The First World War, from 1914-1918, universally known as the Great War, did not affect the Channel Islands in the same way as the second global conflict which followed 21 years later. Then the islands were invaded by the Germans and occupied for over five years. In the Great War the front was many hundreds of miles distant in Eastern France, but many islanders fought there.
With a death toll much greater than that of the Second World War, this was supposed to be the war to end all wars. Sadly it failed miserably in that respect, but it did end the lives of many Channel Islanders, fighting not only in France but as far afield as the Middle East and East Africa.
Roll of Honour of Jersey casualties
Over 90 years after the First World War ended research continues into those Channel Islanders who fought in the conflict and those born in, living in or with close associations with the islands who lost their lives. The initial Roll of Honour commissioned by the States of Jersey after the war ended contained the names of 862 men who were killed in action or died from their wounds or disease, among them 100 officers. But in addition to the 6292 islanders who are estimated to have participated in the war, more than 2,300 Frenchmen who were resident in Jersey when war broke out left the island to enlist in their country's forces. It is now believed that some 1500 men who were born and/or lived in Jersey, or had close family connections, lost their lives. Follow this link to a Jerripedia index of the most up-to-date Roll of Honour
The Jersey Overseas Contingent
When war broke out Jersey was heavily defended but by late 1914 it was clear that there was no threat to the island. Some 18 months after the start of the war the United Kingdom government called on Jersey and Guernsey to in introduce compulsory military service for all men between 18 and 41. It was not until February 1917 that the Jersey States passed the Military Service Act and the Royal Militia Island of Jersey was suspended for the remainder of the war.
Members of the Militia volunteered to form a contingent to go off to fight in the war. By February 1915 an infantry company of 230 officers and men was ready to embark. Read their story.
It was still necessary to guard the island's coast lines, harbours and facilities, and two new units were formed to perform the role, the Royal Jersey Garrison Battalion (RJGB), and 110th Company, Royal Garrison Artillery (RGA).
These are the names recorded as members of the RJGB:
Guernsey's horrific losses
Although Guernsey's Militia entered the war after Jersey's, it was to suffer much greater casualties. At the end of 1916 the island's Militia was disbanded and the Royal Guernsey Light Infantry Regiment formed from its members and conscripts. After a period of training they were sent to the front line near Ypres and in November 1917 went into action in the Battle of Cambrai. By 3 December the 1200 officers and men of the RGLI had been reduced to just 501. Further action as Passchendaele the following month saw that number reduced to 55 men and two officers.
Life in the island
Whereas the Second World War and German Occupation had a dramatic effect on life in Jersey, the same was not true for the earlier conflict. The outbreak of war in summer 1914 had an immediate dramatic impact on the island's tourism and agriculture industries as German hotel staff and French workers left to join their respective countries' armies. Initially islanders did not know what to expect from the war and the militia guarded the coastline. Although there were naval skirmishes in the Channel, none were in sight of the Channel Islands and life went on much as normal.
The departure of over 2000 French farm workers put an enormous strain on the industry and farmers appealed against conscription orders so that their sons could stay and help them with the potato crops and dairy cattle. This led to bad feeling between town families whose sons left the island to fight and die, and country families which remained intact.
Newspapers and mail arrived in the island daily throughout the war and only sugar and petrol were rationed. Inflation grew rapidly as the war progressed and some goods were in short supply. The departure of so many men to fight in the war led to an increasing number of women joining the workforce to replace them.
Prisoner of war camp
The fighting may have been taking place a long way from Jersey but it soon became very apparent that Britain was at war when the War Office ordered the construction of a prisoner-of-war camp at Les Blanches Banques, which received its first prisoners in March 1915 and was eventually to house 1,500. Numbers dwindled later in the war as prisoners were sent to England where there was more work for them to undertake. The camp finally closed in October 1919.
Most islanders were curious about the enemy prisoners, but many people’s feeling towards their camp in St Ouen’s Bay has been one of envy. Local contractors employed in its building and fitting out reported that camp was a model construction. There were very well equipped kitchens, wash rooms and laundry facilities. The huts were heated, and supplied with quality mattresses and bedding. What’s more, the whole facility was lit by electricity – at a time when most people in the Island had no access to such modern power.
After weeks of excited speculation, the first German prisoners of war arrived in Jersey on 20 March 1915. A ship bearing just under 600 of them arrived in St Helier Harbour. Two days later another batch of around 400 joined them.
In the days beforehand, the local authorities had tried to keep the date and time of the prisoner’s arrival secret. But it was obvious from the preparations underway both in the camp and at the Brighton Road military hospital that something was imminent. As a result, a crowd of onlookers was present when the prisoners arrived, despite the early hour.
The newly arrived enemy prisoners attracted considerable interest. Curious islanders approached the camp. Their presence highlighted an ongoing dispute between the military and parish authorities. This relatef to uncertainty over responsibility for policing the road that runs from St Peter’s Barracks past the Blanches Banques site. In a response to queries, the Lieut-Governor confirmed that the road was under Army control, as was the entire area immediately surrounding the camp. General Rochfort asked for the Honorary Police’s cooperation, however, in arresting anyone who tried to approach the camp.
One enterprising company even organised motor bus tours from St Helier to the camp.
There was indignation at an apparent campaign to raise funds for helping the prisoners. A letter appeared in a local newspaper asking for donations towards buying a piano for the camp. It led to a number of other correspondents condemning the plan, and an investigation by the authorities. This failed to find out who was behind the idea but did discover that one local woman, who was German by birth, had approached the camp with an offer to buy cigarettes for the inmates. The offer was declined.
Islanders may have become used to the sight of military funerals, but one held in St Peter in August 1915 attracted special attention. The deceased was a German sailor, one the prisoners of war held in St Ouen’s Bay.
Karl Brundig, a 21-year-old captured in 1914 following the sinking of the cruiser Mainz, died at the camp on 24 August after a reported epileptic fit. With permission of the camp commander, Lt-Colonel Haines, the young man’s remains were conveyed on a carriage accompanied by 50 of his comrades. The solemn cortege left St Peter’s Barracks, where the body was lying at rest, and made its way to St Peter’s Church.
Curious locals lined the route, some climbing on walls to get a better view. Following a ceremony in St Peter’s Church, the coffin was carried to a grave in the churchyard and lowered into the ground to the sound of rifle volleys fired overhead.
French village adopted