Life in the Great War

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Instructions from the War Office

To mark the hundred years which have passed since the Great War, which later became known as World War 1, Jersey Archive has been searching through the hundreds of official documents of that time which it now cares for, and producing a weekly blog of the more interesting items on its website. This article is based on those blog entries.

'Enemy' threat

Given that the closest the Great War came to Jersey was the far north-east of France, the attitude of the States and the British Government to the threat the 'Enemy' posed to the island may now seem somewhat bizarre.

There were fears of St Helier being shelled from German warships, threatening the General Hospital; there were rumours of German spies slipping through immigration controls; there were reports of what were known as 'enemy alien residents' using lights to signal ships offshore; there was perceived to be a need for an extra guard on the coastal locations where the island's four telegraph cables came ashore.

Indeed, such was the paranoia at Whitehall about a possible German invasion of Jersey that the States initial offer of a Militia contingent to join the British Army and fight 'overseas', as the war theatre was known, was rejected because they were needed to defend the island's coastline.

This was not the only intervention by the British Government in island affairs, because after war broke out, there was a constant flow of instructions from the Home Office to the States, transmitted via the Lieut-Governor, Major-General Sir Alexander Rochford. The majority were couched in the most diplomatic language, but the island authorities can have been in no doubt that they had to do what they were told.

So homing pigeons were grounded, newspapers were warned not to publish anything which might help the enemy, and foreign students at the Jesuit college faced restrictions in what they could write home about and the length of their letters.

Evening Post

The early months of the war were a difficult time for the Evening Post. An order of newsprint from Scandinavia ended up on the bottom of the North Sea after a German U-boat sank the ship carrying it. Fortunately the newspaper was able to carry on more or less as normal, holding sufficient stocks in the island to await the replacement of its order by the suppliers.

There was more trouble to come, however, when, in July 1915, the newspaper’s editor fell foul of DORA, the Defence of the Realm Act. A report under the daily heading ‘The Mail Boats’ mentioned the departure from Jersey of a detachment of the South Staffordshire Regiment. This indiscretion followed on other reports which caused concern at the War Office.

The Home Office wrote to the island’s Lieut-Governor, passing on the War Office Secretary’s instruction to prosecute the editor, and this instruction was passed to HM Attorney-General, who duly summoned Mr Walter Guiton before the Royal Court. The Home Office cited reports on the imminent arrival of German prisoners of war in the island, information about French and English ships and the sinking of a German submarine.

Two days after the prosecution was ordered, the Court sat, and fined Mr Guiton all of £1, with a warning not to offend again, clearly indicating that although instructions would be followed, the Court did not take the matter as seriously as did the War Office. Further evidence of this is given by the prosecution of a 16-year-old French student at Notre Dame de Bon Secours, a Jesuit school in the building which later became Highlands College.

Marcel Fresson had the temerity to carry on his school physics lessons on wireless signals at home in Clarndon Road by stringing some wires from his house to nearby trees. But Clause 22 of DORA prohibited the possession of equipment capable of sending or receiving wireless signals, and after consulting the Director of Postal Telephones, the Aliens Officer raided the house and took Fresson and his mother Bertha to Court.

The Court accepted that the youngster had not intended to use the equipment for any malicious purpose, but imposed a fine of £2, which undoubtedly had a much greater impact on the Bresson household than did the Evening Post’s find of half the amount.

Letters home

This was not the only problem the Jesuit college posed for the island’s authorities. The official censor, Colonel Bishop, who clearly took his responsibilities to ensure that nothing left the island by post which could possibly have been of value to the enemy, had earlier sent letters to the States analyst which he believed included some form of code and possibly messages written in invisible ink. His fears proved groundless, but Col Bishop then turned his attention to the letters being sent home by pupils at the Jesuit college.

Apparently pupils had been receiving letters with pro-German pamphlets and had themselves sent 459 letters in five days, many of them very long, and Col Bishop wanted to restrict writers to one letter a week, of no more than 200 words, and written in English, French, German or Italian.

Among the censor’s other duties was to intercept any postcards sent overseas with pictures including photographs of harbours, defences and ammunitions or with images of British warships. That contravened a new DORA regulation and Col Bishop had instructions to seize them without advising the senders.

And the censor’s activities also led to another prosecution before the Royal Court of Charles Amy, of St Helier, who attempted to buy luxury German cigars which he saw advertised in Tobacco magazine by a wholesaler in Copenhagen. The Trading with the Enemy Act forbade the purchase of goods from German, Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman businesses and after receiving a report from Col Bishop, Lieut-Governor Rochfort ordered a prosecution to impress the seriousness of the matter on the local population.

Once again, the Court did not take the matter quite so seriously and let Mr Amy off with only a caution.

It seems that there were those in Jersey, whether in positions of authority or not, who took the war much more seriously than others. There were fears that the island faced the threat of a naval bombardment and constant reports of people supposedly using lights to signal enemy ships off the coast. Many were taken very seriously, but when Sergeant Major Holden was sent to spend two nights at the home of a lady in St Helier who had reported a number of suspicious lights, he discovered that they were the lamps of passing vehicles, lights in neighbours’ attics, workmen’s lanterns, fires at the Gasworks, and a buoy moving in the waves near Elizabeth Castle.

More serious attempts to protect the island from the threat of shelling by offshore enemy vessels resulted in the hours of public gas lighting being reduced and cinemas being forced to finish earlier, or close altogether.

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