This story shows how one family fared in the First World War, when four of its sons went to fight and not all of them returned.
Thomas Saville Shaw and his wife Annie lived in Birstall, Leeds where he worked as a power loom tuner in the local mill. They moved to Lower Wortley, not too far away, in 1901, probably to find a bigger house for their growing family. They had 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 locally but there was mining – and brothers Walter and Harry took up that option.
By the time war broke out in 1914 the family was still very close, all still living in the cottage in Cow Close, apart from the two eldest boys, John and Walter who had both got married and had children of their own. John still lived in Birstall though Walter had gone to live in Doncaster. Then began the worry for the parents as their other four boys all joined the army.
The first to join up, in September just after the start of the war in the fervour to volunteer, was Harold, the youngest child. Though only 15 years old, at that time no formal checks were made as to a volunteer’s age so if a young man looked as old he said he was he would be accepted. He was posted to the West Yorkshire Regiment and sent for training to Leeds, not too far away from Mum and Dad. Just as he was moved to Newcastle Harry, aged 21, joined up in June 1915, followed by Fred, aged 25, in November and Thomas aged only 18, in December. Thomas was also in the West Yorkshire regiment, though in a different battalion to Harold, but Harry and Fred both joined the Royal Engineers.
There is no record of the two older brothers ever joining up, and one can imagine their reluctance given the fact they both had young families. When conscription was introduced in 1916 they may have been exempt because they were working in protected industries, certainly that would be the case for Walter working at the pit and some jobs in the textile industry were also on the list so this may have applied to John.
Harry and Fred were posted to France in June 1916 and managed to stay there together right up until August 1917. Harry’s mining background made him ideal for the sort of work their company was engaged in in France. This consisted of all kinds 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. Fred was a driver and had a good record in France apart from on one occasion on the 6th June 1916, shortly after arriving, when he was charged with neglect of duty for leaving a horse loose in the stables. He was confined to barracks for two days.
Thomas finished his training and in October 1916 found himself in Belgium in the thick of the fighting around Ypres. He saw action at the infamous Hill 60 and it must have seemed like a lifetime before he was finally given a respite in July 1917 when he spent a month or so in camp in the Dickebusch area.
Meanwhile young Harold was stationed in England after his initial training right up until January 1917, so one suspects his commanding officers were dubious about his real age. Perhaps by January 1917 he looked as though he was 19, which was the real age at which soldiers could legally be sent abroad to fight, and so he was sent to Southampton and disembarked at Le Havre on the 8th January. By this time all four brothers were now abroad and their parents must have known they were all in danger, though we have no letters and of course all correspondence was censored. They had already sadly lost one child when Ellen, having earlier moved to Doncaster, died aged only 26 in 1911.
Harold may initially have been excited to be finally joining his brothers on active service, but he must have had a harsh jolt when suddenly experiencing what it was really like. It began with gruelling marches and uncomfortable billets in the freezing cold winter before being transferred to the front on the 1st February. Immediately he was involved in heavy fighting in the trenches, which when the thaw set in, were a sea of mud. Then he was engaged in the disastrous allied attempt to take the German Hindenburg line that resulted in heavy casualties around Bullecourt. It must have been a massive relief to him when in August his battalion was sent to the coast for training, away from the front line and respite for a glorious three months.
Meanwhile, as Thomas left the camp near Dickebusch in September for front line fighting Harry, ironically, was arriving there. Harry and Fred had parted company finally after all those months being near each other in France.
Fred was sent to Bapaume. The work there included clearing and repairing trenches and wiring for front line positions. The danger they were exposed to here was clearly illustrated by the death of their commanding officer, Captain F.H Johnson VC on the 26th November 1917 while conducting reconnaissance with two other officers in Bourlon Wood.
Harry was only at Dickebusch for a short time. On the 19th October he was sent to hospital – not because of 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, where he stayed until the middle of March 1918.
Though his condition was serious, Harry’s parents must have been glad he was back in England. Thomas was wounded in October but on recovery he was sent to Italy on active service, and was immediately involved in battles on the Asagio Plateau, luckily escaping further injury. He remained in Italy for the rest of the war.
Young Harold had arrived in Dickebusch in November, where he probably felt he already knew the place since his three brothers had already been there at various times.
Christmas 1917 must have been a strange time for the Shaw family. They at least had Fred home on leave from the 22nd December but with Harry in hospital and the two other lads abroad it must have been a worrying time and hard to celebrate as they had done in previous years. We don’t know how long Fred was on leave but he may well have been ill that Christmas, as on the 17th January the army sent him to St George’s Hospital in London where exploratory surgery confirmed that he had a form of stomach cancer.
So with two sons in hospital and one fighting in Italy, their parents must have been going through hell already when in April 1918 Harold was sent back to the trenches at Ypres.
On 11th April came orders to move into the line immediately to join a defensive flank near Wytchaete. The Germans attacked after a heavy barrage on the 16th but again Harold survived and the next few days were uneventful as they rested and waited in what was known as Siege Farm. Then on the 25th suddenly at 2.30 am the enemy barrage opened up again and the Germans attacked at 6.am. By 7.30 am the battalion had to withdraw under this onslaught – but Harold wasn’t with them. Sometime during that hour and a half he was killed. His body was never found. He was still only 17 years old.
Harry was fit enough to go back into training in April, though it must have been with a heavy heart as he heard the terrible news about Harold. Three months later the family took another blow when Fred died in hospital. He was only 28 years old and the family must have been reeling that he had escaped the worst of the war only to be cut down by such a terrible disease. For Thomas, still fighting in Italy, the feeling of being far away and unable to help support his family in their grief must have been overwhelming.
Perhaps Harry’s Doncaster wedding to Emily Jackson in September was a happier moment for them all, but only a few days later he was called back to the front in Belgium with the 61st Field Company. Though only three months away from the end of the war the Germans were still fighting in earnest and on the 25th September 100 German raiders attacked, 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.
Finally on November 11th 1918 the war was over. Harry was back in England in December and once again took up his job at Brodsworth Colliery. Thomas wasn’t so lucky – it wasn’t until 29th November 1919 that he was finally demobbed in Leeds and could go back home. Annie Shaw didn’t live to enjoy having him back for very long – she died in December aged only 60, surely a final blow to her husband Thomas who had already lost three children, now his wife.
Thomas junior found a new job as a file maker, and later married, had a family and moved to Doncaster. Harry died in 1949, the result of an accident at work. Thomas lived till 1960, still only 62.
None of the four brothers who fought in the Great War had very long lives, and none of them had easy ones. For the two who survived the war they must always have remembered it, and the two brothers they lost.