How two communities viewed the outbreak of World War One

An image from Mike Crawford's book Going To War
An image from Mike Crawford's book Going To War

Commemorations of the war that began a hundred years ago often deal in generalities, but, rooted in the detail of local communities, become a moving tribute to ordinariness in extraordinary times.

Local historian Mike Crawford and Wolfgang Hombach, formerly director of the Erich Kastner Schule in Maintal, have mined the documents of their local areas – Calder Valley and Hanau in Germany - to gain insights into the reality of the experience of war..

Local film-maker Nick Wilding has gathered together some remarkable oral histories and images which added an extra dimension to the presentation given to the Hebden Bridge Local History Society.

The declaration of war against Germany on August 4, 1914, seemed to come out of the blue for people of the Calder Valley. One day they were preparing to board the special trains heading for the seaside; a few days later local reservists were marching away, and at the White Lion in Hebden Bridge horses were being selected for service.

In less than three weeks local men were among the thousands who died as part of the expeditionary force at Mons. The love and concern expressed in a letter from a German mother to her injured son must have been repeated in letters from Yorkshire mothers.

Reports in local newspapers in both communities give some insight into the mood: on August 4 the Halifax Courier published a full page plea for opposition to the ‘wicked and stupid’ war, but this was soon followed by reports made by local men writing to their families. The Hanauer Auzeiger, local paper of Hanau was subject to censorship and its pages portrayed ‘the enemy’ according to national stereotypes – the brutal Russians, the untrustworthy French, and the English pressed into military service, ‘making the world bleed for moneybags.’

Oral history and newspaper reports paint a picture of an enthusiasm for enlistment, fired by a sense of solidarity with those men from the community who were being battered in France. Local relief funds were started, and knitting and sewing on a grand scale. When Belgian refugees arrived in the Valley their voices were heard at recruitment meetings, and many young men were encouraged to join up.

In Hanau too there was initial enthusiasm, but soon there was real hardship being felt by civilians: a letter from a new mother, destitute after her husband was conscripted, begs for help to pay the midwife. There were limited social benefits, and sky high prices, panic buying and fear of bank closures. By 1916 the baking and selling of cakes became a criminal offence. In all 700,000 German civilians died of malnutrition in the first world war, far exceeding the 500,000 killed by bombs in the second.

The enduring impression lies in the ordinary voices and the photographs of young men in uniform collected in Nick Wilding’s films. Martha Lord’s memory of her brother, joining up at 17 and killed on the Somme: “dreadful things are wars, you know”. Bill Beesley’s logic: “they could have killed all of us.. you’ve got to kill the other side or they’ll kill you.” Michael Gibbon recalling his father’s story of responding to the call of a young German in a shell hole, calming him and telling him to lie low, then having to be restrained in his anger at seeing him killed by another English soldier. This talk was indeed a tribute to ordinariness.

Mike Crawford’s book Going to War is available from Hebden Bridge Local History Society and local book shops.

The next meeting of the Hebden Bridge Local History Society will be the (short) AGM on November 12 followed by a talk on local anniversaries by Diana Monahan and Frank Woolrych. On November 19 Stephen Jagger will talk about the early history of Calrec Audio at the Literary & Scientific Society AGM. Meetings are held at Hebden Bridge Methodist Hall and start at 7.30pm. Details on the website www.hebdenbridgehistory.org.uk