First World War: Edinburgh in 1914

The corner of Castle Street and Princes Street, c 1910.
The corner of Castle Street and Princes Street, c 1910.
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DAWN broke over Edinburgh, ushering in a brand new year with a typical blustery blast and more of precisely what city residents had come to expect.

A few days into January 1914, and at Robert Maule & Sonn at the west end of Princes Street, staff were poised to do battle.

The January sales were, the store’s adverts proudly declared, “The bargain 
event of the New Year”, when “Everything is reduced and the purchasing power of money is wonderfully increased in every direction”.

Who could resist a 30 guinea set of bear furs, a snip at just £19/19s? Perhaps madam would prefer a rich seal 
coney coat lined with satin, just £11/11s, down from 18 guineas. Fancy ribbons, tea cosies, embroidered piano tops and silk dressing gowns all reduced.

It was the same at Jenners, Rentons and Greensmith Downes and Son, at furriers and household suppliers. Sale time was in full swing.

The pantomime was on at the King’s – of course – and 3s got you the best seats in the house. And who could resist 
FA Lumley’s dazzling Carnival of Venice at Waverley Market, with its acrobats and tumblers, a canine football team of terriers and Austrian-born Severus Schaffer, the “world’s greatest juggler, inventor and producer of the most marvellous feats ever attempted in juggling and balancing”. All for a mere sixpence entry fee.

Seven-bedroom 20 Buckingham Terrace could be bought for around £2500, meanwhile the hot news of the day was of the slightly ‘mundane’ variety: Lady Dunbar of Mochrum had written a book about her beloved Chow-Chow dogs, there was the shipping forecast to mull over and on the sports pages, news from Tynecastle 
where a crowd of 17,000 watched Hearts. Duncan Currie and Bob Mercer were in the team that beat Ayr United 2-1, their ultimate destiny – untimely deaths for the pair of them – not even yet the stuff of bad dreams.

Everything was devastatingly ordinary. No hint of the terrible events to come.

For, of course, in just six months’ time, Edinburgh life would be thrown into total chaos. And nothing would ever be quite the same again.

Soon the men who kept William Currie & Co rubber works in Dalry Road in business, who brewed the ale at McEwan’s at Fountainbridge and the type foundry workers at Miller & Richard just off Nicolson Street – whose typefaces were sent to printworks the world over – would spend their brief lunch break listening to a persuasive and passionate call to arms from the officials of the Rosebery Royal Scots Recruiting Committee.

It was the same for thousands of other men and lads, brothers, cousins, pals and fathers, at tanneries and foundries, at glue works and distilleries, at the shipbuilders in Leith and at chemical factories, miners, farmers, labourers, bankers, retailers, clerks in pristine clean offices, builders with dirt under their nails.

And even, tragically for some, footballers.

The shock waves that rippled across the land with the declaration of war that late July 1914 quickly engulfed 
absolutely everyone.

Edinburgh’s bustling industrial landscape, her prime location by the Firth of Forth and sprinkling of well-manned army barracks meant the war in Europe was all too soon on the city’s doorstep.

Residents were already well used to seeing the soldiers based at the Castle and the cavalrymen at Piershill. Leith Fort was headquarters to the Artillery and Transport Corps after all, the Royal Scots had a depot at Glencorse and two barracks at Dreghorn were split between a cavalry regiment and infantry battalion. Scattered around town, too, were dozens of drill halls, used for part-time Territorial units.

But more and more men were needed. And the peacetime army of 400,000 would, in the space of just a couple of years, swell dramatically to become a four million strong fighting force.

While men of all backgrounds, humble and well healed, answered the call, there was still work for many to do at home – and the city’s diverse industrial landscape put the Capital in the midst of the war effort.

From the heart of the city rolled out ammunition and uniforms, weapons and tools, transport equipment and, from Leith, vital products that would help repair, rebuild and refit the fleets.

From Fountainbridge, around one million pairs of trench boots marched out of the North British Rubber Company gates bound for the front line.

And deep underground, coal carved from the pits sated the hunger of the furnaces which helped keep industry moving.

Home life changed, too – the war effort rolled into operation like a giant, well oiled machine manned by women who knitted socks and gloves for Britain and sold pins to raise funds, who rolled up dainty sleeves which before the war were not expected to do “men’s work” and proved themselves highly efficient at doing just that.

Soon strong-willed Edinburgh women had won the right to work on the city’s trams systems as conductors, their breakthrough paving the way for those pushing to be given the right to work in heavy roles in munitions factories.

And, of course, there were those brave and dedicated souls – led by the remarkable Dr Elsie Inglis – who took their medical and nursing skills to the very edge of the battle zones.

From that very ordinary start to the year, by its end evidence of the war’s impact was all around – public service vehicles such as fire engines were requisitioned for the war effort, school buildings taken over to provide accommodation for new recruits and playgrounds became parade grounds.

Still, they did say it would be over by Christmas . . .

By Christmas Eve 1914, 
Edinburgh had woken with a jolt to the grim reality that war was definitely here to stay.

“There were few in the city at that time – though throughout the somewhat trying days there was always apparent a quiet confidence in business circles – who entertained more fervently the hope that hostilities would be over by Christmas than those at the head of the wholesale and retail commercial concerns,” reported The Scotsman newspaper on December 24, 1914.

Shops, where owners had braced themselves for a slump in trade months earlier, were busy , it added, but war had cast a gloom over the festivities. People simply had little appetite to celebrate when their beloved men were dying.

An effort was made for the children, but a shortage of quality German toys and dolls meant even the thrill of a Christmas morning surprise was soured by the bitter whiff of what was unfolding on the front line.

Others woke up a happy enough, the paper reported soaring demand for toy guns, soldier figures, swords and cannons, as little boys craved the chance to emulate brave big brothers and hero fathers who had marched off to war.

But children’s hopes of finding a sweet, juicy Jaffa orange stuffed into the toe of their stocking were dashed too, as Turkey entered the war and the trade in oranges, figs, dates and raisins slumped.

What little mistletoe that found its way into shops came with a hefty price tag, as pickers across the Channel in France found themselves 
otherwise engaged.

As always, some prospered. Bakers enjoyed a roaring trade as families rushed to snap up shortbread, traditional buns and cakes to pack into festive food parcels destined for the front.

One thing was certain, though. Christmas cards with their joy-filled messages and hopes of a happy time, ordered months earlier by retailers looking forward to a traditional ‘Merry Christmas’, were off the shopping list.

There was, everyone solemnly agreed, absolutely nothing at all to be merry about . . .