On this Day 4th August 1914

Britain Declares War on Germany

The outbreak of war in 1914 is not an Agatha Christie drama at the end of which we will discover the culprit standing over a corpse in the conservatory with a smoking pistol. There is no smoking gun in this story; or rather there is one in the hands of every major character. (Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers)

Britain declared war on Germany at 11pm on August 4th 1914. The immediate cause was the German invasion of Belgium, which had begun at 6am that morning when the German government informed its Belgian counterpart that its troops would be entering Belgian territory. Under the terms of the 1839 Treaty of London Britain was obliged to to protect Belgian neutrality. At 9.30am Britain demanded assurances from Germany that Belgian neutrality would be respected and at 10.45 warned Germany that she was prepared to join an alliance with France and Russia to resist German force. Austria-Hungary was already at war with Serbia and Germany had already declared war on France and Russia.

At 4.05pm Prime Minister Asquith reported to the Commons that the day's communications with Germany had culminated in an ultimatum, expiring at 11pm, that Germany must provide assurances with regard to Belgian neutrality. No such assurances were received and as clocks around the country struck eleven Britain entered into a state of war with Germany. At 11.02pm First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, send a telegram to the Fleet, “Commence hostilities against Germany”.

So much for the mechanics of the declaration of war but what did it mean on the ground in west Cornwall? For serving troops and reservists it meant that they'd soon be involved in fighting. For the men of the 1st Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, including John Leggo of St Just, it would be less than three weeks before they found themselves facing the enemy in Belgium and taking their first casualties at the Battle of Mons.

S.S. Lanfranc (later HM Hospital Ship Lanfranc), the vessel which took the 1st DCLI to France on 13 August 1914. (courtesy of Wikicommons)

S.S. Lanfranc (later HM Hospital Ship Lanfranc), the vessel which took the 1st DCLI to France on 13 August 1914. (courtesy of Wikicommons)

John Leggo would be killed at about 7pm on 23rd August, one of the first of some 7.2 million battlefield deaths in World War One. Almost 1 million men from Britain and the Empire were killed in World War One and over half of them, like William Maddern Eddy of St Just, have no known grave but instead have their names inscribed on the memorials to the missing, such as the Menin Gate.

The numbers are staggering, so big as to be almost meaningless, but what about the local impact? The War Memorials of West Penwith suggest that about 742 men from the area were killed in World War One, absolute numbers are difficult because some men appear on more than one memorial while others, for whatever reason, have not been recorded at all.




















St Erth





St Hilary





St Ives





St Just





St Levan












But these are only the men who died in the conflict, what about the others whose names do not appear on the war memorials. The project in St Just and Pendeen to identify all those who served in World War One has now identified about 600 names for the two parishes, which had a combined population of about 5,500 in 1911 and a population eligible to serve of maybe 1200 at most. By 1918 Jane Semmens of St Just had seen all five of her sons enlist and depart for France, while her husband was on Home Service. Her eldest son, William, who had emigrated to Canada was killed on 30 September 1918 at Cambrai serving with the 3rd Canadian Mounted Rifles and was the only one of the boys not to survive. Jane was fortunate, four of her five sons returned.

Jane Davey of St Just was less fortunate. Her three sons joined up but by the war's end only one had survived. James Edwin Davey died on the 4th October 1917 at Passchendaele, he has no known grave and is remembered, along with 35,000 of his fallen comrades, on the panels of the Tyne Cot Memorial. James Edwin Davey was 28 years old. His brother Pascoe Ellis Hosken Davey, served with the Oxford and Bucks. Light Infantry. He was wounded in action on 9th November 1916 and, after being sent back to England, was discharged as being no longer fit for military service. A medical board summarised his condition as “pulmonary tuberculosis as a result of having been buried by an exploding shell”. He was sent home to Carrallack Terrace, St Just, and there he died on 9th August 1917 aged 21 years. His active service amounted to 104 days. Pascoe's younger brother, Samuel Charles, was the only one of Jane Davey's three sons to survive the war.

Recruiting poster from 1915 prior to conscription.For the women left at home to try try to hold things together while their men and boys were away fighting, life must have have been incredibly tough. While occasionally cheered by the return of a son or a visit from an Australian or Canadian relative on leave from France they must have dreaded thearrival of the postman and weekly Cornishman with it's notices of death and destruction.

At a Levant Mine board meeting in 1917 it was reported that the mine was missing 127 men from its workforce, all away in the forces. In these circumstances maintaining production was a challenge but on Carne Hill, where Elizabeth Jane Hall lived with her aged parents and son Andrew, the recruiting sergeant was a more immediate threat. Elizabeth lived on a small smallholding which was worked by her son Andrew augmenting his earnings as a tin dresser. The family could just about get by and initially Andrew was excused service on grounds of hardship but the military appealed and won leaving the two old people and their daughter to survive as best they could.

And when it was all over where was the land fit for heroes? A lot of west Cornish boys decided it wasn't here and left to find a better life overseas. Henry Murley and his brother Nicholas were gone before St Just had even had time to honour Henry's award of the Military Medal. Maybe their brother William John should have gone with them, he was killed on the Levant Man Engine in 1919, along with Leonard Semmens, one of the five Semmens boys.

These examples of what the declaration war meant locally all come from St Just and Pendeen but there are no grounds for assuming that it was different elsewhere.


The information for this piece was sourced from military service records, newspaper reports and other material gathered during the research phase of the commemorative drama, The Trench, staged at Levant Mine in 2016. John Leggoe will feature again in On This Day on 23 August.

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