Nostalgia: Contrasting view of life on the Front

Christ Church, Vernon Road, Scarborough
Christ Church, Vernon Road, Scarborough

By November 1915, even though the war was then 15 months old, the civilians at home in Britain were only just beginning to realise the enormity of what was happening across the Channel. East coast North Sea and Channel ports and resorts, from the Hartlepools to Dover, which had been shelled by battleships and bombed by Zeppelins, were only too aware of their vulnerability to further German attacks; but inland communities, particularly those in rural areas, had yet to suffer the heavy losses of their young men which would destroy their immunity and shatter their complacency.

When the 89th archbishop of York, Dr C Lang, visited Scarborough and district he made a point in his sermons of emphasizing this contrast. No one could have doubted his energy, stamina and commitment. On Friday evening, November 12, he arrived first at Cloughton. The following afternoon he spoke at Scalby and on Saturday evening he was present on Sandside to celebrate holy communion at the Mission to Seamen. He gave three sermons on Sunday: in the morning at St Mary’s, Scarborough; in the afternoon at St Martin’s on Ramshill; and at Christ Church, Vernon Road, that evening. On Monday, he followed an address at Holy Trinity with another later that day at All Saints’. Finally, on Tuesday, he made his first visit to St James’.

At all nine Anglican churches he acknowledged that Scarborough had endured more than any others in his archdiocese from the impact of the war; and he appealed to all those former residents who had left their homes there to return to the town as soon as possible.

Curiously, Dr Lang referred to places which, unlike Scarborough, were “cursed with prosperity”. Though he failed to name such locations, clearly he meant those industrial and manufacturing centres in the north of England now profiting from full employment and high wages, which stimulated “selfishness and self-indulgence”. It was a moral message not previously heard in war-scarred Scarborough.

Yet even in Scarborough there remained some who had only the vaguest understanding of the trench warfare their menfolk were experiencing in Flanders and on Gallipoli. On November 5, The Mercury reported that at the Balmoral hotel there was then an exhibition of “two tons of edibles and wearing apparel”, ready to be sent in 700 parcels to Scarborough men on active service abroad. Altogether, the cost of these Christmas gifts was about £600.

There were to be five different kinds of parcels to soldiers, sailors, “flying men”, minesweeper crews and prisoners of war in Germany. A list of their contents makes informative reading. All the parcels, except those to minesweepers, were to contain 25 cigarettes; all, except those to “flying men”, had chewing gum; all had a tin of toffee, a handkerchief, a box of stationery, a shirt and cake. All but the “flying men” were to have three candles and two boxes of matches. Only the sailors got “long stockings”. Only the soldiers and prisoners of war were sent Christmas cards. Oddly, all except the soldiers, were given “helmets”, presumably woollen balaclavas.

One Scarborough soldier who read the article about Christmas parcels in The Mercury when he “came out of the trenches” was a Regimental Sergeant-Major with the initials FB. His letter to the editor was published November 19. Very politely and almost apologetically, he suggested that as an infantryman he would like to make some alterations to the contents of the parcels for soldiers. As the next winter approached, he and his men had been issued with “trench boots” similar to those worn by fishermen. Ordinary army boots and puttees were quite inadequate to cope with flooded, muddy trench floors. He suggested that Christmas gift parcels should contain “long cycle-stockings to keep the feet warm, dry and free from frost bite”. Spare shirts and drawers were often discarded by front-line Tommies because “they had no room for them in their valises”. Also, when they came out for sleep and baths, they were usually given fresh, clean underwear. What FB might have mentioned was the omission of “helmets” from parcels for soldiers. During the first winter of 1914-15 on the Western Front, out in the open British soldiers had to resort to anything they could find to keep their heads warm and dry. Perhaps out of tact, FB did not refer to chewing gum!

Scarborough’s Christmas parcels were well-intentioned, but they were not packed with appropriate “wearing apparel”.Nor were the “edibles” well chosen. Soldiers at the front often went without nutritious, tasty food for several days and nights. A tin of toffee and a cake were hardly sufficient to sustain a soldier in Flanders. How much more would he have savoured a bar of chocolate, a tin of peaches or one of fish as a welcome change from the army’s monotonous ration of Maconochie’s tinned “beef and vegetables”.

Still, those charitable ladies in Scarborough who made up these Christmas gifts were not to know what their men needed most. They were the willing victims of government propaganda, censorship and press euphemism. In the same Mercury issue that printed FB’s letter was an account of the homecoming on eight days leave of Lance-Corporal Walter Hall of the Yorkshire Hussars. He was the second son of Mr and Mrs Hall of 74 North Marine Road with “many thrilling stories to tell”. The Mercury described him as “looking remarkably fit and well” which was hardly surprising since he said that he had been “well looked after” and wanted “absolutely nothing” during his seven months on active service. Indeed, according to the report, he might have been out in Flanders on a souvenir excursion, bringing back home “shell cases, shell noses and a smoke helmet”. Predictably, he was confident that the Allies would soon win a decisive victory.

A similar story was related by the Rev Keynier, an army chaplain, in a letter he had written to Archdeacon Mackarness at St Martin’s. All was well at the front: “the St Martin’s lads” were attending communion regularly as were all his communicants. He too had been collecting battle-field souvenirs which included the nose of a “whizzbang”, a high velocity, two-inch German shell that had landed only ten yards from him.

Such accounts of miraculous escapes, deeds of heroism and good humour in the trenches were all too typical in the local and national press of the time and along with the reticence of servicemen explain civilian self-deception.