World War I – Dover at the Outbreak

World War I - Geat Britian declared War at 23.00hrs on Tuesday 4 August 1914 and the declaration notice was published on 7 August 1914

World War I – Geat Britian declared War at 23.00hrs on Tuesday 4 August 1914 and the declaration notice was published on 7 August 1914

During both World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945) Dover became Fortress Dover – a military zone from where, amongst other things, troops embarked for Continental Europe and beyond. Indeed, Dover, besides being a port was also a major military base with huge barracks on both the Eastern – where the Castle is – and Western Heights. Because Dover was the military port, Folkestone remained the civilian port for the Channel crossing, supplementing as a military port when needs necessitated. This is the story of Dover at the outbreak of World War I.

In 1914, there existed a number of defence alliances between the major world powers at that time. This was, supposedly, to stop such catastrophic conflicts that was about to begin. In 1905, Germany assumed she was vulnerable to invasion on two fronts – in the west France and the east Russia. As a defensive measure the German Army Chief of Staff, Alfred von Schlieffen (1833-1913), drew up a plan by which France would be beaten quickly forcing her surrender before Russia had a chance to mobilise her armed forces. To fulfil the Schlieffen plan, as it was called, Germany began building up her military strength.

It is well documented that on 28 June 1914, a Serbian student assassinated the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Ferdinand and in accordance with the Schlieffen plan, on 3 August, German troops declared war on France and massed her troops on the Belgium border. A Treaty of 1839 had given Belgium neutrality and the British demanded that Germany respect it. They refused and the next day, Tuesday, 4 August, the ultimatum from the British Government was sent to Berlin and that evening saw the start of World War I.

Admiralty Harbour - c1914 Postcard

Admiralty Harbour – c1914 Postcard

Whether the Admiralty had been preparing for such a conflict is debatable, but in 1898, work started on converting the Dover into the Admiralty Harbour, that we see today. It was to be the base for the Royal Navy at the southern end of the North Sea. On Friday 15 October 1909, the new harbour was opened by the Admiral of the Fleet, George, Prince of Wales, (later George V 1910-1935). In January 1908, Messrs Pearson’s secured the contract for the erection of a Camber, or tidal dock, at the Eastern Dockyard for launches, pinnaces and tugs. Initially, the Camber was to be 1,000 feet square with a minimum depth was 15-feet (4.58 metres) at low tide and it was to be protected from all seas. Work started immediately.

A year later, at the end of January 1909, the 650-feet wide (198-metres) Eastern Entrance of the Admiralty Harbour was opened and a fort was erected at the seaward end of the Arm. This contained breech-loading medium and light quick-firing guns mounted in concrete emplacements along with searchlights, quarters, and magazines. There was also machinery for a quick drawing boom to be put in place across the harbour entrance if needs necessitated. In 1910, two oil tanks with a holding capacity of 110 tons and costing £10,000 were erected.

Camber in World War I, filled with Motor Launches. The Admiralty buildings are in background

Camber in World War I, filled with Motor Launches. The Admiralty buildings are in background

Germany sent her gunboat Panther to Agadir, Morocco, in July 1911, supposedly to protect the country’s firms even though the port was closed to nonMoroccan businesses. The Admiralty reacted by, amongst other things, ordering the Camber to be altered for use by submarines. The depth was deepened to 17-feet (5.19 metres); a pair of breakwaters and submarine shelters was constructed with a small dry dock along side. As international tensions deepened so was the Camber, in order to create a safe anchorage for destroyers as well as submarines. In November 1913 the Camber was formally designated a torpedo centre with a repairing depot that came into use on 22 May 1914. Storage for oil fuel at the Eastern Dockyard was increased and Langdon prison, on the Eastern cliffs, was converted into Naval Barracks.

Following the demise of the transatlantic cruise service from Dover in 1907, it was agreed to give the east side of the Prince of Wales Pier to the Admiralty. In return, the Admiralty Pier was widened and the South Eastern and Chatham Railway Company obtained a 99 years lease to build the Marine Railway Station for their Continental service. Although all the building work of the Marine Station was finished by the end of July 1914, the station was not quite ready for passengers when the Admiralty commandeered it. In April 1909 the Admiralty Pier Turret was designated Pier Turret Battery and further construction took place plus two 6-inch MK VIIs guns mounted on the top. Just prior to the outbreak of War searchlights were installed. On 28 March 1913, the Admiralty took over the Promenade Pier and renamed it the ‘The Navy Pier.’ Privately owned, the Company sold it for £8,000 and then wound up their affairs.

 Royal Flying Corps founded 1912 and that year money was found to create a military airfield on Swingate Downs. Doyle Collection

Royal Flying Corps founded 1912 and that year money was found to create a military airfield on Swingate Downs. Doyle Collection

Although Dover had been an important military establishment for centuries, prior to World War I the Army appeared to lag behind the Admiralty in preparations in Dover for War. On 14 October 1912, a 450-foot (approx.150 metres) long Zeppelin paid a clandestine visit to north Kent. Shortly after the military made £45.000 available to build a flying depot on Swingate Downs and £10,000 was earmarked for building at Connaught Barracks and another £10,000 for an Officers’ Mess. Dover’s G Lewis and Son obtained the contract but due to the outbreak of War, this was deferred.

County Skating Rink Marine Parade Commandeered for Sea Planes. Dover Museum

County Skating Rink Marine Parade Commandeered for Sea Planes. Dover Museum

In June 1913, the roller-skating rink, dance hall and open air theatre, on Marine Parade, was requisitioned for the Royal Naval Seaplane Patrol and a hanger for seaplanes was then built on the site previously used by the open-air theatre. The skating rink was converted into workshops and training school. The whole was under the command of Sheerness Naval District and officially named the Hydro Aeroplane Station. The seaplane service worked closely with the Dover Patrol.

Brigadier-General Fiennes Henry Crampton (1862-1938) came to Dover on 4 January 1914, as Officer in command of the South Eastern Coast Defences. The Brigadier-General noted that the land defences around Dover only consisted of Citadel Battery and Langdon Battery – both erected in 1900 and armed with 9.2 guns. He added that even one of those had been removed! At the Drop Redoubt, there were two machine guns while the only anti-aircraft gun was a 12-pounder at the Langdon battery but there were no anti-aircraft searchlights.

Archduke Ferdinand & wife just before assassination at Sarajavo 28 June 1914 - Robinson Collection

Archduke Ferdinand & wife just before assassination at Sarajavo 28 June 1914 – Robinson Collection

These and other military defences the Brigadier-General was still trying to get into place when, on Sunday 28 June Nedeljko Čabrinović (1895-1916) threw a hand grenade at the car in which Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austro-Hungary and his wife the Duchess of Hohenberg were travelling. The Royal couple were on their way to the Sarajavo town hall and lucky for them, they made it to the appointment as the grenade missed.

Instead, it hit a car behind causing serious casualties who were then taken to hospital. Later that morning the couple returned to the car and stated that they wished to see the hospitalised casualties. While the cars were turning round a 19-year-old student, Gavrilo Princip (1894-1918), took the opportunity of shooting the Archduke and his wife. The Archduke died within minutes and the Duchess on her way to hospital. Princip died later that year of tuberculosis and Čabrinović, of the same disease, in January 1916.

 Inauguration of the Earl Beauchamp as the Lord Warden on 18 July 1914 passing through Market Square. Bob Hollingsbee collection

Inauguration of the Earl Beauchamp as the Lord Warden on 18 July 1914 passing through Market Square. Bob Hollingsbee collection

Through the efforts of the Amusements Committee, the summer season of 1914 in Dover was the most successful for years. Tourists came from near and far with some intending to stay for the whole of the summer. The main topic of discussion, in hushed tones, at the installation of William Lygon, 7th Earl Beauchamp (1872 -1938) as the new Lord Warden (1913-1934), on 18 July, was the Earl’s private life – homosexuality. Nonetheless, the preparations for War were all around in Dover and people were well aware that there was a possibility of war.

The focus of conversations had change by Friday 24 July, with the main topic, the ultimatum sent by the Austro-Hungarian Minister in Belgrave, General Baron von Gieslingen (1860–1936), to the Serbian government the evening before. In essence, it accused the Serbians of abetting propaganda against the Monarchy and being indirectly responsible for the assassination of the Archduke and his wife. It went on to make heavy demands for compensation that the Serbians had little alternative but to refuse to comply. That weekend there was a large flotilla of destroyers in Dover Harbour. It was said that they were there to test Dover’s defences the following week.

The following day, Saturday, the Dover Unit of the Cinque Ports Territorial Force of Royal Engineers, left the town for Southsea Castle, near Portsmouth. It was their annual fortnight’s training under canvas. In Dover, four Regular Infantry battalions had just completed their musketry training and were at the town’s barracks.

By Monday morning (27 July), tension was mounting and Dover people were out in the streets asking questions that no one seemed able to answer. At 15.30hrs, a gun was fired from the warship Attentive, in the harbour. The Blue Peter was run up recalling all crews ashore to return to their ships. People jostle for places on the seafront and on the cliffs to watch what was happening. Less than two hours later one of the patrol flotillas steamed out of the harbour headed by Pathfinder (she was sunk off the Northumbrian coast by a submarine on 5 September 1914). Throughout the day, the ferries arriving at the port were packed with continental holidaymakers hurriedly returning to England.

The gravity of the situation was reflected by a crisis on the London Stock Exchange when, on Tuesday 28 July, Austro-Hungary declared war on Serbia. On Wednesday, all naval harbours were cleared and a warning telegram was sent to commanders-in-chief and appropriate personnel to take up their battle stations. This included Dover harbour. At 19.00hrs, a gun was fired and again naval personnel were recalled to their ships. Sentries with guns and ammunition took possession of various strategic points in Dover. The military establishments were fully manned with everything made ready for an emergency. During the night, with all lights were ‘dowsed’ and a huge fleet of battleships passed by Dover harbour.

With the coming Bank Holiday weekend, concern was being expressed as to whether the events that had been organised should be cancelled. Dover Cricket week was rescheduled to be played at Canterbury, the Regatta was abandoned and all sport fixtures, including football, were cancelled. Band performances and public dinners ceased. The Dover Company of the Royal Engineers and the London Electrical Engineers arrived in the town to operate searchlights.

On Saturday 1 August, Germany declared war on Russia, invaded Luxembourg and crossed the French frontier at several points. Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, issued the order to mobilise the Royal Navy on a war basis and on the warships still in the harbour, the crews were engaged in getting rid of all surplus woodwork in preparation for action. Cross Channel ferries were ploughing across the Channel at speed and out of schedules. They were endeavouring to bring back home as many as possible before the War commenced. In the town, crowds surrounded the telegram posts, such as Leney’s office in Castle Street, to find out the latest news.

3 August 1914 Naval Reserves called up courtesy of the Doyle collection

3 August 1914 Naval Reserves called up courtesy of the Doyle collection

Russia joined in on the side of Serbia on Sunday 2 August and France was immediately embroiled. Germany declared war on France and proceeded to march through Belgium, thus violating the Treaty of London of 1839. This recognised and guaranteed the independence and neutrality of Belgium and confirmed the independence of the German-speaking part of Luxembourg. By Bank Holiday Monday, 3 August, it was clear that only a miracle could avert Britain being drawn into the conflict. At 03.00hrs, a telegram was sent to Southsea Castle ordering the Dover Unit of the Cinque Ports Territorial Force of Royal Engineers to return to Dover at once. George V (1910-1936) issued a Royal Proclamation calling up the Royal Navy Reserve, Royal Fleet Reserve and Officers and Men of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve.

That morning the harbour was crowded with war vessels under full steam and thousands of people came into the town. The packed South Eastern and Chatham Railway ferry, Engadine, arrived from Calais at 08.00hrs following which all Channel traffic from France was transferred to Folkestone. She left for Calais at 13.00hours at the same time as the French cruiser squadron of with six ships came up the Channel. The crowds on the cliffs cheered.

In London, the House of Commons was recalled and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George (1863-1945), brought in the Postponement of Payments Bill, which quickly passed through all its stages and received Royal Assent. At the same time, the Chancellor announced that Banks would remain closed until Friday morning 7 August. Approximately three million 10 shilling and pound notes would be available that day to replace sovereigns and half sovereigns (both made of gold). Afterwards, it was envisaged about 5million notes would be released every day to replace gold coinage. On Friday 7 August, it was announced that Post Office postal orders would become legal tender.

Marie Henrietta - nearest ship along side Admiralty Pier c 1899. Bob Hollingsbee Collection

Marie Henrietta – nearest ship along side Admiralty Pier c 1899. Bob Hollingsbee Collection

In the afternoon, at 14.30hrs, the Marie Henrietta arrived in Dover from Ostend with 1,122 passengers on board. Before the ship had tied up the passengers were cheering loudly for having made it safely to Britain. This was repeated at 19.30hrs when the Princesse Clementine arrived from Ostend with 1,400 passengers on board. That evening the Admiralty mobilised all the Fleet and at 19.00hrs, as the warships left the harbour. The Special Service section of the Cinque Ports Territorial Force operating the Coast Defence Searchlights at the Admiralty Pier started cheering as these ships arrived. The first aeroplanes touched down at the military Swingate ‘aeroplane station’ but the only armament the pilots possessed were revolvers and automatic pistols.

Drill Hall, Townwall Street 1912 - Dover Museum

Drill Hall, Townwall Street 1912 – Dover Museum

The Engineers Unit of the Cinque Ports Territorial Force eventually made it to Dover that Monday evening, arriving at 19.00hrs. They formed up outside the Priory Station and marched to the Drill Hall in Liverpool Street – approximately, where the Gateway flats are today. Later in the evening came the news that Britain had told Germany she would prevent their Fleet attacking French Channel ports and that Britain would do her best to uphold neutrality of Belgium. That evening the Marie Henrietta, with 700 passengers on board, was stopped by gunfire off Dunkerque and boarded. She was then allowed to leave for Dover.

The last passenger ship to arrive at Dover from Belgium on Tuesday 4 August was the steamer Rapide, at 02.10hrs in the early morning with 893 passengers on board. She left at 15.30hrs that afternoon for Ostend with six passengers, by which time Germany had declared war on Belgium. From the early morning, people were out in the streets and stood in awe as a large column of Territorial Troops marched through Dover. Then town’s folk went about their business concerned but not knowing what the future would hold.

That morning the Red Star Liner Finland, having been bound from Antwerp to New York with 96 passengers on board, returned to the port. The South Eastern and Chatham Railway announced that until further notice a service from London to Paris and back would operate but only on Mondays via Dover and Boulogne. The service would leave Charing Cross at 14.05 and Paris 09.55hrs.

Mayor Edwin Farley 1913-1918. Courtesy of Clare Farley

Mayor Edwin Farley 1913-1918. Courtesy of Clare Farley

It was not until 23.00hrs on Tuesday 4 August 1914 that Britain declared war on Germany in accordance with the written obligation of 1839 to uphold the neutrality of Belgium. Promptly notices signed by Mayor Edwin Farley and Brigadier-General Crampton, stating that war had been declared and mobilisation had been ordered. Defences of Dover were placed on a war footing on both land and at sea. Entrance and exit to, the now Fortress Dover, could only take place by the railways and the main roads to Folkestone, Deal and Canterbury. Special passes, limited in number, were necessary for those who required entering or leaving the town. The Military Authorities had the power to arrest and search. All local newspapers were subject to censorship by the military and anyone approaching any defensive works were stopped, questioned and searched.

Recruiting Poster issued at the outbreak of World War I. Robinson Collection

Recruiting Poster issued at the outbreak of World War I. Robinson Collection

The order, ‘Commence hostilities against Germany‘ was sent.

The British Expeditionary Force went to France on 9 August via Dover and the Royal Flying Corps followed four days later. The first arrival was Lieutenant Hubert Dunsterville Harvey-Kelly (1891–1917), whose BE 2 had left Dover at 06.45hrs and landed at Amiens at 08.20. By the end of the day Squadrons 2,3 and 4 were in France and No 5 six days later.

On 7 August 1914, Montenegro declared war on Austro-Hungary, followed by France declaring war on Austro-Hungary on 10 August. On 12 August, Britain declared on Austro-Hungary and on the 14th, the First British Expeditionary force landed in France.

By then there had been a call to arms was made in Dover following which an Anti-Aircraft Corps had been formed under the aegis of the Royal Naval Volunteers.



  • On the international front further declarations were made by Britain on Turkey and Bulgaria.
  • Italy declared war on Austro-Hungary, Turkey, Bulgaria and Germany.
  • France declared war on Bulgaria and Albania on Austro-Hungary.
  • Germany declared war on Portugal and Rumania and Turkey on Rumania.
  • Rumania declared war on Austro-Hungary and Bulgaria on Rumania and the US.
  • Cuba and Panama declared war on Germany and Austro-Hungary on the US.
  • Siam (Thailand) declared war on the central powers (Austro-Hungary, Germany and their allies).
  • China on Germany and Austro-Hungary
  • Brazil on Germany.
  • In 1917, the US declared war on Germany.

This was the First World War


  • Published:
  • Dover Mercury: 5, 12 & 19 June 2014

About Lorraine

I am a local historian, whose love of Dover has lead to decades of research into some of the lesser known tales that this famous and beautiful town has to tell.
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