The often overlooked history of the Home Front during the Great War is explored in a fascinating new exhibition about life in a Dales community. Rob Hawley reports.
The horrors of the First World War, especially the terrible suffering of the soldiers in the trenches, are quite rightly at the forefront of people’s minds at the centenary of the Armistice.
But there is another, almost forgotten, story of the war which is now gaining attention. This is the history of the Home Front and how towns, villages and farming hamlets organised, endured and coped.
At Craven Museum, in Skipton, a four-year effort to piece together the lost history of Dales life on the Home Front has produced a fascinating new exhibition, Craven at War, which sheds light on wartime life in Yorkshire a hundred years ago.
Rob Freeman, the exhibition’s curator, is delighted with the way it has plugged gaps in the public’s knowledge. “We received a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, and it’s enabled us to carry out research over the four years of the war’s centenary,” he says.
“We’ve seen a big growth of interest in our findings. The First World War heritage of this part of Yorkshire is in a much stronger position than it was before the centenary.” He’s right, too. Public interest was first stirred by the excavation of Raikeswood Camp in Skipton, the training ground for the Bradford Pals which became a prisoner of war camp holding German officers during the last year of the conflict.
Residents of the housing estate which now covers the site were amazed to have archaeologists request to look under their gardens for clues from a vanished world. “Raikeswood Camp didn’t feature in the history of Skipton at all,” Freeman says. “Now that’s all changed.”
Rural areas such as Craven had to deal with the tribulations of war the same as any major city, and the heartbreaking tales of loss were just as common. But one striking point which the exhibition throws up is the amount of extraordinary men and women these Dales villages produced.
Individuals such as Theodore Bayley Hardy, priest and headmaster of Bentham School, who became the war’s most decorated non-combatant, and Harry Gilbert Tunstill, county councillor of Otterburn, who recruited scores of men for the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, ever after known as “Tunstill’s Men”. Settle-born Bertram Lambert invented the gas respirator while Herbert Smith of Bradley designed the Sopwith Dolphin.
However, despite great popular support for the war effort, the exhibition demonstrates that in many ways Britain was a more divided country than we perhaps realise. White feathers were waved at non-combatant men, with one woman in Skipton hounding a 60-year-old even though he had seen service in Afghanistan.
Big protests erupted over the new drinking hours imposed by the government and war fever mixed with paranoia: railway lines and reservoirs were guarded against spies and saboteurs while in Settle it was rumoured that the local Catholic priest (a German by birth) was sending signals to Germany using the cross outside his church!
But nothing stirred up antagonism and division more than the subject of those who refused to fight – the conscientious objectors, widely referred to as “conchies”. Their tales are among the exhibition’s most fascinating.
The strong tradition of Quaker and other non-conformist denominations in these Dales villages ensured a good number of pacifists who rejected conscription. Tribunals were set up to hear their cases, and ‘‘alternativists’’ (who might do some useful war work) were sifted from ‘‘absolutists’’ (who refused all participation).
Many were sent from their Dales homes to serve two years’ hard labour in prison. Yet the contribution of Quakers who did help the war effort was staggering. The Friends Ambulance Unit was created, as was the Friends War Victims Relief Committee. This led to field ambulances, field hospitals and hospital ships all run by Quakers. Luckily much evidence for this work has survived in the photographs of the Horner brothers of Settle.
Incidentally, one brother, Wilfred Horner, helped scotch the commonly held notion that Quakers were cowards when news reached home of his bravery in evacuating wounded men from a Flanders battle zone under fire. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre.
Remarkably, one area which united opinion far more than today was in the treatment of refugees. Belgians who had fled the German advance arrived in Britain in great numbers, and were warmly welcomed. After all, these were the ‘‘plucky Belgians’’ Britain had pledged to defend. The Duke of Devonshire housed a party of them at his Bolton Hall residence at Bolton Abbey, while many of the villages of the Dales also received their share of refugees. A furnished house was provided in Settle, and jobs and school places were offered.
The exhibition gives much attention to the aftermath of war, from the demobilisation and reintegration of men to the debates and controversies over how the war should be marked, what memorials would be appropriate. The memorial at Skipton was eventually commissioned after, of all things, a captured German tank had been considered and then rejected.
The emotional cost of the war pervades all these artefacts and stories. The loss of horses to the military was a blow to many. The children of Hetton, distraught to lose the much-loved work-horses Captain and Blossom, plaited tufts of their manes for a keepsake. They never saw their horses again. But the agonies of families who lost loved ones can hardly be imagined. It is impossible not to be touched by the thought of the mother of Edward Carr Dawson who would go to the fell top whenever the steam train pulled into Clapham station, hoping to see her son (lost in action) plodding up the valley towards home.
Yet perhaps the lasting image people will take away from the exhibition is that of Old Ted, a teddy bear long in the possession of the descendants of Mary Mills of Skipton. Posted to Mary from a relative in America, the ship Old Ted was on was sunk by a U-boat in the Irish sea.
Little is known about the teddy bear which was found from the wreckage in an addressed parcel and duly posted on as though nothing had happened. Now, a century later, Old Ted seems somehow an appropriate symbol for the minutiae of Home Front life which Craven Museum’s exhibition has revealed.
The Craven at War exhibition runs until November 24 at Craven Museum, Skipton. Entry is free.