Men did astonishing things at which one did not wonder till after

I hated history at school. It seemed to be nearly all battles, maps with arrows showing troop movements and then failed treaties. To a 1960s teenager, history only went to prove that Bob Dylan was right to cry ‘how many deaths will it take till he knows, that too many people have died?’

Strange then, 50 years or so on, that I should be planning a display for Shipley’s elegantly refurbished library to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.

To be honest military history still doesn’t interest me that much. I don’t get excited about tactics or weapons and the finer points of uniform insignia pass me by.

But when I started to work my way through the pages of the Shipley Times & Express from 1914-18 for my website I was quickly hooked by the stories of people who might have been my neighbours and friends if I had lived here 100 years ago.

Much of my current research concentrates on the effect of World War I on the Home Front: on the changing role of women, the men whose conscience kept them from fighting and the way the community rallied round Belgian refugees. I’m also intrigued by the details that show how much daily life has changed – the fines for driving without lights because the candle had blown out; the number of horses then in daily use; and the fear of illness in those pre-NHS days.

By its nature, the Somme exhibition will concentrate on some of the 426 local men so far identified as having been killed, missing or wounded in the bloodiest battle in British history. The battle lasted 141 days – from 1 July to 18 November 1916 – during which there were more than a million casualties, including 19,240 British soldiers killed on the first day.

If we had been here then, we would almost certainly have known a family who were mourning a loss, or were anxious about a wounded or missing son or husband.

Harry Hirst (centre back) and his pals in high spirits before heading for trenches

Harry Hirst (centre back) and his pals in high spirits before heading for trenches

And even a hundred years later we can get a sense of some of these men, people like Harry Hirst who wrote to his family about setting off for the Somme:

“There were thousands of people lining the streets. Men and women rushed into the ranks and kissed us. One man carried my kit bag to the station and two girls carried my great coat and bandolier etc. I tell you it was fine sight.

“When we got to the station – I was among the first four – what a time we had. Women and girls threw their arms around our necks and kissed us, weeping all the time. I can assure you it fairly brought tears to my own eyes.”

Inevitably you find yourself wondering how you would have reacted in the situation faced by so many local families.

Brothers Charles and Joseph Nutter had left Baildon several years before the war to start a new life in Canada but both signed up to return when war was declared. Both were killed.

Robert Helliwell

Robert Helliwell

Arthur Helliwell of Bromet Place, Eccleshill, had to write to his parents to break the news about his brother Robert.

“I got with our Bob in the fight and I saw him kill three Germans and then we got the order to retire. We were just getting into our own lines when Bob was hit. He had no pain. He said, ‘Tell mother and father not to take it too much to heart for the sake of the others. I have done my duty.’ “

Rev Richard Whincup

Rev Richard Whincup

Robert was buried just behind the line by the Rev Richard Whincup, the vicar of Windhill, who was serving as chaplain to the West Yorkshire Regiment. As chaplain he also had the task of writing to the parents of men who were killed and went out of his way to try to soften the blow. We now know of the often lonely, slow, painful deaths suffered by men brought down in No Man’s Land, unreachable by any of their mates, but most families were assured their son had died honourably, swiftly and almost painlessly.

Not everyone pulled their punches and then we get a vivid picture of men at war. Pte Jim Morgan of Hargreaves Square, Shipley, told a friend:

“There is a young fellow in this hospital for whom my heart bleeds. He has not a friend in the world and has not had one letter since he came to France. He was lying for 30 hours surrounded by the corpses of his beloved comrades who fought and died by his side for the honour of the old country. He is like a broken straw cast upon the mighty ocean of the world, tossed here and there, God knows where.”

Such experiences must have changed lives. Even those who survived and returned physically unscathed cannot have been the same as when they went away.

One is left wondering what it was like for the families. What was it like for the widows of Charles Hall of Moorend, Idle, and John Parker of Windhill, who were both left with five children to bring up? Or the widow of Stephen Dobson of School Hill, Windhill, who had three children to raise, the oldest not yet two and a half at the time of her father’s death.

And how did families cope when the breadwinner arrived home unable to work through loss of a limb, or blindness or shell shock?

If my teachers had introduced me to the human side of history way back then, maybe I wouldn’t have waited until my fifties to get interested. It wouldn’t have taken much, just a couple of paragraphs like these by Sgt J E Yates, who fought alongside men from Shipley & District at the Somme:

“Almost imperceptibly the first day moved into the second when we held grimly to a battered trench and watched each other grow old under the day-long storm of shelling. Big shells landed in the crowded trench. For hours, sweating, praying, swearing, we worked on the heaps of chalk and mangled bodies. Men did astonishing things at which one did not wonder till after…

“At dawn the next morning we were back in a green wood. I found myself leaning on a rifle and staring stupidly at the filthy, exhausted men who slept around me. It did not occur to me to lie down until someone pushed me into a bed of ferns. There were flowers among the ferns and my last thought was a dull wonder that there could still be flowers in the world.”

somme display details for blog

References: all the quotes are taken from articles in the Shipley Times & Express except the passage by Sgt Yates which is quoted from Capt E V Tempest’s ‘History of the Sixth Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment, Volume 1 – 1/6th Battalion’, published by Naval & Military Press.

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Posted in History, Yorkshire
2 comments on “Men did astonishing things at which one did not wonder till after
  1. bobsterry says:

    Richard, since I shared those teachers with you I can heartily agree on their inability to convince us of the importance of an historical perspective. It was upon reading ‘H.M.S. Ulysses’ by Alistair McLean’ (filched from my Father’s bookshelf) that I gained an interest. It was almost at the same time that history was taken off our curriculum in favor of concentrating on A-Level subjects. Since then John Keegan and Len Deighton have been my kind of historians.

    • Richard Coomber says:

      Fiction has a way of telling the truth often absent in history books, the emotional truth

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