The Wightman's Journey from Austria to Bengeo in Summer 1914

An "Interesting" Journey

By Geoffrey Cordingley

The Garden House, Warren Park Road, Bengeo in 2014
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Mr & Mrs Wightman who lived at The Garden House, Warren Park Road, Bengeo, were on holiday in Austria when hostilities broke out.  As a result they had an adventurous trip back home.  They were away for seven weeks during three of which they were detained in Basle.  An account of their journey appeared in 5th September edition of the Hertfordshire Mercury. It is summarized here.

Hostilities begin

The Wightmans had spent a pleasant two weeks in upper Austria and on Friday, 24th July 1914 transferred to Wochelnersee by a small lake surrounded by hills.  The town was in Carnole in modern day Slovenia, near the then Servian (Serbian) boarder.

Since this was a Serbian area they could not read the papers which were in the local language and they did not realise that the previous day Austria had given its ultimatum to Serbia.  It was only on the Sunday they became aware of possibility of war, when around 6pm they returned to the hotel to find the locals reading posters proclaiming immediate mobilization.

By noon the next day all the men under 40 and all the horses had disappeared.  The area was wooded and the main occupation was the felling and sawing of timber.  The men who disappeared had left their wagons where they stood sometimes full of logs with the horse harnesses on the top.  The older men and women were left to drag these wagons to the nearest house.

The Wightmans first thought was to get out of Austria as quickly as possible but all the trains were commandeered and the telegraphs only accessible to the military.

The hotel proprietor was a “cultivated Viennese” and he was friendly to the English.  It was his view that the Serbs would be suppressed within a few weeks.  There was no thought of a general European-wide conflict.

The harvest had been in full swing and the old men and women were left to harvest the rest of the crops.  Babies were left at the side of fields crying or sleeping whilst their mothers helped with the work.

The Journey begins

The railway station was an hour’s drive away.  When the Wightman’s reached it, troop trains were still running and the men were in a state of high, war fever.  The passenger coaches had one long corridor with no side doors which meant that there were long smooth metal outsides.  These had been covered in drawings and inscriptions in chalk.  The favourite drawing was of King Peter of Servia on a gibbet.  The Wightmans asked for a translation of the inscriptions but when told what they meant wished they had not bothered.

Travelling north would take them into Germany which they did not think was a good idea so they set off west through the Austrian Tyrol towards Switzerland.  The Tyrol had not been mobilized so they were able to reach Oberdrauberg that day.

The next day, 31st July, the Tyrol was mobilized which meant that the Wightmans could only get as far as Bruneck by train.

On 1st August they set off at 6am in a car for Arabba, 5,250ft above sea level.  Hundreds of horses were being driven down the mountains past them.  In Arabba they managed to get on the last automobile poste to run to Predazzo.  These transports were run by the Austrian Government and even in peace time were driven by soldiers.  They normally took 20 passengers but there were 30 or so people crammed into this one.  The previous vehicle had contained two English ladies who had been ejected in favour of two soldiers and had to walk the rest of the way.  However the Wightmans were not disturbed on their journey.

Prezaddo was a military camp and under martial law.  The Wightmans had written requesting a room and this had been reserved for them.  The hotel was the headquarters of an Austrian general and his staff.  The Wightmans were the only non-military occupants of the hotel.  All the male staff of the hotel had joined the army so two ladies from the village had been employed, one to see to the rooms and the other to serve in the dining room.  The Wightmans were served by this lady and often by military orderlies who were serving the army officers.

This town was 50 miles from the railway and the Wightmans had to wait for the military activity to die down before they could travel further.

On 2nd August they were told by officers that Belgrade had been taken with 1,100 Serbs killed whilst the Austrians had lost but 10 men with another 200 injured.  Later there was an official telegram from Vienna stating that the Tsar had been assassinated (four years prematurely!)  This news was well received by the soldiers.

Feelings were running high and the Wightmans feared they might be turned out of the hotel at any time.  They stayed as quietly and unobtrusively as possible and went for walks in the woods.

Continuing the Journey

The next morning the lady who did the rooms told them that the General had received very bad news and she advised them to leave as soon as they could do so.  The Wightmans found the only car which had not been commandeered by the military and they proceeded in it to Bozen.  They were only stopped once but as they were English they were allowed to proceed!

They arrived at Bozen railway station at 4pm and sat on their luggage for hours awaiting a train.  One finally came and they arrived in Innsbruck. They left here shortly after mid-night on the last train for Switzerland.

The Wightmans arrived in Basle on the morning of 4th August which was probably quite fortuitous since this was the day that Britain declared war on Germany.

Three weeks in Basle

The French, German & Swiss borders met within a few miles of Basle. The sympathies of its 60,000 inhabitants were with the Germans with whom they shared a language and had extensive trade links.

There were 10,000 British in Basle and they were subject to a night curfew.  They also had to have their passports signed by the British or French consuls.  One doctor was arrested four times suspected of being a spy.  Others were also arrested but not the Wightmans.

The French were attacking Alsace and there were many refugees from that land.  They told harrowing stories including of a number of spies who were shot. One lady had remained in her cellar in Mulhausen for 20 hours, whilst the town was bombarded.  One woman and three Italian children had died during the night.

8,000 Italians had left Germany, (Italy was neutral at the beginning of the war), and were being well treated in Basle.  They were given food and shelter.

Eventually the consul managed to procure 20 special trains from the Swiss and French railways.  The first on 23rd was used to transport officers; the second on 24th was used for invalids and the Wightmans managed to obtain seats on the third train on 25th.  It was a through train to Geneva and then on to Lyons.  When they arrived in Lyons 850 English people stepped on to one platform to be greeted by French soldiers (Zouaves) on another platform.  The soldiers sang the Marseillaise.  The English responded with God Save the Queen and after general cheering the French soldiers rushed over the line for a general shaking of hands.

The Wightmans travelled from Lyons via Paris to Dieppe, over the Channel to Folkstone and thence to London where they arrived on the afternoon of Friday, 28th August.  Presumably they were relieved as well as very happy to arrive back in Bengeo, on the following day.

The Whitemans had to live on credit in Basle and the article ends with the following quote from Owen (?) “… but they always trust the English, knowing they will be sure to get paid in due course.  Our little adventure therefore demonstrates that it is worth something to be English after all.”

This page was added on 08/05/2014.

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