How the papers reported the outbreak of war

PUBLISHED: 14:35 14 August 2014 | UPDATED: 16:26 18 August 2014

How we covered the First World War. Picture: EDP LIBRARY

How we covered the First World War. Picture: EDP LIBRARY


Delving into our archives, KIM BRISCOE takes a look at how our newspapers from 110 years ago reported on events that would change the world.

How we covered the First World War. Picture: EDP LIBRARY How we covered the First World War. Picture: EDP LIBRARY


With hindsight, it was one of the most momentous days of the twentieth century, a day which was to change the course of world history.

But modern readers might have struggled to grasp its significance, from a glance at the Eastern Daily Press, from August 5 - the day after Britain declared war on Germany.

Although it was the main story from that edition, news of the declaration did not appear until page five.

The front page, as was customary in those days, was taken up solely by adverts, mainly for “sales by auction” but also for Rackham’s dog medicines, Beecham’s pills and even a souvenir bedroom door knocker.

In the days and weeks before, readers had been kept up to date on the unfolding crisis in Europe, however, and the front page did provide one ominous clue as to what the latest developments had been.

Hugh Fox and Sons, a shop in Haymarket, Norwich, were advertising for “Territorials” - the army’s volunteer reserve who would be expected to be called up first - to stock up on gear, such as “sports knives” and “chain burnishers”.

Page two carried small ads, as well as the first pieces of editorial, relatively short, diary items, which recount an evening fete at Harleston, following the Waveney Valley Agricultural Association’s show on the Monday before.

The first mention of the war appears next to the racing results on page three, and then only because there had been a suggested stoppage of the sport,

Then, on page five, is the account of how: “Anglo-German war begins”.

Although it comes relatively far back in the paper, the story is, nevertheless, the edition’s main news story - with the most prominent placement and largest headline.

The call-up of Army Reserves and the mobilisation of territorials are detailed, as are fears over food supplies and the “silly panic of overbuying”.

The newspaper then was in a larger format than a more modern broadsheet, with the stories written in small text and with few pictures - making it difficult to reproduce pages and articles in full.

But among the many pieces which dealt with the outbreak, one small article relates how, at 9.30pm the night before, a crowd gathered outside the German embassy in London and “indulged in groaning and hissing”.

But the EDP’s editorial reflects a more sombre, stoical and reflective mood and seems to fittingly anticipate what was to follow over the next four years.

“We have no doubt that the mood of Norwich was the mood everywhere; a mood of grim quietness more terrible than any shouting and flag-waving could be. Of hysterical excitement, of the music-hall chorus aspect of war fever, there was not a trace; only a determination that could be felt in the very atmosphere of our streets and read in the face of every citizen.”


Those newspapers around the time of the outbreak feature colourful tales and letters from people from the region scrambling to return from Germany and other overseas locations.

By Thursday, August 6, what was emerging was a “picture of a nation shaping itself to the new purpose of national defence”.

Territorials were reporting to various drill halls around Norwich and there was speculation on how the news would affect the city’s shoe industry.

Messrs Howlett and White relied on foreign sales for a third of its trade, including a huge business in tennis shoes in Germany, but bosses remained confident that they would be able to continue trading with South America, South Africa and Australia.

The following day the EDP was urging any German families who lived in Norfolk to turn themselves into the police for supervision, saying that “while we may have every respect for the individual German as a good fellow, and even sympathise with him” for the sins of his government, it would be important to guard against espionage.


In a sign of what was to follow throughout the war, the region swiftly found itself closer to the action than most other parts of Britain, with reports of how Lowestoft fishermen witnessed some of the first fighting.

The crew of the Loch Nevis was “in the thick of the fray” between 1pm and 2pm on Wednesday, August 5, when heavy firing broke out only half a mile from the trawler. They saw a German vessel fleeing from two British warships and saw shells striking the water and the boom of guns.

It was only later, when the tug Lowestoft ordered the Loch Nevis to return and informed crew of the declaration of war that they realised the significance of what they had seen.

Another trawler, Little Boys, spotted a German mine layer 30 or 40 miles off Lowestoft and gave the information to a warship, which went in pursuit.

Great Yarmouth ended up with two captured German schooners, which had been bringing goods to Norfolk.

Perhaps these incidents contributed to holidaymakers’ concerns and both resorts had to reiterate that they were still open and safe for visitors during the all-important holiday season.


The People’s Weekly Journal for Norfolk, Norwich, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, which was printed by the Norwich Mercury, was the region’s weekly picture paper.

Its first edition after the outbreak was on Saturday, August 8 - four days into the war. The conflict’s first mention comes on page three.

Before then are stories about Wroxham regatta - still an annual fixture of Norfolk’s high summer - the sudden death of a Rockland farmer, a court case about the of an assault on the master of Thetford workhouse and the case of a Norfolk farmer being divorced by his wife for alleged cruelty and adultery.

By Saturday, August 15, plans to create rifle ranges in Ashmanhaugh, Barton, Besston, Irstead and Neatishead - which would be free for anyone over the age of 14 to use - were being reported, while in Aylsham 400 people attended a meeting and formed a defence committee.

Other areas set up local committees to “administer relief to those who would suffer in consequence of the war”, and the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries reported that the country had enough wheat for five months supply of breadstuffs.

In Methwold, local farmers were aided in their harvesting by a veterinary surgeon, an auctioneer, a master painter and a grocers’ assistant, while people were reassured that with fishing suspended there would be physically-able workers available to work on the land instead to make up the shortfall left by the recruitment of troops.

The Red Cross was also mobilising, with Norwich Red Cross Hospital in City Road swiftly ready for 90 cases. The Norfolk and Norwich Hospital said it was prepared for 150 cases, after a marquee was set up on the lawn at the back of the hospital.

It was also reported that it would be able to cater for many more using lawns at the front of the building and the tennis courts attached to the nurses’ home.

In Hethersett, the rector of the church collapsed while leading prayers for those who would be joining the battle, and died later that day.

The paper also carried a letter, written from Chelmsford, from the commanding officer of the 4th Battalion Norfolk Regiment appealing for people to send 1,000 flannel shirts, which he explained were needed by recently joined men “who are not in possession of serviceable shirts”, so they could “take to the field”.

In other news, there was a murder in Burgate Little Green near Ely, where a labourer shot his wife before turning the gun on himself, while also reported was the case of a man who applied for separation from his wife because she was a “habitual drunkard” who consumed six bottles of whisky a week.

For more in depth stories from the First World War click here

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