Leicester in World War I
The Early Days
August to December 1914
As war broke out, Leicester was taken over by the military. Regular Army battalions, reservists and the Territorial Force were mobilised. Parks were used for drill practice and schools were commandeered as temporary barracks. But not everyone supported the war. Ramsay Macdonald, Chairman of the Labour Party and MP for Westcotes argued, presciently, that if an agreed outcome was not settled it would only lead to a further war.
But his views were deeply unpopular and in the first few weeks of the war the recruiting office at the Magazine was inundated with men joining The Colours. Some families were left in poverty and a War Relief Fund was set up.
Within a few weeks local factories were supplying the armed forces. Many men, some for the first time in their working lives, were earning good wages. Employers needed them in order to fulfil contracts, and early in the war there was considerable reluctance to women replacing them in the factories. The result was that the numbers of Leicester men volunteering for the war was below the national average.
Less than a month after the first troops left from London Road Railway Station wounded men were returning from the Western Front. Voluntary Aid Detachment Nurses assisted the Royal Army Medical Corps in caring for the men. Volunteer drivers took the casualties to the Fifth Northern General Hospital, on the site of what is now the University of Leicester.
Once a week the Leicester Daily Mercury published lists of casualties admitted to the 5th Northern General Hospital. Reports of the first deaths of local men were accompanied by photographs of them in uniform. Convalescent soldiers in their Hospital Blues uniform became a familiar sight around the town, with bandages covering horrific face and head wounds, injuries, and amputations.
Belgian refugees escaping from the German invasion were arriving in Leicester and being cared for by local organisations. Preparations for an invasion of Britain were continuing to be put in place and the Leicester Citizens Volunteer Training Corps was set up in October 1914.
On December 16 1914 the full horror of war was brought home when a German cruiser shelled Hartlepool. There were over 500 wounded and 152 killed; the eldest was 86, the youngest was 6 months old. In Whitby and Scarborough another 21 civilians were killed
Ten days before Christmas the first victims of winter in the trenches arrived at the Midland Station – 160 men, mainly with frostbite. Parcels and hampers were sent to the armed forces, and Leicester regiment solders took part in the Christmas truce.
The war was not over by Christmas; it had barely started, and at the end of 1914 new hospitals were being opened to care for the many more wounded soldiers who would continue to arrive in Leicester.
© Sue Mackrell 2014
Please click the link below to download a PDF that tells an extended history of the early days of The First World War in Leicester.