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Saturday, 31 August 2013

The Russians are coming!

Monday, August 31st., Comarques, Thorpe-le-Soken.

Rickards and I met H. in the street. Jaunty but gloomy. He said there was only one thing 'to save this country' - vastly increased recruiting. When I said that soldiers could be had quite easily if we would pay fairly for them, he at once said: "Bounty? Yes, the U.S.A. paid a bounty of £20." The usual charitable idea, not a proper salary. he said it was the middle classes that shirked, not the lower and not the upper. It did not seem to occur to him that the whole organisation of the army was such as to keep the middle-classes out of it - save as privates.

On the outbreak of war in August 1914, Britain had 247,432 regular troops. About 120,000 of these were in theBritish Expeditionary Army and the rest were stationed abroad. It was clear that more soldiers would be needed to defeat the German Army. On 7th August, 1914, Lord Kitchener, the war minister, immediately began a recruiting campaign by calling for men aged between 19 and 30 to join the British Army. At first this was very successful with an average of 33,000 men joining every day. Three weeks later Kitchener raised the recruiting age to 35 and by the middle of September over 500,000 men had volunteered their services.

Our young women, and Marguerite paid another visit to another camp yesterday. Officers wire appointments here, etc. They call here in motors to make appointments. Good news yesterday as to moving of German troops from Western frontier. the bill came for the British stand, between 5,000 and 6,000 losses, but the news that they were thoroughly reinforced was good. the girls came home with a positive statement from the camp that 160,000 Russians were being landed in Britain, to be taken to France. The Colonel had brought the news from Colchester.

The statement was so positive that at first I almost believed it. But after an hour I grew quite sceptical. Only the Archangel route could have been used. Think of the number of ships and the amount of convoying necessary. In the end I dismissed it, and yet could not help hoping ... Rumours in village as to it also. Debarkation said variously to take place at Harwich and in Scotland, etc. Numbers went up to 400,000. The most curious embroidery on this rumour was from Mrs. A.W., who told Mrs. W. that the Russians were coming via us to France, where they would turn treacherous to France and join Germans in taking Paris. "We should not trust the Russians." This rumour I think took the cake. yet Mrs, Sharpe asked me seriously whether there was any fear of such a thing.

At the start of the war the only means for the public to obtain news other than through personal contact with soldiers was through newspapers, magazines and letters from the front. This was often several days out of date, and content was strictly controlled by the authorities (reporters were not allowed near the front and generally had to rely on information provided by the army; censors controlled the content of soldiers letters). As a result there was a huge appetite for information, and rumours spread wildly by word of mouth. People eagerly repeated the most unlikely stories as fact. A well-documented example happened in August/September 1914 when a rumour swept Britain that thousands of Russian soldiers “with snow on their boots” had been seen travelling through England by rail to the Channel ports. These were supposed to be Russian reinforcements hurrying to support Allied troops on the Western front. The detail of “snow on their boots” is presumably used to add vermisilitude to the idea that these are soldiers from snowy Russia. The fact that it is plainly absurd to believe that snow could remain on the boots of a soldier who had travelled all the way from Russia to England in August did not impede the spread of the rumour. The German spy Carl Lody passed the information on to the German High Command. It has been claimed that this was part of the reason that the Germans moved two divisions to guard the Belgian coast in 1914. The two Divisions that were moved might otherwise have been present at the battle of the Marne, and their presence there could have influenced the outcome of this vital battle. There was no truth in the rumour, though it was widely believed for a short time in Britain and beyond.

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