A Soldier – And A Man, the Christmas Union Jack of 1914

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The famous Christmas truce of 1914 has now gone down in legend. But what were the people of 1914 predicting for Christmas day before it had actually happened? Let’s find out, from the Union Jack’s 1914 Christmas issue!

…even though it’s cover, and presumably off-sale date, is the 19th of december! Amalgamated Press were producing so many story papers by that time, many of them due double-priced “double numbers” for Christmas, that they couldn’t bring out all of these double numbers at once without risking a loss in sales, so they seem to have been staggered. The Union Jack’s Christmas double number actually going on sale nearly a full week before the date! The one actually being sold on Christmas day was a normal, one-penny issue. Why no, they didn’t “take a break”, as many weeklies seem to do these days – it really did mean “every week”, a century ago.

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As usual, the inside front cover is given over to the adverts, and the first proper page is a ‘second cover’, so people could take off the actual covers and bind them. Sadly, many did – I have the 1907 Christmas issue without it’s cover! As this issue has double the number of pages, they can afford to spend a whole one on a grand, decorated and theatre-like introduction to the story, complete with a “cast of characters”. This was a common device at the time, in serial re-caps as well as complete stories.

There’s also a map, showing where the “U.J.” is regularly read. As well as the British Empire, dominions, Japan and parts of South America (where Britain had large cattle and railway interests, if not actual governmental control), the U.J. also appears to be read in a large part of “enemy territory”!

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Any bit of intelligence helps?

After that, we get right into the main story – a very long one, taking up almost all the issue. If there was a serial running at the time, it appears to have been suspended for this Sexton Blake epic. The illustrations accompanying the main story are also given whole pages to themselves, whereas in the normal run of things they’d be in among the text (though, instead, some unrelated ones are – see later!). There’s also holly decorations at the tops and bottoms of the pages.

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The story opens with a lengthy prologue – not always possible in the typical UJ, but common in issues of the soon-to-start Sexton Blake Library (I wonder if there will be a 100th anniversary special issue?). Robert Fenmore was a wealthy and respected man-about-town, who is seized by the gambling bug and quickly runs through his money. He then marries a wealthy orphan called Marion, who has a fortune of £100,000. He swiftly reduces this to £30,000, and, as the story opens, takes another £5000 from her. Of course, he expects he will soon have his “big win”, which will solve all his problems.

Fenmore has also been seeing rather too much of a popular music-hall star called Marion Paul. Little does he know, she’s a “plant”, designed to encourage him to carry on gambling. And she was planted by his cousin, Harold Craig, who also loved Marion Fenmore (the story doesn’t mention her maiden name). He goes to his club, where three other men discuss the scandal he is causing. One of them, apparently known only as Graves, is the uncle of Mademoiselle Yvonne, an international adventuress who appears in many Sexton Blake stories. Sometimes as a friend, sometimes a rival! Anyway, Yvonne is a friend of Marion Fenmore, and gets the story of the unhappy marriage from her uncle. She decides to “get to the bottom of” the mystery… and as the female Sexton Blake (or near enough!), might just do it!

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Yvonne goes to the gambling-den, called Frileti’s, which is a high-stakes place with some strict rules, including one that all women, and any men who wish to, must come masked. This helps Yvonne watch the games unnoticed, though! She plays a little, winning and losing evenly. Finally Bob Fenmore turns up, passing straight into a mysterious back room, where high-stakes games are played. Yvonne has a lot of money on her, so follows Bob and his chorus-girl companion in, noticing that Bob, and a “dark skinned foreigner” are both losing heavily, whilst thier attractive female companions rarely wager, lose little, and win a bit on occasion. Yvonne starts to make exactly the opposite bets to the men, and begins to win – the game is crooked, and the good-looking women are there to lure in rich men!

Yvonne quickly works this out, and that the music-hall star, Marion Paul, has her claws into Bob Fenmore. She also knows the dealer. Once Bob is cleaned out, the evening breaks up. Yvonne, roping a cab driver into her black ops game, follows the dealer from the high-stakes room home, discovering him to be Harold Craig! The next day, she calls on a solicitor friend who can, by his own methods, find out anything about anyone. She quickly runs Harold Craig to earth and applies a little blackmail – threatening to go to the police if he doesn’t sell her his gambling operation for £10,000 – far less than it’s worth, and a large part of that 10,000 was won from “the house” the previous night! Craig compromises – he’ll take Yvonne into partnership, and let her do the dealing in the high-stakes room. She’ll still rip people off, but will keep half the money. This, of course, includes all the money from Bob Fenmore, and a bit over. Yvonne cleans him out entirely – but holds on to all the money, planning to deliver it back to his unfortunate wife.

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Bob Fenmore goes home, his cousin with him. Harold tries to give him a loan – to bring him under complete control – but then the butler comes in with momentous news – war has been declared on Germany! Bob decides to write his wife a letter, admitting that he is bankrupt, and that he is “going away” – to enlist in the army under a false name – and will probably be killed (in “the greatest slaughter in history”, hardly the grand boy scout adventure we’re told papers of this kind described it!). His life insurance, and the diamond-encrusted Fenmore Necklace, will then provide for her. As soon as Bob has gone, leaving Harold with the necklace, the latter decides to, instead, give it to Marion Paul (“thank fortune their names are the same!”). Bob’s apparent “mistress” appearing in polite society wearing the famous necklace is bound to cause a scandal, further blacken the Fenmore name, and make Marion Fenmore totally dependent on Harold Craig!

The war drags on, the battle of Mons is fought to a standstill, and the lines of trenches begin to solidify across Europe. Bob Fenmore has vanished, and Marion Fenmore has moved into a small flat. But she has dismissed Harold Craig from her life entirely, and has a mysterious source of money that is keeping her head above water. Nobody but her and Yvonne know that she received an anonymous letter containing £40,000 – her own money, really, stolen from her husband! Harold Craig is seeing much more of Marion Paul, who scandalised society by wearing the necklace, as planned. Then, one night, Harold is seen entering her flat, while she is performing. She comes back later, with a group of friends, and they find Harold in the flat – poisoned! There has obviously been a huge fight, Harold the loser – but nothing has been stolen. Nothing, except the Fenmore Necklace!

Inspector Thomas, one of the lesser-known police friends of Sexton Blake (After the awkwardly-talking Spearing, and before the well-known Coutts), says that he is investigating the crime, and that Marion Paul thinks Bob Fenmore has been sending nasty letters, and that he stole the necklace. Thomas then visits Marion Fenmore, who is apparently too ill to see him, but, while the maid is out of the room, he spots the necklace on her sitting-room table! It looks like the vanished Bob Fenmore is responsible – but can Sexton Blake find him?

Blake and Thomas travel to the crime scene, where Blake quickly notices that the “signs of a struggle” appear to be faked. Lots of frail ornaments have fallen on the floor, but haven’t been broken. Also some flowers from a vase were not just thrown away, but burned! At this point Maron Paul arrives, and isn’t happy at Sexton Blake’s insistence that he takes the letter, which accompanied the necklace, with him. He then investigates footprints outside, and compares fingerprints with those of Marion and her servants – finding no unusual ones, whoever stole the necklace was an expert safe-cracker. Sexton Blake quickly spots that the necklace was intended for Marion Fenmore, not Paul. He then finds a single petal from the burned flowers, which he’d accidentally put in his pocket with something else. He takes the petal to his laboratory, to analyse some curious blue spots on it – but collapses halfway!

The scene then changes to the Western Front. Now, only a month ago, I showed you what The Boys’ Journal was writing about the war – the trenches becoming huge fist-fights, the Germans running away at the first sign of a counterattack, and so on. Certian “other” places, when writing about the British comics of this era (never mind the fact they have never read any), will tell you that those sorts of attitudes persisted throughout the entire First World War, brainwashing working-class teens into signing up for some easy “sport”. But is it actually true? Well, lets look at how the trench battles were being described in Union Jack by december 1914…

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Hardly sounds glamorous, does it? Men with agonising wounds, vomiting into the freezing sewer which, to them, represented a narrow strip of safety in a land stripped of all life. And yet tens of thousands were still willingly volunteering – they went because they saw it as their duty, as a service to something bigger than themselves. Look at Britain today – the majority of people are begging the government for more censorship, for more police surveillance. This nation is awash with cowards, willing to surrender any freedom if “even one child” is saved, “even one bomb” prevented. A sickening insult to the sacrifices of our greatest generations.

To continue, Bob Fenmore, under the false name of Robert Fraser, rescues his sergeant from no-man’s land, receiving several severe wounds in the process. He is taken to hospital, raving to himself, and is not expected to survive. But even as he hovers between life and death, his commanding officer is recommending him for the Victoria Cross. Back in London, Tinker discovers his master collapsed on the floor, and calls a doctor. They eventually revive him (the doctor saying “we are losing enough good men in the trenches”), and he explains that some sort of poison was on the rose petal, even that small amount nearly enough to kill! Clearly, the murder of Harold Craig, instead of being a disturbed burglary, was in fact carefully planned. The wrecked room just a blind.

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Sexton Blake is wondering about the case, when Yvonne visits, she also wants Bob Fenmore to be found. Blake also gets her to confess that she broke into Marion Paul’s flat and stole the necklace, sending it to Marion Fenmore. She mentions that the room was wrecked when she arrived, and the roses were on the floor. She also noticed a strange smell, and felt slightly giddy – the poison had already been placed! They then, quite easily, work out where Fenmore has hidden himself – ruined, wanting to die, and with a war starting, he obviously went into the army.

While they’re working that out, Tinker is out looking for Marion Paul, who clearly knows more about the crime that she’s letting on. He tricks his way into the flat, which is a spacious one, and is able to spy on her and a “servant”, who she speaks to as an equal. Unfortunately Tinker can’t hear what they are saying. Marion leaves, visits a bookshop, and returns, followed by Tinker the whole way. She didn’t buy anything in the shop, though – why go directly there and back for no reason? Tinker gets on the roof, and is able to spy on the maid and her mistress – though, again, they talk to each other as equals – through a skylight. He still can’t hear what they’re saying, though! After a while, the maid cleans up in the kitchen and leaves. Tinker breaks in, and gets into a room opposite to the one where they are all sitting – Marion, her two servants, and a man with “a Teutonic cast of features”(!). The two doors are left open, and Tinker can hear them talking – they are worried about Sexton Blake “discovering the truth about the murder”. The other three are also called Johann, Max and Zela, not very British names! They are talking about the stolen necklace – they haven’t worked out who has taken it, yet, and plan to put a notice in the newspapers, hoping to draw out the thief. They then talk about how to “deal with” Sexton Blake, Tinker can’t quite hear and leans forwards – only to be spotted by a dog, which he hadn’t noticed before. The animal raises the alarm, and he is captured.

Sexton Blake is still at home, testing the poison on the petal. He gets a phone call from the secret service, they want him to take some documents to France, and can’t trust a normal courier. War work must always come first, and he is soon off on, it turns out, Yvonne’s yacht, which she has turned over to military work. The crew are the same, and know Blake well. He reaches France and stays the night in a hotel, where he will meet another secret agent. Meanwhile a German spy tries to kill him, but is soon knocked out and tied up. All in a day’s work! Blake meets the British agent, who asks him to use the yacht to take back a tired-out volunteer nurse, who is only named as “The Hon. Edwina”. Sexton Blake has met her previously, at a dance (I expect she was briefly referred to in an earlier story, by a different writer, and this writer didn’t want to step on the other’s toes by coming up with a full name for her!).  She talks about a wounded, raving man she had to treat, who kept calling himself Robert Fenmore!

Back at Baker Street, Yvonne is waiting for Sexton Blake or Tinker to show up. She hears noises in the laboratory, and hides herself in a cupboard. A man comes from the lab, and into Sexton Blake’s bedroom. When he comes out again, she surprises him. He doesn’t think she’s a threat, so she shoots him in the shoulder. Pedro holds him down while she ties him up and dumps him back in the bedroom. She looks out the window, and spots a taxi waiting. She gets into it with Pedro, says the previous fare is not coming back, and asks to be driven to where he was picked up from. She gets taken back to the flats where Tinker is being held. Climbing on the roof, she spots the villains about to kill him with the same poison they put on the flowers. But, at the last moment, they decide they’d better have a taxi ready for an instant getaway. Yvonne quickly gets into the room, pours the poison away, and replaces it with water. The crooks come back – they have a cab driver working for them – and drive out into the countryside, dumping Tinker in a ditch. Yvonne picks him up and carries on after the villains, but they realise they are being followed and try to get away – right into the path of  a train! The maid, butler and driver are all killed. Tinker and Yvonne go back to Baker Street, where they find the prisoner dead, too. He had saturated Sexton Blake’s room with the same poison – which kills by inhalation – and Yvonne had left him laying on the floor!

Only Marion Paul is left out of the gang, and she says that the leader, Max, had forced her to marry him in Vienna, where they bled rich men dry. They did the same in Berlin and Paris before coming to London. Marion was completely helpless, her servants were really the spies of her husband, and he would punish her if she ever went to the police, or warned one of his victims. She has many letters and papers that prove this, and Yvonne quickly arranges matters to hide her involvement in any wrong-doing from the police. Sexton Blake gets back, and she tells him about all this. He later goes back to France and finds Bob Fenm0re – who has now “come to his senses”, and can hardly continue to fight, with his wounds.

Bob Fenmore is bought back to England, and taken to his wife’s new flat. She forgives everything, and he, in turn, forgives Marion Paul. We also discover the reason for Marion Fenmore being confined indoors – not just depression, but the fact Bob Fenmore now has the greatest gift of all – a son!

There’s little else, apart from the story. There’s an article on the Fall of Antwerp, in a similar style to the one about the Belgian forts from the Boys’ Journal issue I looked at in the previous post. Except here, half the article is missing! However, there doesn’t seem to be a page missing from my copy (I have the corresponding one, with the start of the Sexton Blake story on it, and the page seems to ‘bend down’ at the spine). Maybe it was a printing error?

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Continuing with the warlike theme, the issue contains two illustrations of The London Scottish in action. The regiment’s name is pretty self-explanatory, and they still exist today, though as a company in a larger London Regiment. Apparently they existed before World War 1, but were re-raised as part of Kitchener’s new army, and distinguished themselves in their first battle. Today, however, the Wikipedia entry for them just has a blank space for World War 1.

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There’s also an extremely grainy picture of “pay day in the navy!”, photographic reproduction in mass-market, cheap publications was a hit-and-miss affair in those days (though Chums, and other “upmarket” publications, did it better, despite their weekly issues also costing a penny).

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As well as the incomplete Fall of Antwerp article, there’s an also-grainily-reproduced wash illustration of the German army under bombardment from offshore “Monitor ships”, which were warships with a shallow draught, allowing them to come up close to the muddy, indistinct coast around river estuaries and fire at enemies on shore.

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I try to avoid mentioning the adverts in the old comics I look at – the stories are more important! But Amalgamated Press liked to advertise their papers in one another. Here’s adverts for the Christmas special of the Boys’ Journal, as well as the next, regular-sized issue. That Zeppelin cover looks great! Was it an all-over wash illustration, in the style of the Boys’ Friend Library?

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For decades, people have been going on about Christmas being “too commercialised”. Well it was the same back before living memory, too! What’s the best way to have a truly happy Christmas? Buying the Weekly Friend, of course!

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And finally, an advert for an electronic gadget that will keep the boys happy. A light! Not sure about that “burns for hours” claim, though some of the bulbs of those days were only a single watt. “A battery that lasts for years” needs some explaining to modern readers, too: They meant you’d need to “re-charge” the battery, by literally refilling it with chemicals when the power ran out! Children who wanted to dabble with electricity in those days had to put quite a bit of effort in just to get electricity!

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