Doing your bit!
By 1914 Robert Baden-Powell’s Scout Movement had been in existence for six years. Its popularity had spread not only in Britain but across the world. Wide spread membership meant many boys and young men had gained a range of useful skills from field-craft and camp cooking to signaling and sailing. Skills which as the First World War broke out would be put to very practical use.
As Britain entered the war on 4 August 1914 Baden-Powell considered how his Scouts could support the war effort. Older Scouts and their leaders could join the Armed Forces. Baden-Powell felt that the younger boys could also ‘do their bit’, not in a military role but in supporting essential services. As the war progressed the tasks the boys took on diversified and as the poster below shows Scouts were seen to be playing a crucial role in supporting the war effort.
Guarding the shores
One of the first roles that Scouts undertook was supporting the Coastguard. The fear of invasion by Germany was a very real threat so watching the coast, ports and estuaries was crucial work.
Scouts were supervised by the coastguard but under the orders of their Patrol Leaders and were responsible for their own activities and actions. This was a very practical example of one of Scouting’s core practices, giving boys independence. As the photos below show activities included coast watching, sending signals and delivering messages. The Scouts weren’t paid but received a basic subsistence allowance. At first this work was undertaken by Sea Scouts who specialised in water based activities, however, as word spread other Scout groups volunteered to take to part.
Working on the land
Many Scouts volunteered to work on farms, particularly around harvest time. Before the First World War most farm work was done by hand and many men were employed on the land. As men left farming to join the Armed Forces Scouts were able to take on some of the farm work. Some troops from urban areas, such as the St Luke’s Mission Troop from Chelsea, adapted their summer camp into a working farm holiday.
Food wasn’t the only resource which needed to be grown. Flax was a very important crop; it could be used to produce a tough canvas like cloth which could be used for jobs such as making tents, equipment and even covering aircraft wings.
In August 1914 rural France was preparing to bring in the harvest, however, many farm workers had been called up to fight the on-coming German invasion. If the harvest was not gathered in the country faced serious food shortages. An appeal was issued for help to be sent over the channel to help with the harvest, as this letter shows many Scouts offered to help.
Every penny counts
A desire to support the Armed Forces saw the founding of the Scout Hut and Ambulance Fund. As today Scouts during the First World War came up with some innovative ways of raising money. One Cub Pack spent a whole day collecting acorns (these could be used in animal feed) and sold them contributing the proceeds to the Fund. The Scouts of Belfast raised over £600 by selling bottles making a significant contribution to the fund. The fund bought much needed ambulances which ended up in service as far afield as the Middle East.
Working with other charities, such as the YMCA, Scouts bought and supported the running of huts at Army camps in Belgium, France, Italy and Britain. The huts provided refreshments and entertainment and a place for men to relax when they weren’t involved in fighting at the Front. Many of the huts were staffed by former Scouts, both Robert and Olave Baden-Powell also spent some time working in one of the huts..
The role of messenger boy was very important in a time before mass telecommunications; in 1914 few homes or public buildings had telephones. Telegrams or letters, the main methods of communication, had to be delivered by hand.
Messenger boys were stationed at Government offices, Police Stations and other places from which messages may have to be urgently communicated. The messenger boy need to be healthy, strong reliable and have a good sense of direction, criteria that many Scouts fulfilled.
Whilst farming, coast watching and carrying messages were the main tasks Scout under took some groups were asked to take on other roles including guarding railway junctions and telegraph and telephone cables against enemy sabotage.
As today one of the early skills sets a Scout developed was First Aid. Scouts were asked to help care for the sick and injured men of the Armed Forces as well as civilians caught up in attacks such as naval bombardments and Zeppelin raids. They worked as stretcher bearers and performed basic First Aid as required.
In 1914 the school leaving age was 12, many Scouts had to balance their war work with school attendance. Due to the crucial nature of the work some schools allowed boys time off but this wasn’t universal.
The bravery of Scouts undertaking war work on the Home Front and those who had joined the Armed Forces was recognised during the First World War. Former Scouts were awarded at least 21 Victoria Crosses, the highest military decoration awarded for valour “in the face of the enemy” to members of the British and Commonwealth armed forces.
It was the bravery of one former Scout, Jack (John Travers) Cornwell, which led to the development of Scouting’s highest award for bravery, the Cornwell Badge, still in use today. See our online exhibition “Jack Cornwell: A True Scout” to discover more about Jack’s story.
Wolf Cubs in the First World War
A pilot for a junior section of Scouts called Wolf Cubs was launched in January 1914 and proved an instant success recruiting 10,000 Cubs in the first year. In 1916 during the darkest days of the War Scouting took the decision to formalise Wolf Cubs membership of the Scouting Movement, the section continued to grow and by 1918 over 37,000 boys had joined. This success may in part be due to the unprecedented numbers of mothers taking up jobs to help on the Home Front. As today, Cubs would have been a perfect activity to keep boys occupied and safe after school.
Cubs played their part on the Home Front by knitting comforts for troops and stuffing pillows with newspaper. They also learnt skills that would be helpful around the home including peeling vegetables, cleaning shoes and basic housework, no doubt a great help for working mums. Find out more about Wolf Cubs and their co-founder Vera Barclay by visiting our online exhibitions.
Recovery and Remembrance
By the end of the War the Scouts had made an outstanding contribution to the war effort both on the Home Front and in the Armed Forces. It was a contribution that was recognised at the highest level, David Lloyd George, British Prime Minister, stated that:
“It is no small matter to be proud of, that the Association was able within a month of the outbreak of war to give the most energy and intelligent help in all kinds of service. When the boyhood of a nation can give such practical proofs of its honour, straightness and loyalty there is not much danger of that nation going under, for these boys are in training to render service to their country as leaders in all walks of life in the future.”
The Scouts did not come through the war unscathed. Over 84,000 former Scouts and Leaders had enlisted in the Armed Forces and around 8,000 of them were killed.
The loss of these men, many of whom had been involved in Scouting from its earliest days was a great blow to the Association and one that was replicated in Scout groups all over the world. However, the experiences gained by the Scouts who had under taken such important war work meant that there was a new generation of leaders ready and able to take on the responsibility of rebuilding and developing Scouting.
War Memorials were erected honouring those who had been killed between 1914 – 1918 and every year since Scouts have taken part in acts of Remembrance to continue that commemoration.