At midnight on 4 August 1914, there were crowds standing outside the offices of the Southend Standard, waiting for news of England’s declaration of war against Germany following their unprovoked invasion of Belgium. Britain’s newly-appointed Secretary of State of War, Lord Kitchener, warned the government that the outcome of the war would be decided by the last million men that Britain could throw into battle. The war that many believed would be over by Christmas began that day and ended four years later, with the signing of the Armistice on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month 1918.
Walter Dicketts was living with his parents at Southend-on-Sea where he attended the local grammar school and witnessed the troops taking up station in the area and practicing parades and drills in the local parks. As the wounded began to pour in from the battlefields in France, local hotels were turned into hospitals and the town came under attack by Zeppelins. When news reached Britain that her professional soldiers, the British Expeditionary Force, was in retreat following the Battle of Mons, there was a spike in recruiting numbers as men realised their homes, families and country might now be at risk. It wasn’t just men who enlisted; many young boys desperate to be one of the lads lied about their age, and sometimes even their names so their parents couldn’t track them down and make them return - and Walter Dicketts was one of them.
The teenage schoolboy Walter Dicketts decided to join their ranks immediately following his fifteenth birthday on 31 March 1915. His biggest problem was how to convince the recruitment officers that he was eighteen. On 5 April he ran away from school and nervously took his place in line at the recruitment centre. When his turn came, Dicketts drew himself up to his full height and lowered his voice to appear older than he was. Affecting a confidence, he didn’t quite feel he managed to keep his voice steady as he lied about being three years older than he actually was. In reality, Dicketts didn’t need to try and bluff his way in by trying to appear older than he was, as proof of age or even identity wasn’t required at this stage of the war. The rule of thumb was that if a volunteer wanted to fight for his country and was physically fit enough to do so, why stop him? It is thought that as many as 250,000 ‘Boy Soldiers’ were recruited in this way.(1)
After his measurements were taken, Dicketts was given his King’s shilling and accepted into the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) as Petty Officer Air Mechanic First Class (Driver) for the duration of the hostilities. Five months later Dicketts was sent to fight in France with the RNAS armoured car division which collaborated closely with their aircraft overhead - the aircraft reported enemy troop movements or vehicles on the ground and the armoured cars sped into the attack. Tanks hadn't been invented yet, so civilian cars like the Lanchester and the Rolls Royce Silver Ghost model were fitted with armour plating and machine gun mountings in the turret, and used to provide speed and protection for communications, and to rescue stranded airman from dangerous areas.
When trench warfare set in and the armoured cars were unable to cross the muddy terrains pockmarked with shell holes, Dicketts division was disbanded and he was transferred to the RNMB Anti-Aircraft Corps. He later served in tanks and became a pilot at just seventeen years old before being transferred to the Air Intelligence section of the Air Ministry.(2)
On 11 November 1918, the Germans agreed to a ceasefire and the First World War was over. The Allied victors set a date to meet in Paris during January 1919 to establish the peace terms for Germany and the other defeated nations. Dicketts’ report on secret German seaplane bases was well received at the peace conference, and with the signing of the treaties, Dicketts' commission was relinquished in March 1919 and he was placed on Special Reserve and retained.
In August 1919 Air Commodore Maurice West asked Dicketts if would be interested in doing some ‘special work,' to which he readily agreed and was sent to see Sir Mansfield Smith-Cummings, the first head of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), who recruited the notorious spy Sydney Reilly among others. (3) Cummings told him to find out where the Germans were hiding the aircraft engines they still hadn’t surrendered to the Allies, which Dicketts succeeded in doing - discovering 6,000 engines with the help of a communist from Amsterdam.
As the post-war recession set in, cuts were made across all government departments, including the intelligence services, and the nineteen-year-old Captain Walter Dicketts was released into the unemployed lists. He faced stiff competition for jobs as so many people were unemployed, and like so many other young men, Dicketts had only the skills he had learned during the war.
by Carolinda Witt
(2) Dicketts' war records National Archives - AIR 76 133 111
(3) Walter Dicketts' security services file - National Archives KV 2/674