Australian soldiers in Waterloo

London Waterloo, all change for the Western Front

Waterloo, as an area and a rail terminal, will for many Commonwealth soldiers have been the first steps into a city touted as the finest in the world. Fresh off the platform, young and relatively well-paid Australian servicemen came to congregate in Waterloo and make the area their own.

Waterloo – the area and the railway station – featured prominently in the experience of Australian soldiers during their time in London in the First World War. Of the approximately 400,000 Australians that served in the war (416,809), many of these will have passed through London on their path to fighting on the Western Front. One story, of Captain Reginald High Kynvett, stands out in particular as an example of Waterloo in the midst of wartime. As one of London’s key terminals, for many stepping off the train at Waterloo, their first sight off the train would be their first sight of London from the ground.

Once outside of the station, men like Kynvett spent their time around Waterloo at places such as the Anzac Club, the largest of the soldiers’ clubs, extended in January 1917 to accommodate an extra thousand beds. Having served more than two million meals by the end of the war, given its popularity one could be forgiven for believing that the Anzac club was the only haunt of Australian soldiers during their time at London. This, however, would be wrong.

In another account of an Australian soldier’s experience of war, based partly in London, Robert Byford provides an enthusiastic account of the entertainment enjoyed by Australian troops in London during the War. Billiards rooms, cinemas, and not least importantly, pubs, are all mentioned in Byford’s account of his time in London and all featured as part of the entertainment of Australian troops around Waterloo during the war. “Every corner a pub” noted one Australian soldier, but it wasn’t just the quantity of the pubs – in Waterloo and further afield – that left an impression on the young men. The opening hours, 12:30 – 14:30 and 18:30 – 21:00 including on Sundays, were a pleasant surprise to the men even if Byford was taken aback by the presence of the occasional gossiping woman. Altercations with military police were not uncommon but seldom seriously malicious, and generally Australians’ experiences of London pubs can be taken as a common and welcome one, connecting culturally all those that had the pleasure of visiting these public houses.

In contrast to the revelry of the pub, previous to demobilisation (where the different YMCAs were merged) a number of dedicated Australian YMCA centres enjoyed popularity among the Australian contingent in the capital. The Waterloo YMCA even had a certain notoriety for just how busy it was – the busiest in London – with one American writer, Margaret Chute, describing Australians pushing and eagerly looking for space to lie on the ground (see the YMCA Story for a more detailed reveal of the role of London’s YMCAs during the war). These accounts of Australians around Waterloo during the First World War are proof of the presence that these young men, quite literally half-way around the world from their homes, maintained in the pubs, clubs, streets and shops of this busy part of London.