On 4th August 1914 Britain declared war on Germany. Fitzwilliam, like thousands of educational, social and work institutions across the UK, was to be profoundly affected by the events of the following four years. We are fortunate that our archives contain many moving and thought-provoking letters that shine a very personal light on this turbulent period.

The following report, written a few weeks later by Fitzwilliam student R. Cecil Grey at the suggestion of Censor WF Reddaway, offers an intriguing slant by highlighting the reaction of one small corner of France to the declaration of war, exactly one hundred years ago this week.

Experiences of an Englishman in Brittany during the European Crisis & after the Outbreak of War
Grand Hotel des Bains letter

“Locquirec is a pretty little sea village on the North Coast of Finisterre, about 60 miles from Brest and 20 from Morlaix, possessing all the charms of the finest Breton scenery. For 9 months out of the year it is practically deserted, but towards the end of July there is a large influx of visitors who are mostly Parisian & English, and the village assumes a lively appearance.

I had gone there on July 19th to spend two months in study & enjoyment, little dreaming of the tragic events that were so near at hand. 

On July 25th – if I remember rightly, we first received the news that a crisis had arisen over the Servian [sic] affair, to which, however, no real importance was attached. But we soon learnt that Austria had declared war on her neighbour and this news was rapidly followed by the report of the Russian mobilisation (July 30th). On July 31st a party of us had gone for a long walk and on returning in the evening we were greeted by the monotonous clang-clang of the Tocsin which had just begun to sound. The Tocsin is the bell, usually belonging to the local church, that is rung in every town & village throughout France in the event of Fire, Mobilisation or Declaration of War. A more miserable & melancholy sound I have never heard.

When we entered the village what a scene met our eyes! Men, women & children clinging together & a last heartrending farewell; carts & motors ready to convey the men to their headquarters; wives, whose husbands had already departed, weeping as though never to be consoled again. The little community had suddenly lost all its gaiety and a cloud of foreboding & fear for the future overhung all. To add to the general sorrow one poor woman fell dead as she could not bear the sound of the Tocsin. One man went raving mad on hearing the bell – all his money was invested in German mills, and financial ruin faced him.

The next day, Sunday July 31st, was the first complete day of mobilisation. A proclamation was posted from the President, stating that mobilisation did not necessarily mean war, and was merely a precautionary measure. But it was not convincing and the news of Germany’s declaration of war on Aug 3rd came as no surprise. Immediately the cry went round, “Qu’est ce qu’ils feront les Anglais? Peut être ils ne vont pas nous aider!”

And we English whom, up till then, they had welcomed with open arms, were passed by with hardly a word and looked on with suspicion. This attitude was only natural as news only filtered through to us very slowly and rumours spread abroad that England was determined to stand aside.

However directly it was confirmed that Gt Britain had declared war on Germany, the enthusiasm of the population for us knew no bounds and we were cheered frantically & generally lionised.

Simultaneously with the orders for mobilisation l’Etat de Siège was proclaimed. All civil authority was suspended, foreigners were obliged to register & none might leave the boundaries of his town or village without a special permit.

All these events were a new experience, and as such were extremely impressive but what struck me more than anything was the marvellous & heroic spirit in which all France answered its country’s call – without question or complaint. The men literally rushed to take up arms while the women manifested exceptional courage & a fine spirit of self-sacrifice.

One poor old woman in our village was left alone while her husband & six sons took up arms; she uttered no word of complaint but wished them God speed and good luck against les sales Allemands. There was no rush for money or a food panic as in England; after the first three days of excitement everyday affairs continued almost as usual.

In this present hour of stress there is no doubt that the spirit of the French is wonderful. They are all thoroughly confident of success and show the utmost contempt for all things German, although impressions of 1870 still remain vividly with some. They are determined that their aggressive neighbour, who has caused them so much anxiety, trouble & expense for the last 44 years, shall finally be humbled to the dust.

And re-echoing this sentiment must heartily we join with our noble allies singing: “Marchons, marchons, que sang impur abreuve nos sillons.”



R. Cecil Grey was marooned in France for some weeks after the events he describes, but eventually made it back to the UK determined to “help in the European scrimmage”. He joined the Suffolk Regiment and subsequently had a career in the Indian Army. He survived the war.

Dr Helen Bettinson

About Dr Helen Bettinson

Helen read History at Fitzwilliam (1982) and, after a career in television production, rejoined the College in April 2010. Following the retirement of Dr Iain Reid, she became Development Director in October 2011.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>