Weeping on the quays: news from the Channel Islands

A member of Maidenhead Congregational (now United Reformed) Church shared his dramatic first-person account of how the outbreak of war hit the Channel Islands, where he had gone on holiday, in the church’s magazine.

I have just arrived from Guernsey after a riotous holiday among the Channel Islands, lasting in all some four days…

On the quay whence I returned at mid-day, I found that part of the pier opposite a fair-sized passenger boat next to ours, roped in and guarded by the police, only the French reservists, for whom the boat was provided, being allowed to pass. There were many piteous scenes on the quay. I saw a young fellow of some twenty-five or so pretending that he was a brave man, with a little old woman weeping on his heart. He needn’t have been ashamed of the tears glistening in his eyes though he controlled himself so well for his mother’s sake. Poor little mother – he was her last one.

I saw a man of thirty or more with a wife and six children. She was crying softly in the midst of the scared little ones wondering, poor soul, if Heaven really would provide – he was too drunk to understand. I sighed my relief when he went on his way and left no mark of remembrance on her face. There was the soldier’s wife and mother who stood upright with a proud smile on her face and a cheery kiss and pressure. It was a fine sight and a brave one, but I wondered what it would cost her that night.

Jersey is a tactically valuable island and well guarded. I was assured that they can put 35,000 men fully armed in the field to-morrow and most of them expert shots. The whole force is mobilised and one passes the forts with the consciousness of a dozen eyes watching. Guernsey is much the same and at present very short of labour: loading cargo was difficult from sheer lack of loaders. Our stoker had gone and been replaced by passengers, but the remainder of the actual ship staff escaped. Most of the jetty workmen had gone; many of the tradesmen had downed tools and answered the call of their honour. A prosperous barber with two shops at Guernsey and one at Jersey had obeyed with the rest, and in the one remaining shop left open customers were shaving themselves and paying well for the privilege. Yet, in the midst of it all Candie Gardens were full of a laughing, flirting crowd, the picture theatres were packed and life went on as before with all the more noise perhaps, to drown the weeping of the poor abandoned women.

We left in the morning: I have a vague recollection of being wakened about 2.30 a.m. to the tune of some violent abuse because some rope had fouled the steering gear; but my day had been packed too tightly for anything to compete with Morpheus and this may have been a dream. Eight o’clock found us listening to the rhythmic clatter of the broken flints falling from the machines on the quay-side at St. Sampson’s. The hours passed but no loading commenced and it was not till the Tuesday evening that the captain was notified not to sail without further orders from London.

I caught the Weymouth mail at St. Peter’s about twelve the next day; the same scenes were evident here and the Southampton boat was crowded with reservists called to the colours: enthusiasm, bombast, genuine indignation, anxiety for the dependants, all were there; but faith in the Old Country and certainty of success glowed in the faces of all. I felt proud of them all and proud of the accident of my birth.

The passage was a good one and we took it calmly. Nothing happened till we were quite out of sight of land; then appeared six great torpedo boats, of French design, standing like sentinals between us and the English shore. One of them detached itself and came racing towards us at fifteen knots or more, rounding our stern with a graceful sweep that brought a cheer from us all.

At the entrance of Weymouth harbour we met a pilot boat which questioned our captain, exchanged code passwords and finally gave us the clearance signal to protect us from the guns on shore. So we passed to the train and home.

It was good to be in England, good to feel the protection of those grey monsters in the harbour- cruisers, gunboats, torpedo boats, that stood between us and the enemy; above all, good to know the quiet strength, the steady purpose and watchful care. We were very quiet in our packed carriage for a time, the influence of our experience lay heavy upon us, and our own thoughts were our best companions. Then we talked of what we ourselves could do, and the darkness fell on a thousand earnest resolutions.

J.R.H

Maidenhead Congregational Church magazine, September 1914 (D/N33/12/1/4)

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