Written by Dr Jack Binns
In his novel set in Edwardian England and later made into a successful film, The Go-Between (1970), LP Hartley coined a memorable, frequently-quoted sentence: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Anyone today, a century later, believing that they understand the minds of British soldiers of 1914, as a corrective should read some of the letters sent home to their families by Scarborough men who had just endured the battle of Ypres in October and November that year. Both in time and space, theirs was indeed a foreign country.
The Scarborough Mercury of November 13, 1914, published several of these letters home.
Better than any surviving official source, even censored they still convey what had really happened in southern Belgium and how our young men had reacted to their traumatic experiences.
Trooper Horace Wright, said to be of the elite 3rd Dragoon Guards, wrote the following to his mother who lived at 1 Albert Street, North Marine Road. He had been wounded at Ypres and the letter arrived from his hospital:
I have received only a shrapnel wound in the back, a flesh graze, just below my left shoulder blade...out of six of us in my trench, three were killed outright. You will no doubt wonder why cavalry are in trenches, but we are fighting in too wooded and hilly country so we take our place like infantry. [In fact, mounted cavalry in the open were too vulnerable to German artillery and machine-gun fire and had been obliged to go to ground just like infantry.]
This is the worst and hottest battle of the war – Ypres ... if it was not for their artillery (big guns) we could beat them with boxing gloves! Things will be better when our naval guns are brought up [He resented being the target of long-range artillery and not being able to fire back], but all this will end when we get back our gee-gees [!]
We have lost many fine men, and it is up to us to avenge them. Now don’t fret, my wound is nothing...the shell burst right next to our backs. The fellow next to me, Sergeant Seagrove, a married man with two boys, and 18 years service, was killed.
Poor old “Seaweed”, as we called him, said “Goodbye, boys”, and went out of this life.
It is heartrending to see all this, but better this than live under German rule.
Another wounded Scarborian, Lance-Corporal R Whittaker, of the King’s Royal Rifles, also wrote home from his hospital bed in Cork, southern Ireland. He was the son of Mr and Mrs George E Whittaker of 117 Falsgrave Road. His letter was dated November 6, 1914:
We have had a terrible three months in France, and had just moved to Belgium. The first day we went into action there I got buried in a trench with a shell, and also wounded in the shoulder with a piece of shell I have in my pocket. [Until arrival in Cork he had been in several hospitals. The Irish had welcomed them with tea, biscuits and cigars and cheered them through the streets. He had received several gift parcels but had to leave them behind.] Remember me to all at home, also to all old friends in Scarborough.
About the same time, Private Watson of the West Yorkshires wrote to his grandfather at 66 Ramsay Street. (Yes, he did know the correct spelling of the address). He was another veteran of the first battle of Ypres, but so far had survived the war without a scratch. Perhaps that might explain why he was so confident and optimistic.
It is getting fast on for two months since I left old England. During that time I have been in a few warm corners. Up to now I have been spared, thank God. The time is not far off when the war will end in a glorious victory for old England. I am proud to have taken part in it. We are getting well looked after, plenty of good food and heaps of tobacco. With these we can stand all the hardships, providing we have good health, which up to now I have had.
However, in the same issue of the Mercury, there was sobering news of the toll that the battle for Ypres was taking on the army’s commissioned officers.
A captain in the 3rd East Yorks (Beverley) Militia, Edgar Wilmer Walker, was reported killed in action.
He was the eldest son of Admiral Walker of the Hall, Beverley and the brother of the Rev PC Walker, but his home address was 5 Belmont Road, Ramshill Bank, Scarborough. By profession he had been a barrister, but he and his widow were well-known on the golf links of Ganton.
He had spent only six weeks at the front, an average expectation of survival of junior officers on the Western Front. In his honour, the flags at Beverley Minster were lowered to half mast.
Captain Walker had been only a “Saturday soldier”, but Captain JL Wordsworth of Glen Park, Scalby, had been a professional officer in the 5th Royal Irish Lancers. Along with other elite cavalry regiments, dragoons, hussars and lancers, the 5th Irish had been in General Allenby’s Cavalry Division which crossed the Channel to France at the head of the British Expeditionary Force in August, 1914.
As such they had fought in all the major battles from Mons and Le Cateau to the makeshift trenches outside Ypres. The Mercury gave his date of birth as 1892 which was probably a decade too late, since he was gazetted as a subaltern in the Irish Guards in 1906 and promoted to full lieutenant in 1908. His elevation to captain had occurred only a month before his death.
Almost needless to record, Captain Wordsworth had been an accomplished oarsman who rowed for Caius, his Cambridge College, a good horseman and keen fox-hunter.