PUBLISHED: 14:13 01 June 2014 | UPDATED: 15:42 01 June 2014
Folkestone’s population doubled during the First World War and the millions who passed through the town are being remembered by a commemorative arch on The Leas to be unveiled by Prince Harry
This year marks a major centenary for the UK as the nation pauses on 4 August to reflect on the start of a war that was to prove one of the bloodiest conflicts ever known.
As the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was mobilised, it was the frontline county of Kent – and the town of Folkestone in particular – that was once to again play a major part in the country’s history.
Such was Folkestone’s significant role in the conflict that its population was to virtually double as soldiers, workers, refugees and others from around the globe found themselves on the south-east coast.
That vital role will be remembered when Folkestone looks back with gratitude and respect at the sacrifices made by the millions of people who passed through the seaside town on their way to war.
And news that Prince Harry will be the guest of honour at the First World War centenary event on 4 August when he unveils a commemorative arch on The Leas accords the occasion the same national significance as the religious services at Glasgow, Westminster Abbey, Belfast and Mons. It will honour all those women and men, nurses, politicians and soldiers who left for the Western Front from Folkestone.
The dramatic steel arch, designed by Philip Gearing, has been commissioned by Step Short, the Folkestone-based charity determined to make sure the millions who passed through the town are remembered.
The charity has been supported by the Roger De Haan Community Trust as well as the county, district and town councils.
The arch is just one part of Step Short’s wide-ranging programme, which includes staging an exhibition in association with the National Army Museum, digitising and uploading the 43,500 names contained in visitors’ books signed in the Harbour Canteen – and creating a cartoon character to help educate children about the war.
That character is Private TW Sweetheart, based on a wartime charm that was known as Touch Wud. Given by mothers, sisters and sweethearts to those who were leaving for war, the charm had silver arms that could touch its wooden head, giving rise to the ‘touch wood’ expression still used today.
At the outbreak of war, most of the BEF reached the front line by travelling from Southampton to Le Havre, but the long crossing exposed the vessels to danger from enemy ships and submarines.
In response, most of the troop crossings were switched to Folkestone early in 1915, making the harbour a hive of activity and the town a melting pot of nationalities.
Its population grew rapidly as tens of thousands of Belgian refugees arrived in Folkestone soon after the declaration of war and vast numbers of soldiers and workers from other countries followed.
The arrival of the Belgian refugees – an event represented in a painting by Fredo Franzoni, himself a refugee – saw local residents rally around to feed, clothe, care for and house every single one of them.
Many Belgian men found work in the Kent coalfields and on the local railways and indeed Folkestone became a key recruitment centre for those who wished to join the Belgian army.
Alongside those who were fleeing war, Folkestone soon found itself playing host to those who were preparing to fight it, not least tens of thousands of Canadian troops.
The first contingent (or division) of fully-trained and equipped Canadian troops set sail for Britain in November 1914, leaving behind them a fast-paced recruitment campaign for the second, third and fourth contingents.
While the first contingent was based on Salisbury Plain, the second contingent found itself at Shorncliffe Camp, Folkestone, where it received a warm welcome from local people.
Before being sent off to fight, the Canadian troops spent several months being trained in marching, bayonet drill, musketry, trench digging and bomb throwing. Canada Day on 1 July still sees local school children put flowers on the graves of more than 300 Canadian soldiers buried in Shorncliffe Military Cemetery – as they have since 1917.
After America joined the war in 1917, many US soldiers found themselves in Folkestone waiting for a troop ship to carry them to the Front.
However, perhaps the most unexpected visitors were the thousands of Chinese recruited into the Chinese Labour Corps.
While most continued their journeys to France and Belgium, some 2,000 remained in camps along Cherry Garden Avenue, working at the army camps, the hospitals and the port. Six remain to this day, buried together at Shorncliffe.
Undoubtedly the most welcome arrivals, certainly to the thousands of soldiers in and around the town, were the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, or WAACs.
Of those nearly 50,000 women who volunteered for the Corps, 7,000 were trained for service in France and Belgium. They spent their final weeks of training based at the Hotel Metropole on The Leas at Folkestone.