The recent events to mark 100 years since the start of World War One inspired me to delve into our archives to find out how The Autocar reported the beginning of the conflict.
The threat of hostilities dominates issues throughout the summer, growing in prominence in the editorial pages as war becomes an increasing possibility.
In the 15 August 1914 issue I stumbled across an article entitled ‘Across France in twenty-seven hours’, in which Autocar recounted its front-row seat to the unfolding of war in France.
Our reporter, identified in the article only by the initials ‘EMPB’, was supposed to be heading to Grenoble to observe competitors taking part in a six-day car trial on Alpine roads.
“We little thought when we left Le Havre on the sunny morning of 30 July what excitement was in store for us,” he wrote. “The competitors suddenly found themselves in the serious position of having twenty-four hours notice to quit, owing to the general mobilisation of the French Army.
“Petrol had been commandeered for the army transports, the train service had been curtailed and foreigners were given notice to leave the country at once."
Autocar’s correspondent and his four colleagues were “absolutely reliant on our 12-16hp Sunbeam to carry us safely to Le Havre on the sporting chance of arriving there before the cross-Channel ferry service was stopped”.
So began a flat-out (by 1914 standards) drive across a nation that was stirring into military action as mobilisation orders reached towns and villages.
Autocar’s man had been informed by officials that petrol would be obtainable on the route north, but this wasn’t always the case.
“At garage and petrol stores we were quietly but firmly refused supplies, but at last a friendly Frenchman furnished a complete tankful and 12 extra gallons at no extra charge, and these precious tins of fuel were carefully covered up in the rear of the car so as not to attract attention.
“With a well-stocked luncheon basket, a start was made from Grenoble on Sunday morning, and soon the party cut out a pace which in England would have caused consternation.”
Signs of the looming conflict were evident as our man sped through the country as fast as he dared.
“Every village appeared to be in a state of panic, and in the towns crowds were grouped outside the stations and post offices reading the mobilisation notices and the scraps of news. Several regiments of soldiers were passed perspiring in the hot sun with their prodigiously heavy knapsacks.
“French and English flags on the car were frequently cheered, but the other side of the matter was brought home to the motorists as they were challenged at the numerous level crossings which, in each case, were guarded by gendarmes with fixed bayonets.
"The surprising part was that those stationed on the bridges merely took a keen interest in the progress of the car, but did not attempt to stop it.
“In Chorolles the news had just been posted that France could rely upon English support, and thus it was that our party came in for a splendid reception, Vive l’Entente Cordiale being heard on all sides.