The slaughter begins

A rare image reproduced from the Scarborough Evening News in August 1914. "Young men perfecting their bodies" inside the gymnasium of the Municipal School at Westwood.
A rare image reproduced from the Scarborough Evening News in August 1914. "Young men perfecting their bodies" inside the gymnasium of the Municipal School at Westwood.
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Written by Dr Jack Binns

During the last week of August 1914 the European war gradually began to make deeper inroads into civilian Scarborough. Though received, official news of the fighting in Belgium and France was still vague, patchy and euphemistic, at least townspeople eventually became familiar with the names of two places where the BEF had met the Kaiser’s army head-on.

As yet there had been no interruption or curtailment of Scarborough’s summer entertainment, but the presence of so many soldiers was beginning to have effect. Scarborough’s publicans were warned by the North Riding’s licensing authority to keep their military customers in order. They were told not to serve men in uniform after 9pm and public houses in Newby, Scalby and at Scalby Mills were declared out of bounds to soldiers.

The summer sporting programme continued as usual. On Monday, August 24, the Scarborough Evening News published one of its rare photographs, taken inside the gymnasium of the Municipal School at Westwood. During the school’s summer holiday the gym was made available to “young men” who here were caught “perfecting their bodies” on the wall bars. How many of them would soon be putting their bodies to unfamiliar and unforeseen tests of endurance and courage?

Three days later, the same newspaper printed an outdoor picture of two ladies playing bowls on Manor Road’s crown green. There they were competing against each other for the Hospital Cup, which had reached its third round. The caption explained that after Miss Smith had defeated Mrs Cass she would go on to play Mr Cass, last year’s winner, pictured wearing a straw hat. Looking closely on the competitors was referee, Mr Ben Harvey, a previous winner and senior member of the Borough Bowling Club. (The Hospital Cup had been donated in 1902 by Mayor William Morgan, proprietor of the Aquarium and president of Scarborough Hospital on Friars’ Way. A tournament open to all-comers, who played handicapped singles 25-up, it raised many thousands of pounds every year and continued to run during the war.)

News, as distinct from official War Office releases, of the fighting taking place in Belgium slowly filtered through. On August 20 there was the first press admission that the German army had swept right across the country “with great rapidity”; that the Belgian army had fallen back all the way to Antwerp; and that Brussels had been occupied. Formerly a “mad dog” free from his chain, the Kaiser had now become “a veritable Shylock”, imposing a war tax of £11 per head on the people of the Belgian capital. As yet, there was still no information about the British Expeditionary Force. Had British soldiers been in action yet? Where were they now? Were they supporting the French or out on a limb, fighting independently? Even the war correspondent of The Times complained that he was in the dark.

Suddenly, and at last, on Tuesday, August 25, came the news of 2,000 British casualties during an engagement lasting 36 hours. Since then, after their right flank had been nearly turned as a result of a French withdrawal, the BEF had “successfully reached its new position”. The word “retreat” was still not used.

The following day brought more graphic details. At a place called Mons, the men in khaki had made an heroic stand against huge odds. With “wonderful marksmanship” and “great coolness and daring”, they had borne the brunt of the German onslaught. German infantry losses had been enormous; before the British firing line there had been “a veritable hecatomb” (slaughter heap) of German dead and dying.

For further details of what had happened, the Scarborough readers had to wait until Monday, August 31. On the basis of a release from the Press Bureau issued by the War Office, the Evening News was able to report that the Kaiser’s troops had suffered great losses and had been thrown into disorder by the “splendid valour” of the BEF. British casualties during the four days of continuous battle from August 23-26 were put at between five and six thousand, but the enemy had lost far many more.

The first reference was made to a location called Le Cateau, where German cavalry had been routed and no British guns had been abandoned except those that had had their horses killed. (In fact, 38 pieces of artillery were surrendered and in 11 hours of combat the BEF had left behind 8,000 men, a fifth of its strength.)

Again, the demoralising word “retreat” was not employed. Only by reading between the lines and referring to a map of the area would a reader realise that the men in khaki were in headlong flight and in very real danger of being overwhelmed by superior numbers. Le Cateau was 36 miles south of Mons. In a matter of days the war could have been over and lost.

One notable victim of the war at Scarborough was the annual cricket festival. Despite desperate appeals from Mayor Graham, the earl of Londesborough and the Town Clerk, the MCC reluctantly decided at the end of August not to send teams the following month to Scarborough. After an exchange of telegrams, Lord Hawke, president of the MCC, wrote to the festival organisers that in the circumstances such an occasion would be too hurtful to the feelings of some of the public. A continuous sequence of 38 years was broken.

Up to this time, with the war already nearly five weeks old, nothing much had been written about Scarborough’s own direct involvement. More attention had been given to the season than the slaughter that was happening in Flanders. However, the third special Sunday War Edition of August 30 contained an editorial promise to publish the names of Scarborough and local men who were actively engaged in war service; and an incomplete, provisional alphabetical list of names, units and addresses was printed in the Tuesday, September 1, Evening News. It makes interesting reading.

[To be continued next week]