• The Surrey Comet looks back
  • The centenary of the outbreak of World War I 
  • Exhibition at the Rose Theatre

This is the first in a series of features looking back at our area’s involvement in the First World War.

The stories, including of mobilisation, stranded holidaymakers, and the tale of a lonely prisoner of war, were uncovered in the Surrey Comet archives by researcher Sarah Hayward.

  • “An Excellent Class of Men”

In September 1914 Surrey Comet reporter ventured over to the Kingston depot of the East Surreys to meet the hundreds of men volunteering for service.

The paper’s representative found men from all walks of life, from well-to-do youths of “superior education”, to artisans, servants and agricultural labourers.

All of them were, it was reported, “longing to make themselves efficient enough to go to the front and meet common foe.”

Each potential soldier had to go to one tent to give his details, then to hospital for a medical examination, and then tell the recruiters which regiment he wished to serve with.

After that he was given his pay and a ticket for dinner and tea.

As our reporter watched in the barracks square a colour sergeant shouted, “Fall in!”

The previous day’s recruits dashed to line up in more than 50 files.

They were given rifles and practised the basic drill of standing to attention, sloping arms, and forming fours.

The commanding officer of the East Surreys, Major Treeby, spoke to the recruits before they left for training and action.

Our reporter said: “He appealed to each man to try and uphold the magnificent traditions of the regiment.

“He knew they would do so on the battlefield, but he hoped they would wherever they might be found, and he concluded, amidst cheers, ‘I wish you good luck, and may God bless you all.’”

A popular former commanding officer, Colonel Pearse, told the men he had heard good news of the East Surreys’ 1st battalion in the fighting.

He said they were in the thick of the first battle, having marched 34 miles to go into action. They went straight on outpost duty, and fought the next day and for several days afterwards.

The men were then packed off to Purley, our reporter said, singing “It’s a long, long way to Tipperary” on the way to Kingston station.

Recruits continued to pour in, including from Esher, Leatherhead and Epsom.

A large car from Weybridge, which brought in load after load of men who rode on the cover as well as inside, bore the inscription, “To Berlin, via Weybridge.”

This Is Local London:

  • Lord Kitchener’s recruitment drive

This account of the early drive to recruit soldiers for the war ran in the Comet on September 5, 1914, alongside two advertisements hoping to convince yet more men to sign up. 

It took some time to bring home to the nation the real facts of the situation, and now the response is becoming so great that the authorities find the greatest difficulty is coping with the rush of recruits.

Sons of the well-to-do are content to enlist as privates and to take their places by the side of the sons of toil, so long as they may have the honour of evincing their patriotism and fighting for dear old England.

To have secured 200,000 men in less than a month is a fine tribute to the organisation that has been possible under the existing voluntary system, and shows that there is not much ground for the oft-repeated assertions one frequently hears as to the decadence of the English spirit and the effeminacy of the young men of the present day.

As soon as our gallant young fellows were convinced that they were needed, they have shown their readiness to make every sacrifice for the honour of their King and country.

  • What is this all about?

These features tie in with an audio-visual exhibit at the Rose Theatre, to open in September, based on the campaign by Edwardian author John Galsworthy for better conditions for injured servicemen.

Galsworthy was born in Kingston Hill and worked as a hospital orderly. Eventually he set up the first magazine for disabled servicemen.

Organisers are also asking readers with a connection to the Great War to get in touch.

If you have any family memorabilia, stories or memories from the First World War visit digitaldrama.org for more information, or contact Kate Valentine on 07786 142 330 or kate@digitaldrama.org.

The deadline for contributions is Friday, March 28.