Video: Moving tales from Harrogate at war

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Two brothers who went to war and the first professional footballer to enlist are just a couple of Harrogate’s moving stories from the First World War, as Chris Bond discovers.

IN many ways it’s a classic family portrait.

On the left is Eddie Chapman standing proudly in his sailor’s uniform while George, smartly dressed in a suit with one hand on his hip, stands on the other side with their little brother, Frederick, sandwiched in between.

The sepia-tinged photograph of the three boys was taken after the outbreak of the First World War. Both Eddie and George went off to fight for their country, Eddie joining the Royal Navy and George enlisting with the Machine Gun Corps, but neither returned, leaving their grieving brother behind.

The picture is one of many featured in a new exhibition at the Royal Pump Room Museum in Harrogate which tells the wartime experiences of people from the town. As well as using photographs, the exhibition – A Town At War: Harrogate during the First World War – includes letters and personal artefacts to help bring the stories to life.

Stories like those of the Chapman brothers. The museum’s social history curator Nic Baxter, who helped put the exhibition together, says Frederick’s son, Colin Chapman, leant them the picture and shed light on the fate of his two uncles. “Eddie served on HMS Queen Mary which was sunk in the Battle of Jutland in 1916 and he was sadly killed,” she says.

Among Eddie’s personal possessions sent back to his grieving family was a button from his Royal Navy tunic which George wore on his own uniform in memory of his brother until he, too, was killed at Ypres in 1918 – just a month before the war ended. “They were separated and both thrown into horrendous situations and we’re fortunate to have this little button which is a poignant connection between the two brothers.”

Among the stories unearthed are several about local Victoria Cross winners like Charles Hull and Archie White, who lived down the road in Boroughbridge. Harrogate man Donald Bell is another. He joined the West Yorkshire Regiment in November, 1914 and received his commission 12 months later. Before he signed up Bell had been a schoolteacher and also a footballer, playing with Bradford, and is cited as the first professional footballer to enlist with the army.

He was sent to the Western Front and was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery during the Battle of the Somme on July 5, 1916.

His citation says that when his company came under heavy enemy fire he crept up on a German communication trench and shot the machine gunner and destroyed the gun, as well as other enemy personnel with grenades.

However, Bell was killed just five days later. On July 10, his battalion and another from the Yorkshire regiment attacked and captured a village previously held by the Germans. He then led a raiding party to drive the enemy soldiers away, which helped safeguard his comrades position, but was killed in action.

To add to the tragedy he died just five weeks after marrying his sweetheart Rhonda Bonson.

The exhibition uses letters sent home to reveal what life was like for soldiers in the trenches and those on the front line, although this wasn’t just men. Betty Stevenson was born in York in 1896 and later lived in Harrogate. In January 1916, one of her aunts went to manage a YMCA canteen in northern France and Betty was determined to join her and do her bit, although at just 19 it was felt she was too young to be heading into a war zone.

Nevertheless, she left for France in February that year accompanied by her father and started work in her aunt’s canteen. Her mother joined them the following month and later described the work going on. “It was the one bit of happiness in the men’s lives there. It stood for home, and the decencies of home, and we knew it, and it helped us to keep going”.

Betty returned home in November, but returned to France in the spring of 1917 and travelled to Etaples, where she worked as a driver for the YMCA. In her diary she described what this was like. “I have been driving a relative about to and from hospital. Poor man, his son died just half an hour before I arrived to take him back to the hostel. This relative business is simply too pathetic for words. We have to drive them to the funerals.”

But Betty didn’t live to see the end of the war. On the evening of May 30, 1918, she was among a group of women being moved away from their camp so that they could spend the night in safety. During the journey they came under air attack and while sheltering at the side of the road she was killed and two others injured. Her death made the local Press in Harrogate which noted she was given a military funeral.

Amid the tragic tales there are uplifting stories of survival like that of Captain Henry Watson Lindsley, who was awarded the Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty” when he and a sergeant carried water from a shell-hole to put out the fire caused by the shelling of an ammunition dump, saving both lives and ammunition. He survived the war and became a civil engineer who helped build Harrogate’s market hall which opened in 1939.

For Baxter, these stories help us to understand what the war was like. “We know the over-arching story, but it’s important to understand what people went through and that’s what these personal stories do.”

• A Town At War: Harrogate during the First World War runs at the Royal Pump Room Museum, Harrogate, until the end of this year.