IN THE WEEKS running up to August 1914, tension was rising across Europe. The catalyst occurred on 28th June 1914, when the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, Sophie, were assassinated by Gavrilo Princip in the annexed Balkan state of Bosnia. The Austrian government apportioned blame, with good reason, to the neighbouring state of Serbia for both the assassination and the ongoing interference in Bosnia. With the support of their ally, Germany, the Austrians declared war on Serbia on 28th July.
The following day, Russia, who supported Serbia, mobilised some of their army along their border with Austro-Hungarian Empire. This prompted the German government to send an ultimatum to the Russians demanding they ceased their mobilisation and withdrew their support for Serbia. Russia rejected the German demands, and on 1st August, a state of war was declared between them. A second German ultimatum was sent to France, who had an alliance with Russia, demanding that the French remain neutral and not support the Russians. The French did not respond to the demand, but ordered their troops to withdraw from their borders. They also mobilised their army reserve.
On the 2nd August, Germany occupied Luxembourg and, the following day, declared war on France. They then sent a communication to the neutral Belgian government demanding the right to march through their country unimpeded — it was refused. Early on 4th August, the German army invaded Belgium and headed for the French border. King Albert of Belgium ordered his army to oppose the Germans and called for assistance under the 1839 Treaty of London. The British government, in turn, demanded that the Germans comply with the treaty and leave neutral Belgium. What was described in parliament by the then Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, as an “unsatisfactory answer” was received from Germany and, at 19:00 on Tuesday 4th August, Britain declared war on them.
News that Britain was at war reached the Post Office in Woodbridge at 20:00 that evening. The Woodbridge Reporter and Wickham Market Gazette reported the event in their edition dated 6th August:
“The local territorials [Woodbridge Company, 4th (Territorial) Battalion, Suffolk Regiment] proceeded to Yarmouth for their annual fortnight’s training camp on Sunday morning, but in consequence of orders the camp was broke on Monday morning and the men returned to Woodbridge arriving about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. They were not dismissed into civilian life but ordered to remain in uniform. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the men were about the streets of the town all day in their khaki uniform.
About 8pm on Tuesday evening some amount of excitement was caused at the Cross Corner by the King’s proclamation being posted up at the Post Office ordering the embodiment of Army and Special Reserves and Territorials. A number of men rushed to see the purport of the proclamation and some cheering was attempted. The crowd quickly increased and until 11pm there was quite a concourse at the Cross Corner discussing the grave aspect of the war news. The Post Office was kept open all night, and the constant going and coming of telegraph messengers on their bicycles raised no little interest.
Dr Wm Redpath and the local members of the Royal Army Medical Corps proceeded by the 8.1am train on Wednesday under orders to report themselves.
Amid a scene of much excitement and thronged streets the Territorials, headed by the Band marched to the Railway Station on Wednesday afternoon about 5pm. The platform was crowded with wives, children and friends of the men.”
At the time war was declared, Melton had twelve men already in the regular army or navy and some sixteen serving in the territorials, or as reservists, whose services would have been called on immediately. Eight of these men were serving with the Woodbridge Company of the 4th (Territorial) Battalion, Suffolk Regiment and they boarded the train on Wednesday afternoon to join up with the rest of the battalion at their war station in Felixstowe.
On the 20th August, the Woodbridge Reporter and Wickham Market Gazette received a letter from one of the Woodbridge Company members describing what had happened since the beginning of the month and what the start of life as a soldier at war meant to him. He wrote:
We arrived at Yarmouth Sunday dinner time, kept camp under arms until Monday afternoon then struck camp and returned to Ipswich. We then got ready to mobilise. On Wednesday we did away with the band, packed our kit bags for service and received mobilization papers. Early Thursday morning we went to the Drill Hall; full kit, bandolier, water bottle, haversack, pick, shovel, bayonet, rifle, belt and pouches, and 150 rounds of ball cartridge. We then entrained for Felixstowe where we marched to Old Bawdsey, having the honour to guard the most dangerous spot on the whole coast. We billeted in the Golf Club; a lovely house, bathrooms, billiard rooms etc. We knocked loopholes all around and firmly entrenched ourselves, cut down woods, laid barbed wire entanglements, etc. Have not been allowed out anywhere yet. We slept there on the floor (one blanket only) for nearly a week, till Sunday, underarms; sleeping in full kit (you don’t know what that means) with loaded rifle by side. Only slept inside alternate nights; other nights guarded trenches all night and slept in trenches, or sent out patrolling and guarding the coast from Felixstowe to Bawdsey, captured several German spies and held up everybody at night at rifle point. Have slept where possible. “Grub” consisted of tea, bread and fat meat. When the Lancashires relieved us (Sunday morning) they thought the Royal Engineers had fortified the place! We then entrained for Shenfield, billeted for three days in Poplar training schools – “grub” two year old biscuits (Spratts) and bully beef. I was guard in turns for 24 hours day and night. We then entrained for where we are now – I must not say where – have been nearly a week, sleeping out in the open fields at night with blanket and waterproof sheet on only, no tents. Talk about damp and chilly – Get better grub now; march miles every day and am feeling wonderfully fit.
Captain X of our company is as strict as --------------- but a fine chap. I am probably going on a trip to hold stations while regulars go to the front. It will be fine – anyhow it is duty and those who remain will not get home until we do, that is, the war ends; as they will be sent to guard what we are doing now tunnels, the lines, stores etc. Any little luxuries would be gratefully received.
PS – We have no time off practically speaking except Saturday afternoon. Take it in turn to guard or go on picket duty. Rise at 5am in the morning, drill, breakfast, physical exercises, rifle cleaning, etc (no buttons cleaned in war), marches and manoeuvres. Cook our own dinner every day in a billy can – fry or boil one pound of meat – half loaf a day per man – have slept in fields, ditches, sheds, bathing boxes, on shingle, cement, in a Poplar school room on the floor, everywhere you can imagine. Am as brown as a berry. Have not undressed since mobilisation except to bathe at Bawdsey and to wash. Our officers are very particular. We clean our teeth and wash our own clothes etc. Hope you are all well. Have not felt better for years – can march 14 miles with about 60lbs of weight (we carry our own luggage when moving) without undue exertion.”