complete the line-up, war was declared against Austria on August 12th.

Under the provisions of the Regulation of Forces Act 1871, the railways came under Government control and local businesses and horse owners were asked to supply motor vehicles and horses for use by the Army.

The provision of shells (munitions) was delegated by central government to the regional committees.  Bristol was the headquarters for the South Western counties and Plymouth had its own Munitions Committee within that structure.

Contracts for the supply of shells was given out by Bristol but only to any firm or combination of firms that could produce at least 100 shells per week.  There was no single business in Plymouth that could meet that figure so a combination was being put together.  Plymouth was asked to become a sub-contractor to a Mr Priest.

In Plymouth they could make only the shell case, with the explosives, charging and fusing being completed in Bristol.   They were to be paid 11s 3d for every shell case, all the materials being supplied centrally at no cost to the Town.  The completed shell cases would also be transported back to Bristol at no cost.  The only expense that had to be met locally was that of the labour.  The work was to be carried out at the Plymouth and Devonport Technical Schools, under the direct supervision of Mr Govier, the metal work instructor, and with the agreement (could he refuse?) of the principal, Mr Burns Brown.

Arrangements were made to transfer a drilling machine and a lathe from the Corporation electricity works at Prince Rock to the Technical Schools and the Tramway Department were asked to loan two more lathes.

Women were taken on in large numbers to undergo instruction in shell case manufacture and they all had to be interviewed by the Higher Education sub-committee of Plymouth Council.

Paradise Road School had already been taken over in 1914 but was handed back to the Education Authority and re-opened.

Devonport Higher Elementary School was in the process of being converted to take wounded soldiers in 1914.

Devonport Technical School was also converted into a temporary hospital in 1914.

Salisbury Road School was taken over on Wednesday August 5th 1914.  The Territorial Army removed all desks and forms, all of which were screwed to the floor and thus had to be unscrewed.  On the Friday the building was clear and cleaning commenced.  The contractors for the ordnance supplies, Messrs Spooner's Ltd, delivered all the equipment and signs such as "Orderlies will not pass this barrier" and "Please wipe your feet!" appeared as if by magic.

The first Royal Navy casualty of the War was the Devonport-based cruiser "HMS Amphion".  She had been ordered to patrol the North Sea but found she had been beaten to it by the German minelayer, "Konigin Luise", which had already laid her mines.  The English squadron promptly sank her and the "Amphion" picked the survivors.  Unfortunately the following day she hit one of the mines laid by the "Konigin Luise" and was sunk, killing 131 of her crew and 20 of the prisoners of war.

On Tuesday August 11th 1914 a Matron (Miss McKay), 22 Sisters and 68 Staff Nurses arrived and the Hospital opened on Monday August 17th 1914.  The Hospital had 280 beds and included a Treatment Centre and a Neurological Section.

The Battle of Mons was on Sunday August 23rd 1914.

At 1.15am on Sunday August 31st 1914 the Officer Commending at Plymouth received a telegram "Prepare to receive 120 wounded".   At 5.30pm an ambulance train of 100 tired and dusty men arrived at Friary Station from northern France and were transferred to the Salisbury Road Temporary Hospital.  Lieutenant-Colonel H W Webber and Major J Cheyne Wilson were in charge of the Hospital.  After a hot bath, chicken broth and 'the kindly attentions of the nursing staff', they were soon revived.

Between September 5th and 9th 1914 the battle of the Marne took place.

The First Battle of Ypres lasted from October 12th to November 11th 1914.

While on its way from Canada to Southampton, a convoy carrying the 1st Canadian Army was suddenly diverted to Plymouth because a German U-boat had been spotted off the French coast at Cherbourg.  The convoy started to arrive in Plymouth Sound at 7am on Wednesday October 14th 1914.   Some 32,000 troops, 7,679 horses, 127 field guns, arms, ammunition, food, and an aeroplane were landed.  One of those men was Major John McCrae, of the Canadian Artillery Brigade, who was later to become famous for penning the words: 'In Flanders Fields the poppies blow, Between the crosses, row on row...'.  It was as a result of his words that he poppy was adopted as the symbol of remembrance.

Canadian Troops parading on Plymouth Hoe, 1914.

The Canadian Troops parading on Plymouth Hoe.
From a postcard posted on November 12th 1914.

The Canadian troops paraded on Plymouth Hoe on Tuesday October 20th 1914, soon after which they departed for Salisbury Plain in no fewer than 92 special trains, while their motor vehicles were driven up the main road.   That took three days, with overnight stops being made at Exeter and Honiton.

On November 1st 1914 the Battle of Coronel took place.

Great Britain declared war against Turkey on November 5th 1914.

The first Zeppelin appeared over Britain on December 20th 1914.


The Battle of Neuve Chapelle took place on March 10th - 13th 1915.

On April 22nd 1915 the Second Battle of Ypres started.  It lasted until May 25th.

British, Australian and New Zealand troops landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula on April 25th 1915.

The 3rd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment moved its headquarters to Plymouth in May 1915, taking over Granby, Mount Wise and Raglan Barracks.

The passenger liner "Lusitania" was sunk on May 7th 1915, with a loss of 1,198 lives.  The loss of American lives contributed to the USA entering the War. 

The Battle of Aubers Ridge took place between May 9th and 25th 1915.

Italy joined the War on May 22nd 1915.

Ford School was taken over by the military authorities in June 1915.

Hyde Park School was taken over to provide an extra 223 beds on top of Salisbury Road.  There was also provision for a further 22 beds in tents.  The Royal Engineers made alterations to the building and it opened as a hospital on Sunday June 13th 1915 with 185 beds filled by Australians from the battle in Gallipoli. 

Ford Workhouse was opened as a hospital in July 1915, accommodating 436 beds.  This became the headquarters of the 4th Southern General Hospital.

Their Royal Highnesses King George V and Queen Mary arrived in Plymouth aboard the Royal Train on September 8th 1915.  First they inspected troops and awarded medals at the Brickfields and then they embarked on a tour of the seven military and naval hospitals in the Plymouth area.  The Royal Train collected them again at Devonport Station and they were transported to Horrabridge Station, where they spent the night.

On September 9th they travelled back into Plymouth North Road Station and completed their visits to the hospitals before visiting the Royal Dockyard, where they again presented decorations.  At the end of the second day they again retired to Horrabridge.  The following day they made a surprise visit to Exeter.

In October 1915 Camel's Head school was also taken over.


By authority of the Military Services Act 1916, compulsory enlistment was introduced for single men and childless widowers between the ages of 18 and 41; the upper limit was later increased to age 51.  Clergymen, essential war workers, those physically unfit and approved conscientious objectors were exempted.

Troops completed the evacuation from Gallipoli on January 8th 1916.

The Battle of Verdun started on February 21st 1916.

On April 29th 1916 the Daylight Saving Act received the Royal Assent.  British Summer Time commenced on Sunday May 21st 1916, when the clocks were put forward one hour.  This followed a similar move by the Germans.

From Monday May 1st until Wednesday May 3rd 1916 one of the Great Western Railway's new ambulance trains was on exhibition at Millbay Docks.  The Mayor and Deputy Mayor of Plymouth, Aldermen T Baker and E Blackall, paid an official visit at Midday on the Tuesday.  Built at the Railway's Swindon Works, the train consisted of 16 coaches amounting to 960 feet in length and 442 tons in weight.  Accommodation was provided for 592 patients, 102, lying down, 472 sitting and 18 infectious cases.  The medical staff amounted to 45 people.  Throughout the train the gangways were wide enough to enable stretchers to be carried from the ward cars to the treatment rooms.  All of the beds were capable of being used as stretchers.  In addition to opening windows, fixed and portable fans provided ventilation while candle brackets were installed for use in the event of a failure of the electricity lighting.  Hot water was provided and supplied hot shower baths.  It could also be used for heating when the train was in a siding and not connected to the locomotive.  Mr W Rowed, the divisional superintendent of the GWR stated that a complete train could be built in six weeks.  [1]

The Battle of Jutland took place on May 31st 1916.

Lord Kitchener drowned when HMS Hampshire struck a mine at around 8pm on Monday June 5th 1916.

The Battle of the Somme took place between July 1st and November 13th 1916, resulting in British losses of some 420,000 men.

On September 15th 1916 tanks were first used by the British Army.


The New Year started with drastic restrictions being placed on rail travel and ordinary fares were increased by 50%.

Camels Head School was taken over and opened as a hospital on Thursday January 11th 1917.

It was reported on the morning of Saturday January 27th 1917 that the coastal village of Hallsands has been almost completely destroyed by of fierce north-easterly gale.

Unrestricted submarine warfare commenced on Thursday February 1st 1917.

Paradise Road School was taken over once again on Monday February 19th 1917 the children were moved out once again, in to temporary schools at St Barnabas' and Belmont Sunday Schools.

The Russian Revolution took place on Saturday March 17th 1917.

On Wednesday April 4th 1917 Johnston Terrace school was taken over in order to reduce crowding at the Royal Naval Barracks.

The United States of America entered the War on Friday April 6th 1917.

The Battle of Arras too place between Monday April 9th and Saturday 14th 1917.

A VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) Hospital was opened in 1917 in the Millbay Recreation Ground and the adjacent Drill Hall.

A Soldiers' Rest was opened in 1917 at Mannamead, run under the auspices of Emmanuel Church.

The first American troops arrived in France on Tuesday June 26th 1917.

When the American Army commenced operation on the Western Front, they opened a YMCA in the Foresters' Hall and a military hospital at Laira.  Colonel Dutcher was in charge.

The Third Battle of Ypres started on Tuesday July 31st 1917.

On Saturday September 15th 1917 Russia was proclaimed a Republic.

A very unfortunate tragedy occurred just to the north of Plymouth on Monday September 24th 1917.  Soldiers from the New Zealand Expeditionary Force had arrived in Plymouth that day on their way to Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire.  Before they were due to leave Plymouth's Friary Station they were told that food would be available at the first stop, which should have been Exeter Central, and that two men from each compartment should leave the train to collect it.  Unfortunately the train was halted at Bere Ferrers Station, just 11 miles outside of Plymouth, and the men who had been instructed to collect the food immediately jumped out of train but on the wrong side.  It emerged at the Inquest that they got out on that side because that was the side they had boarded the train at Friary Station.  It was further revealed that in their country of origin most of the railway was single track. 

As a result of this serious error, the men fell to the ground right in the path of the 11am London Waterloo to Plymouth express, which was passing through the Station at about 35mph.  Being on a right-hand bend and the driving position on the locomotive being on the left-hand side, the driver saw nothing of the men and was only alerted to the incident by the fireman, Mr Charles Henry Thorn, of Exeter, shouting "Soldiers on the line" when he spotted them.  The driver was not asked to give evidence at the Inquest and consequently was not named but trhe signalman on duty at Bere Ferrers on the fateful night was Mr Frank Kidwell. 

The nine men who were killed instantly were so badly mutilated that they could be identified only by their metal tags.   They were: Rifleman William Simon Gillanders, aged 36; Rifleman William Frederick Greaves, 31; Private John Stanley Jackson, 20; Rifleman Joseph Judge (age not known); Rifleman Chudleigh Inwood Kirton, 21, who came from New Plymouth; Private Baron Archibald Wilson McBryde, 24; Rifleman Richard Vincent McKenna, 20; Rifleman John Warden, 33; and Private Sidney Ennis West, 21.  Rifleman William John Trussell, aged 28, died later at Tavistock Hospital.  All the above are buried at Plymouth's Efford Cemetery, where they each have a Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone.  Rifleman Robert James Barnes and Private Nathaniel Johnston Gatley were injured.

The British secured a victory at Passchendaele Ridge on Thursday October 4th 1917.

Passchendaele was captured by the British troops on Tuesday November 6th 1917.

The Bolshevik Revolution took place on Wednesday November 7th 1917.


A Lord Roberts Memorial Workshop was opened in Plymouth on Tuesday March 19th 1918.  This was to provide employment for servicemen disabled during the War.  [2]

On Thursday March 21st 1918 the Germans opened an offensive against the British on the Somme.

The Battle of Arras took place between Thursday March 21st and Thursday April 4th 1918.

On Thursday September 26th 1918 the Allied Troops began their offensive in the West.

German Revolution took place on Friday November 8th 1918 and the Kaiser abdicated the following day.

Germany signed the Armistice on Monday November 11th 1918.  Sirens and ships' hooters were sounded and local school children paraded up and down the streets, singing and cheering.

The railways remained under Government control until August 15th 1921, just four days prior to the Railways Act 1921 receiving the Royal Assent.

Sources (incomplete):

[1]  "New Ambulance Train at Plymouth: Mayor's Visit and Appreciation", Western Morning News, Plymouth, Tuesday May 2nd 1916.

[2]  "Lord Roberts Memorial Workshops: Opening of the Plymouth Branch", Western Morning News, Plymouth, March 20th 1918.

  Brian Moseley, Plymouth, UK

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