In the early summer of 1914, Folkestone, a Kent seaside resort made fashionable by the Victorians, was in understandably good spirits. The season was into its stride, the great hotels were full, and along the lovingly tended lawns and footpaths of The Leas, a cliff-top promenade with a view clear across to France, visitors could stroll, sip afternoon tea and be serenaded from bandstands.
Admittedly, less reassuring noises were coming from over the Channel, but hardly anyone in Folkestone – or anywhere else in Britain – believed the latest ill-mannered posturing of the Continental powers would harm the nation’s mood of wellbeing.
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on June 28 had, indeed, caused more than the usual disturbance, but the trouble all seemed too far away to concern the leisured classes savouring the sea air. But by early August, Britain was at war, and Folkestone was set to play a crucial part in the action.
Over the next four years the town would be the main artery through which millions of troops passed on their way to the front. For many it would be their last sight of home. To commemorate next year’s 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War, the town is intending to build a memorial arch at the top of the harbour road – now called the Road of Remembrance – down which the men marched on their way to the ships. ‘Folkestone’s role in the war was absolutely vital,’ says Michael George
, from 'Step Short', a local charity raising money for the memorial.
‘Earlier, troops were shipped from Southampton to Le Havre, but the crossing was too long and hazardous, so from early 1915 the route was switched solely to Folkestone. From being a rather quiet, gracious resort, we became the biggest army camp in Britain.’
Folkestone’s harbour – previously a place of cobbled quays and russet-sailed fishing smacks – was transformed into a hive of furious activity. To approach it safely down the steep road from The Leas, the marching soldiers were given the order, ‘Step short!’ – now adopted as the name of the group. Troop ships shuttled across the Channel, returning with the wounded or men on leave. It is estimated that more than about ten million individual journeys to France and back were made in the course of the war. Remarkably, not a single life was lost to enemy action during the crossings.
Folkestone’s relaxed mood in those last months before the war was down to more than mere delusion. The town had long been popular with well-connected military types – Lord Kitchener, Britain’s commander-in-chief during the Boer War – lived at nearby Broome Park, and the overwhelming view of these seasoned soldiers, as they clinked brandy balloons in the bar of the Grand Hotel, was that even if there were any fighting, it surely wouldn’t last long.
The first jolt of reality came as the town began to fill up with thousands of soldiers. Shorncliffe army camp, on the western edge of Folkestone, was quickly swamped, and hundreds of troops had to be billeted in temporary huts or with local families. The second was the arrival of a wave of Belgian refugees, fleeing the German advance.
Britain had a treaty obligation to defend Belgium, and on August 4, having received what the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith called ‘an unsatisfactory communication’ from Berlin, war was declared.
‘Even so,’ says Michael, ‘the feeling was that it would all be over by Christmas. There was lots of flag-waving and patriotism and getting behind the troops, but still no real sense of crisis.’ Folkestone’s schedule of summer entertainments continued apace, with packed shows at the Pleasure Gardens Theatre, roller-skating and dancing, and open-air concerts on the quarter-mile long Victoria Pier (now demolished).
Christmas came and went. Across northern France, the German and Allied armies were solidly dug in. Back home, the perception was that the conflict was going well. Reinforcements were now arriving from across the Empire, and with the extra manpower the tide of war would, surely, turn against the Kaiser.
On the ground, it wasn’t that simple. The advent of trench warfare, and the weapons that evolved around it, meant that no one went anywhere quickly. The only way to advance was to throw men at the enemy lines. The casualties began to mount. The tales of horror seeped home. Expectation of early victory began to fade.
And in Folkestone the reality of being the war’s main staging post began to sink in. More and more troops arrived in the town.
The velvety lawns of The Leas were churned up beneath boots and wheels, the tree-lined avenues reeked of gun-horses and rattled to the passing of armoured columns. The two main hotels – the Grand and the Metropole – were requisitioned by the military. Elegant private villas were turned into hospitals. Down, down, down to the boats went the endless lines of men.
Not all of them were British. Shorncliffe became a major base for Canadian troops
, tens of thousands of whom had volunteered to fight for the Mother Country. The Canadians were popular with the town – not least because their pay rates were three times higher than those of the Tommies, boosting the takings of pubs and dancehalls.
The Rev JC Carlile, author of a contemporary memoir of wartime Folkestone, describes the town as resembling ‘a suburb of Toronto’ and notes: ‘The Canadians endeared themselves to the children, and captured the hearts of the girls so successfully that about 1,100 brides went from the district to strengthen the ties of the Empire across the seas.’
There were also the hometown heroes. One was Walter Tull
, whose father had come to Britain from Barbados in 1876, settled in Folkestone and married a local girl. Walter became a professional footballer with Tottenham Hotspur and Northampton Town, but volunteered for service at the outbreak of war, and in 1915 was sent to fight in France. He was rapidly promoted, becoming, in May 1917, the first ever black officer in the British Army.
The following year Lieutenant Tull was killed in action in the Somme. His body was never recovered.
A poignant tale surrounds 19-year-old Billy Poile, who was sent from Folkestone for training in 1918, only to return to the town for his passage to Cap Gris Nez. Explaining to his superiors that he was a local boy, he asked whether he might be allowed to visit his family, but permission was refused on the grounds that his ship was ready and waiting. A kind-hearted sergeant, however, allowed Billy an hour to see his mother, Elizabeth. She kissed him goodbye and, on October 6, he was killed in Belgium.
The still-to-be-famous writers and poets of the Great War passed through Folkestone, too. Rupert Brooke’s A Channel Passage
is an account of his crossing in a rough sea:
'The damned ship lurched and
slithered. Quiet and quick
My cold gorge rose; the long sea
rolled; I knew
I must think hard of something, or
And could think hard of only one
thing – you!'
, on leave from active service, spent a night at the Metropole and in a letter to his mother described its carpets as being as deep as the mud at the front.
They didn’t always realise it, but the millions who sailed from and, if fortunate, back to Folkestone were part of a maritime miracle. To protect the troop ships, Britain had sowed a giant minefield across the Channel and reinforced it with steel nets to keep out enemy submarines. Phosphorescent buoys were attached to the nets. ‘At night,’ says Michael, ‘you looked out from the cliffs and the whole Channel would be lit up like a fairground. There'd be Navy patrols escorting the troop ships through the cordon. There’d be smoke and noise and aircraft. It’s incredible that the Germans never managed a single successful attack.’
For all this, there is almost nothing in Folkestone that speaks fittingly to the time of the Great War. The Road of Remembrance is nondescript, scruffily bordered, with only an ill-maintained obelisk at the top. Most visitors follow in the footsteps of the troops with no awareness of what they’re doing.
To remedy this, 'Step Short' is building a 14-metre-high memorial arch at the entrance to the road. Designed by Philip Gearing, it will be made of stainless steel and feature a life-sized statue of a soldier looking out to France.
‘A few years ago,’ says Damian Collins, MP for Folkestone and Hythe and the chairman of 'Step Short', ‘a group of us got together and we all had the same feeling that the story of what had happened in the town during World War One had been largely forgotten. We felt there should be something here that not only honoured those who had gone to war, but helped to tell their story.
‘It will be a different kind of memorial, because it will give visitors a sense of how it felt to walk down to the ships. We want to
tidy up and landscape the road, planting the verges with rosemary, which represents remembrance.’
While funds are in place for the arch itself, which will have its official inauguration on August 4 next year, 'Step Short' still needs
to find the money for an exhibition centre that will tell the story of Folkestone’s remarkable, and relatively unsung, role in the war.
Today, The Leas is once more an expanse of greenery, the Grand and the Metropole still stand in Victorian splendour, and the slope to the harbour is as steep as ever. The cries of ‘Step short!’ may no longer be heard, but it pays to reflect.
* To donate, make cheques payable to Step Short Folkestone Ltd and post to 14 St Andrews, The Durlocks, Folkestone, Kent, CT19 6AW. For details, visit stepshort.co.uk
* Saga touring holidays: Battlefields of The Great War. Click here to find out more.
'Step Short': see below for a photo gallery of remembrance of Folkestone's role in the First World War (click the 'i' on the left-hand side of the gallery for more information on the individual photos).