The English coastal port of Folkestone was the ‘artery’ through which millions of men and women passed between 1914 and 1918, on their way to or from the Western Front. For them, Folkestone had a special meaning; it was ‘Blighty’.
Folkestone was also the point of arrival for the Belgian Royal Family and served as a temporary home not just for them, but for over 100,000 other Belgian and French refugees from the fighting.
As millions of volunteers flooded to the recruiting offices in answer to call to arms, there were those who refused to join the ranks. For some this amounted to nothing less than cowardice.
In the Kent port of Folkestone, the contrast between those who had taken up arms and those who shunned any involvement in the war was more marked than elsewhere. As a garrison town, the regular troops, based at Shorncliffe Camp, had departed within days of the outbreak of war; these were the regular soldiers who formed the backbone of the British Expeditionary Force. They were soon followed by the local Territorials, the Buffs. Soon, the town would be swamped with the arrival of Kitchener’s Men.
And yet, as a seaside town, the leisured classes continued to stroll along The Leas, play tennis, lounge in hotel bars and generally embrace the notion of ‘business as usual’.
This combination of elements created the perfect climate for the birth of the White Feather Brigade.
Being incensed by the number of men of military age ‘loafing’ and ‘idling’ around town, Penrose Fitzgerald recruited 30 local young women and instructed them to accost any man of military age who was not in uniform and, with appropriate words of advice, and a reminder that ‘British soldiers are fighting across the Channel’, present him with a white feather, the symbol of cowardice. The Daily Mail. Soon the movement had spread nationwide; initially this aid to recruiting found favour with the government but, once the terrible lists of casualties began to be published, and following white feathers being presented to soldiers on leave, the movement rapidly began to wane.
Nobody knows how many white feathers were handed out, nor how many men signed up as a result of being presented with one. In the 1960s when the BBC asked for White Feather Girls to come forward for a documentary programme, only two answered; one of them confessed that she had been ‘a chump’.
In February a number of girls from The Folkestone School for Girls and boys from the Harvey Grammar gathered at The Grand on The Leas.
In surroundings that are reminiscent of bygone days, the students acted out their interpretation of the White Feather Movement. Uncompromising challenges by the girls were followed sometimes by obvious discomfort by the boys, and sometimes by heated verbal clashes.
This remarkable recreation of one of the less well known aspects of the First World War was filmed by BBC South East and is to be broadcast, possibly on 25 February 2014, as part of the Inside Out series.
In a fitting tribute to the online appearance of this unique resource from WW1, buglers from the Duke of York’s Royal Military School, Dover, welcomed the arrival of Volume 1 of the eight red bound volumes containing over 43,000 names.
The first volume was carried into The Grand on The Leas and was carefully laid on a cushion. Soon, all eight volumes will return to Folkestone Town Hall, where one will be on public display.
For the members of Step Short the completion of this project is a significant milestone and as our chairman, Damian Collins MP, explained to the invited audience, it could not have been reached without the work and support of a number of people.
First and foremost, the Jeffrey sisters, Flora and Margaret, who ran the canteen and had the foresight to place paper and pencils on a side table where, as they sipped a cup of tea, the men and women waiting perhaps for a troop ship could quickly jot down their names and other details. They could never have imagined that, a century later, this simple act could be witnessed by people across the globe.
Our grateful thanks also go to The Roger de Haan Charitable Trust for moral and financial support, to Kent County Council, custodian of the books for many years, for their support in making the books available to all, and to Folkestone Town Council who will take over care and custody of the books.
It has taken our small army of volunteers many hours of painstaking work to transcribe every page, sustained only by cups of tea. To them, our sincere thanks.
The success of the launch event on 31 January 2014 was due to the work of many. We are grateful to our ever-supportive host, Michael Stainer, and to the immaculately turned out students of the Duke of York’s Royal Military School, who gave the event a fitting air of ceremony and respect.
Below are some photos of the event, courtesy of Colin John and Ann Berry.
In January 2014 Step Short trustee, Michael George, again had the pleasure and privilege of giving the first talk of the year to members of the Western Front Association, East Kent Branch. The illustrated talk to a packed hall examined the subject of Spy Mania in Folkestone. With documents from previously classified MI5 files, the truth about German spy activity in the Kent seaside town, and the British counter-espionage response, were revealed. The talk has now been made available to visitors to the Step Short website.
This picture shows a number of gadgets found in the possession of German spy Georg Breeckow. These were mostly used to make and develop invisible ink messages.
The photo that features on the heading of each page of the Step Short website is iconic. It shows soldiers marching towards Folkestone Harbour, and they are about to descend Slope Road (renamed Road of Remembrance after the war). As the location was part of a Restricted Area, the photo seems to have been taken with official sanction, but it bears no date. Many people who have studied the photo have commented upon the fact that one of the men, easily spotted as he is the tallest, seems to have black skin. This then leads to the question: Is it Folkestone born Walter Tull, before he had been commissioned.
Two of our stalwarts, Eamonn Rooney and Terry Begent, have done some research to try and find the answers to these questions.
Their detailed and fascinating conclusions can he read by clicking HERE
It is quite remarkable that, after 100 years, items from the Great War continue to surface. For instance, only this week the following programme was sold on a well know internet auction site:
and here is a picture of the Pleasure Gardens Theatre at that time:
Today the spot is occupied by a police station.
If you have any pictures that you would like us to feature please send them, as a JPEG, to email@example.com
Following an article in the November 2013 issue of SAGA Magazine, in which William Langley described the work of Step Short and gave an insight to the importance of Folkestone during the First World War, we have received dozens of letters of support and donations from across the UK . Many of the the people who wrote told of family members who fought in the War, some of whom came to Folkestone. One such letter appears below and you can read more by clicking Letters from the readers of SAGA Magazine.
To read the article in SAGA Magazine click here
‘I read your article in Saga Magazine with great interest. My father trained many of the men who went down that road in WW1 so the area is very special to me as you can imagine and I am very grateful to all you are doing in remembrance of those who did so much for us, remembering that many of them gave their all, including their lives. At 91 next month I am not a wealthy person but it is a pleasure to send you this donation which is little enough for those who gave so much so that we can be free to live our lives as we would wish to. With renewed thanks and every blessing.’
One of the WW1 War Memorials in Folkestone, perhaps not as well known as those on The Leas, is that to the Machine Gun Corps. The memorial was originally sited at the southern end of Cherry Garden Avenue.
It was subsequently moved and now stands near the entrance to the Cheriton Road Community Cemetery.
The inscription reads:
The Glory of God
& in Memory of
39 Officers and 458
Warrant Officers, Non
Commissioned Officers &
Men of the
Machine Gun Corps
Who fell in the Great War
To read more about the Corps and its connection with Folkestone, click MCG Memorial
This year we honour those who have given their lives or their health for their Country by telling the story of just one of the millions of men who passed through Folkestone on his way to the Front Lines in France and Flanders. His name was Bertie Hibbert.
Click here to read more
The BBC has recently announced its plans for WW1 Centenary programming on TV and Radio. High on the list of what will be on offer will be Radio 4’s new ambitious drama serial charting life on the Home Front during the First World War. The drama, which will be recorded in Birmingham, will follow the lives of a series of characters as they confront the challenges and changes experienced by a nation facing its first experience of total war. Currently a producer in the BBC Radio Drama production team in London, Jessica Dromgoole will take on the role of Editor in Birmingham in early September.
The town of Folkestone will be one of the key locations for the setting of the drama
We are delighted that the BBC has asked for expert historical advice from Step Short. Michael and Christine George of Step Short recently spent a day in Folkestone with Jessica, her assistant Leo McGann and the four script writers for a walk around Folkestone’s WW1 sites and in depth discussions about ideas for the serial.
Pictured above: Christine George, centre, of Step Short and Folkestone School for Girls, with the BBC Radio 4 team on The Leas, Folkestone. The series Editor of Home Front, Jessica Dromgoole is on the right.
There is very little surviving evidence describing events and atmosphere in Folkestone during the first hours after the declaration of war on 4 August 1914. A unique insight is provided by Edith in a lettercard sent by her to ‘Frank and Maggie’ in Manchester. About Edith, who seems to have been on holiday in the town, we know nothing more. Below are a few lines from her letter; to read the original go to our Footsteps page of click here.
Folkestone August 5th 1914 Today we have been on the pier to see the French Reserves off. They sang the Marseillaise and cheered as they left in the boat. Boats are arriving from Belgium and French all the time, and we have some battle ships patrolling here to guard the shipping. One boat that came in this morning had been fired upon and damaged slightly, and as I was having my breakfast this morning an aeroplane passed over and shot nine shots to call out the reserves. When we were at the pier the soldiers were guarding the lighthouse with drawn bayonets and all the coastguard men are armed. It is quite exciting. I like it fine.
The letter reveals things not previously known. For instance, the departure of French Reservists, men who had been working in Britain and flocked back to France to answer the call to arms. When German and Austrian Reservist tried to do the same, they were detained at Folkestone harbour and led off to detention camps under armed guard. Edith also tells us that Belgian and French refugees had started to arrive at this early date. What do we make of Edith’s description of the aeroplane firing nine shots? Almost certainly the ‘Blue Peter’ would have been signalled, but it more likely that it would have been from a land or ship based piece of artillery.
After Sainsbury’s at Park Farm in Folkestone adopted Step Short as its supported charity, shoppers had a chance to see WW1 nurses at work and learn more about the work of Step Short.
Alongside a display of WW1 artifacts, books and photographs, students from The Folkestone School for Girls, dressed in replica WW1 nursing uniforms, were seen to be treating a wounded officer (in fact a History teacher at FSG) at their hospital. Between bandaging their patient and handling some rather fearsome looking medical equipment, the girls chatted enthusiastically with Sainsbury’s customers.
A very big ‘Thank-You‘ to the girls and staff from FSG and to all the staff of Sainsbury’s.
The two images below tell just two parts of Folkestone’s WW1 story. The first, in August 1914 shows the arrival in the town of the very first wounded British soldiers. At the time, when it was thought the war would be over by Christmas, no one guessed that the lists of dead and wounded would grow and grow. These men were welcomed with bands, flowers and were carried head high to the waiting ambulances. The next picture is from November 1918, and the bell ringers from Folkestone who rang out the church bells for the first time since the war started.
View the highlights of the 2013 March. Thanks to Colin for the filming and editing.
“August, 1914, seems almost prehistoric, so remote that it is difficult to reconstruct the period. Yet the world went very well then. The Folkestone season was opening; thousands of visitors had flocked to the town, attracted by the health-giving qualities of the breezes from the sea and the charm of the scenery. Passengers crossing from the Continent watch for the white cliffs that stand for England. How lovely they are to the eyes of wanderers returning home. They are as welcome as the grasp of friendship. As the ship comes nearer there is the view of the Warren — called “Little Switzerland.” It is always a dream of beauty to lovers of Nature: the cliffs with their glory of gold, blue, and white, the wealth of wild flowers, the deep ravines; the beach with its boulders flung about as if by giants in their sport; the growths of moss; sheltered nooks that lovers linger to explore; the trees rich in foliage and music; and the sea with its fantastic crests upon the waves and restless movement; all creating an impression upon memory that remains among the precious things of life.”
With so many Canadians having been stationed in Folkestone during the First World War, it is a challenge to decide which items to feature. There are many stories within the pages of this website, but here we focus on the 49th Battalion CEF. During their period of training in Folkestone and Shorncliffe, the 49ers published their own magazine. Click here to read the magazine, complete with adverts from many local businesses and organisations.
For more details and pictures visit the Loyal Edmonton Regiment Museum
We are grateful to Ian Chambers, Chairman of the Dublin Branch of the Western Front Association for sending us some photos taken in c1938 by Mr G T Watson, a professional photographer from Manchester.
The images are of the Road of Remembrance in Folkestone and of the cairn at the top of the road, which is still there, paying tribute to ‘the tens of thousands of soldiers’ who marched down the road to the harbour and the Troop Ships to begin their journey to the Western Front. Click here to visit the Dublin Branch of the WFA, which includes a valuable collection of photos, including several more by Mr Watson depicting the Western Front just before the start of WW2.
Click on an image to open.
We are pleased to announce that notification has been received that the Memorial Cairn featured in the above photos has now been now been listed by English Heritage as a Grade II structure of Special Architectural or Historic Interest. During the process of investigating the listing application it has been discovered that the cairn is constructed out of bricks that formed the road fabric during WW1. As such, when we look at the Memorial, we are brought even closer to the soldiers who made their way down the slope to the waiting troops ships. This, surely, makes the cairn of unique national importance and significance in our Centenary Commemorations next year.
The date of 25th May today holds little significance for the people of Folkestone in Kent; but it should. On that day in 1917, the Friday of Whit weekend, the town entered the history books as the victim of the first air raid by a mass formation of bomber aircraft. The route taken by the German Gotha GIV planes left a trail of dead and injured, but the full horror of this new weapon of war was revealed only as the warplanes flew over Tontine Street in Folkestone. Here, a single 50kg high explosive bomb left dozens of civilians, mostly women and children, dead and injured.
Roy’s unique silverpoint drawings of the victims of The Great Air Raid of 1917 have now won critical acclaim and have been included in the Jerold Drawing Prize exhibition for 2013, Roy’s work will be displayed at The Jerwood Art Space, Union Street, London until 27 October 2013. It will then tour, including the Sidney Cooper Gallery in Canterbury in March 2014. We are hoping that Roy will be able to come to Folkestone next summer to exhibit at one of the Centenary exhibitions being arranged by Step Short.