August to December 1914 - Readying for War.

The Rochester Great War Report - based on newspaper reports of the time.

August to December 1914 - Readying for War.

The bracketed dates are the publication date of the newspaper carrying the source report – all relate to 1914.

In advance of the declaration of war Rochester Station has been converted into a military encampment. Soldiers are under orders to protect the bridge and tunnel because of the strategic importance of the main line to the continent. (1 Aug.) The greatest danger at this time though seems to be from the trains with it being reported that Private Michael O’Neill, 19, of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, was knocked down and killed by a boat express train whilst guarding the bridge. (7 Aug.)

Within four days of the declaration of war Rochester began to see ‘action’ with the charging, at Rochester, of John Kaltenbach, a German master watchmaker for loitering near a railway arch with a supposed felonious intention of destroying or interfering with railway communication. (5 Aug.) However a few days later the magistrate discharged Mr. Kaltenbach with the advice to the police that they should not lose their heads even if others are losing theirs. (15 Aug.)

On 10 August, the Coventry Evening Standard, under the headline  “First War Prize in Medway”, reported the capture of the German bargue, Neptune. The ship carrying a cargo of bottles was captured in the North Sea and bought into Rochester. The Captain and crew claimed they were unaware that war had broken out. (10 Aug.) Five days later another captured German ship, the Eriga, arrived in Rochester where the crew were taken as prisoners of war. (15 Aug.)

This early wartime activity must have put soldiers responsible for local defence, on a high state of readiness local defences - but perhaps not the police! Failing to respond to the challenge from soldiers guarding Rochester Bridge, the soldiers opened fire on their boat - fortunately no one was hurt (15 Aug.)

As if the people of Rochester were not nervous enough a journalist reporting on the “tremendous advance in death-dealing machinery which has taken place within the last few years”, claimed that artillery was now available that could fire a shell from Trafalgar Square and hit Rochester (8 Oct.) Perhaps to press home the fact that we were now at war an order was passed, under the provisions laid down for districts in which troops are billeted, that required licensed houses in Rochester to close at 9 o’clock- an hour earlier than Maidstone. (25 Sept.)

The church and local employers quickly implemented contingency plans to respond to the call to arms. “Forty special constables for Rochester [were] sworn in, including Rev. A T Wallis, vicar of Strood, and several tradesmen of the town.” (21 Aug.) With a view to keeping open the places of two musicians who had been called up, the Vicar of St. Peter’s, Rochester, (the Rev. H. A. Hicken) and his daughter, covered their places in the orchestra that played at the Empire Music Hall, Chatham. (15 Aug.)

Short Bros, Seaplane works at Rochester, increased recruitment advertising for tinsmiths, sheet metal workers, draughtsman and mechanics. Each applicant had to provide details of their experience and expected wage, applications for Engine Mechanics were also required to state whether they were single or married. (Situation vacant - 14 & 21 Aug. and 10 & 18 Nov.) [This may have been due to the Government’s desire to ensure, during this “emergency”, that priority was be given to employing men with dependents to support. (Hansard 26 August 1914 vol 66 c49.)]

Rev George Barrington Baker, curate of St John’s St Leonards-on-Sea was appointed a minor canon of Rochester Cathedral to cover the absence of the Rev. W E Morgan who had been deployed as Chaplin of the Forces on Active Service. (8 December.) It was also gazetted that Mr. L Gibbs, one of the teaching staff of Rochester Mathematical School had been commissioned as a Second-Lieutenant in the 8th Battalion of the West Kent Regiment.

Tragically there were also reports of lost lives. The Mayor and town clerk of Rochester joined other dignities on 30 November at the internment of 21 victims of the Bulwark disaster [Ship destroyed by an explosion while taking on coal from the airship base at Kingsnorth. 26 Nov.] The funeral procession, which left the Royal Navel Hospital at Chatham [now Medway Hospital] “was a touching spectacle. “Despite the unpropitious weather" large crowds turned out. Fourteen unidentified bodies were interned in one grave; the other seven were buried in separate graves in Gillingham. (5 Dec). Captain Herbert Claude Morton, Royal Marines, who also died in the explosion was buried in St. Nicholas Cemetery following a service in the Cathedral. (1 Dec.)

Earlier it had been reported that Lieutenant Lionel Streatfield Woodgate, son of Mr Ernest Woodgate, former Mayor of Rochester, had been killed in action at the Battle of Mayne on 8th September. 

We end this news resume with a report that German aeroplanes have passed within sight of Rochester as they attacked Sheerness docks. The planes were fired upon by troops who were on look-out. (26 Dec.)

Geoff Ettridge.
WW1 War Correspondent

Geoff Rambler