Halt! Who goes there?

THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME, JULY-NOVEMBER 1916 (Q 4180) A sentry of the 10th Battalion, Gordon Highlanders at the junction of two trenches - Gourlay Trench and Gordon Alley. Martinpuich, 28 August 1916. Copyright: © IWM.© IWM (Q 4180) Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205073475
THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME, JULY-NOVEMBER 1916 (Q 4180) A sentry of the 10th Battalion, Gordon Highlanders at the junction of two trenches – Gourlay Trench and Gordon Alley. Martinpuich, 28 August 1916. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205073475

In this guest blog, Dr Mike Benbough-Jackson of Liverpool John Moores University talks about Sentries and their roles during WW1.

Mike is one of the researchers funded by the AHRC with expertise on the First World War and its commemoration. A list is held on the AHRC Website of these academics who are happy to be contacted about their research. Many of these are also heavily involved in the AHRC Funded WW1 Engagement Centres.

Britain experienced an epidemic of spy fever during the early years of the war.[i] It must have felt like the invasion and spy fiction that had gripped Edwardian readers before the war was becoming a reality. A young woman sketching the landscape was viewed with suspicion. Why record the contours of the Mersey now of all times? That information could be used by a German saboteur. As it turned out, Gladys Dalby New was released when the sketch was deemed far too inaccurate to be any use.[ii] Others, however, were less fortunate.

Gladys Dalby New (centre) flax picking in Somerset in 1918. Photograph with kind permission and courtesy of Liddle Collection (Leeds University Library)/WW1/DF/095.
Gladys Dalby New (centre) flax picking in Somerset in 1918. Photograph with kind permission and courtesy of Liddle Collection (Leeds University Library)/WW1/DF/095.

Walkers who were in the wrong place at the wrong time put themselves in danger. Sentries across the country were responsible for guarding places and routes and, unlike the many other Britons who were keeping an eye out for suspicious activity, they were armed and prepared to shoot. Indeed, as a captain explained at an inquest into the killing of a deaf man by a sentry who had acted after his command was ignored stated: if a sentry did not shoot and something happened as a result then he would be executed.[iii] The following examples from the north-west of England illustrate how a man who ignored a sentry’s challenge became an early casualty of the war and how another sentry put his own life on the line while defending a railway. The ‘Sentry V. Spy duel’, as the Manchester Courier described an incident in Dover, brought the war to the home front before the bombs from zeppelins or shells from the ships took their toll on the civilian population.[iv]

One of the earliest fatalities was a 62 year-old peddler, William Robert Dawson, from Morecambe. He was shot at Dunning’s Bridge, Maghull on 11 August 1914 as he made his way to Liverpool. [v] It was around midnight when the sentry asked him to stop three times but received no response. Then Dawson was asked to put up his hands. At the inquest three days after the episode, Dawson was said to have replied ‘To ­­—- with you and hands up’ before being shot. Despite being treated at a nearby Epileptic Home, Dawson died.

Dunning's Bridge, Maghull
Dunning’s Bridge, Maghull with gracious thanks to Brian Elsey, publisher of Leeds Liverpool Canal http://www.leedsliverpoolcanal.co.uk/

Like the soldier who shot Dawson, Private J. Steele of the 3rd Kings Liverpool Regiment was protecting a communication route, though in his case it was a railway rather than a bridge over a canal.

Fornby Power House 1936c - With gracious thanks to Formby Civic Society
Fornby Power House 1936c – With gracious thanks to Formby Civic Society

Steele had been stationed by the power station of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company in Formby on Saturday 21 November 1914.[vi] Just before midnight a man was spotted in the vicinity of the power station.

Formby Power House 1983c - With gracious thanks to Formby Civic Society
Formby Power House 1983c – With gracious thanks to Formby Civic Society

Steele challenged him and the suspect fled. The area was searched but the trespasser was nowhere to be seen. Later he reappeared and on being challenged a second time fled once more. Steele fired and missed. His target returned fire with a revolver and hit Steele, severing the radial and ulner arteries in his wrist. Again, the suspected saboteur escaped, probably making use of the many nearby sand dunes.

THE GERMAN ARMY ON THE WESTERN FRONT, 1914-1918 (Q 88103) German troops in well constructed trench position on the Western Front. Note an alarm gong by the sentry in the foreground. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205331659
THE GERMAN ARMY ON THE WESTERN FRONT, 1914-1918 (Q 88103) German troops in well constructed trench position on the Western Front. Note an alarm gong by the sentry in the foreground. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205331659

[i]  D. French, ‘Spy Fever in Britain, 1900-1915’, Historical Journal, 21:2 (1978), pp. 355-370.

[ii] Liddle Collection (Leeds University Library)/WW1/DF/095.

[iii] Manchester Evening News, 18 September 1914.

[iv]  Manchester Courier, 2 October 1914.

[v] Liverpool Courier, 18 August 1914.

[vi] Liverpool Echo, 23 November 1914.

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