Sydney, as we have seen, had fought his way into the Saracens 1st XV in 1909 as a 17-year-old, where his agile running into spaces as the Club’s first-choice half-back had won the appreciation of his teammates. With Britain declaring war against Germany on August 4th, his thoughts clearly turned to how best he could serve his country.
Sydney was employed in 1914 in a clerical role in the The Amalgamated Press (AP) offices in London. This must have been a fascinating place to work for a young man at this time, as the company was on a fast-track of expansion under the guidance of owner & journalist Alfred Harmsworth – the future press industry legend Lord Northcliffe. He had founded his publishing businesses in the early 1890s, and consolidated them into AP in 1901, relocating the business in 1912 to London’s Fleetway House in Farringdon Street. Harmsworth went on to found the Daily Mirror, and to own The Times newspaper before his death in 1922.
In 1914, however, the company was better known for its stable of popular publications that included ‘Comic Cuts‘, the most successful comic of its generation, which was published between 1890 and 1953, lasting 3006 issues, and held the British record for a comic until surpassed by The Dandy in 1999. As early as 1892, ‘Comic Cuts‘ enjoyed a circulation of two and a half million readers per week! The company further increased its popular readership by publishing the periodical ‘The Great War: The Standard History of the All-Europe Conflict‘ between 1914-19. It’s not clear exactly what responsibilities fell to Sydney during his working days at AP prior to his enlistment, but no doubt he had plenty of common ground for discussion with his Club President & leading journalist WTA Beare.
As we have seen already, Lord Kitchener had issued his call to the youth of the nation to come forward as volunteers to form the ‘New Armies’ on August 9th 1914. Leading individuals were encouraged to use their influence to raise recruits in ‘Pals Battalions’, formed from social and regional groups of like-minded individuals.
Thus it was that Major The Hon. R White, responding to a letter from Director of Recruitment Sir Henry Rawlinson, announced his intention to raise a body of recruits from amongst those men who were employed in the City of London – an initiative that immediately became known as the ‘Stockbrokers Battalion’!
Rawlinson had written on August 12th “Many City employees would be willing to enlist if they were assured that they would serve with their friends“.White, in turn, wrote to the Bank of England and the Stock Exchange, asking if a group of men would like to come forward to form a new Regiment.Recruiting began on August 21st when 210 men presented themselves at White’s offices in Throgmorton Street. These numbers had risen to 900 by the 24th August, and 1,600 by the 27th – an astonishing response.
On 29th August a complement of more than 1,100 volunteers from the Stock Exchange, banks, brokerages and commercial offices within the Square Mile presented themselves for review by Lord Roberts in Temple Gardens and were marched off to the dry moat of the Tower of London (known as ‘Tower Ditch’), within sight of many of their workplaces and colleagues. Here they swore their oath of allegiance in a short ceremony led by London’s Lord Mayor, Sir W. Vansittart Bowater. They were to refer to themselves as ‘Ditchers’ thereafter. As the pictures illustrate, they made a remarkable sight, many of them still wearing their city attire & straw boater hats, almost as a grand gesture of defiance. Amongst their numbers was Saracens player Sydney Sylvester….
Sydney & his new colleagues marched away as the 10th (Service) Battalion, The Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment), on route to join 54th Brigade in Colchester where they would form part of Kitchener’s Second New Army. The ‘Stockbrokers’ would complete their training on Salisbury Plain in April 1915, before being deployed to France as part of 111th Brigade in July 1915.
In August 2014, the evocative display of 888,246 ceramic poppies, one for each of the British and Commonwealth fatalities, has started to slowly fill the moat of the Tower of London. Designed to look like a sea of red, this dramatic reminder of the human cost of the Great War is made all the more poignant and relevant when juxtaposed with the images of Sydney Sylvester and the 1,600 original volunteers of the Stockbrokers Battalion one hundred years ago. In the course of the war the Battalion was to suffer 2,647 casualties and only 50 of the original 1,600 ‘Ditchers’ were still on active service by Armistice Day in November 1918.