Today marks the 100th anniversary of the first hostilities of what was sometimes called the Great War and now generally known as the First World War. Over the following days the media and various military historians will explain how the world got itself into this mess, but here, reported in the Wolverton Express 1914 Aug. 28th, was one account (anonymous, as no name was given in the paper0 of how a group of holidaymakers found themselves more-or-less stranded at the outbreak of war.
“We started on Thursday, July 30th, a party of ten, from Charing Cross railway station, to join a conducted tour under the auspices of the London Polytechnic, through beautiful Italy. Nothing eventful happened on our outward journey, and it never really dawned upon one of our number of the adventurous journey we should experience before we placed foot again on English soil.
Our first stopping place was Lucerne, a city well known to tourists in Switzerland. After a short stay we left Lucerne on Saturday with a total party of 40, passing through the Bale customs all right.
Arriving at Genoa on the north-west coast of Italy, we spent one day sight-seeing, continuing the next day to the famous city of Rome. The first news of the war cloud threatening Europe was made known to us when in this Roman city. The news came with startling effect upon our party and caused great anxiety, especially by the fact that the way we had come was now closed to us for the return journey. Following this news came a telegram advising us to economize, warning all tourists not to spend any money, as it would probably be a long time hence before they could leave the Italian capital.
We at once commenced to cut our expenses, to such an extent that our midday meal consisted of a penny glass of soda, two bananas, and one apple, which was not a sumptuous repast. The next day came further startling communications, the British Consul announcing that Britain had declared war on Germany. The party, realising to the full extent the nature of the situation, immediately sought to get their credit notes etc., cashed, but a disappointment here awaited them, as every bank had closed its doors. An English sovereign fell from 25 to 20 francs – thus we lost nearly 4/2 in the £. Our party included Americans and Australians, and everyone rushed to their respective ambassadors and consuls to seek advice. All were eager to leave Rome, and all advice was angled for in order to make our departure.
When we arrived at the British Consul’s Building we were plainly given to understand that we could not leave the country, neither could we have any money sent to us as all telegraphic communication was held by the military. Upon the return to the hotel where we were staying, our guide called a meeting and read a telegram from the headquarters instructing him to take no responsibilities, but let the party decide if it would remain in Rome or continue the tour. After some deliberation we ultimately decided to remain for a week. This period we spent in visiting the various sights of the famous city. By the end of the week the party, one by one, began to be affected by the heat and the rumours of the war which were broadcast.
It was then decided to go on to Venice, the ‘Queen of the Adriatic.’ Two days were spent here, when the party heard of a possibility of getting to Lucerne via Chiasso (a town on the Italian and Swiss frontier), which was a rather out of the way route. So with this news in mind we were a little relieved of our anxiety, and started next morning with light hearts on our journey. Arriving at Chiasso about mid-day, we passed the customs officials all right. But here we received a severe check by the train on which they were travelling being commandeered by the military, and the news that we could not proceed any further. At this point our guide ceased to have anything to do with the party, so we split up into small parties, and our party, whose adventures are being related, consisted of eight. After putting up at a hotel for dinner, we went to Como, a lake city in the north of Italy, by tram. At this place we had news of an early train departing the following morning at 5 o’clock, for Lucerne. The journey would take 14 hours’ travelling where under ordinary circumstances it would occupy about six hours.
Everybody was up next morning without knocking, and we caught the train, arriving at Lucerne about 7p.m. This was Saturday, and we were now three days over our time. No news reached us from the British Government as to our train. (The train referred to here is the special train chartered by the Government for the benefit of all British tourists.) At Lucerne we found a British Committee set up for the purpose of taking names of British subjects and to give any advice which was required. Our party consisted of a Scotch gentleman and his two sisters, a gentleman and his wife, and myself and two sisters, and we all went to seek advice. Here we received another check by being informed that on no account could we leave Lucerne. Determined to do our utmost to continue our journey home, we went for fresh advice to the Consul, who gave us our passports. We visited Cook’s Tourists’ Office, enquiring relative to a train. We were given to understand that there was one departing for Geneva next morning. Whether it would get there or not they could not state. However, we took our tickets for Geneva, which is direct west of Lucerne, practically on the Swiss and French frontier. Geneva was our first stopping place on our way to Paris.
Strange to relate, when we arrived at the Railway Station at 5a.m., we found two or three of the British Committee, a man from Cook’s, and the representative from the Polytechnic, who had all advised us to stay in Lucerne and yet they all seemed eager to take their departure! All went well until we reached Bellegarde, where we again had the ordeal of the rather inquisitorial attention of the customs, which we passed again all right. Immediately we had reseated ourselves for the continuation of our journey we met another of our small parties from Lucerne who had travelled all night. After about nine hours’ travelling we arrived at Embericu, where we were ordered out of the train and instructed to take our luggage outside the station, where we remained for four hours.
During this time the train was utilised for the conveyance of wounded who were brought in. Most of the unfortunate fellows seemed to have been shot in the legs and arms. When this work was finished we were allowed to entrain, and our journey was comfortably resumed as far as the ancient town of Dijon in the east of France, arriving at 9p.m. Here again we had to change.
Things now took an exciting turn. Everybody was determined to get home, and in many cases our fellow travellers apparently forgot the phrase of “Ladies first.” This was seen at the arrival of the next train, when a mad rush was made for the accommodation. Two of our ladies and a gentleman were knocked down. We decided to wait for the next, which came along at 2a.m., and which took us safely to Paris after a journey occupying 30 hours and changing about eight times.
We stayed in Paris for the night, but Paris was not the Paris we were used to. All theatres and shops were closed, and cafes were ordered to be closed at 8p.m. At Paris we paid our first penny to the War Fund which was paid on the hotel bill as a penny “extra.” It had been decided upon in Paris to charge the extra penny for the War Fund on all hotel bills and theatres. We left Paris next morning at 6 o’clock, arriving at Boulogne safely and crossing between two rows of battleships to Folkestone, relieved to a certain extent from all war rumours and anxiety. The ladies of our party have decided to stop in England for some time to come after these adventures. The nearest we got to the war zone was Belfort station. (Belfort is a fortified town in the east of France on the German frontier.) The fight was some 17 miles away, and being so close, the party was made to detrain and go by a loop line about 12 miles out of our way.”