“They sacrificed their lives without question,” says Barbara Weatherill, of the men who paid the ultimate price during the First World War.
A Royal British Legion ambassador, 93-year-old veteran Barbara met Prime Minister Teresa May in London for the launch of this year’s Poppy Appeal. “I think it is tremendously important, I really do. I hope that the Poppy Appeal continues for many years to come, long after my generation are gone, because these young men who died so selflessly and needlessly, we owe them a debt we will never be able to repay.”
In the centenary year of the end of the Great War, the Legion is leading the nation is saying thank you to the generation that “served, sacrificed and changed our world” from 1914 to 1918...people like Barbara’s parents.
Her father, John Crorken, signed up aged 15 in 1914, becoming a member of the Northumberland Fusilier Infantry. Her mother, Rosa, joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corp in 1917. Having been in domestic service as a housemaid since leaving school, she was put in charge of Officers’ Mess catering at camps in Staffordshire and Northamptonshire.
John also remained in the UK; he was pulled out from going abroad to serve, after Barbara’s grandfather flagged up that he was underage, and was instead put into the regimental band as a drummer. “I think my father was a bit annoyed because he wanted to go with all his pals,” she says. “But he was spared from going abroad and a lot of the regiment was wiped out in really bloody battles.”
Conscription was not introduced until 1916, with Britain initially relying on volunteers to enlist. In a move to try and recruit greater numbers of soldiers, men were encouraged to sign up with friends, relatives, neighbours and colleagues, forming what became known as ‘Pals Battalions’.
“They had often grown up together, gone to school together, worked together and then they joined up together. And they died together. That left an awful lot of young women with no prospects of marriage,” says Barbara, of Barlby near Selby. “It was tragic in many ways. It almost wiped out a generation of would-be children.”
In 1943, four years into Second World War, Barbara, then 17, signed up to the forces herself. “I didn’t think for a minute my parents would let me go,” she recalls. “Eventually, I got mum and dad together and said I wanted to join one of the women’s services and asked what did they think...“I played my trump card and said ‘look you were both in the army in the First World War’ and dad looked across at mum and said ‘she’s got you there Rosa’.”
She was accepted into The Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s branch of the army, and after training, became a driver with the anti-aircraft command of the Royal Artillery.
“I trained as a driver mechanic. Anything that needed moving be it personnel, high explosives, machines, we girls moved it,” she says.
“There was a wonderful comradeship. We were all there to do the same thing. We were all from different walks of life, different age groups but we were doing the same job, wearing the same uniform.”
Come 1945, she was then sent to Scotland with the Royal Army Service Corps, driving an ambulance attached to the Royal Army Medical Corps, before being moved to north Wales as an instructor at an army driving school. She was demobilised at York in September 1946.
Now the only female Second World War member of the York branch of the Royal Artillery Association, Barbara, who married Stan, a member of RAF aircrew during the war, after the conflict and went on to have four children, has given talks up and down the country on her experiences. “If we don’t tell it as it is then when we are gone, which won’t be many years, it is left only to the historians.”