From Truncheons to Trenches: Devon and Cornwall Constabulary policing in the First World War

Police history: When war broke out in 1914, serving police officers from Devon and Cornwall were drafted in to fight for their country – many being killed in combat.

Without question, the First World War was one of the most significant and impactful events of the Twentieth Century – and by extension, modern civilization. The global conflict, which lasted between 1914 and 1918, and claimed the lives of over 20 million men, women and children[1] was responsible for profound changes in politics, warfare, healthcare, philosophy, literature and more. But the most devastating consequence of all was societal – the loss of millions of men, ranging in age from as young as fourteen to as old as the late fifties and sixties, dealt a catastrophic blow to the entrenched social values of masculinity, patriarchy and paternity.

As a result of the British government’s merciless conscription policy, men from all walks of life and profession were drawn into the ranks of the military, causing a rift in civilian life which took many generations to heal. Amongst this number were a great deal of police officers, hailing from both bustling metropolises like London and Manchester, and smaller rural communities. The Devon and Cornwall Constabulary was no exception – 34 of its serving police officers never returned from the front lines[2], and those who did were likely never the same again.

Devon and Cornwall police history
Military Commissioning Ceremony in Northernhay Gardens/Park, Exeter, C1914-C1919. Image Reference PA/3/18/1/3

As early as 1912, as international relations soured and the outbreak of war grew ever more inevitable, chief constables were warned that men from their ranks would be called up to active service. Indeed, around 10% of serving officers in the UK were reserve soldiers by 1914[3].

As the war progressed and more men were drafted to the front lines, even more serving police officers wrote to their constable to ask for permission to serve. Often these requests had to be refused, out of a necessity to keep officer numbers high enough to provide service. In total, 363 serving officers from the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary resigned their posts to serve in the Great War[4].

Amidst falling numbers of serving officers across the country, the Special Constables Act of 1914 came into force, allowing spontaneous promotion on a case-by-case basis, by royal decree. A First and Second Police Reserve were created to fill in the gaps, with the former comprising largely of retired policemen, and the latter being entirely filled by volunteers from all walks of life.

Some women were drafted in to serve as officers and clerks in the force – as seen with Edith Smith, the first female officer with power of arrest – paving the way for their eventual, wider inclusion. It was also during the wartime period, as societal norms began to unravel, that the police first became unionised – although it would be many years after the end of the war that their right to do so was properly recognised.

Cartoon poster depicting a member of the Women’s Police Service, c. 1916.

The societal upheaval caused by the war extended to a new sway of criminal acts which needed to be monitored, including (but not limited to):

  • The lighting of bonfires (which were feared to attract German zeppelins)
  • Subversive activities (such as the production of anti-war propaganda)
  • Amusingly, the ownership of an unlicensed carrier pigeon

Police were also needed to enforce new government guidelines, including rationing, and for the defence of critical infrastructure, such as train lines. But taking part in the war was only half of the battle; for many serving officers, it was the return to civilian life which proved to be the biggest struggle.

Tens of thousands of returning soldiers suffered psychological issues associated with the war, in what was termed an epidemic of ‘shell shock’; in modern terms, we would understand this to be a form of PTSD. In order to reenlist in the police force, men had to pass a mental examination to prove they were still fit for duty.

However, our understanding of stress was still in its infancy at this point, meaning that many of these men did not receive the help they would have needed. Nevertheless, those who did return to the police were often decorated, with 19 from the D&C police alone honoured with medals awarded for bravery and dedication to service during this period[5].

Those officers who didn’t return are honoured with plaques and memorials at locations including the Bodmin Police Station, and the Exeter Guildhall, and are amongst the millions of souls who we remember every year at now-traditional Remembrance Sunday ceremonies.

Devon and Cornwall police history
The Devon Constabulary in the aftermath of WW1, complete with several newly-decorated returnees. Image Ref: PA/1/12/1/2
Victory Celebrations in Falmouth, 1919. Image Reference PA/3/18/1/2

Information on all the police officers from Devon and Cornwall who gave their lives during the First World War is available here


  1. ^ GOV Census on Number of Casualties in WW1, reperes112018.pdf:
  2. ^ From Blue Line to Front Line: Remembrance Service, November 2018, pg. 1 (PA/1/12/1/2).
  3. ^ From Blue Line to Front Line: Remembrance Service, November 2018, pg. 2 (PA/1/12/1/2).
  4. ^ From Blue Line to Front Line: Remembrance Service, November 2018, pg. 11 (PA/1/12/1/2).
  5. ^ From Blue Line to Front Line: Remembrance Service, November 2018, pg. 11 (PA/1/12/1/2).

Words by Cf Systems