Civil Defence: Emergency Committees

Just as extensive military preparations had been taken to safeguard the country in the event of a hostile landings, in late 1914 measures to be undertaken by the civil population were also put in hand.  Certain “Instructions for the Guidance of the Civil Population” were issued, to be carried out if and when directed by the military authorities under the guidance of the police.  It was recognised that the police had insufficient resources to carry this out, so in the counties most likely to be affected, local “Emergency Committees” were set up under the arrangements of Lord Lieutenants of the county.   The Lord Lieutenant was to form a “Central Organising Committee”, with the Chief Constable being a member; the Central Organising Committee was to decide the number of local Emergency Committees and their composition in the county. A military representative was to keep the Central Organising Committee informed of the views of the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief Home Forces.


The principal duty of the Emergency Committee was to decide beforehand, with the military authorities, the action to be undertaken and the necessary organisation to carry out the actions. All people taking actions were to be enrolled as Special Constables.  The Committees did not have executive powers; these would devolve on the police authorities.  Copies of instructions for each district were to be held by the Chief Constable and Special Constables ready for distribution in the event of a hostile landing.


The Emergency Committees were ancillary to military action, and the relationship between the military authorities and the Committees was to be guided by the following principles:


“The action to be taken in regard to the civil population in the event of a hostile landing on our coasts may be considered under three different heads, viz:-

(a) Action considered necessary for military purposes.

(b) Action not necessary for military purposes but considered advisable for humanitarian or other reasons.

(c) Spontaneous action by the people themselves which it will be necessary to take actions to control”.


It was vital that any arrangements made by the Committees should not hamper military operations. The military was not to be responsible for actions such as the evacuation of the local population from threatened areas to spare them avoidable suffering.  The Emergency Committees were expected to take measures to get the population under control and prevent the spread of panic, in order that the military should not have to consider taking such measures.


A limited “scorched earth” policy was to be adapted on invasion; the civil population was expected to undertake the following as soon as, but not before, the military authorities declared a state of emergency in the district:

  • All motors, bicycles,  horses, donkeys, mules , carts, carriages, harnesses, petrol stocks, launches and all other vehicles were to be moved to a preconcerted place, away from military operations or if this was not possible,  then to be destroyed or rendered useless.

  • All livestock was to be driven off the fields, hedgerows destroyed if necessary to allow this. Livestock was not to be driven along public roads. If this was not possible, livestock was to be slaughtered and the carcasses removed beyond the reach of the invading force or made unfit for human consumption.

  • All other foodstuffs and forage to be removed or destroyed unless advised otherwise by the police or military. Retail and private supplies were to be left untouched. Unthreshed cereals were also not to be destroyed.


However bridges, railways, rolling stock, power stations, telegraph and telephone wires, water works, sluices, piers and jetties, ferries and wireless stations were not to be destroyed unless under orders of the military.  Arrangements were to be made by companies running power stations to put them out of use with as little permanent damage as possible.


Further guidance was issued with regards to livestock. The removal of livestock would vary depending on the location. Some could simply be driven to moors and downs off the enemy’s probable line of advance, others could be interned behind canals and waterways. If animals could not be removed, the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries gave the following advice:


“Animals could be simply shot and left in the fields; if the carcasses are unbled and the entrails are not removed, the flesh becomes practically uneatable in an hour or two. But in any case the animals should be shot, not knifed, so that the blood may be left in them.”


Advice was then given on the best way to shoot animals.


All available hand tools such as picks, spades, axes etc were to be placed at the disposal of the military and all able bodied men expected to undertake any work as directed by the military such as entrenchments and blocking roads by felling trees across them).


The government considered that every man should play his part, either enlisting or joining the Volunteer Corps. If a man refused to do either, he would be liable for all non-combatant duties such as trench digging, burying the dead etc.  


In certain areas, especially the coastal counties, evacuation plans for the civil population were drawn up.  No movement was to take place until warned, usually by the ringing of church bells or cyclists with bells detailed for the purpose. Households were instructed to take only money, their jewellery, blankets and food for 48 hours. Specific roads were detailed for civilian routes; roads designated for the military were not to be used. If civilians found themselves on a road being used by the military they were expected to get off the road by using lanes or entering fields. No records seem to exist for the evacuation of the Suffolk civilian population, but surviving records in Essex show the plan was to evacuate the population westwards to Oxfordshire. The evacuation routes were marked by white arrows painted on trees, lampposts and buildings.


It was not considered necessary to draw up evacuation plans for inhabitants living inside the line of the London Defence Positions, but arrangements were drawn up for the population living within a four mile radius outside the Positions, to move inside the lines.


The instructions for Emergency Committees were amended in August 1916. All instructions for the destruction / removal of foodstuffs and livestock and the evacuation of the civil population were to be cancelled.   The Army Council now considered it beneficial for the civilian population to remain in their homes (except under conditions of heavy bombardment). This change was made due to the conditions prevailing at that time, with a reduced fear of invasion (Germany was fully occupied by fighting on the Somme and Verdun). Emergency Committees were still expected to carry out their other duties detailed above. It was also realised that some of the civil population may voluntary leave the area and arrangements were still to be undertaken that any such movements did not interfere with military routes.