Millthorpe Remembers the First World War
It was during the summer holiday of 2014 that I began to think of ways Millthorpe could remember the centenary of the First World War. I wanted a project that connected students to the stories of real individuals and that was ongoing throughout the duration of the four year centenary. After much thought, I decided to create three fictional characters, based on real life stories from the oral testimonies of those who lived through this period. Each Millthorpe house had a character to follow and would receive termly updates on the character’s experiences. Each year I also gave the whole school assemblies updating them on where the major fighting was taken place 100 years ago.
Here are the characters I created. Remember, there are strands of truth in all their stories, but they are fictional creations.
The first character I created was 15 year old Tommy. Like many boys he was signed up, despite being underage. Tommy immediately went to training camps, after spending a few weeks camping on the Knavesmire. Here is an extract from his account:
We went to Castlegate, the Headquarters of the Yorkshire Hassars to join up. They asked me my date of birth and like an idiot I told them the truth. The recruiting officer frowned and told me “You’re 15 and a half today but you will need to be 18 tomorrow. Walk around and have a few more birthdays son.” I didn’t know what he meant at first but I came back the next day. The same recruiting officer asked me my age and I replied 18. He looked at me sharply with the ghost of a smile and I was in.
In September 1915 Tommy saw the first (unsuccessful) use of gas by the British.
The officer commanding the gas company kept testing the wind direction and shaking his head. The order to release the gas on the German trench was given. The officer at first refused but the order came again. As he predicted the gas rolled back onto our own infantry troops. I cannot tell you what the gas was like. It smelt sweet at first and then we realised. We only had the most basic helmets, great white canvas things that were soaked in chemicals. Men who had breathed in gas would claw to try to take them off. Some who had been in the lower parts of the trench got it really bad and they became senseless. I was told that in the Southern sector it worked well and the German lines were in confusion.
Tommy survived the Battle of the Somme and Ypres. In 1918 he sustained a small cut to his hand.
I am in a field hospital waiting to be moved back to Blighty. After all these years dodging bullets and shrapnel and it is a small scratch that finishes me! I have blood poisoning from a cut in my hand. They are giving me tetanus injections every few hours but the doctor thinks I will lose my arm. Still despite how hot and ill I feel I am still glad to be in a clean bed. I crawled in without even taking my boots off. The nurse was furious!
This was Tommy’s last report. The infection that resulted caused blood poisoning and Tommy died on the ambulance train on the way home. I felt very conflicted about ‘killing Tommy’. More men survived the war than died and yet I wanted to make the point that it might not be an enormous explosion that killed soldiers – it could be something as simple as some muddy barbed wire.
It was very important to me to have a woman represented in the project and I based my story on the Leeds munition workers. My character was named Ada and she lived in Burton Stone Lane. She was married with children. Her first entry reported the requisitioning of horses that took place in York at the start of the war.
There is panic buying and the food prices have already shot up. They are desperate for horses and are using the Barbican as a big stabling area. They were stopping all the farmers on Blossom Street this morning and buying the horses from them then and there! Well the farmers were none too pleased – they didn’t get a good price and were stuck in York with a cart and no horse.
Ada quickly becomes involved in the war effort:
They are setting up a new munitions factory in Leeds and I am minded to go and register. Since the boys have gone I feel I would rather work than sit around the house and IMAGINE! My sister has agreed to keep an eye on the two girls for me.
Ada was quickly trained. Here is her report from Sept 1915:
You are speaking to a fully trained member of the Munitions Factory team of the Barnbow Munitions factory, Leeds. About a third of us are not Leeds locals. We had a month’s training and then we get on with it! There are three shifts: 6am-2pm, 2pm-10pm and 10pm-6am. The factory is never silent, churning out shells to kill the enemy. There are no easy jobs here but some are more dangerous than others, such as mixing up the TNT and ammonium nitrate to make a mixture that will explode. The rules are ever so strict. One girl was fined a week’s wages for forgetting to take a match from behind her ear. You would laugh if you could see me in my overalls. But I feel proud to be working for my country. I am also being paid more than I ever have (£3 a week). My boys are outraged that I earn more than them!
Work in the factory resulted in many physical side effects. Ada commented in Dec 1915:
The chemicals in the air turn your skin a bright yellow and dyes the front of our hair, the bit that sticks out of our caps, a vivid ginger. The doctors tell us to drink lots of milk to try to clear it from our systems but I am not convinced it works.
In March 1916 Ada’s story came to an abrupt end. 35 workers were killed in an explosion at the Barnbow Munitions factory on the 5th February. Ada was one of the workers killed.
The Barnbow munitions explosion was a real event that I wove into the semi-fictional narrative; the casualties bodies were returned to York and buried in York Cemetery. A memorial to the women was built after the war at Leeman Road.
Romans : William
Our final character was William. He was 17 when war broke out and already a member of the Officer Cadet Force. Prevented from joining up by his teacher, he was forced to wait until September 1915 to serve. William immediately became a Second Lieutenant but his experience in the trenches was not quite as he had imagined :
The 50 men in my command seem like a good bunch although some are not as respectful as I’d like. I had to discipline a soldier who was helping himself to a tin of bully beef. I got the sergeant to take his name then had him confined to camp.
In June 1916 William was part of the attack on the Somme.
As soon as I got out of the trench I saw a scene of carnage. My men were scattered everywhere, the metal triangles on their backs glinting in the sunlight. I stood up to lob a Mills bomb at a machine gun post and felt a terrific punch across my nose and saw an explosion of bright light then nothing. My wounds were so serious that I have been sent back to England. The shrapnel has left a huge wound across my nose and forehead and it looks as if my face is split into two. I can see how the nurses look at me, with a mixture of pity and disgust. When Mother saw me I could see her struggle not to look away.
William spent the rest of the war recovering from his injuries. He was lucky enough to be sent to a specialist unit at Sidcup where he was given pioneering plastic surgery to try to restore his face.
They will stretch some of the skin from my chest and roll it into a tube and join it to my face. It will mean staying in that position for several months but hopefully the skin will knit with my face and then can be cut free from my chest. I have seen the pictures and I am hopeful that this might be worth the pain and effort. The visit was helpful, it was good to see lots of chaps with faces as terrible as mine.
William’s operation was operation was successful, and he lived into his seventies, but he had to live with his scars for the rest of his life.
The assemblies of 2014-18 mirrored the events of 1914-18. It has been a rollercoaster of emotions! In 2016 I had to report the death of Ada. It felt the mood had changed and we removed the house branding from the characters – we were now all in it together. Mr. Baybutt (Head of Saxons) kept checking in: How’s Tommy doing? I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I had already written Tommy’s fate in 1918. I remember Mr. Baybutt’s relief as Tommy made it through the Somme! William’s story was even harder to tell. I had to share the traumatic surgery he had to undergo and it was extremely hard-hitting at times. There were, however, also moments of relief. William’s face at 70 was restored, his features blurred by the softening effect of time.
Over the four years these characters have become very real to me. Our current Year 11 were in year 7 when the project started. I hope, like me they now have a very real sense of how long the war took to finish and the impact it had on the lives of York’s citizens.