The Long Journey Home – Armistice Abroad

Although Armistice had been announced on 11th November 1918, getting Doncaster’s men back home was a huge undertaking,  – not to be achieved in a day.  What’s more, it would have been unwise to send men home until the actual peace treaty was signed in case fighting broke out again.  The treaty wasn’t signed until July 1919.  This meant that many men were stranded abroad, often for considerable lengths of time.

Soldier George Newson spent nine months waiting for his travel permit, playing pontoon and penning ‘Rhymes of a Rifleman’ to pass the time, and eventually returning home in September 1919.  George’s poems illustrate how memories of conflict clearly played on these young men’s minds, including friends who had lost their lives, and the horrors of the battleground.  Food also seems to have been a major preoccupation, as George writes in his ‘Commentary on Rations’:

Rhymes of a Rifleman

“The record up to date has been
One tin of jam among sixteen;
We used to get served out with meat
That had a smell like sweaty feet,
And now, the bully is no good,
It’s just like eating lumps of wood;
And the biscuits, they are great –
We sometimes use them, as a plate…”

Many men were caught on the battle-lines when Armistice was announced. Harold Burden Hipkins was serving in France when the news filtered through on 11th November 1918.  Harold wrote a heart-breaking account of Armistice Day in his diary (written in 1965), an experience shared by so many local men:

“Now it was our turn to advance… it was tiring trying to catch the Germans up, we were on the move all the time, no respite for our tired bodies, even when Armistice Day came we were moving into the unknown where danger was concerned, roads were laid with mines, ammunitions trains were being blown up…  for us there was no rejoicing at the end of the war, it has all been so senseless and futile… At home there was great rejoicing but it wasn’t for us to indulge, our memories were too deep, we needed rest, the horror of it all was too near to us… yet it was a triumph to know it was all over.”

Thomas Ernest Stones

The long journey home was even more complicated for Doncaster’s prisoners of war.  Many had suffered terrible treatment in the war camps, including untreated battle injuries, starvation and beatings.  They were “back from a living death”, wrote the Doncaster Chronicle on 13th December 1918 about three Doncaster men – Private John Allen Scott, Corporal Harold James Beaumont, and Private Thomas Ernest Stones – who were rushed straight to hospital on their return home that winter.  Thomas, just 19 years old, arrived “in a state of collapse… (he) was a bag of bones, thin and emaciated, and on the journey back… had to be fed on brandy.”

After their harrowing experiences, many prisoners of war were treated like heroes – both in Europe and Britain – with special trains to carry them home and jubilant receptions crowded with people insisting they take gifts of cigarettes, tobacco and other wartime ‘treats’.   One Doncaster soldier, Private Harry Buffham, remembered: “I slept in a champion bed at Rotterdam… with sheets, pillows, and all these things.  I wondered what had got me, and hardly knew how to get in bed.” (reported in the Doncaster Chronicle, 29th November 1918.)

But at least they were home safe. Let us not forget the ones who died so close to the signing of the Armistice.  In the dying days of the war they must have felt that they would soon be going home – but fate decided otherwise.

Able seaman Ernest Smith was killed in action on the eve of Armistice, while Henry Birkett Shimelds died of flu on the same day, far from his family in France.

And some families still hoping for the best for their men reported missing finally got news of their loved ones.

Guy Lister Crabtree

One poignant story was that of Guy Crabtree, who had been reported missing in action on 21 March 2018, the same date as the last letter from him ever received by his parents. On the 29th November the Doncaster Chronicle reported a remarkable story that finally gave the family some further insight into what had happened to their son.

New Zealand Rifleman Fred Junker was passing through Doncaster on his way home from the war and this lucky chance meant that he could bring some news of Guy.  Several months earlier he had killed a German soldier in hand to hand fighting. While searching the dead man’s pockets before burial he found a parcel of English photographs. As some of them bore the names of Doncaster photographers he handed them in to the YMCA in the town in the hope that their owner might be traced. The Chronicle published some of the photos and Guy’s parents recognised them. They may never have found out the details of what happened to their son, but they now knew that he had fallen into the hands of the enemy and had almost certainly been killed.

But huge numbers of men did return home, even if, as for Thomas Saville Shaw, not home from Italy until the 2nd November 1919, it was a long time coming.