Bexhill Scouts and the War

On the 26th of October 1908, the first Bexhill Boy Scout troop was formed, and was known as the “1st Bexhill St Stephen’s” troop, with William Heather, a local solicitor, as their leader and Scoutmaster.

By April 1909, they had been joined by the 2nd Bexhill All Saints Sidley troop and the “Fox Patrol” at the Congregational Church in town. In 1913 in the nearby village of Hooe, Lord Brassey met a young schoolboy named Sidney Plester outside Hooe School and suggested that the boy formed a troop of Boy Scouts. This Sidney did, and it became, with Lord Brassey’s permission, known as “Brassey’s Own”.

By the start of the First World War there were three scout troops in Bexhill; the “1st Bexhill St. Stephen’s”, with Scoutmaster Mr. Cyril Charles Pascoe Eiffe who by June 1915 was in charge of 50 boys in the Scouts and Cubs. The Rev. Michael Weldon Champneys was scoutmaster of the “2nd Bexhill St Peters” with 50 Scouts and 16 Cubs, and finally, there was Scoutmaster Rev C. B. Martyn-Jones in charge of the “Little Common Scouts”, who by November 1914 had 24 Scouts.

In order to free-up men for military service and because of the country-wide fear of invasion, Robert Baden-Powell persuaded the Admiralty to let scouts take on such tasks as coast-watching, guarding railway lines, main telegraph and telephone cables, reservoirs, culverts, and telephone exchanges.

Coast Watching

One of the main tasks for the scouts along the coast was the carrying of messages between different points in the Coastguard security system but they also kept watch on estuaries, ports, and coastguard stations, looking for any sign of possible enemy action; from sabotage to invasion.

What follows is an extract from the “Bexhill Chronicle” dated 22nd August 1914:

“The local Boy Scouts have played a busy part since the war started. The Bexhill Boy Scouts, under Scoutmaster Holes, have been called for duty in the interior of Sussex, and their place at Bexhill has been taken by the Hooe Scouts, under Scoutmaster Newport.”
“We are not allowed to go into details of the duties of the various forces but it has to be said that the duties of the Scouts were both onerous and delicate, and they were being discharged in a manner which merited the highest praise.”

To give a bit more of an idea as to the Scouts’ duties in the early part of the war, the following extract taken from the book, “Records of Hooe”, by John James Newport, says;

“On the outbreak of the Great War, on the second Sunday evening, they were called upon to take up coast watching duty at Bexhill. They occupied the Boathouse, in which they slept (on mattresses on the floor), cooked their meals (on oil stoves), stored and repaired bicycles, washed and repaired clothing.

Services were held there, too, on Sunday evenings, with visitors standing around. One shilling and sixpence was the allowance for each scout per day: there were ten scouts. Any surplus, after defraying all expenses, was shared among the boys at the weekend. For a few days the duties of the scouts were directed by the police and the coastguards. Afterwards, the coast from Glyne Gap to Cooden Halt was patrolled – by the scoutmaster, from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m., by the boys, in pairs, during intervening hours.

As the scoutmaster had no sleep other than that he got between 4 and 7 a.m., after five weeks of such service he obtained relief. Scouts R. Brand and R. Pocock were drafted to Fairlight for service there.

Some useful scout craft was done in surveying public rights of way in order to assist in the migration of civilians to the interior if necessity arose. On the marsh fire-lighting, cooking, drawing, colouring, signalling, swimming, map reading, direction-finding, and games (including “Kim’s”) were practised. At one time the collection of paper was an important duty; and at another the gathering of fruit, especially blackberries, for jam”.

Not everyone, however, was happy with the Scouts being enrolled in the defence of the Country – especially regarding the cost. Questions came from many sources and to answer these questions the following letter appeared in the Bexhill Observer” on 5th September 1914:

“The Admiralty are making a grant towards the cost of their food, and this is sufficient where circumstances allow economical expenditure. There is no other source of income except private gifts. While living in camp or quarters, as we are now doing, we need a repair fund to meet the cost of repairs to boots worn in the King’s service; and an equipment fund to supply haversacks, billies, staves, and (especially at this time) first aid material.”

“The boys’ parents provide them with their shirts, shorts, scarves, stockings, belts, knives, rugs, and badges.”Our Troop Committee at our last audit found that out of an income of £7 15s, no less than £3.14s was contributed by the boys and their parents.”

Three months later, on 14th November 1914, the following letter from Isabel Story (Hon. Secretary to the Hastings 3rd Troop) appeared in the “Bexhill Observer”:

“Sir – May I, on behalf of the 3rd Hastings Sea Scouts now on duty at Bexhill, offer, through the courtesy of your columns, our grateful thanks to the kind friends who are generously assisting the boys with gifts of warm clothing, extra luxuries in the way of food, etc.?

When it is remembered that the Scouts receive no pay (other than an allowance for food), and have to supply their own uniforms and out-of-pocket expenses, it will be understood that such help is very welcome and greatly appreciated.

Enquiries have been made as to what further assistance could be offered, and to prevent overlapping, may I suggest any of the following: Four white sweaters, nine uniforms to replace those now wearing out (e.g. Sea Scout jersey, hat, neckerchief, shorts, stockings, boots, seven sets of oil skins or overcoats, and a good oil cooking oven as at present they are unable to bake. These would fit out the boys with almost everything they require for personal comfort, but a set of International Code Flags (about 1 ft. square) for instruction purposes, and boxing gloves, single sticks, and head guards with foils and guards for recreation would also prove very useful. Any gifts along these lines will be gratefully received by the Scoutmaster at the Coastguard Station or myself”.

Working on the Land

At the beginning of the war scouts in Bexhill and the local area were not too involved with working on the land, but as time went on more and more men were needed to carry on the fight. The German U Boat campaign also meant that Britain relied even more heavily on home-grown food than it had previously, so eventually the scouts became vital in ensuring that harvests were brought in and that day-to-day farming could be carried out. By 1916 land work had become a regular part of the scouts’ contribution to the overall War effort and, generally speaking, the Scouts’ efforts came to be well-regarded by the farmers who at the beginning were a little sceptical of the contribution these boys could make.

In early 1918, the situation in the countryside was reaching crisis point and more scouts were asked to come forward to help work the land. By May, this had become an urgent call for at least 15,000 boys to go and help bring in the harvest.

The Scout Ambulances and Huts

The scouts, in co-operation with the YMCA, carried out fund-raising activities and with the money they were able to buy and supply ambulances and huts for use by the military. The use of the ambulances is obvious, but the huts less so – they were to provide somewhere for the men to relax, rest, and recuperate away from the rigours of the Front.

They provided a hut at Etaples, a few miles to the south of Boulogne in Northern France, which became, probably, the best known of all those provided. By the middle of 1915, the hut at Etaples, had become the main base for British troops fighting in Flanders and France. It was funded entirely by The Scout Association and was opened in late December 1915. The base was not far from the Front and subject to fairly regular shelling and air raids but the Hut never closed. To emphasise its Scouting connections, it was staffed by former Scouters and always had the Scout Colours flying.

All soldiers were catered for in these huts – from the provision of drinks (non-alcoholic, naturally) to the formal organisation of concert parties, lectures, and indoor sporting contests, such as boxing tournaments, which were the most popular.

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