Great War 1914-1919

Like all other towns, Doncaster was immediately drawn into the vortex of the Great War. This website, with its narrative of the outstanding features of the town’s history, would be incomplete if it failed to place on record some account of the part we played during the tragic years from 1914 to 1919 – when the shadow of a mighty conflict hung like a shadow over the land, and the heart of the nation was stirred to its depths at the immensity of the task to which we had been called.

This is not meant, of course, to be a history of the war. We are here not concerned with the story of the titanic struggle “over yonder” – the din of battle in France and Flanders, the ebb and flow of victory, the dark days of depression, relieved by the glowing heroism of our men, with all the splendour of their vivid achievement. We do not carry the reader to the Retreat from Mons, nor to the Battle of the Marne, nor to the deathly struggle before Ypres, nor to the great days of the final offensive that broke down the German rush and caused the Kaiser to flee like a criminal and his armies to throw up the sponge. Nor for this simple website to tell the epic story of the Navy, nor the thrilling romance of our Eastern victories. We confine ourselves to the recital of the share, the great share that Doncaster took in the campaign, leaving the wider canvas to the pen of the historian.

In the years to come the story will be read with even deeper interest than it possesses now, it begins on 4th August, 1914, when the drums of war rolled out their booming message; when our local Territorial Battalion, the 5th King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, was recalled from its holiday camp at the seaside and placed upon a war footing. And what a panorama lies between that dat and the present! We look back to that famous Bank Holiday, when war was declared – when we stood at street corners and saw the “boys” in khaki rushing to their appointed stations. We saw the 5th coming into the town, then the Yorkshire Dragoons, spic and span in accoutrement and equipment, followed by the West Riding and other regiments. Doncaster people still remember the tramp of armed men through the streets, the billeting of soldiers in our homes – the first time in living memory – the bivouacing of soldiers in the open space before the Market, and the wide-eyed wonder of the townsfolk as they saw rifles stacked and the military cooking their meals in the open beneath the August sun.

War had come, and the whole face of the land was transformed. Men were enlisted by the thousand. New battalions were created. First a company and then a full division of Royal Engineers were recruited in the town and neighbourhood by the Mayor and a committee, at the request of the War Office. Train loads of newly-made soldiers left the town. Military hospitals were opened by private enterprise – the Arnold, the St. George’s, the Loversal, the Hooton pagnell, and others. Relief committees were formed. A new Volunteer movement was started. A Rifle Club was founded. Special constables leaped into activity. And as the war progressed, Belgian refugees – poor souls hunted and harried form the hearth and home – came to Doncaster to find the peace and shelter denied them by the invading foe. Local manufacturing establishments abandoned peace work and responded to the Army’s call for munitions. Thousands of women entered the works. And as the demand for men for the Army increased, the women took their places in civil life. Women Tram drivers, women postmen, women window cleaners, women bank clerks, women land workers – there was hardly a sphere of human activity in which the women were not found – that the nation might carry on, that the men might be set free for the greater and harder work of keeping the Hun from placing his feet on our unviolate soil. Nearly every manufacturing establishment in the town, headed by the Plant Railway Works, began making munitions. The Race Common was the site of an aerodrome, where thousands of young men learned the art of flying machines.

So the story moves on. We see the opening of clubs and institutes for the soldiers in the town -  the raising of money for comforts for the troops, the sending out of Christmas gifts, the enlargement of the military hospitals, the hundred and one movements which sprang into being for no other purpose than that of helping the nation to win the war and to beat down the tyranny of the German foe. How many hundred thousand pounds did Doncaster raise for war purposes? The full total will never be told. But it is a fact that the town and district furnished the state with over a million and a quarter in answer to its appeal for subscription to War Loans. Hospitals, relief committees, Volunteers, wanted – and obtained- their thousands. No appeal went unanswered. The heart of the town was stirred, and its hand was ever open. We hardly knew what it was to have the luxury of even an occasional Saturday without a “flag day”.

Meanwhile, we at home, even as they at the Front, were undergoing our own dangers. The Zeppelins roamed the midnight sky, and their murdering bombs fell upon defenceless people. Happily, we in Doncaster came out scathless. Not a bomb fell upon our town. Not a life was lost. Yet it is curious that within a radius of 18 miles from Doncaster, German airships wrought terrible havoc at Sheffield, Goole, Retford and other places. Privations of another sort, though small in comparison with those our defenders experienced, fell to our lot. No lights were permissible which might serve as a guide to the enemy in the skies. Our public street lighting was abolished. Our houses and shops were veiled in darkness. Not a gleam of light was allowed to penetrate into the street. We went about at night in deepest gloom. Railway trains and tram cars were shrouded. Motor car headlights were forbidden. Even the lamp of the humble bicycle had to be reduced in power. As petrol became scarce, motor cars were forbidden, except on public business. Food became scarce and a hundred and one restrictions were imposed. White flour gave way to brown. The delicacies in the sweet shops and confectioners were swept away. Finally, food was rationed, and from the Food Office in High Street all of us had our ration cards and lived on a scientifically-based allowance. The paper shortage – due to the restriction of imports – compelled the newspapers to reduce their sheets to little more than pamphlets. Shops were compulsorily closed in the early evening. Yet complaints were rare. What were these petty deprivations compared with those our men experienced out yonder? At any rate, we could live – and live in comfort, too – for never was work more abundant, never were wages higher, never were the people at large in better circumstances.

And thus the story moves on to its appointed end. As we survey it, like a panorama that flashes before the eye, we see the dark days first – the casualty lists and the long columns of the noble dead. And what a record it is! Scarce a family seemed to have escaped. One Mayor of Doncaster lost two of his sons. An Alderman lost two, and was within an ace of losing a third. A councillor lost one. The Vicar of Doncaster lost one. Every Hall and Mansion knew the sound of mourning, as well as the humblest cottage. The very first casualty to reach the town was that of the son-in-law of Brigadier-General and Lady Bewicke Copley, of Sprotbrough Hall, the second was that bright young man, Lieutenant Campbell, who had been adopted as Parliamentary candidate for Doncaster, and left the town hurriedly on the very August Bank Holiday that war was declared – to die in less than a month in the Retreat from Mons. Nearly every country parsonage gave of its sons; and in every street in the town, in every village and hamlet, the sons of the people were numbered amongst the slain – all of them, rich and poor, high and low, dying side by side, and mingling their blood in the crimson earth that now covers their shattered forms. We calculate that in the Doncaster area alone, as revealed in the published casualty list, we lost over 5000 of our young manhood, and of these about 140 were officers.

On the other side, Doncaster had its full share of honours and decorations. Colonel Moxon, who commanded the 5th K.O.Y.L.I., received the C.M.G. Six V.C’s came to the town and district. One of them went to Colonel Watson, who succeeded Colonel Moxon in the command of the 5th, and who was killed in action. Another went to a member of the Borough Police Force, P.C. Wyatt, a corporal in the Coldstream Guards; and another to Sergeant Calvert, a Conisborough lad, a soldier of the 5th. Two of these local heroes were adequately honoured by being entertained to complimentary banquets at the Mansion House by the then Mayor. The D.S.O. was won by about twelve Doncaster Officers and, in addition, about 300 local soldiers or sailors received the Military Cross, or the Military Medal, or the Distinguished Conduct Medal; while there were others who received Italian, French, Belgian and Russian decorations. Among the recipients of Russian decorations was Mrs Balmforth, who received the Order of the Empress Alexandra for organising a Russian Flag Day during her period of office as Mayoress. Finally, the commandants and medical officers of the V.A.D. Hospitals, and the Chief of the Special Constables, received the insignia of the Order of the British Empire.

The town had its great days and its sad days – its intercession days and its solemn services at the Parish Church, the chief of which was that on the occasion of the death of Lord Kitchener. Few readers will remember yet the farewell when the Doncaster Engineers left the town on the completion of their period of training, and they will contrast those times with the mighty outburst of joy on Armistice Day. Since then there have been Peace Days, and moving services of praise at the Parish Church for the victory won; and we should not forget the dinners at the Mansion House to every returned soldier who had been a prisoner of war abroad, nor the grwat display when the 5th sent over from France for their Regimental Colours to be used on the triumphal march into Germany.

There were many things in Doncaster which once reminded us of the war. The Arnold Military Hospital, although closed, but the building, under the name St. George’s Hospital, was latterly used for disabled and pensioned soldiers; and if the familiar ‘blue uniform’ of the wounded warrior was no longer to be seen in the streets, there was the daily spectacle of these ailing and shattered men walking slowly to St. George’s for medical treatment. Our schools and public buildings reverted to their original uses. Every school in the town was claimed for the accomodation of troops, and it would have been a good thing if the corporation at the time could have placed a tablet in every school giving the names of the various regiments there billeted. It would impress the great fact of the war upon the mind of the rising generation in a manner not to be forgotten.

Outside the former site of Doncaster Museum at Beechfield, a tank, “Danum”, stood as a grim reminder of the war. It was given to Doncaster by the government in recognition of the large amount of money raised in the town for the prosecution of the fight. Inside the museum is a monster steel shell, polished like silver and bearing an inscription. This was presented to the community for the same reason as the tank. The Cenotaph stands proudly on Bennetthorpe, at the gates of Elmfield Park and in the Mansion House a massive brass panel, given by Councillor Balmforth, who was Mayor during the two most strenuous years of the war, commemorates the Doncaster Division of Engineers, and gives the names of those of its members who died. A memorial somewhat similar is erected in the Parish Church to perpetuate the parishioners who gave their lives.

- Ernest Philips.

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2 responses to “Great War 1914-1919

  1. A bit of background: Neil Ferguson, in his book “The Pity of War,” reports that during the early months of 1914 the German industrialist Hugo Stinnes had established the Union Mining Company in Doncaster. This is an indication of how far from the thoughts of those on either side was the prospect of a war.

  2. This came to me recently so I have added it here rather than make changes to the article:
    Dear Sir

    On your website http://doncasterhistory.co.uk/local-history-3/military-doncaster/great-war-1914-1919/ you claim that Colonel Watson VC was from Doncaster

    On the other side, Doncaster had its full share of honours and decorations. Colonel Moxon, who commanded the 5th K.O.Y.L.I., received the C.M.G. Six V.C’s came to the town and district. One of them went to Colonel Watson, who succeeded Colonel Moxon in the command of the 5th, and who was killed in action. Another went to a member of the Borough Police Force, P.C. Wyatt, a corporal in the Coldstream Guards; and another to Sergeant Calvert, a Conisborough lad, a soldier of the 5th.

    I would like to know why you believe Colonel Watson was/is a Doncaster VC.

    Also, we would like to point out some serious ommissions of WW1 Doncaster VC’s

    Thomas Bryan VC (Lived in Bentley)
    William Hackett VC (Lived in Mexborough)
    GSM Insall VC (Lived in Scrooby)

    You already mentioned Calvert VC & Wyatt VC as being from Doncaster, this is correct.

    There is also a WW2 VC JW Harper VC (Only Doncaster born VC)

    Kind Regards
    Chairman – Victoria Cross Trust.
    http://www.victoriacrosstrust.org/

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