2014 is the centenary of the First World War. The Craven Herald is keen to hear from our readers who have stories to tell about their own families’ involvement in the conflict. Our reporter, Clive White, looks at the futility of the war in which his grandfather fought as an “old contemptible.”
Dwell on this! The first official British engagement in World War One was on August 22, 1914, when a mounted squadron of Royal Irish Dragoon Guards – yes they still fought on horseback in 1914 – met by surprise German Uhlan guards on the Mons to Brussels Road, near Casteua, in Belgium.
There was a British charge, brief firefight and then both sides withdrew thinking it better to save their elan for another day.
Turn the clock forward four years. It’s one of the last encounters between German soldiers, now exhausted and on their last legs, and the British who can see victory tantalisingly close. It is November 11, 1918, the day the powers that be decide the conflict must end.
And where do British troops find themselves? On almost the same spot of that initial skirmish.
The opposing sides had slaughtered each other in their millions for, on paper at least, no significant territorial gain.
Today at the side of that road stand two memorials, one marking the place where the first bullet was fired and yards away a spot where the nightmare ended.
Was it a futile waste of human life? It happened at a time of scientific and industrial advancement but on the face of it no progress for “Tommy Atkins” who, just as in the days of Wellington, was still seen as canon fodder.
What is a fact is that it ruptured Europe, laying waste to Northern France, destroying the German econony and sparking the Russian revolution It also laid the germ of hatred and bitterness in the warped brain of Adolf Hitler who fought in the trenches. A seed that eventually sprouted the Second World War.
But 100 years later, what strikes us as inconceivable is the horrific butchery of so many young men. The British and Commonwealth dead numbered 900,000, the French 1.3 million, the Germans and Russians 1.7 million and Austria Hungary 1.2 million.
Sparsely populated Craven played its part in the conflict with at least 2,000 killed and thousands more injured.
So traumatising was the bloodbath that in 1919 philanthopist Walter Morrison, of Malham Tarn, paid for the publication of a canvas-backed volume called “Craven’s Part in the Great War”.
In typical patriotic language of the time, he says in the preface in 1919: “This volume is a humble but sincere expression of the gallant, heroic and self-sacrificing spirit shown by the sons of Craven in resisting the unscrupulous, malignant and pre-arranged design of Germany.”
He forgot to mention the female sacrifice and it is poignant to see, amongst all those men, the solitary girl in the form of nurse Doris Proctor, of Settle, who died of pneumonia in Leicester in December, 1918.
Missing from the photographic roll call is Staff Nurse Fanny Mason who died when the hospital ship The Salta was sunk by a mine in April 1917. Her body was never found.
The book makes harrowing reading, peppered as it is with every combatant who lost his life, most details accompanied by a photograph of men such as the Leatt brothers, sons of George Leatt of Pendle Street, Skipton. They died in the same month, April 1916. George, of the South Africa Corps, aged 33, of fever in South Africa and Thomas – his age is not given – of the Berkshire Regiment, killed in action.
Remembrance Sunday 2014 will possibly see more people than ever paying their respects at city, town and village war memorials since the end of the Second World War.
Already the bookshelves are heaving with tomes revisiting the conflict, including one by my father, Frank White, “100 years on, The British in the First World War.”
His father, Percy, was a regular when war broke out. He was a corporal signaller, a professional soldier, one of those men branded “contemptible” by the German Kaiser and mobilised to France in August 1914.
He fought in all the major conflicts, went over the top, was gassed and pot shot in the rear by a German sniper while up a telegraph pole, until the battle of the Somme in 1916 when he caught his third “blighty” wound – I can still see the blue shrapnel scar on the inside of his forearm – and sent home to train the new troops.
His bayonet is still somewhere with my father who also has his Kings Liverpool Regiment army book showing Percy’s prowess with the Lee Enfield rifle. Incidentally, for people interested in minutiae, the rifle was triggered by the middle or ring finger of the right hand and the bolt controlled by the thumb. It took hours of practice to get right and all to ensure the rapid fire British “tommies” perfected. In the first clashes, German soldiers mistook this hail of bullets for machne gun fire.
Spearheading the events to mark the centenary is Craven Museum which is applying for lottery cash from the £6 million small grants fund especially set up by the Government.
Aiming to get somewhere in the region of £80,000, it will pay for a part-time project officer who will work for three years with local towns and villages on exploring their World War One legacies.
Craven Museum’s Suzanne Callaghan said: “Part of the role will be to offer support to community groups and schools to carry out research, hold events and apply for their own small grants.
“We would also like to have a variety of memorials made by different groups that could be shown at a large exhibitions in 2018.”
The project officer would start next March with a launch of the drama Tunstill’s Men in communities where people were recruited. Gilbert Tunstill, a business man from Settle rounded up 100 volunteers to join the Duke of Wellington's Regiment in September 1914, in response to army boss Field Marshal Kitchener's appeal.
The play traces the lives of Gilbert Tunstill and several of the men he recruited throughout the years of the war.
The partners involved so far are Craven libraries, North Yorkshire County Archives, The Museum of North Craven Life (The Folly, Settle) Craven’s Part in the Great War (website) Ermysted’s and Aireville schools, Skipton Town Council, Leeds University and Craven Museum & Gallery, There is also a chance of carrying out some linked archaeology with the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority.
If you have a story to tell, contact the newsdesk on 01756 794117 or email firstname.lastname@example.org