1914: London Goes To War

A not-quite-hysterical London crowd milling around the Prime Minister’s house, shortly after the declaration of war.
(Courtesy of The Library of Congress)

This series begins with a surprising eyewitness account of London by Samuel G. Blythe, published in our September 19, 1914, issue. It’s surprising because Blythe’s article contradicts the traditional account of Great Britain’s entry into the war.

Popular histories and movies would give you the impression that the warring nations sent their soldiers off to war amid scenes of frenzied, jubilant crowds. Documentaries such as PBS’ The Great War and the upcoming exhibit at the National World War I Museum assert that there was a general expectation that the war would be over by Christmas.

Doubtless there were people who were excited and pleased by the thought of war and believed it would end quickly, decisively, and victoriously. But the Londoners Blythe saw were far from exuberant. According to his article “London in War Time,” they “watch their soldiers silently — almost stolidly. Whatever emotions they may have are held in check. … The crowds have stood silently alongside the curbs, saying nothing — not cheering — not shouting — just watching.”

Recruiting Poster
A recruiting poster from 1914 hoped to shame British men who were sitting in the stands at soccer games instead of the trenches.
(Courtesy of The Library of Congress)

Furthermore, contrary to the myth that the British expected a quick, easy victory, “the great papers are issuing daily and solemn warnings that the war is likely to be long and bloody.”

Most surprising to me is Blythe’s realization, from the war’s first week, that the coming conflict would have a vast impact. “It will change the map of Europe. It will leave its impress on the destinies of the entire civilized world for years and years to come. No person at a distance can comprehend what it all means. No person can comprehend that even here, at one of the centers of activities, or in Paris or Berlin. The impressions bulk too hugely. The mind does not grasp it all. No mind can.

“A world is being overturned. There is to be slaughter unparalleled in history. There is to be sorrow and woe and distress and ruin. There is to be mourning and weeping. There is to be the glory of arms and the grave of ambition and lust for power. Kings may lose their thrones. Republics may arise where monarchies now prevail.”

Many historians argue that the governments and people of Europe had no idea the war would overturn their world. Well, at least one reporter saw fairly clearly where it was heading, right from the start.

London in War Time
London in War Time
The Saturday Evening Post
September 19, 1914

Read the entire article “London in War Time” by Samuel G. Blythe from The Saturday Evening Post, September 19, 1914.

Step into 1914 with a peek at these pages from The Saturday Evening Post 100 years ago: