From Brodsworth Colliery to a soldier’s life in France

Soldier, Harry Shaw
Soldier, Harry Shaw

Doncaster soldier, Harry Shaw, made it all the way from Brodswoth Colliery to soldiering in France.

Harry Shaw was born in 1893 in Birstall, Leeds. He was one of ten children, six boys and four girls, and most of them followed their father into the weaving industry. There was little alternative to mill work other than mining, and Harry took up that option like his older brother Walter. When the First World War broke out he was living at 12 Cranbrook Road in Wheatley, Doncaster and working at Brodsworth Colliery.

231st Field Company Royal Engineers - The Shaws at War

231st Field Company Royal Engineers - The Shaws at War

Despite being in what was a reserved occupation, he volunteered for the army when the call to arms came, as did three of his brothers. He enlisted in June 1915 and joined the Royal Engineers. His army records show him as a small man, 5ft 3”, and despite being only 22, with “artificial teeth in upper jaw”. He did his army training in Doncaster then embarked for France from Southampton in June 1916. Brother Fred had enlisted around the same time as Harry and they both found themselves in the 231st Company working together in France.

Harry’s mining background made him ideal for the sort of work his company was engaged in. This consisted of support work, including bridge building, road repairs and of course mining under the German lines – This was all dangerous work, with the records showing plenty of instances of sappers being killed and wounded by shelling and shrapnel, plus the company did take part in raids where several men were killed. Despite all this Harry’s hospitalization from October 19 1917 to March 19 1918 wasn’t from a wound sustained working or fighting, but from a kick in the testicles while playing football! The resulting serious medical condition, called orchitis, meant he got the “Blighty one” most soldiers longed for, and he was sent to hospital in Manchester.

By March 19 he was classed as Grade two and sent for “gradual physical exercise”, finally being fit for service in May and sent to Thetford then Aldershot for training. During this period he got two days confined to barracks and forfeited one day’s pay for overstaying leave by 22 hours. Could this have been because he had just got married? We know he married Emily Millicent Jackson sometime in September, but not the exact date. It must have been a happy but also sad occasion, with the family surely still reeling from the recent deaths of brothers Fred and Harold. Young Harold was only 17 when he was killed in April and Fred had died of cancer in hospital just over a month before.

The honeymoon was soon over. On September 8 1918 he was back in France, then sent on active service in Belgium. He joined the 61st Field Company at Busselboom, which was employed at Divisional HQ erecting buildings and making a dry weather mule track from Dickebusch through Ridge Wood. While working on this track on September 25, 100 German raiders attacked number three section, resulting in several men, including their officer, being wounded or taken prisoner. We can’t say for certain whether Harry took part in this action, but it does underline the danger they were in despite working on what would appear at first sight to be a comparatively safe job behind the lines.

Royal Engineers at Dicebusch

Royal Engineers at Dicebusch

In October the Company moved up to Messines Ridge building bridges. After months of hard and dangerous work it must have been a wonderful moment on October 20 1918 when the 61st moved to billets in Tourcoing. There, as noted in the Company records: “The inhabitants gave the troops a most rousing reception which produced a most lasting impression on all ranks.

“The civilians had flags hanging out of nearly every house and deemed it an honour to be allowed to shake hands. In the billets the inhabitants could not do enough for the troops and then the Company felt that they had a certain degree of recompense for all the dreary and monotonous years spent on service. The reaction and attitude of the inhabitants put new life into the men.” They later moved on to Evregnies building bridges, then four-and-a-half miles away in Espierres where they were employed on “repairing village.”

All of this shows a different side to the war that is often depicted solely as men fighting in trenches. Finally in December Harry was sent home and demobbed on December 21 1918. He was awarded the Victory and British medals. After demob Harry returned to work as a miner at Brodsworth pit. He continued his hard and dangerous work at the pit until December 12 1949. That day, while at work, a roof collapsed on him and he suffered a fractured pelvis. Harry never recovered from his injuries and died on the December 24 1949.

Royal Engineers repairing a bridge

Royal Engineers repairing a bridge