In just a few weeks – on the 11 November 2018 - the country will be uniting to commemorate the centenary of Armistice Day, which marked the end of the First World War. Turn the clock back 100 years to October 1918, however, and the mood on Doncaster’s streets would have been very different.
While there might have been a belief that war was nearly over, Doncaster’s wartime people still had many hardships to endure, as local historians and volunteers are discovering at Doncaster 1914-18, a community project supported by National Lottery players through the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) to commemorate the First World War. During their research on the First World War over the past year, they’ve uncovered extraordinary stories about Doncaster’s people and places in the weeks leading up to Armistice in 1918 – and they’re hoping that local people can help unearth even more of this hidden history, to build an everlasting digital memorial.
Every week during the autumn months of 1918, local newspapers were reporting on local lads killed, wounded, missing or taken prisoner abroad. Even days before Armistice, Doncaster’s men lost their lives, including John Arthur Steel, Harry Birkett Shimelds, and Ernest Smith. On the home front, there was rationing of food and everyday goods, including coal and soap, and also restrictions on the use of electricity and gas. An article - ‘Britain’s Sacrifice for the Liberty’ - in the Doncaster Chronicle, dated September 6 th 1918, illustrates how the war’s outcome rested on a knife-edge, with everyone in the country called on to do their bit for the war effort:
“It was a moment of grave peril. The British Army was in danger of being driven into the sea.
The Germans had almost separated the British and French Armies. The French coalfields were overrun…”
“The supreme Army Commanders saw the only way to save the situation… 75,000 more Miners were called to the colours. Our winter coal reserves were sacrificed to save the Armies and to bring the Americans to the front. That decision, grave as it was, has been splendidly justified... The Americans are pouring over. Victory is on the way. The saving of the Armies has meant a shortage of coal. Still more coal is required. Discomfort is inevitable. Everyone must use less coal. The more coal saved, the greater our power to defeat the enemy. Use Less Coal.”
Meanwhile, the threat of air raids continued to terrify local people, with blackouts in Doncaster’s neighbourhoods and fines for anybody who failed to shade their lights. The devastating Spanish Flu was raging through the population, with schools closing and hospitals overwhelmed, and an
estimated ¼ million British people dying of the virus. What’s more, while there were labour shortages, with local school-children and German prisoners-of-war drafted in to help with the local potato harvest, there was already anxiety about jobs for the men returning home, and the working
classes were beginning to make a stand, demanding better rights and pay.
With typical Doncaster spirit, local people were determined to keep their chins up, eagerly supporting fundraising campaigns for the war effort with ‘knees-up’ entertainment, and enjoying escapism in the local cinemas and theatres. As the days progressed, optimism was growing, buoyed
by newspapers reporting on ‘heroes’ advancing towards German soil, increasing German surrenders, and “Austria Throws in the Sponge!” in 1 November 1918’s Chronicle. Finally, on 11 November 1918 Mayor Abner Carr announced the end of war from the steps of Doncaster Mansion House, to crowds of cheering people.
This was not the end of the story, however, and the project team at Doncaster 1914-18 are calling on local people to uncover more insights into life on Doncaster’s home front during those final months of the First World War. Doncaster’s people made a huge contribution to the war, but
because it happened outside of our ‘living history’, we are sadly in danger of losing our connection to the people and events of the past, and forgetting that its legacy is still shaping our lives today.
By sharing their own family or neighbourhood stories and photographs on www.doncaster1914-18.org.uk, local people are not only helping to piece together Doncaster’s wartime past, but also helping to build an everlasting digital memorial to our First World War local heroes, free for
everyone to use and share.
To find out more, including news of events, exhibitions and roadshows taking place around the borough of Doncaster, visit www.doncaster 1914-18.org.uk.