NOTES ON THE FIRST WORLD WAR
First World War, or the Great War as it was sometimes called, was declared
in August 1914 and lasted until August 1918 and all that time I was at the
High School because in the spring of 1914 I sat the examination for a
County Major Scholarship. After written and practical tests and an
interview I was successful and in September 1914 became a scholar at the
Pontefract and District Girls High School.
uniform was compulsory and consisted of a brown serge box-pleated tunic
with a brown braid girdle, a cream coloured cotton blouse and a brown
hair was not the fashion in those days so we had to have it
plaited or tied back with a brown ribbon. In winter we wore a
brown cloth ‘pork-pie’ cap with a brown and white school
badge. In summer we wore a ‘straw-boater’ with a brown and
white ribbon band with the school badge. We carried our books etc.
in a brown shoulder satchel made of leather or canvas. Carrier
bags or haversacks or other containers were not allowed.
were no buses running at that period in time and only the very
rich had cars, so the girls from Knottingley, where I lived,
travelled by steam train to Tanshelf Station on the old Lancashire
and Yorkshire Railway and then walked up the hill to school.
school is still there, but is now a sixth form college. It had only been
opened and its size and facilities were in marked contrast to the old
Church School I had attended until then. It was a two storied building
with the classrooms, head teachers room, staff room and cloakrooms
downstairs and the Science Laboratory, Art Room and Domestic Science and
Dining Room upstairs. There was no telephone. One stormy windy day, one of
the windows in the School Hall blew in and the shattered glass cut me near
my eye and on my wrist. Because the school had no telephone a member of
staff had to brave the elements and walk into town for a doctor who came
and stitched my wounds and took me home in his car! We girls were not
allowed to enter by the front door, this privilege was reserved for the
teaching staff and visitors. We entered through the cloakrooms at the back
and were never allowed to play at the front of the school at any time!
Before going to our classrooms we had to change our outdoor shoes for
plimsolls which were called ‘sand-shoes’ then. At night, these were
put in our shoe bags and hung on a peg.
discipline was strict in comparison with today, but there were few
disciplinary problems as obedience, courtesy and good behaviour were
insisted upon always. If however, you did offend you were kept in after
school or were given a black mark called an order mark and these were
recorded on your end of term report.
of food rationing, the school dinners which cost 7d per day, were adequate
but not exactly desirable or delicious, especially the maize milk puddings
which looked and tasted awful! (After all, we feed our hens on maize!)
Each form had its own mistress but each subject was taught by staff
specially qualified in that subject.
subjects we were taught were Scripture, English Language, English
Literature, Poetry, Maths, French, Algebra, Geometry, Science, Botany,
Art, Singing, Needlework, Domestic Science and P.E. We had homework to do
every night and sometimes in the holidays too. Miss Gaustic was the Art
Mistress. She also taught at Castleford Grammar School where the famous
sculptor Henry Moore was one of her pupils. She used to tell us that Khaki
and Black were lovely colours but I don’t think many of us agreed. Our
P.E. mistress was the daughter of the Headmaster of Ackworth Quaker
School, Mr. Andrews. He wrote our first School Song. By today’s
standards it might seem rather setimental, but we sang it with great
gusto, especially the chorus which incorporated the school motto
‘Veritas Via Vitae’ which means ‘Truth, the way of life’.
can still recall my utter amazement on first seeing Miss Andrews, a very
tall lady in a short term gym slip above her knees. I was only used to
seeing ladies in the longer voluminous skirts which came below their
outdoor games we played were Basketball, Hockey, Tennis and Cricket. I was
in the cricket team because I could run fast and throw the ball a long
way. Occasionally on Saturdays we played home and away matches with the
Castleford and Normanton Grammar Schools. Each year we had a gym display
when the chosen agile ones demonstrated their skills.
only things I remember doing in Domestic Science were scrubbing the
already clean wooden table-tops with a mixture of soft soap and silver
sand, learning to set the tale correctly and the correct procedure in
washing up. I think that maybe we did some simple cooking but because of
rationing and the scarcity of food, it would have been very little.
needlework we made a sampler on a piece of white cotton material with
examples of tacking, hemming, running stitch, seaming, tucking, felling,
gathering and frilling, plus decorative stitches…Herringbone,
Feather-Stitch, Daisy Stitch and French Knots. The Placket was the most
difficult to do with its button-holes and buttons which had to be sewn on
correctly. I can’t remember making a garment but if we did I think it
must have been a blouse. When we reached the age of sixteen we all took
the School Certificate Examination. This was the equivalent of ‘O’
levels today. We could not choose the subjects we would take, we had to
take them all.
Annual Speech Day and prize giving was a great event in the school
calendar. The governors of the school would be there and a specially
invited guest speaker also presented the prizes, which were always books.
These were given to the top girl in each form and to anyone who had won a
County Major or a County Women’s Scholarship. I was one of the latter
and I received my prize (The Oxford Book of English Verse) from Miss Amy
Walmsley, the principal of the Bedford Froebel Training College to which I
later went for three years to train as a teacher of young children.
the school magazine was published and if our efforts were printed we were
books were every popular and if you were very brave you asked members of
the staff to contribute something. I never had that courage! The
headmistress always wrote;
the Christ, the King
Live pure, speak true, right wrong
Follow the King
Else, wherefore born?"
wonderful advice to give anyone.
and large our school life was not disrupted by the war but our home life
was very different. Every family had someone in the Army, Navy or the
Flying Corps, a father, husband, son, brother, uncle or cousin and their
absence was a great cause of fear and anxiety, as often, after a short
course of training, they were sent abroad to fight or to serve at sea in
various kinds of warships. Often, because of war conditions, their
families at home did not hear from them for long periods of time and this
increased the anxiety. Any letters the forces could manage to send were
strictly censored in case they contained any information which could be of
use to the enemy. A great number of men were killed or wounded, went
missing, were lost at sea or taken prisoner.
newspapers gave accounts of the fighting on land and sea when it was safe
to do so, but of course they could not give details of these happenings at
the time they were taking place for security reasons, so the information
we did get was not very informative or up to date. The press also
published long lists of names and the Regiments of those who were killed
in action, wounded or taken prisoner or missing. People at home eagerly
scanned these lists, hoping and praying that the names of their loved ones
would not be there. Those who were wounded badly were brought back to
England to the military hospitals for treatment. As the number of
casualties rose, Stately Homes and other large houses and buildings were
commandeered and used as hospitals. Voluntary workers were established to
go and help where they could. They rolled bandages and helped the nursing
staff and patients where possible. The wounded who were not bed-fast wore
hospital uniform. This was bright blue trousers and jacket, white cotton
shirt and red tie. When the wounded recovered and they were fit to fight
again they went back into the forces otherwise they were discharged and
war was first declared Recruitment Offices were opened and hundreds of
thousands of men flocked there to join the forces. They were all medically
examined and if they were found to be fit and healthy they were accepted.
They then took up what was called the ‘King’s Shilling’ by which
token they swore to serve their King and Country faithfully and to the
best of their ability. Then they were sent to camps and barracks where
they were trained in the Military Arts of warfare.
were those however who believed that all war was wrong and they refused to
go and fight. These men were called Conscientious Objectors. Some of them
were put in prison and others directed into jobs that did not entail
actual fighting. These conscientious objectors were sometimes hated and
despised by many people, especially by those who had men-folk in the midst
of the fighting, and when they met they were called cowards and spat at.
Others were given or sent a white feather which is a symbol of cowardice.
This happened in 1916 when our losses were so great Conscription was
brought in by which men of 18 to 20 years were ‘called up’ and if
found to be medically fir, were drafted into the forces. Later, the age
range was changed and older men still were called up. Highly skilled men
were not sent to fight but were put to work on munitions, making weapons
of war such as guns, tanks, shells, bullets, bombs and other things
necessary to wage war.
power and aeroplanes had not been developed to the extent that they are
today, so air raids were not so heavy or as frequent, but the Germans had
long cigar shaped airships called Graff Zeppelins which carried and
dropped bombs on our country at night. They came over the South and
South-East area of England mostly, dropping their bombs hoping to destroy
harbours, ports, ships and factories, but they were not able to aim their
bombs very accurately and though some destruction was caused it was
nothing like that in the Second World War. Nevertheless, they were a great
source of danger and fear. One night, a Zeppelin came over Pontefract and
dropped a bomb in the park not far from the High School. During the dinner
hour the next day, some of us climbed the boundary wall and ran to see the
crater it had made and then raced back before the bell rang for our
lessons. Because of the fear these Zeppelins engendered, many people in
Knottingley used to take blankets and rugs and went to the open country to
a place called ‘Kings Standard’ and spent the night there. It must
have been very cold, uncomfortable and wearying. They couldn’t build
fires to keep warm because a complete blackout had been enforced. No light
of any kind had to be visible at night anywhere, from factories, stations,
hospitals, streets, houses, shops and churches. When there was no moon it
was indeed very, very dark and quite frightening. I well remember bumping
my forehead badly on the gate post when accompanying my mother to the
grocer shop!. Our country had small biplanes which had a Lewis gun mounted
on the wing and could carry small bombs which were just dropped over the
side. Their speed I am told was about 90mph, nothing like the fighters and
bombers of today.
1917, America came into the war on our side. Germany had stepped up their
submarine warfare and many of the American ships carrying cargoes of all
kinds to Britain were torpedoed and sunk with great loss of life and
cargoes and ships. The help we received from America was of inestimable
value and helped to shorten the war.
the Germans overran Belgium many refugees were brought to the British
Isles. Some of these refugees were housed in Knottingley and before their
first Christmas there, the girls at the High School were asked to give a
dress, a doll or to make some other toy for them. I remember clearly that
I dressed my doll in a cream satin dress with a pale blue ribbon sash!
These clothes were most likely made from remnants from the Fent Cart.
in business during the war carried on as best they could. With all the
shortages of goods and sometimes of labour, this was not easy. My father
managed somehow to keep going, but some who could not replace their stocks
had a hard time and had to close down.
hardship for those left at home was the rationing of foodstuffs; butter,
cheese, lard, eggs, sugar, meat and bacon were all rationed. The amount
allowed for each person was very small and it was difficult to make them
last a week. Bread was mostly made at home when I was young and during the
war, because of the quality of the flour available, it was almost
impossible to make a decent loaf, scone or tea cake. The bread was the
darkest grey colour, and the loaves often had a big hole in them. Anything
which usually came from abroad was in very short supply or unobtainable,
partly because of German submarine warfare and partly because the ships
needed to bring them were being used for carrying war materials. Fruit of
all kinds; oranges, lemons, bananas, sultanas, raisins, dates, (plus rice
and sago) were very scarce and for many foodstuffs we had to depend on
what could be grown at home and anyone who had the space was encouraged to
grow whatever they could and there were large posters everywhere saying
‘Dig for Victory’.
the war there was a widespread epidemic of Asian Flu when thousands of
people died almost daily. This made the anxiety, fear and deprivation much
greater and harder to bear.
time went by, the allies gradually gained the ascendancy over the enemy
and they finally admitted defeat and a ceasefire was arranged and on
November 11th, 1918 at 11.00am the Armistice was signed and the war was
over. As you can imagine this brought a great sense of relief. People wept
for joy, the Church bells rang out and there was great rejoicing. Flags
were hoisted on every Church and Public Building, strung across the
streets and out of house windows. Crowds gathered everywhere, waving
flags, cheering, shouting, singing and dancing.
of Thanksgiving were held in Churches, parks and open spaces and though it
was November and the days were short, cold and misty, people seemed as
though they could not stay indoors and wanted to be about sharing their
jubilation with others.
morning the Armistice was signed my form at the High School were having a
lesson in the science laboratory and we were allowed to leave our stools
and go to the windows to see the Union Jack being raised on St. Giles
Church. This was a great concession as we were seldom allowed to move
about the room during lessons.
life began to get back to normal and the armed forces were gradually
demobilised and came home, but for millions and millions of people all
over the world life was never the same again. Some of the returning men
were badly disabled or so seriously wounded that they died. Some had been
blinded, some had lost arms and legs and some had their nerves shattered
and were shell-shocked. Others had been gassed for the Germans had
released poison gas against the troops. This badly affected their lungs
and weakened their chests and many died as a result of all this. Many were
never able to work again or support their families. These were granted a
war pension but this was not always enough for their needs.
alas, never came home again, they lie in unknown graves or cemeteries in
France, Flanders and Italy, or were lost at sea with their ships. After
the war, the small wooden crosses which marked their graves were replaced
with white headstones bearing the name, age, regiment and date of death of
the soldier. Wild red poppies grew all over these graves and so that red
poppy became the symbol of Remembrance for those who had sacrificed their
lives for their country.
there were so many men who could not be employed because of their
disabilities, Earl Hague, one of the war generals, founded the British
Legion in 1921. This was an organisation which provided services and
assistance for former members of the armed forces and is still in
existence. Many of these men were and are employed making artificial
poppies for sale to the public before November 11th to wear in
remembrance of those who died. They also make wreaths of poppies to be
laid at the cenotaph (which is a monument honouring the dead who are
buried elsewhere) and at memorial monuments all over the country. Every
year a remembrance service is held at the Cenotaph in London and her
Majesty the Queen lays a large poppy wreath there as do many other
John McCrae, who died in France through illness contracted during the war,
wrote a poem entitled ‘The Call’ and in all parts of the country this
poem or parts of it are spoken at each memorial service. For many years
after the war, a ‘two minutes silence’ was observed at 11am on every
11th November and people stopped whatever they were doing and bowed their
heads as they thought and prayed for all who had lost their lives in the
event which shocked the world was the execution of Nurse Cavell by the
Germans. During the war she worked in Belgium among the wounded prisoners
and helped some of them to escape. The Germans accused her of being a spy,
tried her and then shot her.
were given for bravery under fire, the Victoria Cross being the highest
award. All who had served in the forces were awarded a General Service
Medal, a Campaign Medal and a Victory Medal. Souvenirs treasured by the
soldiers, sailors and airmen and brought home included brass shell cases,
pieces of shrapnel, bullets, regimental badges, photos of people and
places, sailors cap ribbons and lanyards with whistle attached. We
children were overjoyed if we could get a regimental cap badge or a brass
button from a uniform which we polished and pinned on our coats. Much
prized were postcards from France which had brightly coloured flags of the
allies, flowers and messages embroidered in silk on them.
the war was over things gradually became more normal. Families were
reunited, there was no blackout and factories and mills that had been on
war work went back to producing the goods they made before hostilities
began. Travel by train and road became easier. Foodstuffs and other goods
were brought in from abroad. Food rationing was gradually ended and shops
were stocked up and became busy again, but four years of war, deprivation,
fear and loss left its mark on the people and the country so that Britain
and the British were never quite the same again.
were not conscripted but many volunteered to work in hospitals or
munitions factories. The latter assembled instruments and filled shells
with TNT explosive powder. This was very dangerous to life and health
because sometimes the explosive powder was ignited and there were big
explosions which killed or maimed anyone close by. Also this powder made
the faces and hands of those handling it turn yellow and some died from
the infection. Because food was rationed and scarce, Soup Kitchens were
opened in various places and those in want could go and get a bowl of soup
each day. These kitchens were run by Women Volunteers.