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St Helena in World War 1

The island in the ‘Great War’

Few, if any, parts of the British Empire were less shaken by the World’s upheaval than St Helena
Philip Gosse in St Helena 1502-1938

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St Helena and her people played an active part in World War 1, but were relatively lightly affected by it

4th August 1914 - 11th November 1918

Below: Major events of the conflictAppeals to ‘Join Up’Military RadioWartime eventsEvents DatabaseRead More

Some of the information provided here is sourced from an article by Ian Bruce.

SEE ALSO: St Helena in World War 2

Major events of the conflict

News reached Governor Cordeaux on 5th August 1914 that war had broken out. Martial law was immediately declared on St Helena. It was assumed that German forces would attempt to seize control of the island’s Cable Station, thereby interrupting communications across the Empire. Any threat was expected by sea or from German-held Namibia, there being concern because the island’s defences had been run down pre-war with the total withdrawal of the Garrison. The Volunteer Corps was re-formed as a 60-man force, though with only minimal armaments, and the Garrison was recalled, arriving on 25th August. In the following weeks 165 St Helenians enlisted.

In October 1914 the RGA Volunteers was amalgamated with the St Helena Sharpshooters, though rifles for the new force did not arrive on the island until November 1915. Two days later on 23rd October the island was reinforced with a further 87 troops.

On 8th December that year a British naval force defeated a German squadron comprising two armoured cruisers, three light cruisers and three auxiliaries in the Battle of the Falkland Islands, and probably thereby saved St Helena from shelling by the Germans. In fact, and probably as a result, the island was never challenged.

In January 1915 the Prince and Princess Salm-Salm of Prussia arrived at St Helena en route to Gibraltar for imprisonment due to the war. They had the misfortune to be visiting South Africa without diplomatic protection at the outbreak of war and were first interned, then transported to Gibraltar in 1915 before finally returning to Germany in 1916 through an exchange deal.

The island’s military defences were improved and the Wharf was enlarged, including the installation of two motor cranes. Work started in March 1915, and was completed in September 1916 at a cost of £11,000.

In 1916 Conscription was introduced in the UK (but not in St Helena) which gave rise to the first Conscientious Objectors. In addition to their suffering at the hands of their war-focussed compatriots, one Viscount Knutsford argued publicly that they should all be exiled at St Helena: If men live in this country, accept the protection for property and person of the laws of the country, and yet will not obey those laws, I think this country should export them [ⵈ] there are places like St Helena which are complaining of a shortage of population to which they might be sent. Nobody seems to have taken the proposal seriously.

The St Helena Volunteer Sharpshooters was renamed the St Helena Rifles with effect from 16th March 1918.

Around 46 islanders served, on the European Front and elsewhere, travelling abroad at their own expense.

Britain and much of the Empire celebrated Peace Day for 3-4 days in July 1919. On St Helena peace celebrations were held on 22nd July 1919, with a single-day event on Francis Plain.

After the end of the war the clock tower next to the Market in Jamestown was dedicated to the memory of those who fell in the war.

I cannot speak too highly of the loyal and patriotic spirit shown by the whole population in all matters relating to the safety and welfare of the Colony. The full significance of the war is thoroughly appreciated in this distant outpost of Empire, and its progress is followed with the keenest interest. Though debarred by distance and the limited resources of their small Island from taking a more active part in the struggle, the inhabitants of this Colony have given ample proof that they are imbued with the same spirit of loyalty and devotion to His Majesty and the Empire to which other Colonies have been in a position to give more practical and material expression.
Governor Cordeaux in The ‘Blue Book’ for 1914

In Memoriam

Eight Saints were killed in military service during World War 1; only one of them while actually serving on St Helena. They were: Percy John Broadway, died 19th July 1915, Gallipoli; James Basset Graham, died 20th November 1916, Colincamp; Cavalla Isaac Grey, died 12th August 1916, Somme; James Edwin Nathaniel Joshua, died 27th November 1917, SS Camellia; James Robert Moyce, died 4th May 1915, St Helena Volunteer Rifles; John Joseph Riley, death details not found; George Edward Scipio, MM, died 20th August 1917, Ypres; Henry Seale, died 6th February 1921, HMS Birmingham. Their names are recorded on the Cenotaph (plaque, below). Note that the (official) Cenotaph plaque (below) are contains fewer names than the plaque in St. Paul’s Cathedral.

The governor in the entire period was Governor Harry Edward Spiller Cordeaux (February 1912 to June 1920){3}. However, he spent 2½ years away from the island, from March 1917 to October 1919, working in London at the Board of Trade, to much local disquiet:

Appeals to ‘Join Up’

Recruiting poster

Service in World War 1 was voluntary in St Helena and appeals were broadcast throughout the Empire to encourage recruits. On 28th October 1915 the St Helena Guardian published the following:

YOUNG MEN of St. Helena - all ye who are budding into manhood - your King appeals to you to come forward and join your brothers who are fighting for Freedom and Justice; then make up your minds and show not only to your King and Country but to the civilized world that you are true sons of the Empire by readily responding to the Call to Arms. The Mother Country has protected your hearths and homes for very many years, and made you a free people; therefore it is to your future wellbeing that you should give all the help you possibly can to bring this terrible war to a speedy termination. Rouse, then, brothers, rouse! Quit yourselves like men, and go forth to battle with the common enemy, and do that which is your bounden duty to do - fight for the Empire who has done so much for you and thus show your gratitude and loyalty, which even the West Coast Africans have done. Surely you will not be a whit behind them!

Think, too, that with your freedom you are a free agent, and that implies possession of enough manhood to know that this is your job to see through. In Germany men are not asked to go, not expected to go, they are ordered. Will the men of our great Empire by failing to voluntarily go forth, put our Government to the extremity of making service compulsory? It is the only alternative and put us down the scale on the level of the Huns. We are not many here, but those who are fit can show the way by wholesale volunteering.

Military Radio

Before World War 1 Marconi was contracted by the British War Office to set up a chain of military wireless stations throughout the Empire, including one on St Helena, to communicate with naval ships, although the network was not actually completed until after the war had ended. The only station actually operating on St Helena during World War 1 was a small Morse Code station run by the Royal Marines from Ladder Hill Fort.

There was much concern that other radios operating in the harbour might interfere with the RM Morse Code station, so restrictions were imposed in May 1917. These were extreme to the point of being neurotic. They required ships in harbour to unplug aerial wires from their radios and to hang the plug-ends onto the main rigging where they could be clearly seen from the shore, to ensure compliance. Additionally, physical access to the equipment was denied to the crew, the harbour master being given the authority to seal the doors of radio rooms of all ships in harbour.

The RM Morse Code station was dismantled in 1920, rather than (as might have been more helpful) it being re-deployed for civilian use.

St Helena wartime events

Here are the major events in the period not directly related to the war:

Events Database

Forward he cried from the rear and the front line died.
Generals sigh and the lines on the map move from side to side.

Pink Floyd, from the album Dark Side of The Moon

Read More

Below: SourcesArticle: The St Helena Rifle Volunteers

Sources

Article: The St Helena Rifle Volunteers

A St Helena Rifleman
A St Helena Rifleman

Published in ‘The All-Red Mail’, Summer 1918{b}{1}

A Silk Union Jack and engraved Shield were presented last summer to the St Helena Rifle Volunteers by Her Royal Highness Princess Alice (Countess of Athlone) at the Colonial office, by kind invitation of the Right Hon. Walter Long.

Miss Chamberlain, Chairman of the Flag and Gift Committee of the League of the Empire, asked the Princess to receive the gifts for the St Helena Volunteers and other Regiments of the Crown Colonies. Miss Chamberlain said that their deeds would always be remembered amongst us, and although the St Helena Volunteers had not as yet been called upon to fight for the Empire, they had yet done all they could do in making ready for the call, and it was no idle boast when they said that they offered life and limb if the need should arise.

The little Island has not only helped by raising this Corps of fine men, it has also provided gifts in abundance towards many war charities.

The photograph shows an Inspection which lately took place at High Knoll, where the Corps paraded under the Adjutant, Captain Brett. His Excellency, the Acting Governor, who was attended by Lieut. Ogston, saw the men at drill and at bayonet fighting, and inspected both arms and equipment. In the course of his speech to the men His Excellency complimented them on their drill and smart appearance, and remarked that the interest which they showed in their work and the pride which they obviously took in their appearance, were proof of the respect and loyalty they felt for their King whose uniform they wore and whose soldiers they were. His Excellency congratulated Captain Brett on the excellent conduct of the Corps.

Credits:
{a} Ian Bruce{b} Retrieved from archive.org/details/federalmagazin1918londuoft/page/n1 27th November 2019

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Footnotes:
{1} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged.{2} The four ‘Wirebird’ publications should not be confused.{3} You can read a more detailed article about the Cordeaux period (1912-1920) by Ian Bruce, serialised in the St Helena Sentinel September/October 2017{1}.

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