Chesterfield 1915

One Year of War

On August 4th 1914 a crowd gathered in the market outside Chesterfield Post Office, waiting till after midnight for official news. The hope was that Germany would agree to the British ultimatum and keep its troops out of Belgium: but instead messages arrived confirming that war had been declared and issuing mobilisation orders.
“Union Jacks, Union Jacks all the way”


DCCC001560Over the next few days soldiers and sailors on leave and men of the reserve headed to the railway stations – there were three in Chesterfield then – and travellers noticed some tearful scenes on the platforms as the men parted from their families. By coincidence Chesterfield’s own volunteer territorials unit, the 6th battalion Notts and Derby (Sherwood Foresters) was already in uniform, having been away for its annual two weeks’ training at a seaside camp near Scarborough. They were hurriedly brought back, and, after a couple of nights home with their families, assembled on Monday 8th at the Drill Hall by the Ashgate Road allotments. From there the 970 men marched (with officers on horseback) down Saltergate and Glumangate and through the town centre, led by a band playing Tipperary and cheered by the townsfolk, before trudging south for more training. “It was a case of Union Jacks, Union Jacks, all the way; thronged villages of cheering people” wrote one soldier.


Nationally and locally the call went out for more volunteers to join the forces, and right through the year men could be seen going to the Drill Hall to sign up, often alone but sometimes in groups actually marching down the centre of the road. Chesterfield men joined all sorts of regiments, and of course the Navy, and during the year recruiting teams from various military units had success in the town. But the men going to the Drill Hall were aiming to join the Sherwoods where they would become members of the new 2/6th battalion. Like the men already in the territorials at the beginning of the war (the 1/6th battalion), they were shipped elsewhere for more training: the 2/6th went to Dunstable, the 1/6th to Harpenden (where they are reported to have drunk the local inns dry).

“I’ll take three, bless’em”
This outflow of men was balanced by people coming to town because of the war. One source consisted of war refugees from Belgium, often families with children. These were taken in by local families where possible, rather than putting them in lodging houses. “I’ll take three of them, bless ’em.” said one lady; “My husband has gone to the front, and I’ve got three lads to keep, but I can find room for three poor Belgian children, bless ’em”. Charity events were held to raise funds to support the refugees, with local schools leading the way with regular concerts for the Belgian Distress Fund and arranging collections of clothes and other necessities: kids looking after kids.


Two other children arriving in town were Alick and Cecil Seals, the 14 year old twin sons of the manager of the Portland and the Angel Hotels. They’d been apprenticed in a Vienna hotel. When war started they ran away (despite being well treated, as they admitted), and sneaked their way to neutral Switzerland.


The biggest influx into town consisted of soldiers from other regiments spending time in Chesterfield as they did their training. One such unit was a detachment of several hundred Lancashire Fusiliers who spent November til April at various billets including the Premier Skating Rink on West Bars and the Ragged School on Markham Road. The Premier rink was a huge building that had been a popular venue before the war, putting on events such as boxing matches and dancing as well as roller skating: it was famous for its (apparently successful) attempts to attract the custom of young ladies with ‘confetti fights’ and by giving away silk fans. The Lancashire lads were given free skating instructions by the rink’s staff.


The Lancashire Fusiliers – they were the 13th battalion – seem to have been genuinely popular with the townsfolk. Some Chesterfield lads even decided to sign up with them, rather than with a local regiment. As the Fusiliers were here over Christmas the town treated all of them to Christmas lunch and concerts, with professional entertainments given by performers from the Hippodrome on Corporation Street.


One reason the Fusiliers were popular was that the men billeted at the Ragged School were found to be sharing their rations with the local children – some of Chesterfield’s very poorest waifs and strays – heaping the kids’ tins and pans and dishes with hot army food (complete with steamed pudding) even going short themselves in order to help feed the youngsters.
The Khaki Button


Soldiers of any regiment were popular with many local publicans, their presence making up for the absence of so many local men. It seems that pub goers would practically queue up to buy beer for men in uniform. This practice – ‘treating’ – came in for criticism from the authorities, and the Archdeacon of Chesterfield called for it to cease: “There is a great amount of mistaken hospitality shown to soldiers in treating them to practically unlimited drink” he said, “the result being that the King’s uniform is brought into disgrace.” He backed this up by starting a ‘League of the Khaki Button’, the idea being that people would wear a Khaki Button (available at a penny each from Everard and Short on the High Street) that showed that ‘the wearer would not stand anyone a drink, nor be stood a drink’. This suggestion drew national attention and the comment that “.. the first people to wear it will be the very people who don’t need to wear it.” Which, frankly, sounds very true. The idea died rapidly.


DCHQ000864But the Army did see soldiers’ drinking as a problem and used its powers under the new Defence Of the Realm Act (DORA) to limit opening hours. Pubs within three miles of Chesterfield were to shut at 9pm; similar orders applied to Derby, Nottingham, Buxton and Baslow. This order caused consternation among the public and uproar from the pub trade. It was quickly realised that the order applied to licensed premises but not to ‘registered’ premises (clubs) and people eyed the possibility of applying to join these. And in Holymoorside it was realised that of the three pubs in the village, two were inside the three mile limit, but one (the Old Star) happily was not. But despite protests the order was enforced; the various dodges and exceptions were dealt with by the licensing authorities using their own powers to bring the clubs (and, we presume, the Old Star) into line.


Interestingly, shutting the pubs at 9pm caused issues for Chesterfield market. In 1915 the market stalls were used to staying open til very late – and the clearing out of pubs at 9pm sharp both caused chaos and took away later business. Attempts were made to persuade the Army to allow later pub hours, but these came to nothing, and the corporation instead instituted early closing for the market stall holders … they had to shut by 10pm!


Other businesses also stayed open later than you might expect: for example the Post Office opened from 8am to 9pm daily (8:30 to 10am on Sundays) and sent out four deliveries a day (and one on Sunday). Larger shops were open till 7pm on weekdays, and later on Fridays and Saturdays. Likewise public transport ran for long hours – the first tram from Brampton to town left at 4:55am – and finished late in order to get people to and from their shifts. There were fewer private motor vehicles about back then of course. Some vehicles were commandeered by the army – this happened to Brampton Brewery’s motor lorries – and others were offered by their owners as part of the war effort. Chesterfield motor cycle club had over 60 men offering their bikes, and themselves, to act as despatch riders at the front. Not just powered vehicles were in short supply – the army also purchased local horses in large numbers. All of which helped put up the price of transport and therefore of goods.


“Famine Prices”
High prices and price rises, particularly of food and coal, were a source of tension and real distress, and local farmers and shopkeepers were sometimes accused of profiteering; the trades unions threatened to boycott those traders charging “famine prices”’ for the necessities of life and “thereby bringing starvation to a great many of the working class”. Likewise there was condemnation of workers who wanted higher wages or threatened strike action in a time of national crisis.
The loss of men to the forces meant that women were wanted in new areas of employment – the corporation hired its first lady tram conductors in 1915, and there was work in the munitions factories (Markham’s and the Chesterfield Tube Company were two of these). The number of families with men away in the forces prompted the setting up of facilities to help soldiers’ wives. In Glumangate there was the Tipperary Home, which had a nursery, café with subsidised food, library, and entertainments –and there was other support. Though there was also loud disapproval of wives who (supposedly) spent all their ‘separation allowance’ (21 shillings a week for a private’s wife with two children) on alcohol; the Archdeacon called for the authorities to forbid pubs to serve women after 5pm.


“A veritable slaughter of men”


Through the year news came in about soldiers being killed and wounded. There was a steady drip of sad messages about the casualties – several local men, week in, week out – but this would occasionally turn into a flood when local units were involved in a big battle. September’s big battle was the Ainse; March’s was Neuve-Chapelle – there were rumours of a disaster affecting the 6th Sherwood Foresters there, but this proved false. But the battle with the biggest local impact in 1915 was Second Ypres in April and May. This was the first major fight involving units made up of local men who’d volunteered after the start of the war, and its psychological impact was strong. The tone of comments coming back from the troops changed from hopeful ones like “I do not think the that the war will last long now” (Private Slack, 2nd Sherwood Foresters) to “..this is no war but a veritable slaughter of men” (Private Hayes, Grenadier Guards). People were realising that it was going to be a long, hard, horrible, slog. The growing butcher’s bill and the increasing viciousness of the war – the first large poison gas attacks happened this year for example – caused a build-up of bad feeling, and when the civilian liner RMS Lusitania was torpedoed there were anti-German riots across the country including in Chesterfield and Whittington Moor. In town a crowd of mostly women attacked the market stall of a Mr Haag, a German pork butcher, terrifying his daughter who was running it, and then laid siege to his shop in Glumangate. Ironically, Mr Haag was a naturalised British citizen of long standing and his son had joined the British army.


00000tmpIt was becoming clear that a long war would mean trouble getting enough men to volunteer to replace the losses, and although volunteering was still encouraged, the government was looking at the possibility of conscription. It passed a ‘National Registration Act’ in July 1915, a sort of census that told it exactly who was doing exactly what (women as well as men aged 16 to 65). This was preparation for a more controlled war-centred economy.


“Disappointments and Disillusionments”
The first anniversary of start of the war, 4th August 1915, was marked in Chesterfield and elsewhere by Patriotic Association meetings but no big demonstrations. “We have suffered many disappointments and disillusionments” said one local commentator. It’s as if they realised that though the past year had been bad, that there was worse, much worse, to come. If that’s what they thought they were right.


Words: Trevor The   Ink
Picture: Ernest A Smith via www.picturethepast.org.uk