St Helena, a small island in the middle of the Atlantic, was strategically important in the First World War, as it was situated close to important shipping routes with South Africa and South America. The island was the focus of considerable interest at the outbreak of war due to the risk of German attacks on merchant shipping. These German commerce raiders were rapidly sunk or captured, and from 1915 the island played only a small role in the conflict.

Outbreak of war

CO 1069/766

St Helena seen from the sea, 1914. CO 1069/766

In late July 1914, Harry Cordeaux, the Governor of St Helena, contacted the Colonial Office about the protection of the island in the event of war. He was asked by the Admiralty and War Office to raise a local volunteer force to man the defences until the regular garrison arrived from Britain and South Africa. The Governor rapidly raised three officers and 100 men who began training, and also set up a team of observers to monitor possible landing sites across the island (CO 247/181).

The garrison took longer to arrive than had been expected, due to difficulties in finding a warship to escort them. When it did arrive in September 1914 the garrison was much smaller than previously intended. The company of infantry which was supposed to arrive from South Africa had been redirected to the attack on German South-West Africa, so the locally raised volunteers continued to offer support.

The remainder of the garrison was formed of Royal Garrison Artillery troops, who were trained to man the guns defending the island. They were under the command of Colonel W R W James. Soon after the troops arrived from Britain, the War Office realised that they needed these highly trained men in France. They asked the Admiralty if they could withdraw the regular troops from the island, leaving only the local volunteers. The Admiralty, still worried about the threat of German commerce raiders, refused.

Eventually, it was agreed that the Navy would send out Royal Marines under Lieut Colonel Sydney Gaitskell to replace the Royal Garrison Artillery troops (ADM 137/8/2, WO 106/1411).

Home Front

CO 1069/766

Plantation House, St Helena, 1914. CO 1069/766

Despite its isolated location, the war had a large impact on life on the island. By 1915 the Governor had raised around 140 full time volunteers to support the Royal Marines garrison of 11 officers and 149 men. In addition to this there were a further 150 men in a Supernumerary Section who trained around their usual jobs and were ready to be called up if necessary.

In a report in April 1915 the Governor noted that the troops, both Imperial and locally raised, were having a large impact on the economy. The majority of the Volunteers were casual labourers and their new steady income was helping many of the less well-off families on the island. The Imperial troops also put money into the economy.

The war also had less positive effects in terms of inflation. On 13 November 1914 the Governor issued a proclamation placing price controls on staples such as flour, bread, tinned milk and salted meat. Despite this, general prices on the island were up around 20% with many staples costing 50% more than in peace time. This was largely as a result of increased shipping and insurance costs, but also reflected general food scarcity (CO 247/181, CO 247/183).

In 1915 the Colonial Office decided to deport ‘undesirable persons’ from Egypt and chose St Helena as a suitable secure location to hold them. The camp was constructed and a Royal Marine officer from Britain was transferred to act as Camp Adjutant – but no Egyptian internees ever arrived on St Helena (CO 247/183, CO 247/184).

Shortly after the Colonial Office had instructed the Governor to sell the wooden huts that formed the camp, it was decided to use the island to detain the pro-German pretender to the Sultanate of Zanzibar and his retinue. The detainees remained on St Helena until after the end of the war (CO 247/185, CO 247/186).

The relations between the civil and military authorities on the island were not always good. In 1916 the Governor Harry Cordeaux fell ill and was instructed to take leave. He refused on the grounds that Lieutenant Colonel Gaitskell, the commanding officer, was not fit to take over. Cordeaux noted that he had a ‘harsh and overbearing manner’ and showed ‘a noticeable want of tact and ordinary courtesy’. In the end the Admiralty agreed to replace Gaitskell and Lieutenant Colonel William Dixon was sent out to the island. Dixon spent most of 1917 and 1918 as Acting Governor, whilst Cordeaux recuperated (CO 247/184).

Key figures

Harry Cordeaux

Harry Cordeaux

Governor of St Helena (1911-1920)

Lieutenant Colonel Sydney Gaitskell

Lieutenant Colonel Sydney Gaitskell

Commander of the Garrison (1914-1916)

Lieutenant Colonel William Dixon

Lieutenant Colonel William Dixon

Commander of the Garrison and Acting Governor (1916-1918)

Key documents

WO 78/5401

St Helena Defences, 1904-1921. WO 78/5401