The End of the War and Demobilisation

The end of the First World War brought about the expectation of a return home. One word was in everyone’s thoughts – demobilisation. However, it was not a straightforward process. A Culture volunteer on the Poole First World project explores the local and national impact. The reporting was considered so important that there was a regular column in the Poole and East Dorset Herald newspaper under the headline ‘Demobilisation Notes’ by ‘Demobicus’ who reported on the changes and the social impact of demobilisation.

Demobilisation was a huge logistical problem with an estimated 4,000,000 men and 100,000 women of the armed forces spread throughout the world. At some point on their journey home they would have to travel by sea and a large flotilla of ships was needed just to transport them across the Channel, let alone from further afield. It was also not a safe journey as thousands of mines littered the Channel and North Sea. Also travelling home were hundreds of thousands of soldiers from America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa, West Indies, and other places from all over the British Empire.

The process of demobilisation of the armed forces was bureaucratic and complex and the inevitable delays led to serious disturbances at Calais and Folkestone. It is hardly surprising there were problems given that demobilisation was occurring at a rate of around 87,000 a week from shortly after the end of the war until August 1919 and all had to be absorbed into a country that had continued without them.

The Active Service Army Schools brought out a booklet called ‘Reconstruction’ and organised lectures throughout the Western Front. The talks covered the state of the country, possible difficulties after having been in the military for many years, the need for reconstruction and how certain skills would be demobbed first. Not all men wanted to leave the army. The uncertainty over unemployment at home meant that continuing to serve had its attractions; a ‘bounty’ of £10 a year led to some signing up for 1 to 3 years. To put that figure into context, wages were around £4 to 5 per week.

Demob papers included a ‘Soldiers Demobilisation Account’ which stated if they owed, or were owed, any money; a ‘Certificate of Employment During the War’ which described what they had been doing; a ‘Protection Certificate’ which guaranteed unemployment benefit of up to 24 shillings (£1.20) per week for several months. They usually could keep their great coat, boots, and occasionally, their uniform. An allowance was provided for a ‘demob suit’ and travel home by rail. Pamphlets were issued on the ‘Demobilisation Regulations’ and informed the soldier on the transition back into civilian life. Once again there were talks on the subject held in Britain, France, Italy and, for the occupying force, in Germany.

Not everyone was entitled to be demobilised. There were strict criteria to be followed such as length of service. Tradesmen, and in particular miners, were the first to be released. Men who joined up as part of the Derby Scheme rather than being conscripted and were not called up before 1 January 1916 found they had not completed the required term of service. The most contentious problem was men serving in several areas of the world who now found themselves in other conflicts. For example, Poole men were in Army and Navy units involved in the fighting in North and South Russia following the Bolshevik revolution. There was often considerable discontent about being part of a conflict in these places which many felt had nothing to do with them.

One experience of being demobbed after being part of the British Army of the Rhine, which occupied part of Germany, was described by a sergeant from Poole and reported in the local newspaper – unfortunately the article does not give his name. He was in a Machine Gun Corps Battalion that was now just one officer and five men; one of the latter was from an infantry battalion who, the sergeant described, had got a ‘cushy’ number because he could speak German. The sergeant said he was overjoyed when they were transferred to a hotel in Bonn because the barracks were large, lonely and very cold. Before leaving, they burnt all the paperwork in the orderly room in a ‘huge bonfire’.

After a while at the hotel he was told he was to be demobbed along with several others and they would be home in a few days. Unfortunately, when they got to Koln he found it cold, wet and miserable and nobody had a clue where they were to report. They eventually found the barracks but no-one knew how to process them. Hungry and very unhappy they took a tram back to the city centre and stayed overnight in a Salvation Army Hostel. Next morning, they returned to the barracks with their documents and were told they would be leaving the following day. Elated at the news, they went back to the Hostel and spent the rest of the time going to cafes and the cinema. The following day they returned to the barracks to be told that men from the West of England were not allowed to travel – one of the group was from Liverpool and was able to leave. The sergeant had no alternative but to return to the Hostel.

An attempt on Saturday failed because no trains were running, however, the following day was successful and, after marching to Koln-Deutz station, he caught a train and by 9pm was in Calais. A night in Calais was followed by a crossing to Dover.

The sergeant described going through the demobilisation process as being put through ‘the machine’ and that everything happened so quickly he was in a daze. Equipment was handed over, forms signed, and he was measured for a ‘demob suit’. He was finally demobilised at 12am and then travelled by train to Poole and home.

 Poole Museum has the ‘Soldiers Demobilisation Account’ and ‘Certificate of Demobilisation’ for Alfred V. Hawkes who served in the Tank Corps. He joined the Machine Gun Corps (today known as the First Tank) on 27 November 1915 and later transferred to the Tank Corps, in Tank MK IV number c22. The Account gives his earnings as including a £2 12s 6d (£2.62½p) ’allowance for plain clothes’.

Alfred Victor Hawkes 22438, Royal Warwickshire Reg, 1918, Rank Private. Image courtesy of Andrew Hawkes
Demobilisation Account for Alfred V. Hawkes. Image from the collection of Poole Museum

An aspect of demobilisation that tends to be forgotten is that although the Armistice was declared on 11 November 1918, peace was not officially confirmed until June 1919. So while large numbers of soldiers were demobilised, few were ‘discharged’ which was the term used when someone was finally released from the Army. Most ex-soldiers were placed on reserve so they could be recalled if Germany refused the peace conditions and returned to war. It was only by March 1920 that the majority of soldiers became ‘discharged’.

Certificate of Demobilisation for Alfred V. Hawkes. Image from the collection of Poole Museum.

The certificate gives the four possible outcomes of demobilisation –

   Discharge – ie final release

   Transfer to Reserve – Hawkes went on reserve on 24 February 1919

   Disembodiment – when a member of the Territorial Forces was released from active service

   Demobilisation – this was the date when someone physically left the army but there could be conditions.

The experiences of the men of the Dorsetshire Regiment highlight many of the different aspects of the end of the war and demobilisation.

  • The 1st Battalion were in France when the Armistice was declared. They marched through Belgium and at the beginning of 1919 entered the German town of Obercassel. Demobbed soldiers had started leaving on 22 December 1918 and those that remained finally left for England in April 1919.
  • The 1/4th Battalion were in Mesopotamia and many of its men were transferred to the Army of Occupation in Salonika and Bulgaria. Early in 1919 the Battalion became the Army of Occupation in Mesopotamia until a regular army unit could take over. Demobilisation continued while soldiers from other regiments were brought in to keep up the numbers. The remnant of the Battalion left Mesopotamia on 28 November 1919 for Bombay. They then sailed to Plymouth where they arrived on 3 January 1920 and from there made their way to Dorchester. After a civic reception, they returned to their homes.
  • For those of the 5th Battalion who were to be demobilised there were training schemes, sports competitions, concert parties and salvage work on the battlefield. Men were gradually being demobilised until, finally, the remaining 12 officers and men set off for home on 7 June 1919.
  • Following the Armistice, the 6th Battalion marched to Bertry where they stayed until 8 December. They then marched seven days, most of it in rain and mud, camping where they could, to Frucourt, a distance of over 90 miles. Most of the wine in the local chateau was bought and drunk to mark Christmas 1918. A special call had gone out for miners and 41 men had left after Armistice was declared. General demobilisation began on 1 January 1919 but the process left the officers in ‘a state of mental despair’ trying to understand the rules. It was only a month later that these became clearer. Priority was given to those who had signed up before January 1916, or were older than 37, or had been injured on three or more occasions. Those of the battalion who were left travelled to Le Havre where they were ‘deloused’ and then sailed for Southampton. The History of the Dorsetshire Regiment records that here the 6th Battalion ‘unobserved, seemingly forgotten… disbanded itself’. Demobilisation was inevitably followed by the question ‘What next?’ Many struggled with unemployment and this will be the topic of another blog. Poole had several Council and private-led schemes which it was hoped would provide work – some were successful, others less so and one failed in a dramatic fashion.