Impact of WWI on Gibraltar

Attached to neutral Spain, Gibraltar played a secondary, albeit very important role during the First World War (1914 – 1918). The Rock made significant contributions to the war efforts and the eventual, successful resolution of the conflict.

Strategically located, Gibraltar quickly established itself to become one of the most important naval bases within the Mediterranean. Taking advantage of the newly constructed dry docks in the Naval Dockyard, Gibraltar took on ship repair, refitting and maintenance. Nevertheless the looming threat of enemy U-boats operating in the vicinity was always a constant source of fear for all allied seafarers.

Alongside the Naval Dockyard, the Gibraltar harbour became one of the most important meeting points for convoys passing through the Mediterranean. The commercial port bunkered over 1.5 million tons of coal during the period 1914 – 1918. No easy undertaking, taking into consideration that the labourers hauled the coal manually.

The medical facilities and expertise available in Gibraltar during 1914 – 1918 made it an essential medical station for the treatment and care of wounded personnel arriving from theatres of war like the Dardanelles and Gallipoli.

Towards the end of the war, the United States (USN) established a permanent presence in Gibraltar. The USN provided vital naval escorts supporting convoys and allied shipping crossing the straits of Gibraltar. the USN also provided important medical support.

The Start of the War

In Sarajevo, on June 28 1914, Garilo Princip, a Bosnian nationalist, killed the Austro-Hungarian Heir Apparent, Archduke Franz-Ferdinand and his wife Countess Sophie Chotek. The Hapsburg, Austro-Hungarian monarch accused Serbia and insisted on official condemnation of the assassinations from the Serbian Government. The Serbian Government denied any involvement, escalating the tension in the process. As the situation after the Sarajevo assassinations deteriorated, the existing world alliances activated and the crisis widened taking on a dangerous international dimension.

His Excellency Lieutenant General Sir Hebert Miles, Governor of Gibraltar received news of the outbreak of war by telegram from London at 2:30am on August 5th 1914, and there was a public announcement thereafter.

Martial law and emergency measures immediately followed. The Assistant Adjutant and Quartermaster General Gibraltar immediately informed the Colonial Secretary, that the entire town and its inhabitants were now considered to be under military control. Military requirements and interests would henceforth dictate the control and safety of the Gibraltarian population.

All food had to be imported, and food supply became a major issue. Spain, which was strictly neutral, consequently stopped exports of food to Gibraltar. The increased demands from Royal Navy ships as well as other numerous consumables placed considerable strain on supplies. The authorities quickly put restrictions on food imports and introduced price controls and rationing. 

Gibraltar & the Western Fronts

On 14th August 1914, the two infantry battalions stationed at Gibraltar were withdrawn and the Royal Engineers and the Royal Garrison Artillery took over the local defences. By early 1915, troops from the Royal Garrison Artillery were withdrawn to serve in France, and men were recruited locally to replace them.

As from November 1915, the Colonial Secretary’s Office published periodic lists of Gibraltarians serving in His Majesty’s Members Forces at various theatres of war in the front. The lists were prepared only from information collected in the Colonial Office and therefore should not be regarded as complete. The last available list published is dated 19th October 1916. The list includes the names of 76 Gibraltarians, their ranks and regiments. Three men are marked as killed in action.

Gibraltarians served within a wide range of British regiments: the Royal Engineers, the Irish Rifles, the Wiltshires, the Bedfords, the Army Service Corps, the Royal Artillery, the Dorsets, the Middlesex, the Seaforth Highlanders, the 1st King Edward’s Horse, HM Trawlers and the Artists Regiments. The majority of those listed returned to Gibraltar, some carrying physical injury, most carrying debilitating physiological scars. 

A small number settled abroad. 

Hospital & the wounded

As from 1903 the British Military Hospital (BMH) played a fundamental role providing medical care for the military personnel on the Rock. Strategically placed on the southern end of the territory, the BH was at a fair distance from the loo,ing levanter clouds that plagued the town area. Nicknamed the Wegewood Castle because of the blue colour of its façade. 

BMH held a capacity for the accommodation of around 300 beds. BMH consisted of three buildings each of which was made up of three levels placed in perfect orientation with the purpose of avoiding the penetration of the sun’s rays infiltrating the wards. 

During 1915, the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), was based at the BMH providing vital medial support and treatment to hospital ships arriving with wounded Australian, British and New Zealand military personnel form The Dardanelles campaign

Once anchored at harbour, the wounded were landed from the hospital ships and transported on ambulance wagons to the BMH where they were greeted by the awaiting duty nursing staff and medical personnel. The immense efforts and dedication of the nursing and support staff made them beacons of comfort and relief to the men who had witnessed the horrors and had felt the ravages of war.

The consequences at Gallipoli, significantly incremented the numbers of wounded personnel arriving in Gibraltar. The Gibraltar Volunteer Corps had the difficult task of providing assistance, acting as stretcher-bearers, carrying the wounded personnel to hospital from the harbour. Temporary satellite hospitals had to be set up because of the high numbers of wounded personnel arriving. 

The hospital blues uniform was issued to patients who were not confined to bed. The Oxford blue uniform was made up of a flannel type material consisting of a single-breasted jacked and trousers Patients wore the Regimental cap with medals displayed on the left breast. The lucky ones word highly polished pairs of boots, the amputees, in some cases could only wear a single lonely boot. 

Soldiers wearing the hospital blue uniform became a very common sight in Gibraltar during the First World War.

The Post Office & the Censor

The Gibraltar Post Office had a role to play in World War I. This was manifested in several ways: fund-raising, propaganda, censorship and taxation. A label was sold in Gibraltar at 1/2d (halfpenny) in 1915, in the early stages of the war, with the money going to support those disabled as a result of the war. The label looked like a diamond-shaped postage stamp, and so as not to cause confusion, it was intended that it be placed on the back of an envelope. It was captioned WAR SEAL.

From the very start of the war, censorship of mails and telegrams was introduced in Gibraltar and elsewhere. Letters that had bee opened by a postal censor in Gibraltar were sealed after they had been censored and closed using a distinctive label that identified the censor who had opened the letter.

Towards the end of the war in 1918, the final postal measure was introduced in Gibraltar. It was in the form of a tax. In addition to the postage payable on the letter, a extra 1/2d was payable. The payment was made in the form of a stamp that had been overprinted with the words WAR TAX.

The idea of levying a tax on all mail posted in gibraltar and addressed locally, to the United Kingdom and the British Empire destinations, was first suggested in 1916. The Colonial Secretary asked the Post Office at Gibraltar how much revenue the tax would yield, it was estimated at £2,540 per annum, (worth £214,585.42 in 2018) . Nothing further was done until the end of 1917 when permission was asked of the Secretary of State for the Colonies for the issue of a 1/2d War Tax stamp, this was granted.

As there was a large supply of 1/2d stamps in Gibraltar, the decision was taken to overprint part of the stock with the woods WAR TAX. The printing firm, Beanland Malin, was approached. They were reliable printers: they had printed the first banknote for Gibraltar in 1914. They overprinted 120,000 stamps at their printing works which were then located in Cornwall’s Lane.

The law then had to be changed to allow for the levying of a War Tax on mail. This was done in time for the issue of the War Tax stamps on 15th April 1918. The only War Tax stamps ever to be issued by the Gibraltar Post Office were therefore produced 100 years ago. The stamps continued in use even after the end of World War I. Their compulsory use ceased as from 1st January 1919. Gibraltar had risen to the occasion during the war and the Post Office had done its bit as part of the war effort.

The Gibraltar Volunteer Corps

Gibraltar World War I recruitment poster

During the First World War, a group of local members from the Calpe Rowing Club established the Gibraltar Volunteer Corps (GVC). The intention was to show their loyalty to the British Crown and to prepare for the defence of Gibraltar. The GVC got official recognition from the Governor, Lieutenant General Sir Herbert Miles on 3rd July 1915 at a march held on the upper emplacement of Wellington front.

Majors G.B. Roberts and T.E. Cooper commanded the GVC. The Corps were divided into four Rifle Companies; A, B, C and D. Each company commanded by a Captain, comprised of 2 subalterns, 1 Sergeant Major, 4 Sergeants, 8 corporals, 2 buglers and about 80 men.

The GVC were never tested in combat due to low enemy activity in Gibraltar, however, they played a crucial support role transferring wounded soldiers arriving on hospital ships from the Dardanelles and Gallipoli to the British Military Hospital and a number of other temporary hospitals. In addition, the GVC played a big role assisting the civil agencies rebuild roads and remove sand and rocks from dwellings after the heavy storms and subsequent landslides of March 1917.

It had been agreed that the GVC would only formally exist as long as the war lasted and the Corps disbanded on 1st February 1920. Nevertheless, the creation of the GVC played a pioneering role regarding local regiments, inspiring the establishment of the Gibraltar Defence Force, forbearers of the current Royal Gibraltar Regiment. 

The Naval Dockyard & Gibraltar Harbour

The Colonial Government restricted trade, travel to Gibraltar, and controlled ships coming in and out of the harbour during the First World War. Ships were required to obtain clearance (green cards) from the Captain of the Port.

Gibraltar’s economy was negatively affected due to measures introduced when the war began. However, as the war professed, Gibraltar benefitted economically, the harbours and docks became vital for the British war effort. A major port controlling the entrance to the Mediterranean, Gibraltar profited from being an important assembly pint for convoys and focal point for coastal Mediterranean trade establishing itself as a vital base for the Royal and United States Navies.

The importance of the Gibraltar harbour during the First World War, enhanced job prospects for dock workers and labourers. The increase in convoys coming into and going out of Gibraltar added to the opportunities for employment. Nevertheless there was a constant shortfall of labour due to Gibraltar’s small population. The shortfall was made up by labourers crossing from La Línea and the Campo Area in Gibraltar to work mainly as coal haulers, dockyard and arsenal workers.

The La Línea coal haulers formed part of one of the two most important labour associations of La Línea, at the time, the ‘Obreros del Carbon’. Composed of some 1,000 workers engaged in the loading and unloading of coal (mostly by hand) on the wharves at Gibraltar. The other more vociferous workers association was the ‘La Constructura Naval’ that was made up of some 1,500 workers of the Gibraltar Arsenal. The Spanish government eventually outlawed these two organisations because of known Anarchist influences originating in Barcelona. The coal haulers were essential to the British war effort. 

However, on 20th January 1917, 1,200 Spanish coal haulers went on strike, seriously threatening British intentions in the Mediterranean. It became clear to the military authorities that the use of the harbour to supply coal for naval and merchant shipping was very important as the amount of ships coming into Gibraltar increased daily as the war continued. The strike had to be resolved quickly. On 1st February 1917, the Spanish coal labourers resumed work and over the course of the war, one million six hundred fifty-five thousand tons of coal was supplied to ships. 

U-boats operating around Gibraltar & the Mediterranean

Gibraltar’s position as a major port controlling the entrance to the Mediterranean meant that the surrounding waters became an important hunting ground for German submarines. From 1915 German U-boats entered the Mediterranean, passing through the Straits and the concentration of merchant and naval vessels around Gibraltar provided a range of targets.

On the night of 31st December 1915, the Royal Garrison Artillery batteries defending Gibraltar engaged one, or possibly three submarines which were attempting to enter the harbour. The garrison believed they had successfully destroyed at least one of the submarines, although this was never confirmed.

The threat fro German U-boats continued throughout the war. On 9th November 1918, HMS Britannia became the last Royal Navy ship to be sunk. The battleship was passing the Straits when she was torpedoed by UB-50 and sank wit the loss of 50 lives. 

The United States Navy in Gibraltar

In 1914, when the First World War broke out across Europe, President Wilson proclaimed that the United States of America (USA) would remain neutral as Americans supported the notion of non-intervention.

Notwithstanding the above, as the conflict in Europe intensified, President Wilson asked the UK Congress for support to declare war against Germany. On 6th April 1917, America officially entered the First World War.

The United States Navy (USN) deployed and detachments were used to combat the German U-boats threat. The USN commanded by Rear Admiral Niblack cooperated with the Royal Navy and other allied navies, operating in Gibraltar from August 1917 until the Armistice on 11th November 1918.

The USN base at Gibraltar was located at the British seaplane shed on the waterfront, and the headquarters were located at the Tower Building at His Majesty’s naval dockyard, where the naval commander met every morning to discuss and prepare the escorts for convoys.

Gibraltar became the base to 41 USN vessels, including 9 sub-chasers, 6 Coast Guard Cutters, 9 yachts and 5 destroyers. Many of USN ships, for example the U.S.S. Sacramento, were used to escort convoys between ports in the United Kingdom, France and Gibraltar.

The American presence at Gibraltar averaged 315 officers and 4660 enlisted men mostly attached to ships. Others were billeted in Windmill Hill Barrack behind the signal station. 


During the early hours of 11th November 1918, on a railroad carriage in Compiegne North of Paris, an agreement of Armistice was signed between the Allies and Germany. At 11am that same day a ceasefire came into effect theoretically ending the fighting.

Peace had finally arrived, albeit at a very high cost. Fighting continued whilst the Armistice was announced throughout the whole of Europe. The British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, announced the news to the British nation and jubilation followed. The streets of England quickly flooded with people in joyous celebration.

“Processions of soldiers and munition girls arms in arm were everywhere” (Daily Mirror, 1918).

Thousands of people waited eagerly outside Buckingham Palace shouting, “We want the King!” When His Majesty King George V appeared and spoke, the enthusiasm amplified further. Conversation was impossible due to the din of cheers and large variety of whistles, hooters and fireworks. 

Gibraltar celebrated in unison with Britain. Local streets were full of people both Gibraltarians and service personnel including the American sailors who gathered at bars and pubs eager to drink for liberty.

The various organisations that had played a part in the war effort, assembled in rank at locations such as Commercial Square and Grand Parade. The Victory Parade marched past Government House, (now the Convent) and continued through Line Wall Road met by crowds who crammed the street pavements, joyously cheering the triumphant outcome. Prospects of better times in the absence of war became a reality, not a dream!

Victory parades continued in Britain and Gibraltar well into the next decade.

Commemoration & Remembrance

The vast scale of loss caused by the First World War created a need for markers that acknowledged this loss visually and spatially.

At a local rather than national level, the scale and parameters of commemorative objects sought to record loss by naming those who died (in Britain and Gibraltar sometimes those who served) from particular communities. For example, the function of the ancient concept of the cenotaph, (an empty tomb), both temporary and permanent versions were resurrected immediately after the First World War to aid the memory in celebratory as well as somber contexts. A cenotaph served to denote all the dead of particular nations, including many thousand of colonial troops, and it was also reproduced and modified to represent the war dead from specific communities.  


The physical horrors of trench warfare wrought on the bodies of young men during the First World War overwhelms some of us. Trench warfare exposed soldiers to a wide variety of injuries including a vast increase in head and facial injuries, which lead to important advancements in plastic surgery and facial reconstruction. Nevertheless, a soldier’s deformities could sometimes repel even wives and children.

For those soldiers who managed to limp home (often in precarious states of fitness) from the horrors of the trench, peacetime conditions remained grim. Across Britain (including Gibraltar), France and Germany, economic hardship, mass unemployment, high prices, poor housing and widespread poverty met the returnees. In Germany, the Kaiser abdicated and civil war erupted on the street.

The aftermath of the First World War saw drastic political, cultural, economic, and social changed across the world even in ares outside those that were directly involved. The legacy of the First World War continued into the next decade and late into the Second World War. Some historians argue that the First World War did not end in 1918 but was a mere pause, resuming in 1939 and the start of the Second World War. Nevertheless, there is no doubt about the fact that the First World War still resonates in 2018 as we commemorate the centenary of the end of the conflict.

Text: 50 Years – Centenary of the First World War booklet (Exhibition 25th Oct – 11th Nov 2018) – Gibraltar National Archives