Guildford in the Great War

When we decided to undertake this new movie project last June, I was totally unaware of the completely new aspect of Guildford’s history that we were uncovering.   In August 1914, the town changed almost overnight as young men were dragooned into active service in Flanders and Guildford was put on war footing.   The whole film will be based on a local book that was first published in 1934 and written by William Oakley, a past editor of the Surrey Advertiser.  For years, two copies have rested unopened on the Patrick book shelves.   But now, one has been lent out to assist the Borough with planning its World War 1 Centenary events, whilst the other – given by the author to my Grandad in recognition for the part he played during the 1914/1919 period – is being frequently consulted as the whole production takes shape.

So far, I have sat through 20 hours of archive film material, getting ‘a feel’ of the complete tragedy that life in the trenches became for the thousands of Guildford men volunteered for active service.

At least a dozen young men from Guildford’s Falcon Road, who had never really been anywhere in their lives, enlisted for active service in August 1914, thinking that it would all be over by Christmas.  They never returned.  Many were slaughtered at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, when 20,000 men were killed in one day.   It is said that the gunfire was so intense that its distant rumble could be heard in Guildford.   In fact, William Oakley’s own son was killed at the Somme.

Other Guildfordians, like William Harvey, came back to his home town scarred by the memories of the conflict and went on to be elected on to the Guildford Corporation, serve 3 years as Mayor, establish his High Street clothing business and mastermind the building of the Guildford Lido.

Some Guildford soldiers, who were thought to have perished, miraculously turned up after the War.   Unfortunately, their names had already been etched on the town’s war memorial and then had to be removed to save embarrassment!

 One officer from Guildford – Alfred Victor Smith – was the first soldier to be awarded a ‘VC’ in the conflict.   One of the members of the Royal Flying Corps – Robin Reginald Skene – was born in Send and became the first pilot to die in 1914.   Eric Skeffington Poole, a Canadian, who had come to live in Guildford, became the first soldier to be put to death for desertion after the Battle of the Somme.

Guildford Workhouse becomes a War Hospital

Guildford Workhouse becomes a War Hospital

During the conflict, many local mansions were turned into War Hospitals by the local gentry.   The Fifth Earl of Onslow gave up his home at Clandon Park and put his wife Violet in charge of the Hospital as commandant, while he went off to France as a serving officer.   Between 1914 and 1919, over 5,000 patients were treated there, with many of them arriving in the middle of the night by special ambulance trains at Clandon Station.   We are currently receiving much help from the National Trust at Clandon Park, who have literally thrown open their photographic archives to us.   In fact, a bonus suddenly appeared the other day, when a descendent  of one of the Clandon Park patients, sent a WW1 photo of the Hospital in its heyday from Australia.

Other temporary hospitals for the care of the sick and wounded opened in the Guildford area as the war progressed.    The Royal Surrey County Hospital’s Edward ward was opened for the treatment of injured soldiers in 1914 but it was soon found that this space was inadequate.

So, the new and as yet unopened, County School for Girls across the Farnham Road was turned into a hospital too and by 1916, even the Guildford Workhouse became another war hospital and provision for the destitute of the town had to be moved elsewhere.

We have also been working with local historian David Rose and the publisher of the ‘Guildford Dragon’ Martin Giles.   The Guildford Institute has kindly put all their archive material at our disposal and allowed us to use any of the press cuttings from their Guildford Scrapbooks.  A similar arrangement has been reached with the Surrey History Centre’s Lawrence Spring, who possesses an unrivalled knowledge of the 1914-1919 war period.

One of Guildford in the Great War’s key episodes will be our Norm’s animation sequence on the Zeppelin Raid of 1915, when one of these clumsy and difficult to pilot machines embarked on a bombing raid from Germany, with a view to taking out the Hampton Water Works but got lost and it found itself doing circles over Guildford, where it only succeeded in bombing the railway line to Portsmouth, several brick walls, a hen house and the Old Ship pub at St Catherines.

The only casualties were 17 chickens and a swan.   Guildford was lucky on this particular occasion – London was not so lucky with 37 tons of bombs dropped in 1915, killing 181 people and injuring 455.

The Battle of Ypres October 1914

The Battle of Ypres October 1914

On Remembrance Sunday, John and Jed were in the Castle Grounds to record the ceremony of the laying of the wreath by the Mayor of Guildford on the town’s war memorial.    These shots will be forming the closing sequence of the film on the theme “We will remember them”.

Next April, a small team from Circle Eight will be going on a filming trip to Flanders to shoot additional material of the trenches, war cemeteries and the Menin Gate at Ypres, where we hope to film the ceremony of remembrance that takes place every evening at 8pm in memory of the fallen.   Several shoots will also be required back here in Guildford next Spring to re-enact one or two events that took place here in Guildford in August 1914.

As you may have seen at the start of this article, our Guildford in the Great War title  logo has been specially drawn for Circle Eight by local artist Robyn Cormack, who lives in West Clandon and is an active member of the Horsley Art Society.   It is planned to use this logo when we get to the stage of promoting the film next Summer.

When reading William Oakley’s book, there are a number of true anecdotes that actually happened at the Drill Hall in Guildford, when volunteers came along to enlist for active service in August 1914.   One young man had walked all the way from Puttenham to Guildford to do so..   Being medically rejected at the Drill Hall because of his bad teeth, he walked off to try an enlist at another centre in Stoughton but was rejected again for the same reason, whereupon he exclaimed impatiently :

“What does it matter if my teeth are bad?   You don’t want us to eat the Germans, do you?”