Edward Heron-Allen in the Great War

Heronallen in 1916All that Brian W. Harvey says about Heron-Allen‘s war service in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is: “He had served during the First World War in intelligence, playing a significant part in the production of propaganda, facilitated by his linguistic abilities.” Luckily, this information can be dramatically extended thanks to Harvey himself, since Heron-Allen left a detailed diary of the Great War, which has been edited by Brian W. Harvey and Carol Fitzgerald: Edward Heron-Allen’s Journal of the Great War (Chichester: Phillimore, 2002). The journal had been preserved in two large typewritten volumes by Heron-Allen’s grandson Ivor Jones; the complete work is four times longer than the published version.

During part of the War, Heron-Allen was indeed in Intelligence; but, much earlier, he had helped form the Sussex Volunteers. Given how the coast of Sussex would have been on the firing line if there had been a German invasion, Heron-Allen’s efforts to construct a Dad’s Army should be taken seriously.

In what follows I shall extract from the diary in due order, and quote as minimally as I can: even though the diary is very quotable.

Heron-Allen (henceforth H-A) had some difficulty imaging that the War would arrive; as a solicitor he would tell people that their investments were perfectly safe unless there was a European War, which would be a joke, because no one believed that could ever happen. When war does come, H-A seems particularly concerned about money. He tries to get gold from his bank; he tries to get cash (sovereigns being gold, of course) and fails. The banks closed for several days, and there was a panic about money and about food (and many stories about food-hoarders).

On 17 August 1914 H-A was summoned to a meeting of the Sussex Boy Scouts (he was a commissioner): the Scouts were mobilised to run messages, to guard telegraph lines, and to look for spies. Despite the panic, the beach at Eastbourne was thick with smartly-dressed holiday-makers. Every night at this point H-A was going out for several hours to see that the Scouts were on watch for Germans along the shore. The family (together with their German governess) were up in Yorkshire at this time, and Heron-Allen (“thoroughly ashamed of myself”) searched the governess’s room, and found hidden under the lining of the drawer a notebook with the names of all the men who had stayed in the house, with the important ones underlined.

H-A’s worry about spies extended to the activities of the novelist to whom, as an old friend, he had let a cottage on his own grounds: Ford Madox Ford, then still known as Ford Madox Hueffer. In his journal, H-A notes that Hueffer had always impressed on him that he was a German (“and he looks it — a typical Prussian bully”: Journal 15)). His address in the 1914 Who’s Who was, claims H-A, in Glessen an der Lahn (presumably a misprint for Giessen an der Lahn), and Hueffer always used to state that he had no allegiance to George V as he was a German citizen. Then “on the 4th of this month, when war was declared, he suddenly turned English!” (15). The police wanted to remove him from the coast, but, says H-A, he was protected by friends in the government. H-A suspected (35) that it was because of H-A’s wish that Hueffer be removed from the coast that Hueffer published in The Bystander on 25 November a piece called “The Scaremonger”, which accused an extremely thinly disguised H-A of being paranoid about German invasion. “A delicate and teutonic way of replying to the continuous hospitality—to some extent forced from me it is true—which he has enjoyed in my house, but an unpleasant thing for a man to do who lives with his mistress practically in my garden” (36). H-A bought up 50 copies of the relevant issue of The Bystander, “for distribution among my friends and his” (36).

H-A’s concerns about Hueffer/Ford continue into 1915. On 7 August 1915 he went to see Sir George MacGill, the moving spirit of the Anti-German Union, to see if anything could be done about Ford. MacGill believed Hueffer’s friends in high places were part of the “Hidden Hand” which protects German interests in the UK. It was his friend Masterman, a cabinet minister, who protected him, and even gave him a commission in the English army, “in virtue of which he visits the regiments stationed all round the coast, and picks up all the information he wants, and which must be very useful to him if, as I firmly believe, he is a German spy” (54). At this point H-A refers to his “so-called ‘marriage’ with my poor friend Violet Hunt the novelist”.

H-A mentions Hueffer just twice more in the (published ) Journal. Once, in 1917, Hueffer visits the barracks where Heron-Allen was conducting his first drill (22 March 1917): “The German Hueffer had the impudence to come into the hall with Violet Hunt and laugh at us! I am a man of peace but the temptation to go and kick him was almost insurmountable” (93). Finally, there is a PS added to his Journal in 16 January 1920, saying that “Ford Madox Hueffer—as might be expected—has left Violet Hunt, and though he continues to write—to give him his due, he is an able writer—he is under a total eclipse socially” (199).

To go back to the beginnings of the war… On 26 August 1914, H-A attended a meeting to try and set up a National Guard in Selsey, but a letter from the military authorities told them that this was not desirable. H-A declared this “extraordinarily short-sighted”. (In another part of Sussex Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was trying the same thing.)

On 4 November 1914 H-A dined with Dr J.J. Simpson at the Sports Club in London. Simpson was an entomologist who studied the insects that carry tropical disease in Africa. H-A want to consult with him about the best brands of preserved food. Simpson recommended Fortnum and Mason, and H-A went to interview one of the directors, who told him how refreshing it was that H-A said he wanted to stockpile food in case of a German blockade, as most people invented other excuses. (Simpson was on military service in East Africa throughout the war, and was then appointed curator of the Cardiff University Museum.)

On 7 January 1915 the governess, Fraulein Toni Reichart, left the H-A family and returned to Germany. H-A said that she had been very tactful since war broke out, but one of his daughters told him that she used to dance around the nursery waving a newspaper when she read of some German victory.

Through 1915 H-A gives details of the war, with his own opinions. (He detested Churchill, and regarded the attempt to take the Dardanelles is “like expecting a troop of Boy Scouts to march from Piccadilly Circus to Oxford Circus up Regent Street with a machine gun trained on them from every window. […] The thing is impossible” (48). He also complains about the fact that officers are no longer inevitably gentlemen: he spoke to two young women who had been “grossly insulted” on the train to London by these “new army officers” (59).

On 18 November 1915 he records some good news:

However—one thing is to the good—the flatulent Winston Churchill has left the ministry in a cloud of obloquy and derision. Pray heaven he is not jobbed back ingeniously into some less noticeable office where he can go on gambling with the life and honour of the nation (60).

On 2 July 1916 H-A received a letter from the Army Medical Service declining H-A’s offer to serve: he had written twice before, but this was the first reply he had had. He was not pleased: he was, he claimed, not trying to get a “soft job”, but merely a position as “a sort of hospital orderly, clerk, bottle washer or general utility man” (67). However, on 16 November 1916 he notes that

I have embarked upon very interesting work for the War Office. My friend Dr Chalmers Mitchell, the Secretary of the Zoological Society, has been for a long time engaged in the Intelligence Department examining and tabulating the German propaganda […] He wrote telling me that I could help him in ‘a rather tedious job involving good knowledge of German and experience with bibliography’; and as I can claim to have both of these, I went and saw him at the Society’s office yesterday, and have undertaken to help him (71).

Basically the job involved sorting through and abstracting all the books, pamphlets and newspapers from abroad, published in neutral countries, which fall into their hands: the documents were in French, German, Italian, Spanish and Dutch, all of which HA could cope with. He took away a pile of this material: about a hundred documents. He was much impressed by the War Office on his visit: “a wonderful beehive of scurrying messengers, lady clerks and officers engaged in the various departments, and most of the running about is done by girl guides, who, like the Scouts who are also much in evidence, are proving of great use in all the public offices” (74). He deals with his pile of books, and gets a letter saying he can rest from his labours until after Christmas: “I take this as a polite form for intimating that they have made as much use of me as they rehire, and so an end of it” (74).

In the early months of 1917 he talks about the 50 per cent increase in rail fares, the forms that had to be filled out when staying in hotels, the acute petrol shortage, the prohibition on the carrying of cameras anywhere near the coast or “in any munition area” (82). But through March and April 1917 most of his entries seem to be taken up with the founding of the Chichester Company of the 9th Battalion Royal Sussex Volunteer Regiment. He was drilled, he went on route marches: “rather trying for an old gentleman of 55 who had not walked five miles except at his own pace on the shore for nigh on 20 years!” (93).

On 9 July 1917 he was returning home after a week of meetings with the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and his train was pursued by several German Taubes (fighter planes), and one which pursued the train for a long time.

It was a very queer sensation, being shut up in a railway carriage expected any moment to be blown to bits! Two men in my carriage were hysterically jocular about it, saying to one another “Here it is! — Now for it! — Have you said your prayers?” and other equally appropriate and well-timed remarks. The rest of us kept quiet, and a woman opposite to me looked a little pale but was determinedly brave and cool (102).

H-A continued with the Sussex Volunteers. Although he was happy to be a private, he was being encouraged to try for a sergeant-instructor. He did very well at “musketry”: “with my ruling passion for doing things thoroughly I have had a miniature rifle range and butt built at true end of my archery ground, and have bought a beautiful little Martini-Henry rifle, with which Dr Barford and I and my personal friends in the platoon practice” (104).

On 4 August 1917 H-A celebrated the third anniversary of the start of the War by getting his uniform.

Item: one tunic. Item: one pair of trousers (colloquially terms in the service ‘slacks’). Item: one cap, with a brass badge of the Royal Arms on the front. And item: one pair of puttees—yards of khaki cloth about four inches wide wherewith to bind up my lower legs. I dressed myself up in my ‘kit’ as soon as I got it and appeared suddenly before my family and guests assembled at tea. I was greeted with hoots of Homeric laughter, which presently subsided into chastened admiration, and I was told by the ‘audience’ that the uniform was highly becoming, that the cap suited me admirably, and that I looked thinner and younger in it than I had done for years. I realise now the power of women as a recruiting officer. Nothing is required now to complete my outfit as a ‘Tommy’ but a cigarette, a ‘swagger cane’, and a girl draped over the left arm  (110).

He adds that the serge of the uniforms is very rough, and that he intends to take the uniform up to his tailor to be lined with silk and to have extra pockets put in. On that same day, the Sergeant Major said that he had nominated H-A as Platoon Sergeant. Less than ten days later, however, he was told that he was sure to be made Lieutenant, in which case he would need a new uniform (which he was able to order in September, though the commission as 2nd lieutenant was not official until 19 November 1917).

In October and November there were daily expectations of mobilisation, though H-A also said that people in England were far more worried about food shortages than military disasters in France. On 2 February 1918 he reported that the police are raiding houses in search of food hoards; the previous week the Sussex Volunteers had been brought in to guard the food shops from the populace of Chichester.

In February H-A started in Tunbridge Wells on an officer training course. On 1 March 1918 he wrote:

So ends my month as a real soldier, and looking back on it I am extremely glad that I have sacrificed my time and occupations to qualifying myself for the duties which may be imposed on me by the war. I was given insight into the workings of our army which I could never have obtained in any other way (173).

On 16 March he saw some German prisoners tilling the land at Selsey, which really brought the war home to H-A. “Though the name of German fills one with loathing they were rather a pathetic sight, and if I had had any tobacco with me I think I should have talked to them” (178). A note was added on 13 January 1920 that shortly afterwards a girl had been fined for giving cigarettes to German prisoners on the land, a law of which H-A had been ignorant at the time he had seen these Germans.

In March he reported that there were serious fears of German invasion, and that the volunteers might be called up.

On 29 April 1918 he was offered a staff appointment in the Propaganda Department of the War Office. It would be from 10 to 7 every day, so that he would have to give up his post with the 9th Sussex Volunteers. On 5 May he went up to the department, which was in the former Keyser’s Hotel, now Adastral House, opposite Blackfriars Bridge on the Embankment, and met Lord Kerry. On 10 May he found out what his job would be: picking up titbits from foreign papers and translating them into French, for publication in Le Courrier de l’Air: Le Journal Hébdomadaire Aérien de la Vérité, with the note By Balloon: Durch Luftballon. This “weekly aerial newspaper of the truth” was be dropped behind enemy lines all across Europe.

On May 13th he was ordered to present himself in uniform at Adastral House. He was offered the honorary captaincy to which all those in the office were entitled, but he kept his lieutenant’s rank, as it showed that he had been in the army first. (Lord Kerry asked his CO in Sussex to promote him to a full lieutenant, but the request was refused.)  On 1 June he reported that he seems to be doing well at the War Office. He received confirmation of his appointment in the form of a slip which he had to fill in, confirming his attachment to M.I.7 B.

We have been suffering a little in our department from the interference and cocksureness of H.G. Wells, who is—or thinks he is—a “Sir Oracle” in al matters concerning the psychology of the war. He was organiser of propaganda at Crewe House, where they direct home propaganda under Lord Northcliffe. He has had a row with Northcliffe—everyone quarrels with both of them so it was a  case of Greek meeting Greek!—and on Thursday [18th July] we received a letter from him announcing that he has ‘resigned his position’. He has gone over to Lord Beaverbrook’s department, and we wait a cataclysm there is due course. […] I had met him at Selsey when he was staying with Violet Hunt at the Knap Cottage, but he did not recognise me in uniform. I often find this with quite old acquaintances, the uniform, combined with the reduction in my ‘waist line’, seems to be an effective disguise! (20 July 1918, 201-2).

On 25 August 1918 H-A reported that changes had been happening in the War Office, and that he has effectively become editor of the Courrier. On 8 September, he announced that he was officially the sole editor, and that he was no longer in M.I.7 B.4 but in M.I.7 B.1.  In other words, he was grouped in with those who were working on domestic propaganda. He was still doing voluntary Sunday work with the Volunteers, and retained his rank with them.

On 21 September 1918 he was officially promoted to Lieutenant. (He had hoped to be made Captain, but this never happened.) He was told that he should go to France to see for himself how his propaganda has been received; though it has to be kept secret that the editor of the Courrier was actually there. His trip, which lasted much of October, would seem to be more of a tourist visit rather that anything which helped him in his job. He took some leave in the first few days of November, but was back at his desk on Armistice Day. At 11 a.m. a signal maroon was fired from the top of every police and fire station in London, and one from the top of Adastral House too, which “shook me almost out of my chair” (271). Some people thought it was an air-raid. “But within five minutes everyone realised the truth, and then London went mad” (271).

Out of every window of the rooms occupied by the girl clerks and typewriting staff, excited masses of young females were hanging—clapping their hands and cheering, and kissing their hands to whoever looked out of any other window. From 11 to 12 a roar of voices rose from the Embankment outside, and from inside the house. At 12 noon all discipline had gone to smithereens—a long procession of girls and boy clerks rushed around the passages all over the house, shouting, cheering, blowing ‘hooters’, waving small flags, and beating tin boxes with the office rulers. At 12.30 pm it was impossible to work—and indeed with the arrival of peace our work in the Ministry of Intelligence is at an end. […] From Charing Cross the streets were filled with people, and car-loads and lorry-loads of soldiers and government ‘flappers’, yelling tone another. From most of the government office windows in Northumberland Avenue, the girls had deluged the streets with improvised ‘confetti’: the contents of the office waste paper baskets, and many reams of ‘forms’ must have contributed to the ‘snow’ [272]

At the Imperial Restaurant in the evening, the place was crammed, and there was almost no food to be had.

It was enthusiasm at lunch time, but now it was a mad chaotic orgy. I never saw so many drunken people other before. Everybody shouted, everybody sang, and as the night wore on the champagne flowed in growing streams, we became one large hysterical party. Everybody tried to propose toasts or make speeches—you could not hear a word, and even the band was quite drowned and gave up in despair. On almost every table a charming and respectable young girl was standing. leading the particular song of her immediate entourage. One fine young French girl in black wearing a huge tricolour was a most impressive and decorative spectacle—yelling ‘Vive la France’ and getting more intoxicated and affectionate every minute (274).

On 9 December, H-A noted that the War Office had dispensed with his services, backdated to 23 November. H-A removed the green tabs from his tunic and reattached the plumed star of the Royal Sussex Regiment.

The last but one entry of the published journal related a “glaring indiscretion” (H-A’s quotation marks): something that H-A should have kept quiet about (but, then, he was not writing the Journal with any intention to publish). Much of the propaganda aimed at Germany was written by disaffected Germans. Dropping the propaganda from British planes would have diminished its effectiveness, and so we had the idea of taking them by aeroplane to Bavaria and Austria and posting it. The problem was getting the stamps. “We hit on the very immoral expedient of forging Austrian and Bavarian stamps in this country, and sending our propaganda over already stamped” (277). At the end of the war, the remaining stamps were destroyed, but H-A retained a few.

The last entry was dated 1 July 1919. H-A met a local clergyman, who told him “I think I realise the meaning of a phrase which I have read in church every Sunday for 40 years, which I always thought to be obscure—’the peace which passeth all understanding’.” (278)


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