West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
 
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Pontefract Memories and Recollections

NOTES ON THE FIRST WORLD WARD


by CYNTHIA WAKE

First published in issues eight and nine of the Knottingley and Ferrybridge Digest (April - May 2004), Cynthia Wake’s story is reproduced here by request.

The First World War, or the Great War as it was sometimes called, was declared in August 1914 and lasted until August 1918 and all that time I was at the High School because in the spring of 1914 I sat the examination for a County Major Scholarship. After written and practical tests and an interview I was successful and in September 1914 became a scholar at the Pontefract and District Girls High School.

Our uniform was compulsory and consisted of a brown serge box-pleated tunic with a brown braid girdle, a cream coloured cotton blouse and a brown tie.

Bobbed hair was not the fashion in those days so we had to have it plaited or tied back with a brown ribbon. In winter we wore a brown cloth ‘pork-pie’ cap with a brown and white school badge. In summer we wore a ‘straw-boater’ with a brown and white ribbon band with the school badge. We carried our books etc. in a brown shoulder satchel made of leather or canvas. Carrier bags or haversacks or other containers were not allowed.

There were no buses running at that period in time and only the very rich had cars, so the girls from Knottingley, where I lived, travelled by steam train to Tanshelf Station on the old Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway and then walked up the hill to school.

The school is still there, but is now a sixth form college. It had only been opened and its size and facilities were in marked contrast to the old Church School I had attended until then. It was a two storied building with the classrooms, head teacher’s room, staff room and cloakrooms downstairs and the Science Laboratory, Art Room and Domestic Science and Dining Room upstairs. There was no telephone. One stormy windy day, one of the windows in the School Hall blew in and the shattered glass cut me near my eye and on my wrist. Because the school had no telephone a member of staff had to brave the elements and walk into town for a doctor who came and stitched my wounds and took me home in his car! We girls were not allowed to enter by the front door, this privilege was reserved for the teaching staff and visitors. We entered through the cloakrooms at the back and were never allowed to play at the front of the school at any time! Before going to our classrooms we had to change our outdoor shoes for plimsolls which were called ‘sand-shoes’ then. At night these were put in our shoe bags and hung on a peg.

The discipline was strict in comparison with today, but there were few disciplinary problems as obedience, courtesy and good behaviour were insisted upon always. If however, you did offend you were kept in after school or were given a black mark called an order mark and these were recorded on your end of term report.

Because of food rationing, the school dinners which cost 7d per day, were adequate but not exactly desirable or delicious, especially the maize milk puddings which looked and tasted awful! (After all, we feed our hens on maize!) Each form had its own mistress but each subject was taught by staff specially qualified in that subject.

The subjects we were taught were Scripture, English Language, English Literature, Poetry, Maths, French, Algebra, Geometry, Science, Botany, Art, Singing, Needlework, Domestic Science and P.E. We had homework to do every night and sometimes in the holidays too. Miss Gaustic was the Art Mistress. She also taught at Castleford Grammar School where the famous sculptor Henry Moore was one of her pupils. She used to tell us that Khaki and Black were lovely colours but I don’t think many of us agreed. Our P.E. mistress was the daughter of the Headmaster of Ackworth Quaker School, Mr. Andrews. He wrote our first School Song. By today’s standards it might seem rather setimental, but we sang it with great gusto, especially the chorus which incorporated the school motto ‘Veritas Via Vitae’ which means ‘Truth, the way of life’

I can still recall my utter amazement on first seeing Miss Andrews, a very tall lady in a short-term gym slip above her knees. I was only used to seeing ladies in the longer voluminous skirts which came below their ankles.

The outdoor games we played were Basketball, Hockey, Tennis and Cricket. I was in the cricket team because I could run fast and throw the ball a long way. Occasionally on Saturdays we played home and away matches with the Castleford and Normanton Grammar Schools. Each year we had a gym display when the chosen agile ones demonstrated their skills.

The only things I remember doing in Domestic Science were scrubbing the already clean wooden table-tops with a mixture of soft soap and silver sand, learning to set the tale correctly and the correct procedure in washing up. I think that maybe we did some simple cooking but because of rationing and the scarcity of food, it would have been very little.

In needlework we made a sampler on a piece of white cotton material with examples of tacking, hemming, running stitch, seaming, tucking, felling, gathering and frilling, plus decorative stitches…Herringbone, Feather-Stitch, Daisy Stitch and French Knots. The Placket was the most difficult to do with its buttonholes and buttons which had to be sewn on correctly. I can’t remember making a garment but if we did I think it must have been a blouse. When we reached the age of sixteen we all took the School Certificate Examination. This was the equivalent of ‘O’ levels today. We could not choose the subjects we would take, we had to take them all.

The Annual Speech Day and prize giving was a great event in the school calendar. The governors of the school would be there and a specially invited guest speaker also presented the prizes, which were always books. These were given to the top girl in each form and to anyone who had won a County Major or a County Women’s Scholarship. I was one of the latter and I received my prize (The Oxford Book of English Verse) from Miss Amy Walmsley, the principal of the Bedford Froebel Training College to which I later went for three years to train as a teacher of young children.

Periodically the school magazine was published and if our efforts were printed we were proud indeed.

Autograph books were very popular and if you were very brave you asked members of the staff to contribute something. I never had that courage! The headmistress always wrote:

"Follow the Christ, the King
Live pure, speak true, right wrong
Follow the King
Else, wherefore born?"


What wonderful advice to give anyone.

By and large our school life was not disrupted by the war but our home life was very different. Every family had someone in the Army, Navy or the Flying Corps, a father, husband, son, brother, uncle or cousin and their absence was a great cause of fear and anxiety, as often, after a short course of training, they were sent abroad to fight or to serve at sea in various kinds of warships. Often, because of war conditions, their families at home did not hear from them for long periods of time and this increased the anxiety. Any letters the forces could manage to send were strictly censored in case they contained any information which could be of use to the enemy. A great number of men were killed or wounded, went missing, were lost at sea or taken prisoner.

The newspapers gave accounts of the fighting on land and sea when it was safe to do so, but of course they could not give details of these happenings at the time they were taking place for security reasons, so the information we did get was not very informative or up to date. The press also published long lists of names and the Regiments of those who were killed in action, wounded or taken prisoner or missing. People at home eagerly scanned these lists, hoping and praying that the names of their loved ones would not be there. Those who were wounded badly were brought back to England to the military hospitals for treatment. As the number of casualties rose, Stately Homes and other large houses and buildings were commandeered and used as hospitals. Voluntary workers were established to go and help where they could. They rolled bandages and helped the nursing staff and patients where possible. The wounded who were not bed-fast wore hospital uniform. This was bright blue trousers and jacket, white cotton shirt and red tie. When the wounded recovered and they were fit to fight again they went back into the forces otherwise they were discharged and went home.

When war was first declared Recruitment Offices were opened and hundreds of thousands of men flocked there to join the forces. They were all medically examined and if they were found to be fit and healthy they were accepted. They then took up what was called the ‘King’s Shilling’ by which token they swore to serve their King and Country faithfully and to the best of their ability. Then they were sent to camps and barracks where they were trained in the Military Arts of warfare.

There were those however who believed that all war was wrong and they refused to go and fight. These men were called Conscientious Objectors. Some of them were put in prison and others directed into jobs that did not entail actual fighting. These conscientious objectors were sometimes hated and despised by many people, especially by those who had men-folk in the midst of the fighting, and when they met they were called cowards and spat at. Others were given or sent a white feather which is a symbol of cowardice. This happened in 1916 when our losses were so great Conscription was brought in by which men of 18 to 20 years were ‘called up’ and if found to be medically fit, were drafted into the forces. Later, the age range was changed and older men still were called up. Highly skilled men were not sent to fight but were put to work on munitions, making weapons of war such as guns, tanks, shells, bullets, bombs and other things necessary to wage war.

Air power and aeroplanes had not been developed to the extent that they are today, so air raids were not so heavy or as frequent, but the Germans had long cigar shaped airships called Graff Zeppelins which carried and dropped bombs on our country at night. They came over the South and South-East area of England mostly, dropping their bombs hoping to destroy harbours, ports, ships and factories, but they were not able to aim their bombs very accurately and though some destruction was caused it was nothing like that in the Second World War. Nevertheless, they were a great source of danger and fear. One night, a Zeppelin came over Pontefract and dropped a bomb in the park not far from the High School. During the dinner hour the next day, some of us climbed the boundary wall and ran to see the crater it had made and then raced back before the bell rang for our lessons. Because of the fear these Zeppelins engendered, many people in Knottingley used to take blankets and rugs and went to the open country to a place called ‘Kings Standard’ and spent the night there. It must have been very cold, uncomfortable and wearying. They couldn’t build fires to keep warm because a complete blackout had been enforced. No light of any kind had to be visible at night anywhere, from factories, stations, hospitals, streets, houses, shops and churches. When there was no moon it was indeed very, very dark and quite frightening. I well remember bumping my forehead badly on the gate post when accompanying my mother to the grocery shop!. Our country had small biplanes which had a Lewis gun mounted on the wing and could carry small bombs which were just dropped over the side. Their speed I am told was about 90mph - nothing like the fighters and bombers of today.

In 1917, America came into the war on our side. Germany had stepped up their submarine warfare and many of the American ships carrying cargoes of all kinds to Britain were torpedoed and sunk with great loss of life and cargoes and ships. The help we received from America was of inestimable value and helped to shorten the war.

As the Germans overran Belgium many refugees were brought to the British Isles. Some of these refugees were housed in Knottingley and before their first Christmas there, the girls at the High School were asked to give a dress, a doll or to make some other toy for them. I remember clearly that I dressed my doll in a cream satin dress with a pale blue ribbon sash! These clothes were most likely made from remnants from the Felt Cart.

People in business during the war carried on as best they could. With all the shortages of goods and sometimes of labour, this was not easy. My father managed somehow to keep going, but some who could not replace their stocks had a hard time and had to close down.

Another hardship for those left at home was the rationing of foodstuffs; butter, cheese, lard, eggs, sugar, meat and bacon were all rationed. The amount allowed for each person was very small and it was difficult to make them last a week. Bread was mostly made at home when I was young and during the war, because of the quality of the flour available, it was almost impossible to make a decent loaf, scone or teacake. The bread was the darkest grey colour, and the loaves often had a big hole in them. Anything which usually came from abroad was in very short supply or unobtainable, partly because of German submarine warfare and partly because the ships needed to bring them were being used for carrying war materials. Fruit of all kinds; oranges, lemons, bananas, sultanas, raisins, dates, (plus rice and sago) were very scarce and for many foodstuffs we had to depend on what could be grown at home and anyone who had the space was encouraged to grow whatever they could and there were large posters everywhere saying ‘Dig for Victory’

During the war there was a widespread epidemic of Asian Flu when thousands of people died almost daily. This made the anxiety, fear and deprivation much greater and harder to bear.

As time went by, the allies gradually gained the ascendancy over the enemy and they finally admitted defeat and a cease-fire was arranged. On November 11th, 1918 at 11.00am the Armistice was signed and the war was over. As you can imagine this brought a great sense of relief. People wept for joy, the Church bells rang out and there was great rejoicing. Flags were hoisted on every Church and Public Building, strung across the streets and out of house windows. Crowds gathered everywhere, waving flags, cheering, shouting, singing and dancing.

Services of Thanksgiving were held in Churches, parks and open spaces and though it was November and the days were short, cold and misty, people seemed as though they could not stay indoors and wanted to be about sharing their jubilation with others.

The morning the Armistice was signed my form at the High School were having a lesson in the science laboratory and we were allowed to leave our stools and go to the windows to see the Union Jack being raised on St. Giles Church. This was a great concession as we were seldom allowed to move about the room during lessons.

Gradually, life began to get back to normal and the armed forces were gradually demobilised and came home, but for millions and millions of people all over the world life was never the same again. Some of the returning men were badly disabled or so seriously wounded that they died. Some had been blinded, some had lost arms and legs and some had their nerves shattered and were shell-shocked. Others had been gassed for the Germans had released poison gas against the troops. This badly affected their lungs and weakened their chests and many died as a result of all this. Many were never able to work again or support their families. These were granted a war pension but this was not always enough for their needs.

Millions alas, never came home again, they lie in unknown graves or cemeteries in France, Flanders and Italy, or were lost at sea with their ships. After the war, the small wooden crosses which marked their graves were replaced with white headstones bearing the name, age, regiment and date of death of the soldier. Wild red poppies grew all over these graves and so that red poppy became the symbol of Remembrance for those who had sacrificed their lives for their country.

Because there were so many men who could not be employed because of their disabilities, Earl Hague, one of the war generals, founded the British Legion in 1921. This was an organisation which provided services and assistance for former members of the armed forces and is still in existence. Many of these men were and are employed making artificial poppies for sale to the public before November 11th to wear in remembrance of those who died. They also make wreaths of poppies to be laid at the cenotaph (which is a monument honouring the dead who are buried elsewhere) and at memorial monuments all over the country. Every year a remembrance service is held at the Cenotaph in London and her Majesty the Queen lays a large poppy wreath there as do many other organisations.

Colonel John McCrae, who died in France through illness contracted during the war, wrote a poem entitled ‘The Call’ and in all parts of the country this poem or parts of it are spoken at each memorial service. For many years after the war, a ‘two minutes silence’ was observed at 11am on every 11th November and people stopped whatever they were doing and bowed their heads as they thought and prayed for all who had lost their lives in the great war.

One event which shocked the world was the execution of Nurse Cavell by the Germans. During the war she worked in Belgium among the wounded prisoners and helped some of them to escape. The Germans accused her of being a spy, tried her and then shot her.

Medals were given for bravery under fire, the Victoria Cross being the highest award. All who had served in the forces were awarded a General Service Medal, a Campaign Medal and a Victory Medal. Souvenirs treasured by the soldiers, sailors and airmen and brought home, included brass shell cases, pieces of shrapnel, bullets, regimental badges, photos of people and places, sailors cap ribbons and lanyards with whistle attached. We children were overjoyed if we could get a regimental cap badge or a brass button from a uniform which we polished and pinned on our coats. Much prized were postcards from France which had brightly coloured flags of the allies, flowers and messages embroidered in silk on them.

Once the war was over things gradually became more normal. Families were reunited, there was no blackout and factories and mills that had been on war work went back to producing the goods they made before hostilities began. Travel by train and road became easier. Foodstuffs and other goods were brought in from abroad. Food rationing was gradually ended and shops were stocked up and became busy again, but four years of war, deprivation, fear and loss left its mark on the people and the country so that Britain and the British were never quite the same again.

Cynthia Wake


 

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