First Few Days of the First World War: Maud Wyndham’s View from South Africa

  • 7th August 2014

Maud, the eldest daughter of Charles Lyttelton 8th Viscount Cobham and her husband Hugh Wyndham were living in South Africa at the time of the outbreak of the First World War and remained based in South Africa for much of the duration of the War.  Maud was a keen letter writer, corresponding regularly with family and friends back in Britain.  In particular Maud wrote regularly to her mother for the whole period of the First World War and those letters have been preserved amongst the Lyttelton family archives now at the Hive.  The letters reveal Maud’s views and opinions on what was happening in South Africa, in Europe and the world at large.

Maud’s first ‘wartime;’ letter began on 2 August 1914.  Her previous letter to her mother of 30 July was full of social chatter and family news and scarcely mentions the ‘July Crisis’.  Maud added to her letter of 2 August over several days as more information on the war became available to her.  The letter eventually ran to eighteen pages.  Her commentary was also interspersed with social and family chit chat.  

Sunday 2 August 1914 Maud’s opened her letter with ‘How awful this war is suddenly sprung upon us.’  She then remarked upon the escalation of events as the various members of the various alliances declared war and mobilised.  ‘This time last week was the first sign of it between Austria and Servia & now this morning France & Germany & Russia all have joined in & I suppose England will to day?’

Maud’s comments on the outbreak of War

Maud then left off the subject of the War to talk about a dance and party she had been hosting with 80 guests and a string band.  She then returned to it, reflecting on the immediate affects war might bring to South Africa as the cyanide and zinc used in the mines was imported from Germany and Austria and how ‘22,000 white miners might be thrown out of work.’ She also speculated whether there might be a revolt amongst the local people.  She continued in a more upbeat tone that ‘all the troops are in readiness to go & cd move off at 36 hours’ notice.’

Monday 3 August 1914

Maud returned to her letter the next day noting that ‘a rumour went round “the ring” at the races today that war had been declared by England but now is denied.’  She speculated that is only a matter of hours before that happened.  She then started to tell her mother about ‘Johnnie’ who was staying with the Wyndhams and who had ‘made a fool of himself’ and wanted to start afresh.  She then thought better of it and noted in the margin that she had self-censored the details in case the letter never reached her mother, but ended up into German hands.  Depending on the reasons why he had ‘made a fool of himself’, perhaps she was thinking of the embarrassment factor or use for propaganda, rather than any ‘State’ secret. ‘Johnnie’ might be her cousin on her mother’s side, John Charles Compton Cavendish, as he was 20 in 1914 which would fit with other information on him in the letter.

Maud’s comments on ‘Johnnie’ showing censorship

Tuesday 4 August 1914

Maud picked up her letter again on 4th August saying they were not getting much news and certainly not the whole picture as they had heard ‘this morning that Belgium has refused the ultimatum and is going to war – we’ve heard nothing of the ultimatum.’

The patriotic fervour which greeted the declaration of war in Britain was also in evidence in South Africa as Maud remarked that she went to see a play the previous night and afterwards ‘God save the King’ and ‘Rule Britannia’ was sung lustily & at the Empire there were great scenes of patriotism’.  Her observation on the troops there was that they ‘are all longing for war of course – Johnny very keen and longing for a chance to distinguish himself’.  She also commented on her own personal circumstances – that they may have to reduce down the household and may not now be able to sail in September, presumably to visit ‘home.’

Maud’s comments on Belgium and the show of patriotism in Johannesburg

Wednesday 5 August 1914

Maud reported on ‘The thrilling acct of the French aeroplane man in today’s paper & Sir E Grey’s fine speech & now Wright [their butler] has come in to say war is declared & a big naval battle is going on we don’t know where.  It’s too thrilling.  That Frenchman is a hero – How he will inspire the rest & the Germans now must keep their fat old Zeppelins in their sheds.’  Maud did not give any additional information about these events further on in her letter.  It’s not clear what the action in the air is.  It may be something along the French border or even perhaps something in French speaking Belgium as Zeppelin Z VI was damaged over Liege around the 5 August.  The ‘battle’ may be the sinking of the German minesweeper Königen Luise by three British battleships on 5 August.  It depends on when the news of such events reached the South African newspapers.  Grey’s speech is doubtless the one he delivered on 3 August in the House of Commons.[1]

Maud’s account of the actions of the War reported in South Africa

Maud’s comment towards the end of this section that ‘It is horrible to think of the slaughter & the myriads of superfluous women left’ is almost prophetic.

Thursday 6 August 1914 Maud began her daily addition to the letter with stories of various people she knew who were about to sail to Britain, but who were now unable to do so and lamented it would knock their entertaining and having visitors on the head.  She also lambasted the local papers for ‘announcing “unconfirmed rumours” such as the assassination of the German Emperor & such like lies.  That is the value of having the censor – it is maddening being kept in ignorance but worse to have strings of lies put in’.  She then talked about the economic affect the war was having on local business with the newspapers lowering their prices from 3d to 1d, but the price of whisky going up, Cape wines profiting from lack of imports, but ostrich farmers likely to be badly affected.  She then returned to family matters to wind up the letter giving reasons why she thought a ‘combined family cheque’ for ‘Margaret’ would be a better present than buying a ‘head ornament.’

Maud’s comments on the South African economy and Margaret’s present

At the end of the letter she again returned to the possibility of it falling into German hands saying that she has scratched out the names and bits about John.

This is just the first of Maud’s many wartime letters which provide a vivid and unique view of the First World War.  Maud revisited the ‘1914 letters’ in August 1917 when two of her brothers were in the thick of fighting on the Western Front and commented on those events of 1914 that it was ‘v. thrilling & reading between the lines by the light of later knowledge one can realise how bad it [was]’.

Maud’s later comments looking back at 1914

[1]See  for details of Sir Edward Grey’s speech on 3 August  1914.  See for information on the sinking of the Königen Luise.

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