by Dr Jack Binns
As late as Wednesday, July 29, 1914, according to the Scarborough Evening News, a European war was what other foreigners were having: and it was still confined to the faraway Balkans. Austria and Servia (then the spelling of Serbia) were fighting each other and, though Germany had rejected the British foreign secretary’s proposal to mediate between the parties, “Russia was showing restraint”. Either the Evening News was misinformed or wishful or both. Perhaps it was just because Scarborough’s busiest day of the year, August Bank Holiday Monday, was imminent. Marshall and Snelgrove announced that their final reductions in the summer sale would end the following Tuesday, August 4. Far more would be ending that day.
Even two days later, on Friday, July 31, the weekly Mercury was still trying to comfort and convince itself and its readers that a continental war did not include Britain: “Britain has no interests of its own directly at stake”, it declared. The season would not be affected, it said confidently. On the eve of Bank Holiday, the pile of advanced luggage at Scarborough railway station was as great as ever. The only consequence of a European war might be the inflation of food prices!
The following day, the Evening News was more concerned about the local weather than “the great war” that was “on the verge of breaking out”. After weeks of warm sunshine, broken briefly by thunderstorm, by Saturday, August 1, the skies were dull and damp. Where the sands and sea should have been crowded with visitors, they were almost deserted. Aquarium takings were breaking records, cabmen were pleased, but pleasure boatmen and open stallholders were not. The Scarborough Evening News was worried that the war would interrupt the herring trade and hold up imports of butter from Russia!
It was not until Sunday, August 2, that the dreadful truth began to dawn. A special edition of the Evening News came out at 5.30pm announcing that Germany had declared war on Russia, France had mobilised its army, and the Germans had invaded neutral Luxembourg. Would England be drawn in, it asked. Ominously, the stop press column on the back page was left blank.
Sure enough, a second Sunday special edition came out at 7.25 that evening. In the stop press column readers were told that the North-Eastern Railway had withdrawn all its forthcoming excursions to Scarborough for the next three vital days. The reason given was that the trains were needed to carry troops instead of day trippers. And just to confirm that all the great continental powers were now at war, a French aviator was said to have dropped bombs on Nuremburg and the German army was attacking the French frontier fortress at Longwy.
The next day, August Bank Holiday Monday, the Evening News was more cautious and astute in its assessment of the international crisis. “It is unwise to write about the war at present for any moment a complete change may come over the scene.”
So far only the herring fleet crews had been affected by the mobilisation of the Naval Reserves and, rather than pay heavy premiums on war insurance, Hull trawlers had been recalled. Undoubtedly, the biggest blow yet to Scarborough had been the cancellation of NER excursion trains, but if war came “the ruin would be absolute”.
In some of Scarborough’s churches there was strong agitation for British neutrality. The Primitive Methodists at Claremont, St Sepulchre, Jubilee and Gladstone Road resolved unanimously that war would be a moral disaster for the country. Albemarle’s Baptists, the Unitarians and, of course, Scarborough Friends agreed that it would be “a crime against Christendom”. No such certainty was expressed by the Wesleyans and Anglicans who were saving their powder; but the archbishop of York, preaching in the Minster, deplored what he called “this lust for war” and declared that “we had no share in the quarrel”.
However, the Unionist Conservatives were sure what might have to be done. The previous Saturday, in the grounds of the Glen, Mr WHL Holdsworth’s residence at Scalby, the local leaders of the party had held their summer rally. The principal speaker there was the Hon Edward Wood MP (1881-1959), later Viscount Halifax and British foreign secretary. If Germany attacked France, he said, we would have no choice but to intervene. There then followed a long history lesson from Mr Gervase Beckett (1866-1937), MP for Whitby, banker and proprietor of the Saturday Review.
Britain, he admitted, could no longer stand alone in the world; “splendid isolation” was an “exploded theory”. Our people could not even feed themselves and the Royal Navy no longer ruled the waves on every ocean and sea. We had a debt of honour to the French, whose fleet was safeguarding the Mediterranean in our interests. In their hour of need they needed us. They would never forgive us if we abandoned them. The address was overlong, but sensible and accurate. (In December 1918, after Whitby and Scarborough had become one parliamentary seat, Sir William Gervase Beckett was returned as its Commons Member).
So Scarborough’s Monday Bank Holiday was partly overshadowed by war clouds. Deprived of the service of as many as 15 NER excursion trains (only five others actually arrived), the traditional raucous gaiety in the town’s public houses was rather subdued.
Nevertheless, signs of the impending cataclysm were few, scattered and relatively small.
Central Schools were to be offered to the military authorities to accommodate returning local Territorials, the Fifth Yorkshires, who had been in camp in North Wales. The Arcadia, Olympia and Grand Picture House, all on the Foreshore, were warned to be ready, if necessary, to receive troops from an overcrowded Burniston Barracks. And, ominously, Scarborough corporation was instructed to make all its picks, shovels and wheelbarrows available for military requisition. Were they to dig trenches, bury the dead or both?