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.
“But the griefs of war were brought home forcibly at the sight of women and children weeping at the departure of their menfolk. In villages these sad groups were to be seen waving handkerchiefs to husbands, sons or brothers as they disappeared down the straight road in farmers’ carts on their way to the rendezvous.
“At St Jouin, a little place of 1500 inhabitants, my people saw the effect of the mobilisation order form the start. At 4.19pm on the Saturday the order was given in Paris; a 4.24pm at St Jouin a man rushed from door to door calling out ‘La guerre est declaree’.
"It wasn’t, as a matter of fact, but men immediately dropped their work, had the news confirmed and started for their stations, some on foot, some on cycles and some in carts. In an hour only old men, young boys and weeping women were left behind.
“We met an English lady who told us that the older inhabitants had pointed out to her that the 1914 mobilisation was much more businesslike than that of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, when shouting and confusion were the order of the day.”
A puncture near Macon caused a delay that the Sunbeam’s occupants could do without: “War and unrest were in the air, and it seemed absurd to stop for sleep when such a serious possibility as the cross-Channel service suspension was in view. Practically throughout the speedometer needle was kept between 30 and 35 miles an hour.”
The British group made it to Le Havre in time for the overnight crossing, and in the nick of time too. Our man reports: “At 4am a torpedo boat, wallowing in the trough of the Channel swell, hoisted a signal and fired a blank charge across our bows. We stopped, she came alongside, and through a megaphone the lieutenant-commander shouted the stirring news: “England has declared war against Germany”.
All that remained of the hazardous journey was for a sentry boat to give the ferry details of the course to plot through the defensive minefield in the sea off Southampton.
Of course, this being The Autocar, the dramatic trek across France didn’t prevent our reporter from delivering his driving impressions of the Sunbeam 12-16hp: “The car was magnificent. Excellently sprung, it rode beautifully. It was a splendid run which could not have been accomplished had not the car and its equipment been of the very best.”