In spite of the gathering clouds of war in Europe the British August Bank Holidays of 1914 had gone ahead with most people who could afford to, swarming to the coast for their annual taste of the seaside. Scarborough had been no exception notwithstanding the cancellation by the North Eastern Railway Company of most of their excursion trains to the town the seafront and spa had been packed with holidaymakers perhaps attempting to push the thoughts of a war to the backs of their minds, or perhaps making the most of the fine weather before the storm. An unnamed reporter with the Scarborough Pictorial had however noted the subdued mood of the crowds over the holiday weekend and had duly recorded in the newspaper;
The shadow of the greatest catastrophe which has ever befallen the world hung over thousands of people who came to Scarborough to make merry and their play was not as full blooded as we previously have seen. In the great crowds it is hardly possible to discover a smile.
By August 1914 there had been very little in the way of light relief for anyone to smile at. ‘The crisis’ had begun on Sunday the twenty eighth of June of 1914 in the far off Bosnian city of Sarajevo when a student, Gavilo Princip, had stepped into the path of a car and had fired two shots from a revolver, which had killed the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his consort. Those two bullets and the one act of madness had plunged the world into a darkness which had lasted for four years of unrelenting death, terror, and destruction the like of which had never been experienced before. During that time over eight million people would be killed and a further eleven million wounded. It is estimated that for each one of those lives an incredible 50,000 rounds of ammunition were to been fired.
In the wake of the assassination had come the recriminations, Austria had seized the opportunity to humiliate Serbia by issuing an ultimatum which the Serbs had refused to agree to causing the Austrians [with the backing of Germany] to declare war on Serbia on the 28th of July. Two days later Russia had mobilised her forces in support of the Serbs, the Germans had objected to this and they too had issued an ultimatum for the Russians to stop which had been rejected, thus giving the Germans the excuse to mobilise and eventually declared war on Russia on the first of August, the same day that France had mobilised her forces. On the second of August Germany had presented a note to the Belgian Government demanding a right of passage through the country, this ultimatum had also been rejected. The following day Germany had declared war on France and in the early hours of the fourth of August her troops had crossed the frontier into Belgium.
Bound by a treaty signed in the 1830s by France, Germany and Britain guaranteeing the neutrality of Belgium and ever wary about threats to the Channel Ports Britain had mobilised her armed forces at 4pm on the fourth of August, seven hours before her declaration of war on Germany. Throughout the length and breadth of Britain the police had placed notices in local Post Offices informing Army and Navy reservists to report to their various assembly points. The Territorial Army had also been mobilised, the local 1ST/5TH Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment, whose Headquarters had been in North Street had been at their summer camp in Wales and had hastily been recalled to Scarborough where they had been issued with live ammunition and placed on a war footing.
On Wednesday the twelfth of August the British Government had despatched to France the first units of a British Expeditionary Force [the B.E.F] consisting of six divisions of infantry and one of cavalry, plus four squadrons of aircraft from the burgeoning Royal Flying Corps, the whole force consisting of around 150,000 men [and 786 female nursing staff] who had been placed under the command of Field Marshal Sir John French, the first units landing at the ports of Havre, Boulogne, and Rouen on Sunday August 16th to a rapturous welcome.
Unlike the conscript armies of France and Germany the British Expeditionary Force of 1914 had consisted solely of professional soldiers of the Regular Army, the universally moustachioed Tommy Atkins who had fought for a shilling a day on the North West Frontier of India, the Veldt of South Africa and any other places that their Sovereign and country had sent them. For the most part exceptional marksmen to a man, each British soldier had been trained to fire at least fifteen rounds rapid fire in a minute from his .303 Short Magazine Lee Enfield rifle, a rate of fire which would eventually lead some Germans to believe that the British Army's armament had consisted solely of machine guns.
The B.E.F. had immediately been deployed to Belgium to assist the beleaguered Belgian Army in a futile attempt to stem the tide of the German advance to the English Channel. The B.E.F. had advanced on the left flank as far as the Sambre and Mons Canal. On their right the French Fifth Army had also advanced to the Sambre but had found the weight of the German advance too heavy to hold so they had fell back and eventually halted at the Flemish town of Charleroi. At about the same time [23rd of August] the B.E.F. had engaged the invading German First Army at the small Belgian town of Mons. Initially the action had been fought along the banks of the Mons to Conde Canal, which was held by the British Second Corps under the command of Lieutenant General Horace Smith-Dorrien.
At first the intense rifle fire of the Tommies had been enough to hold the German advance but the effective enemy artillery had eventually enabled their infantry to get across the canal and gain a foothold that had eventually become a torrent of German Field Grey that could not be stopped. Outnumbered and in danger of being cut off the British had, as the press would later report; maintained the traditions of British soldiers';, in fact it had almost been a rout for the B.E.F., who, after suffering nearly 2,000 casualties had been forced to make a general retreat.
Three days later and thirty six miles south of Mons the British Second Corps had stood and fought a rearguard action at the Belgian village of Le Cateau, which at the time had been the largest battle in Britain's history since the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. During this action three British Divisions had taken on the whole of General Von Kluck's First Army and fought a desperate struggle to prevent the encirclement of the retreating B.E.F.. After eleven hours of fighting the British had disengaged having suffered a further 8,000 casualties, a fifth of the total force, and in addition had lost thirty eight valuable artillery pieces, they had however gain precious time for the B.E.F. thereby enabling it to make good its escape.
The long retreat from Mons had gone on throughout the remainder of the unusually hot August and had eventually ended early in September to the east of Paris at the River Marne. Here the French Sixth Army had torn into the flanks of the advancing First Army, who had crossed the river on the fourth. The German First Army's Commander, Von Kluck, surprised at the ferocity of this attack had pulled back the main body of his forces to meet the onslaught, this had somehow opened a gap thirty miles wide between the armies of Von Kluck and General Von Bullow, the commander of the German Second Army, into this gap the French and British armies had poured, their appearance causing a wave of dismay throughout the German ranks, who had by then realised that they were being attacked at the end of a long vulnerable line of communications.
Nonetheless, the battle had raged on a front of three hundred miles with the allies barely able to hold their ground when, miraculously, the Germans had called off their advance on the ninth of September, and the entire German line had itself begun a fighting withdrawal to the River Aisne, some forty miles away, which they had crossed hotly pursued by the British and French, on the thirteenth of September 1914.
During those opening rounds of the war Scarborough had had many of its men wounded, amongst them had been Lance Corporal Reginald Whittaker of the 1ST Battalion of the King's Royal Rifle Corps who had subsequently written of his injuries to his mother, Mrs G. E Whittaker of No 23 Ramshill Road;
‘I am writing this just to let you know that I am not wounded so much that you nee to feel about me. I was buried n the trench so it is really only severe pains in the back and body. I have only received one slight wound in the left shoulder. We are waiting to be removed from here so I will let you know where to write'.
[The youngest son of Louisa and George Edward Whittaker, Corporal Whittaker had survived the war, unlike elder brother Pioneer Albert Buckton Whittaker who had died whilst serving on active service with the Royal Engineers in Mesopotamia].
Another Scarborough soldier, Private Albert Tissiman, serving in France and Flanders with the 2ND Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment, had told of his wounding in a letter to his wife at No13 Oxford Street....;I am wounded and in hospital and am being well looked after. I am wounded in the head, and nurse won't let me write myself, I am getting on nicely
And so the die had been set for four years of a war so terrible, the likes of which had never been seen in the history of mankind.