The Fire Next Time

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“Today considerably more that one hundred thousand men who were disabled by the Great War seek employment.” writes “One of Them” at the start of his article “The Problem of the Disabled Man”. The anonymous author’s work appears in the St Bride Students’ Cake, a book “reverently dedicated to the glorious memory of those St Bride students who made the supreme sacrifice in the great European War 1914 – 1918.” *

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This showcase of technique “has for its object the raising of a sufficient sum of money to found a St Bride Students’ Printers’ Pension in commemoration of the students killed in WWI” and was published in May 1921. We have two copies in our Library, a rather tattered paperback example and the other a hardback edition. As it’s title hints, this was an in-house production “printed by the Students, mainly disabled men undergoing a course of training to prepare them to take up work in the printing office”, printed on handmade paper, coated paper, antique text paper, matt art paper, Japan cream paper and chromo paper (the donators of which are all listed).

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“The Students” are almost exclusively men, just one woman is named as a contributor, Miss May Hartung (credited elsewhere in the book as Mary), a lithographer who’s introduction design and Book Plate pages appear right at the start. As such the men of their time have left us a rather vivid snapshot of their class and their age though there is one frustrating and puzzling  omission. Wren’s famous church steeple next door is depicted several times (including on the book’s cover) but there is not a single illustration or description of the Foundation building itself.

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The major event in the book is of course the “Great War” and three articles are eye witness accounts of the conflict from unusual perspectives (none of them of trench combat on the Western Front). The Bolshevik revolution is also mentioned several times and in 1921 with civil war still raging in the former Russian Empire this was very much unfinished business. The major concern however for the men seems to be what now?

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The over riding consensus is to carry on cheerfully for the good of business, country and God (in that order). Many of the writers mention the traumatic transition from a structured “outdoor service life” to that of a hugely competitive labour market and exhort their fellow printers to do their best, reminding them of their patriotic duty to one’s nation (the opening article is even titled “Patriotism”) while providing more practical advice through articles “On Selling Oneself”, “From Army to Print”, “Printers! Help the Disabled Man”, “Science for Printers” and “Apprentice! What Will You Become?” F. C. Davis writes “As we come back to civil life we all feel that years spent in the services are all lost ones.” but concludes “It is business experience we have lost, and now that commerce is getting more scientific every day we must study the science of our craft to be in the front of all nations.” Kipling’s poem “If” is quoted at the end of an article on how best to compose a job application letter and later in the book is reproduced in full.

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This being a student publication some of the articles are full of “in” jokes impossible to fathom now, and many of the writers display a rather Pooterish sense of humour. One of the longest articles is by L.J. Cumner, “Cheddar the Exquisite – Notes of a Cycle Tour”, in which he recalls the pleasures of Chepstow, Gloucester Cathedral and Cheddar “the most exquisite village I have ever set eyes on.” He describes the Mendips as “mountains” and disparages Bath, “a very fine city… But the people in it! Effeminate men, freakish women – the girls are more or less normal! I’m speaking of appearances only.”

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“At Work in the Mines”, by J Fuller (who can be seen in the plate above of St Bride Foundation Printing School Staff, middle row, first left) recalls an often forgotten aspect of that War. He was  captured “at 1 o’clock in the morning of March 24” three days into the German spring offensive of 1918 and was subsequently sent as a forced labourer to the coal mines of Westphalia. “The food here was quite inadequate for men expected to work as hard as the Germans expected the prisoners to do, and had it not been for the timely arrival of emergency parcels from the British Red Cross Committee at Minden, and the parcels from England which began to reach us in July, it is doubtful any of us would have returned” Compelled to toil through 12 hour shifts the “work was of the heaviest character, especially to men who had never engaged in anything more arduous than setting type or working a printing machine.”

The conflict was experienced too in Bride Lane itself, as described by Joseph Stuart in “A War-Time Reminiscence” in which he recalls a three hour air raid by Gotha bombers on London on 28 January 1918. The St Bride Foundation evening class students, he tells us, took shelter in “the basement” of the building (possibly today’s Bar or the Foundry room). Following a nearby hit he mentions this was the bomb which damaged Cleopatra’s Needle but it seems the writer is compressing two different events in his memory as the Needle was struck on a different raid on 4-5 September 1917.

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The Needle on September 5, 1917

The students pass the time with a jolly sing song and the joke about a particularly shattering explosion being caused by “old Gutenberg knocking through an 8-page forme or dropping a case of nonpareil” encapsulates the gist of most of the humour in the book. “If the Hun campaign of frightfulness was launched with the idea of terrifying the British people into submission, it certainly failed so far as Saint Bride students were concerned.” and the whole thing is portrayed as memorable a lark. Sixty-seven people were killed and 166 injured in this particular attack. “Casualties included 14 dead and 14 injured in stampedes when people queuing for admission to shelters were alarmed by maroons (rockets) set off as a warning that a raid was expected: another 11 were injured by shrapnel from antiaircraft fire. Many of the other casualties were caused by a single 300-kg (661-lb) bomb which fell on the Odhams printing works in Long Acre, which was being used as a shelter.” Raymond H Fredette, The Sky on Fire: The First Battle of Britain 1917–1918

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Bombed out Odhams printing works in Long Acre. The iron and brick construction would have been near identical to St Bride Foundation’s

The most remarkable eye witness account is provided by F. C. Davis (quoted earlier) who was present at “Der Tag”, The Day. Known to the British as Operation ZZ, this was the mightiest gathering of warships in a single place on one day in naval history and the St Bride student saw it from a British airship, probably the blimp NS8 which can be spotted in several photographs and illustrations of the event, the internment of the modern German battle fleet off the east coast of Scotland on November 21, 1918.

In “The Day – and After” he writes “We now pick up the Grand Fleet. What a sight! You see nothing but perfect parallel lines of ships like dark dots on a grey surface. We forge in front of the fleet and just before 9 am you discern a few dark dots ahead. Out goes the signal, “Enemy ships sighted,” and you hear from below the bugle call, “Man your guns,” and every man in the fleet “stands to” his gun ready if the enemy should show fight . We now get a close view of the once great German Fleet. What do you see? An endless straggling, ragged line of ships. Look astern! You see regular parallel lines of our navy. What a lesson; you can now realise the difference between the British and German fleets; Britons are born sailors, Germans are only made in a generation.”

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The Pride of the German Fleet’ the battleship ‘Bayern’, the first German ship to carry 15-inch guns, surrenders, never having fired her guns in action (by Oscar Parkes)

Davis goes on with similar sentiments for much of his essay. “Would the British have surrendered their fleet like that? No! A thousand times No! They would have fought to the last man, ** even if they knew that defeat was inevitable. They would have died willingly doing their duty rather than surrender their fleet in such an ignoble manner. They still have the traditions and grit as in the days of Nelson.” Indeed much of the book contains such jingoism including this very surprising line from the first essay, “Patriotism” by T.W. Oswald-Hicks, B.A. “It is the national embodiment of that personal devotion expressed in those few words which have happily been so familiar of late, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

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No room here for the likes of Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon, though the book does end with a poem, What Odds? by A. L. Butler. Of course they couldn’t know that ahead of them was the great Depression, the General Strike and an even more devastating war though Davis strangely evokes this future when, as the sunshine breaks over the German navy  below him he writes “What was this, a sign? A night of darkness passing into a morning of peace – a real peace. One remembered the old allegory; after the flood God sent the rainbow as a message.” Seven months later most of these same German ships were at the bottom of the sea, scuttled by their own crews at Scapa Flow and Mr Davis neglects to complete the last line of “the old allegory” best expressed in the spiritual song – “God sent Noah the rainbow sign/ no more water but fire next time.”

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* A peculiar description for a World War also waged in Africa, the South Atlantic, the Pacific, the Middle East and Dardanelles.

** Here Davis may be consciously echoing Douglas Haig’s “Backs to the wall” order of April 11, 1918, when he stated “Every position must be held to the last man” in an attempt to halt the same offensive in which J Fuller was captured and sent to the coal mines.

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