by Dr Jack Binns
Unless you happen to be a sadistic military planner there is never a good time to start a war, but the outbreak of the Great War in August 1914 could not have happened at a worse moment for sunny Scarborough: it was August Bank Holiday week.
It is true that the local press did report a number of disputes that disturbed the peace, but they were all domestic not foreign.
For instance, the militant Suffragettes (as The Daily Mail called them) were stepping up their campaign for votes for women. On July 3 in Nottingham a Bradford woman had to be forcibly removed from the court dock after she had noisily refused to recognise the authority of the magistrates. When arrested she had been carrying a suitcase containing firelighters, benzine, two electric flash lamps, four quarter pound packets of explosives, two feet of fuse, a detonator and maps.
Similarly, at Carnarvon, two ladies were charged with smashing windows at Criccieth when Lloyd George had been there. One of the accused took five warders to restrain her when she jumped from the dock; the other was said to have inherited a fortune of between £85,000 and £90,000. Both were imprisoned for three months.
The Suffragette movement was predominantly middle class with some aristocratic support.
More alarming to the establishment was the recent phenomenal growth in trade union membership and militancy. Rising living costs, low wages, unemployment and disillusionment with the new Labour party were all causes of a record number of local and national strikes. In 1913 alone there were nearly 1,500 stoppages and in 1914 the triple alliance of coalminers, railwaymen and port workers threatened to bring the whole country to a standstill. Distanced from the major industrial areas and dockyards, Scarborough was mostly insulated from labour unrest. In the press there were only a few, brief sporadic references to violent clashes in Keighley and London. Since industrial warfare on the eve of war seems not to have affected the textile, engineering and metal trades which provided Scarborough with most of its working class visitor income, perhaps this explains the town’s relative immunity. Of the 24 excursion trains bringing day trippers into Scarborough on Saturday, July 4, six were from Leeds, three from Sheffield and two from Hull. And the 14 trains that came into Londesborough Road station on July 24 brought only 4,000 happy employees of Burton’s Bass brewery.
The greatest and most imminent threat to civil law and order, the passage of the Third Irish Home Rule Bill, seems to have been generally ignored on the shore of the North Sea. At the time of the defeated First and Second Home Rule Bills in 1886 and 1893 there had been public riots in the town’s main streets as Liberal Home Rulers fought Conservative Unionists. But strangely, in 1914, the Third Bill aroused little passion in Scarborough, perhaps because this time there was to be no parliamentary election to decide the outcome. Walter Rea, the borough’s sitting Liberal MP, had kept his seat by only 52 votes out of 5,474 in December 1910, but he was safe until the end of 1915.
Before radio and television, many Scarborians might therefore have been unaware that after the Buckingham Palace conference of July 21-24, when all four parties, Ulster Unionists and British Conservatives faced Irish Nationalists and Liberal government ministers, had broken down, Ireland was on the brink of civil war.
Still, what did Scarborough know of Irish Catholic nationalism? Of the 23 places of Christian worship listed in the Scarborough Evening News of July 4, five Wesleyan, five Primitive, four Congregational, three Baptist and one of each of Unitarian, United Methodist, Spiritualist, Salvation Army, Quaker and Christian Scientist, there was no reference to Roman Catholics. Was this an example of sectarian intolerance, ignorance or mere indifference?
So was there no hint in the Scarborough press of the forthcoming carnage? Reports of the aftermath of the murder of Franz Ferdinand were few, short and desultory. On July 1, for example, the Evening News recorded that two corpses were being transported by battleship up the Adriatic coast past Split in Dalmatia. Five days later, their burial in virtual obscurity had been disrupted by a violent thunderstorm. There had been no state funeral for the duke and duchess because Sophie was only “a member of the ordinary nobility”. Only one event in Scarborough during July 1914 suggested that all might not be well.
On Saturday, July 11, the Evening News reported a meeting held the previous afternoon in the Grand Hotel. Its purpose was to consider whether Scarborough should form its own branch of the National Service League. President of the gathering was Mayor CC Graham.
The principal address was given by Major Drury, formerly of the Royal Marines, on behalf of the League and in the name of its founder, Earl Roberts, Britain’s most respected soldier and veteran of the Afghan and South African wars.
The major began by saying that war was far from unthinkable, given the fallibility of human nature. Ever since 1815 English men had become “less virile, more absorbed in business, pleasure, ease, comfort and luxury and far less concerned with safety, honour and the welfare of their sovereign and his dominions”. In other words, English men had gone soft, become complacent and lost love of their King and country.
The purpose of the National Service League, he continued, was to teach every man to shoot and to turn boys into real men. In August 1911 England had come close to war with Germany over the Moroccan crisis and if the country wanted to remain at peace it must prepare itself for war.
Anyone attending that meeting in the Grand Hotel was probably already a convert. It was agreed to form a Scarborough branch of the NSL, names were given in, and officers were to be elected later. Did even Major Drury suspect how prophetic his recruiting call had been?