An article that some followers on Twitter posted a link to today, <a href="http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/world-history/the-gathering-storm-a-look-back-on-middleclass-europes-last-carefree-christmas-before-the-onset-of-world-war-one-9020184.html” target=”_blank”>in the Independent, described Christmas a century ago saying it was “Europe’s last carefree Christmas before the onset of World War One.” It is easy to look back on the Edwardian period as some sort of golden era, a view especially prominent with recent television programmes like Downton Abbey. The reality is poverty was still rife more than a decade after the death of the Old Queen and while the Middle and Upper classes were profiting, many others were not.
But it was, of course, the last ‘normal’ Christmas families in Britain, and indeed across Europe, would experience for many years to come. The author Henry Williamson called it the ‘Last Winter of the Old World’, a world in which he had grown from boy to man, and would soon take him in khaki to the front line of Flanders. A year later his Christmas would be on the battlefield; in No Man’s Land at Ploegsteert, face to face with the enemy during the so-called Christmas Truce.
So to mark this important passage in the story of the Great War Centenary, and thinking of old Henry a hundred years ago, the final image for this year is not one of war, but of peace: a winter’s scene in 1913 on Hilly Fields, the open parkland near Henry Williamson’s own home in Eastern Road, Ladywell, South-East London. The Middle Classes of London are out in force, and alongside them no doubt the boys from some of what Williamson called ‘the rougher streets’ who attended the school on the hill, which is still there and still a school; now Prendergast-Hilly Fields College. The school has its own war memorial to the old boys who fell, some of whom may well be on this image; but whoever the young men seen here in 1913 are, a year later, like Williamson, they would be off to war and an unknown future; days like these would appear as if part of a different, unconnected past.
The 14th Battalion London Regiment (London Scottish) were an unusual battalion of the British Army before the Great War. Formed from the Volunteers in 1908 as part of the Territorial Force, to join the unit a soldier had to be either Scottish, or of Scottish descent. He also had to pay a joining fee; the money being used for regimental funds. Before 1914 this fee was ten pounds, an enormous sum; it was done to ensure that the men who joined the rank and file of the regiment were from Middle Class families and not the back streets of London. It was a popular regiment and on the outbreak of war was almost a full establishment; unusual for Territorial battalions which were normally under-strength. It was also one of the best equipped; the regimental funds ensured that the London Jocks were the only battalion in the army with the latest Vickers Machine Guns for example. It marched to war in September 1914 and fought at Messines on Halloween 1914; becoming the first Territorial infantry battalion to see action in the Great War.
These photographs are from a small album belonging to a pre-war member of the regiment and were taken on the eve of war at the regimental headquarters, 59 Buckingham Gate in Westminster. This building had been used to house the Titanic Enquiry in 1912.
These are informal photographs taken with a Kodak pocket camera and show the soldier whose album it was – later commissioned as many originals of the unit were – and some of his mates before they fought under the ‘Burning Mill of Messines‘ in October 1914.