By Lynda Regan
In the months before the Armistice, while there might have been a belief that war was nearly over, Doncaster’s wartime people still had many hardships to endure.
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. Everyone in the town had family members or friends stationed abroad either in the fighting services or employed as nurses and ambulance drivers. No-one was exempt from worrying about whose name they might see in these terrible sections of the local papers.
And life at home wasn’t easy, with rationing of food and everyday goods, including coal and soap, and also restrictions on the use of electricity and gas. Food Committees had been set up to ensure fair distribution and organisation of supplies and production. There was trouble with this system reported in November when the newcomers to local politics, the Labour party, refused to nominate 5 representatives to sit on the committee as they said they should have two thirds of the members.
The growing influence of a labour movement in the town was becoming increasingly apparent as labour shortages became acute, amid growing anxiety about jobs for the men returning home. The working classes were beginning to make a stand, demanding better rights and pay, as illustrated by an article that appeared in the Doncaster Chronicle on August 23rd, describing a “Big Labour gathering” which 20,000 people attended. Meanwhile children and German prisoners of war were used to help bring in harvests, for instance their crucial work that saved the Bawtry potato crop.
The threat of air raids continued to hang over local people, with blackouts still imposed in Doncaster’s neighbourhoods. The Chronicle on the 13th September recorded a number of people being fined 15/- for not shading lights.
The town was still suffering from the devastating Spanish Flu epidemic with schools closed for months. and many families losing loved ones to it. Eternal optimism however can be glimpsed through the various adverts in the local papers, for clothing, Christmas presents and confectionery.
The war effort did not slacken in the town. Tribunals deciding on whether men should be exempted from call up for active service still went on right up to the Armistice. The Chronicle for November 1st for instance published a list of cases, all exempted or given review dates for long after the 11th November. Fundraising went on apace and people were still being exhorted to buy War Bonds or War Savings Certificates. There is an interesting advertisement for the latter, using a swastika as part of its logo, which of course before the Second World War was still recognised as a good luck symbol.
With typical Doncaster spirit though people were keen on keeping cheerful and doing the right thing. Despite all the hardships and heartache people tried to keep things as normal as possible.
Cinemas and theatres provided a wide range of entertainments, with the emphasis on escapism, drama and comedy rather than war. For instance in September the Grand Theatre had the famous comedian and later film star Will Hay on the bill.
There was huge support for providing a bit of entertainment and comforts for soldiers back from the war for good due to injury , with the Discharged Soldiers’ Club being set up in October.
As the days progressed, optimism was growing, buoyed by newspapers reporting on ‘heroes’ advancing towards German soil; increasing numbers of German surrenders, and the story titled “Austria Throws in the Sponge!” in 1 November 1918’s Chronicle.
At a fundraising event for Prisoners of War held early in October one of the speakers said “..as things are going it did not appear as though their captivity in Germany would last for very much longer”, to a volley of cheering from the audience.”
There was already planning being done for war memorials to be set up after the war
Finally, on 11 November 1918 Mayor Jackson announced the end of war from the steps of Doncaster Mansion House, to crowds of cheering people.
But it was to be many more months before the boys were all home, rationing ended and things returned to normal in the town.