THERE were, according to one local newspaper “Unparalleled scenes of excitement” in Doncaster when war broke out in 1914.
Such was the speed with which events unfolded both in London and Europe that people across the country had little time to comprehend the magnitude of what was happening.
Doncaster had a strong tradition of heeding the country’s call to arms that could be traced back to Saxon times, so when news spread that Britain was at war the town became a hive of activity. Several newspapers rushed out special “war editions”, while the railway station quickly became a focal point as mobilisation began.
The story of how the town responded is chronicled by local historian and writer Symeon Mark Waller in his new book Doncaster In The Great War, which charts the impact the conflict had.
Doncaster, like so many towns, was irrevocably changed by the war and Waller’s book is one of families torn apart and orphaned children running amok. It describes, too, the daily grind of life in the pits and munitions factories that played such a crucial, though often overlooked, role in Britain’s war effort.
In August 1914, however, the grim realities had yet to hit home and Doncaster was transformed into a military town as men from the Queen’s Own Yorkshire Dragoons and the West Riding Division gathered ahead of mobilisation.
Doncaster Grand Theatre was commandeered by the military authorities for billeting purposes, while two members of the cast of Australian Nell, which was being staged at the theatre that month, were called away to join the army reservists.
Amidst all the nervous excitement and the sea of new recruits, little thought was given to those family members who were being left behind.
But for all the bravado, there was a sense of sadness and uncertainty about the road that lay ahead, which is reflected in this eyewitness statement of a scene outside Doncaster station:
“On Wednesday morning stood a woman, bare-headed, holding in her arms a small child, staring through her tears blankly into space. ‘Where’s Daddy gone?’ piped the baby in a plaintive note.
“The answer was a fresh outburst of tears for Daddy had gone to Manchester to rejoin his regiment. The tear-stained woman was not alone, but perhaps the amazing part of the trend of events this week has been the phlegmatic indifference, and even the light-heartedness of both soldiers and civilians in Doncaster.”
It is perhaps difficult for us today to fully understand why war was greeted with such eagerness by so many people. But then, of course, the world (including Britain) was a much different place, and we have the benefit of a century of hindsight that has taught us that wars are both costly and rarely over quickly.
However, in 1914 the idea of fighting for “King and country” wasn’t the anachronism it’s since become. There was a sense of duty that is summed up by one Doncaster resident, Harold Begbie, who appealed to fellow locals to sign up through a poem called Fall In, which was published in the Doncaster Chronicle in October 1914, and includes the following lines:
How will you fare sonny, how will you fare, in the far off
winter’s night, when you sit by the fire in an old man’s chair, and your neighbours talk of the fight?
Will you slink away as it were from a blow, your old head
shamed and bent, or say - “I was not the first to go, but I went, thank God, I went.”
Doncaster In The Great War, by Symeon Mark Waller, is published by Pen & Sword, priced £9.99