Nostalgia: Patriotism was incentive

Scarborough Town Hall where a recruitment committee met on October 22, 1915.
Scarborough Town Hall where a recruitment committee met on October 22, 1915.

By October 1915, young men from Scarborough and neighbouring villages were engaged on active wartime service all over the world. Sailors were on board Royal Navy ships patrolling the North Sea and Atlantic; supporting troops pinned down by the Turks on Gallipoli peninsula; clearing German minefields around British shores; and eliminating what little remained at sea of the Kaiser’s High Seas Fleet.

But most local men wore the army’s khaki and were members of local infantry and artillery, such as the many battalions of the Green Howards or the North Riding Battery. All of them, whatever their roles or ranks, were volunteers. After 15 months at war, Britain was still the only belligerent on either side that resisted conscription: it was a matter of historical national pride that patriotism was sufficient incentive for its men to fight and die for their homeland.

And in October 1915 dying was what so many of them were doing. Almost every day brought news to the town of more casualties. Every week The Mercury summarised the list of the dead and wounded and often showed blurred pictures of them. Since now there seemed to be no foreseeable end to this war, the nation was bleeding to death, permanently robbed of its youngest and best males.

Though voluntary enlistment, since the heady days of a year ago, had petered out, a national register drawn up in September 1915 revealed that there were still 1.5 million available men who had not yet offered themselves for service. So that now there was an increasingly popular demand for compulsory call-up. Why should the brave and the most worthy sacrifice themselves and their families for the protection of the cowardly? It was a simple matter of fairness.

The issue of conscription which dominated public debate was not one of practical necessity. There was no shortage of troops. Kitchener’s summons had raised more recruits than the nation’s workers could equip, at least until the end of 1916. The issue was mainly moral and political. Asquith, the prime minster of a coalition government, found himself caught between his own Liberals, who thought that compulsion was a denial of precious liberty, and Tories, who regarded enlistment as an honourable duty.

Outside the Cabinet, there was still strong resistance to conscription. The Labour party, the trade unions, the Irish Nationalists with 80 MPs in the Commons, and the Liberal press, notably the Manchester Guardian, all considered it “an admission of moral bankruptcy”.

As usual, Asquith fell back on conciliation and compromise; on October 5 he appointed Lord Derby the Director of Recruiting. His task was to draw up a scheme half-way between all-out compulsion and voluntary enlistment. All civilian males between the ages of 18 and 41 were invited to attest their willingness to join the armed forces. Married men were promised that they would not be required until all the single men had been recruited first. The Scarborough Evening News and The Mercury welcomed the Derby Scheme as “the last great effort for voluntaryism”, but conceded that if it failed conscription would be inevitable.

Accordingly, on October 22, a recruiting committee of Mayor Graham, the Town Clerk, the borough’s Aldermen, and two political representatives, one Liberal and one Conservative, first met in the Town Hall to make plans to implement the Derby Scheme. Only time would tell whether it would work.

Meanwhile, Scarborough was still trying to secure compensation from the government for its loss of revenue during the last two holiday seasons. Mr Walter Rea, the borough’s MP, had, according to The Mercury, been “unceasing in his endeavours” on behalf of the town’s claims and had secured a gift which would “create a silver lining in many homes”. The Mercury was misinformed: there was no money forthcoming from the Queen Mary fund for which Scarborians had applied.

Instead, Scarborough’s “silver lining” came suddenly from a most surprising source. A week later, the Canadian government offered a gift of a quarter of a million pounds “for the alleviation of distress in the watering-places on the East Coast” and Scarborough’s share was to be at least £30,000. The gift was announced in the House of Commons by Walter Long, President of the Local Government Board, on the same day that the London Times described Scarborough as “the worst hit of all the East Coast watering-places”.

In fact, Scarborough had suffered less war damage than other east coast communities such as the Hartlepools and Lowestoft, but “watering-place” seems to have resonated better than sea port or fishing town. Also, an examination of surviving statistics concerning public health and poverty reveals that the first 12 months of the war had not delivered the devastating blow as alleged by some and assumed by many.

On October 15, Dr John Selfe, the borough’s acting Medical Officer of Health, presented his report to the Streets and Sanitary department. During the last quarter, the number of illegitimate births had doubled from six to 13 compared with the same quarter in 1914; but in every other respect his figures showed a marked improvement. Infant mortality had fallen from 17 to four; deaths from phthisis (pulmonary tuberculosis) were down; and nearly all cases of scarlet fever and diphtheria had been treated successfully in the local sanitorium. No doubt the explanation, at least in part, was that since 1910, 1,243 privies had been converted into water closets.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, there is no evidence that pauperism was on the increase in Scarborough and district. In October 1915, there were 256 men, women and children receiving indoor care in Dean Road’s workhouse, 36 fewer than a year earlier. Nor had there been a rise in the number of households qualifying for “outdoor relief” in the form of clothing or coal.

It seems that Scarborough’s elected Board of Guardians had made no special concessions on account of the war and was in no mood to grant any in the future. A suggestion that the over 70s in the workhouse (there were then 69) should be allowed to keep their state pension of five shillings (25p) a week was immediately rejected out of hand.