The Show in World War 1

by John Davis, Professor of History and International Relations, Kingston University, London

Only antiquarians amongst the crowds watching the Lord Mayor’s Show on 9 November 1915 would have been aware of the 700th anniversary of the Mayoral Charter. Fifteen months into the First World War, the City of London Corporation had acceded to the War Office’s request to use the event as a recruiting exercise, dispelling any temptation to celebrate the City’s past.

Aside from its instinctive patriotic support for the war effort, the Corporation valued the political advantage of putting the Show to public use. Popular as the usual pageant was, it was depicted by the City’s opponents as an exercise in civic flummery, advertising the Corporation’s unreformed status. By devoting the Show to the war effort, the City defused such criticism: ‘The pageant has had its critics in the past’, wrote the City Press correspondent, ‘this year it has not a single one.’

For the military authorities the context was critical.The rush to the colours evident in the early months of the war had subsided and, with heavy casualties on the Western Front, the British Army needed men by the autumn of 1915. The contentious option of military conscription divided the coalition government, which instead introduced a compromise scheme in October 1915 inviting men of military age to ‘attest’ their willingness to serve if required.

The purpose of the 1915 Show was to encourage men to attest. Recruiting meetings were held at ten points along the procession’s route, addressed by MPs and army men; those attesting could participate in the parade. The procession was unambiguously military.

The Lord Mayor’s coach was preceded by anti-aircraft guns, parts of a military biplane, a requisitioned omnibus labelled ‘Reinforcements’, captured German guns, Red Cross ambulances and ‘a long string of ammunition and supply wagons’.

The parade comprised ‘soldiers – soldiers all the way’, as the City Press put it, including many ‘direct from the trenches’ (‘Yesterday they were facing death at any moment; today they were … luxuriating in the cheers of tens of thousands of Londoners.’)

Servicemen from the Dominions participated, The Times noting the ‘finely built men with alert bronzed faces’ from Australia and New Zealand. A West Indian company received ‘a specially hearty cheer’. The parade – a mile and a half long – involved 5,000 people.

All found it impressive. The City Press correspondent declared that only the ‘veriest slacker’ would not be stirred by such a display, but its success as a recruiting exercise remains unclear. Abysmal weather, varying from drizzle to downpour, deterred men from hearing recruiting speeches lasting ‘thirty or thirty-five minutes’. At the Royal Exchange, Major Rigg’s warning of ‘the march of German soldiery into the City’ should the war be lost chilled a crowd ‘only of moderate dimensions’. At St Paul’s station (present-day Blackfriars) listeners ‘preferred to remain under the shelter of the railway bridge nearby, and were not beguiled therefrom by the eloquence of the recruiting speakers.’

The recruiters were, after all, appealing to men who had resisted early public enthusiasm for the war, and who by November 1915 harboured few illusions about trench warfare. The Times’ lyrical account of the rain-soaked procession – of ‘rusting bayonets and lances, khaki uniforms stained by the downpour to the colour of wet mud’, which ‘brought to the mind stories of grim days in France and Flanders and visions of the things which must happen before there can be peace again’ – was convincing but hardly enticing. By November 1916 conscription had been introduced, making recruitment stunts of this nature redundant. The 1915 Lord Mayor’s Show was the first and last of its kind.