Capturing the real mood of critical times

In the 99 years since the Great War began, some things have passed into myth.

A popular image, perhaps a national stereotype, is that people in Britain were enthusiastic about the prospect of a war which would be over by Christmas.

Author of Going To War, Mike Crawford

Author of Going To War, Mike Crawford

It seemed to author, Hebden Bridge Local History Society member and former history teacher Mike Crawford, that as the 100th anniversary of the war fast approaches in 2014, it was one worth looking at afresh, and using as much original material as he could find.

Accordingly, his new book Going To War, which is published by the society, has a very tight focus on the Calder Valley in the first few weeks of the war, and demonstrates that contrary to popular belief things were far from rosy.

“There was a lot of economic dislocation, people were out of work and people were going away. Reservists were called up and a lot of families were without the man of the house,” said Mike.

Records show reservists were called up to a large number of different regiments. “Reservists were ex-soldiers, people who had been in the army and served a seven year stretch and were placed on reserve for five years, and could rejoin it for a further five years. They had often been in South Africa in the Boer War and it’s likely many were in their early 30s,” he said. Reservists were recalled to the regiments they served with, not necessarily the ones associated with the locality.

Also mustered were Territorial Army soldiers - with a dividing line somewhere around Charlestown in the Calder Valley, these either served with the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment (Hebden side) or the Lancashire Fusiliers (Todmorden).

There was a strong social aspect to membership of the Territorial Army, which explained the youth of some of its soldiers, who were soon to face action. “You only had to look 17 - and no-one was expecting a war,” said Mike.

The main sources of information for Mike were the local newspapers of the time, including editions of the Todmorden News and Advertiser, the Hebden Bridge Times, the Brighouse Echo and the Halifax Courier and Guardian. One book which was a wealth of information about Todmorden itself, published soon after the war, was John Lees’s book Todmorden and the Great War.

Tape recordings of interviews with surviving people from the era made in the 1980s, including some men who had served in the war, were also superb sources of first hand information.

“A Halifax archive piece told the story of Sir George Armitage of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway. He was on holiday in Germany when war broke out and there was a lot in the paper about his difficulties in getting home,” said Mike.

“The question was, how did the local experience fit in with the national stereotype? I’ve been through every newspaper and there was no reference to ‘it’ll all be over by Christmas.’ There were a couple of statements from young officers excited by it. But a diary and letters sourced in Huddersfield from a young officer and a soldier in the Dukes shows that by the end of a month in France they couldn’t wait for it to be over.

“There is a distinction between enthusiasm - people were not enthusiastic about the war - and excitement. Some young people were excited,” said Mike.

Lees’s Todmorden book demonstrated how the start of the war saw a number of the cotton mills on which many townspeople relied for their livelihoods shut down or on short time as there was a difficulty in getting raw materials, and getting payment in for orders that had already gone out.

“A lot of children in Todmorden were receiving free school meals because of hardship at home and there’s no reason to think it wasn’t evident elsewhere.”

The chairman of Hebden Bridge Council, Coun Sutcliffe, said that trade in Hebden Bridge would certainly suffer and urged people not to spend money on non-essentials, said Mike.

“By the end of September 1914 army orders were coming through and mills started to re-open - but they didn’t know that would happen. They could only work on what they knew then, mainly through their local papers.

“Newspapers - the local ones - would offer money to print letters from the front, which sidestepped censorship,” he said.

Families faced hardship with a breadwinner called away to war.

“Ramsden’s brewery in Halifax, for example, was paying an allowance to wives that were left behind. There was a Government separation allowance, but it must have been hard - there were no mobile phones then to find out what was happening to someone called away. When ordinary soldiers died notification would be three or four weeks afterwards, notified by the records office,” said Mike.

As a full-page Halifax Courier ad for the Neutrality League showed, there was far from a consensus about the war which mirrored splits in the Liberal government nationally. Mike said: “If Germany hadn’t invaded Belgium, there’s a good chance the Government wouldn’t have been able to bring Britain into the war. The local Elland MP resigned. Trade ties with Germany were so strong,” he said.

Mike’s book leaves the situation with soldiers about to head into the trenches which came to define the war, which from the start was set to cause heartbreak for Calder Valley families. “Three guys, including one from Siddal, one from Midgley and one from Mytholmroyd, were killed on the first day,” he said.

- Mike Crawford was born in Halifax and went to Halifax Technical High School. He later lived in Midgley, and taught at Calder High School as well as in St Alban’s and Hull. Now retired, he lives in Hebden Bridge.

You can get copies of Going To War, which is priced at £9.99, from the Border Bookshop in Todmorden; The Bookcase in Hebden Bridge; Just Books in Hebden Bridge; Bankfield Museum in Halifax; Hebden Bridge Tourist Information Centre; and from Todmorden information Centre.

Copies will also be available soon from the society’s own website and can also be obtained by emailing goingtowar14@gmail.com - get in touch for details.