Staring death in the face

Christ Church in Vernon Road, pictured just before its demolition in the 1970s, hosted the funeral of the town's first Volunteer serviceman.
Christ Church in Vernon Road, pictured just before its demolition in the 1970s, hosted the funeral of the town's first Volunteer serviceman.

Written by Dr Jack Binns

In the weeks following the heroic conduct from April 24 to 29, 1915, of the 5th Yorkshire Territorials at St Julien, more news of the price Scarborough’s young men had paid appeared in the local press. Their letters home, printed in The Mercury on May 7, 14, and 21, were surprisingly graphic, frank and detailed. Only place-names had been censored.

Several of Scarborough’s survivors described proudly how, after their withdrawal to a rest camp, they had been visited in person by Sir John French, commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force. For ten minutes he had addressed the battalion “and said words could not express his feelings for us”.

Private J Walker explained how the battalion had gradually moved forward into the battle zone. All Saturday night (April 25) they lay face down in waterlogged fields in pouring rain. On Sunday they were shelled heavily and continuously as they moved up into a dyke two feet deep in water and then dug in behind a hedge. The German shelling never stopped. By Monday the worst was over! Now they occupied a front-line trench only 300 yards from the enemy. “It’s not so bad being in the firing line. You don’t get the shells so much. They mostly go over our heads.” On Tuesday he wrote two letters in the trench and went to sleep there until nine the next morning. “We had to dig for water or do without.” On Wednesday they were relieved and fell back to farm billets.

Some of these Terriers made no attempt to disguise or moderate the ordeal they had endured and the fear that had gripped them. Private Reginald Wilson told his father at 1 Elmville Avenue.

No one can realise at home what is taking place here. It has to be seen to be believed, and really I cannot describe it to you... The five days I spent in the trenches were the most awful days of my life, dodging Jack Johnsons [heavy German shells], shrapnel and bullets amidst the constant banging of guns...I was staring death in the face for five days.

Reginald had two brothers in the army. Driver Arthur Wilson in the Army Service Corps was then stationed at Bradford and Private Jack Wilson was in the Royal Army Medical Service at Sheffield.

Those who had survived their first battle knew how lucky they had been. L/Cpl Sheader from Quay Street wrote: “I came through without a scratch, which is a God-send...Some of my old pals will never see the shores of England again.” Another told his friend living at 9 Mayville Avenue that “it was simply murder, it was nothing less than a miracle that I have been spared.”

Yet most of these chastened Scarborians put on a brave, cheerful face after their terrifying encounter with modern warfare. 
L/Cpl Pickup told his family at 12 Rothbury Street that he was in the best of health and that he thought the fighting would not last much longer!

Private Leslie Snowball assured his parents at 1 Oriel Crescent that after the battle he was now basking in “lovely warm weather” and the trees and hedges were in full leaf. Private H Clark from 3 George Street announced that he had a “good bath in the river yesterday and a washing day” and that now he was going to sit down and darn a few socks!

Perhaps the neatest conclusion came from a professional soldier. Private Walter Wright of the 2nd Battalion of the Green Howards wrote to his sister at 14 Spring Bank praising the Territorials. “I reckon people will stop calling them Saturday soldiers after this. I only wish we had a few thousand more of them.”

All these comforting letters came from young men “in the pink”, then a favourite expression. Relatives of the wounded or missing who had not received letters, postcards or official confirmation from commanding officers or hospitals, waited anxiously for news. Even junior officers were at a loss to know what had happened to some of their men.

And by May 10, after less than a fortnight’s rest and respite, the Fifth were back at the front in support trenches provided for them by the engineers.

If the citizens of Scarborough needed to be reminded of the sacrifices their men folk were making in Belgium, they might have been witnesses to the funeral of the town’s first Volunteer serviceman. On May 21, the burial took place of Private George Harold Bradley whose father, G Howe Bradley, lived at 5 Royal Avenue. He was only 20-years-old and had died of his wounds in a Huddersfield hospital.

The service was held at Christ Church and led by the vicar of Scarborough. Afterwards a lengthy cortege 
accompanied the coffin slowly through the town’s streets to a new plot in Manor Road cemetery.

Here there was a full military farewell. Buglers sounded The Last Post and soldiers of the Fifth fired a rifle volley over the grave.

He was the first of many more to come.

However, in May 1915, there were still many local fit young men wearing civilian clothes. Recruitment in the town, as elsewhere in the country, was relentless. On May 27 the regimental band of the Green Howards arrived in Scarborough by train from Malton having marched the last miles from Seamer station. That afternoon they played on the Foreshore and in the evening on St Nicholas Cliff.

The next day they took the train to Whitby. Their purpose was recruitment, not entertainment. The pressure on the area’s young men must have been almost irresistible. Rallies were taking place in every town and in Scarborough at the two regimental drill halls in North Street and Castle Road.

At the North Marine cricket ground there was a very well-attended parade of North Riding Volunteers, while one leading local madam declared that men still in civilian dress should be ostracised as cowards and traitors.