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12 - Stillington at War

In 1914 life in Stillington continued as though it would never change.  Cricket was a large part of the village social scene and on 24 January over 200 dancers in fancy dress attended the annual Cricket Club ball in the council schoolroom (now the village hall).  Come the start of the season Stillington lost by 25 runs to St Michael le Belfry (York) but beat local rivals Huby by a similar margin.  The Yorkshire Gazette makes no mention of the likelihood of hostilities until the report of the fortieth Huby and Sutton on the Forest Show when Lord Furness, proposing the toast to 'The King', briefly mentioned the terrible crisis through which the country was passing.  Everyone hoped 'events would turn out better than appeared to be at present'. 

Following the German invasion of neutral Belgium on 4 August, war was declared on Germany.  The team from the Army Pay Corps resigned from the local cricket league.  Ryedale Show was held at Duncombe Park, Helmsley, on 11 August but Pickering Show was cancelled due to the outbreak of hostilities.   

The Great War seems to have passed above the heads of Stillington Parish Council.  Prior to the outbreak of hostilities the Council met infrequently and its main interest appears to have been the Stillington Consolidated Charities Fund, the Calvert's Widow Charity Fund and the appointment of a governor for Stillington Village School.  People from the village went away to war.  Quite a number did not return but there is no mention of them in Parish records.  Existing church records are also incomplete. 

One local man, Fred Burks, had already enlisted in the Green Howards in 1906 and held the rank of sergeant.  At the beginning of what promised to be a short war he was stationed in Guernsey.  On 28 August he left for the Western Front in Belgium.  By Christmas 1914 he had already seen active service near Ypres, a city as yet undamaged, fighting against a Bavarian regiment which included Corporal Adolf Hitler. 

His Battalion marched to Armentieres in Northern France where despite the season of goodwill the only break in hostilities came in Christmas week when the German troops requested a pause to recover their dead.  During that period soldiers from both sides fraternised; exchanging cigarettes, cigars and souvenirs - the only time such an event occurred throughout the war.  The British higher authority stopped it happening again! 

Back home in England the well-known Yorkshire pacifist Arnold Rowntree encouraged military service, stating that he would keep jobs open for all Rowntree employees who volunteered to serve the colours.  He declared that war was 'not a picnic' and that soldiers would 'march hour after hour for 30-40 miles carrying 90 lbs on their backs'.  He was right.  Meanwhile the recruiting sergeants, resplendent in red sashes, marched through the towns and villages recruiting men to serve as soldiers.  A visit to Stillington on 20 November 1915 recruited three men for the Green Howards.  Raymond Hayes, from Farlington, was posted to active service in France.  He was killed on 22nd March 1918. 

Some soldiers returned safely.  The two men recruited alongside Raymond Hayes, H Burden and R Barker, survived the war.  Some had lucky escapes: Pte Lawrence Fothergill was in the firing line and had, 'A marvellous experience.  He had his hat shot off but is luckily none the worse'.  Others were not so lucky.  Arthur Hobson joined the Green Howards and served on the first day of what came to be known as the Battle of the Somme.  Unlike over 20,000 of his compatriots who were killed in action, and 37,000 who were wounded, Arthur survived only to be killed at Arras on 24 May 1917. 

Alf Stubbs, who lived on the village green at Stillington, joined the 18th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment - the 'Manchester Pals'.  On 12 October 1916 he was waiting in a muddy trench, soaked to the skin, to attack Ligny-Thilloy, in the Somme area.  At 2.05 pm, after a short five minute bombardment, the Manchesters attacked and the Germans retaliated.  Heavy machine gun fire made progress impossible and the British suffered terribly.  Alf Stubbs sadly became one of the 250 Manchesters, out of 350 who started the day, who were dead, wounded or taken prisoner. 

Harry Thompson of Ashfield Cottage, Main Street, was recruited into the Yorkshire and Lancashire Regiment.  He was killed in the third battle of Ypres.  At Passchendaele Harry had served alongside Sergeant Burks who had now survived some of the worst battles of the entire war.  But Sergeant Burks was killed in action on 6 May 1918.  The battalion diary for the day records, 'Quiet with nothing of importance to report'.  Doubtless his wife and family would strongly disagree with that! 

The First World War did affect whole families.  The Borwells - brothers George, Tom, Charlie, and sister Doris, were all in the forces.  Charlie joined the Yorkshire Hussars, serving in Mesopotamia, Russia and India.  Tom joined the Green Howards and was in training at the end of the war.  Doris served with the WAAC in Suffolk. George had joined the Army in 1914 as a driver in the Army Service Corps and was drafted to the front in May 1916.  Twice he was mentioned in despatches for taking up supplies under heavy shell fire.  In the Spring of 1918 he was transferred to the West Riding Regiment and had only been in the trenches a few days when he was killed. 

Reg and Percy Dight lived with their parents on Main Street.  Percy was a regular soldier in the Royal Artillery and rose to the rank of CQMS.  He was awarded the Military Medal and Bar for bravery and was mentioned in despatches on a number of occasions.  Towards the end of the war he returned from France unable to work and suffering from a combination of gas poisoning and shell shock - a complaint not recognised by the British Army as an illness.  His brother Reg also joined the Royal Artillery and served alongside his brother in France.  They were standing together beside their gun when Reg was shot dead by a German sniper. 

Gunfire was only one of the many hazards.  Robert Gibson of Stillington Mill, joined the Queen's Own Yorkshire Dragoon Labour Corps.  Usually their regiments were unarmed and spent most of their time labouring at, or close to the front line - building or repairing bridges and roads, deepening and widening trenches, constructing wooden walkways.  At the end of the war Bob sadly caught pneumonia and died in the military hospital in Beverly.  He is buried in Stillington graveyard - one of few local soldiers to have a personal memorial in his own home village. 

Although the Parish Council records show no commemoration to those who were killed in action during the First World War, their names are recorded on monuments and memorials which decorate the Belgian and French countryside bearing testimony to the sacrifice of British soldiers.  The name of Alf Stubbs is recorded on the monument at Thiepval, along with 70,000 other British soldiers, as 'having no known grave'. 

The names of Fred Burks and Harry Thompson are recorded on the Tyne Cot Memorial.  Arthur Hobson and Reg Dight are on the Arras Memorial, George Borwell on the Vis-en-Artois Memorial and Raymond Hayes on the Pozieres Memorial at Albert. 

The Great War ended on 11 November 1918.  Those who survived came home to the great relief of their families and started to pick up their lives again.  Among the survivors was John Hutchinson, of Slingsby.  John had enlisted in the Green Howards in 1916 and had spent a large part of his military service training recruits at Rugeley, Warwickshire.  In 1920, after demobilisation, he married, moved to Stillington and became manager of the BATA store.  He was later to become a well known Stillington figure, closely associated with St Nicholas Church, where he became secretary, vicar's warden and bellmaster. 

After the war life in Stillington went on much as before.  No welcome home is recorded from the Parish Council.  Repairs to Lucy Balk, Joe Stees and Jenny Wren footpaths continued to dominate Parish business.  Stiles needed repairing, new gates needed erecting and the Vicarage had a Hit and Miss paled hand-gate and palings erected by Mr Hugill for 9/7/6d. 

The First World War was supposed to be 'The War to End Wars' but it was not to be. The 'Roaring Twenties' came and went and a new generation of young people grew up not remembering the 'Great War'. Even so, the storm clouds were gathering over the whole of Europe.  

In 1935 the National Peace Ballot was held.  A threat from Germany was now a real possibility and strenuous efforts were made to keep the peace.  Britain may have been neutral, but British volunteers left to fight in the Spanish Civil War. In 1937, at about the same time as the coronation of King George VI, came the first official hint of trouble.  Easingwold Rural District Council asked the Parish Council to set up an Air Raid Precautions Committee.  Dr Bullen, the village GP, assumed responsibility for Red Cross work, R W Wood became organiser of rescue parties and William Redshaw offered to organise motor cars and lorries when needed.  Rev H W Smith, the vicar, was appointed Principal Air Warden.  Public lectures on air raid and anti-gas precautions were organised. 

On 3 September 1939 war was declared.  Evacuees from Hull and Middlesbrough came to Stillington.  'Dig for Victory', 'Buy a Spitfire' and 'Buy a Tank' weeks were held in the village.  Salvage collection got into full swing and Stillington Boys Scouts assumed responsibility for collecting waste paper, tins and scrap iron.  Fund raising events were held in the Village Hall where Fur and Feather shows were popular.  Farmers donated stock for auction. 

Cigarettes were a vital need for soldiers.  In January 1940 a collection raised 4/13/0d and paid for twenty-three tins.  Stillington formed a branch of the Home Guard with forty-seven members.  Initially known as the Local Defence Volunteers, local wags claimed that LDV stood for 'Look, Duck and Vanish'!  Apparently the qualification required to join was an ability to climb the steps to the top of the church tower and keep watch!  Training for the Home Guard took place in the Village Hall with manoeuvres in the grounds of Stillington Hall.  These men were entrusted with protecting the village in the event of enemy attack and guarding ammunition stored in the Nissen huts which appeared on spare land and by roadsides leading to Stillington. 

Although twenty-one years had passed between the end of World War I and the start of World War II many of those who saw military service between 1939 and 1945 had vivid memories of the previous war.  The two sons of Sergeant Fred Burks (the gallant Green Howard who had fought through many of the worst battles in WWI and finally been killed in action just six months before the end of the war) enlisted in the British Army.  Francis Burks was, like his father, a regular soldier.  He joined the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry in 1933, serving in Gibraltar and Burma before being demobilised in 1946.  His brother, James, enlisted in 1939 and served with the Durham Light Infantry and the West Yorkshire Regiment.  He saw service in Egypt and Tunisia before being wounded in Abyssinia in 1941.  He, like his father, lost his life as a result of war.  He was killed in action in Sicily in 1943. 

Percy Dight, the son of CQMS Dight of the Royal Artillery, did not see service as a regular soldier.  As a farmworker he was declared to be in a reserved occupation and joined the Brandsby and Crayke Home Guard under the command of Captain Bullen from Stillington.  Percy remembers that twice he was stopped in York to show his exemption card to prove that he wasn't in the Army.  To Percy the Home Guard were 'playing soldiers'.  One rainy Sunday they lived up to the description.  His corporal took the platoon into the pub where they played cards all day! 

To those who saw active service away from home 'playing soldiers' - or 'sailors' or 'airmen' - was an impossibility.  Leslie Hutchinson volunteered for the Royal Navy in 1940.  He joined HMS Kashmir, operating anti U-boat patrols in the English Channel and North Atlantic.  Later his ship went into the Mediterranean, accompanying HMS Kelly in the bombardment of the airfield at Maleme.  Ordered to proceed to Alexandra, Egypt, HMS Kashmir was attacked by German Stuka bombers off Gavdas Island, received a direct hit and sank.  Leslie was killed and is commemorated on the Memorial at Suda Bay. 

In 1944, Charles Hutchinson was called up into the RAF but transferred to the infantry.  After advanced jungle training at Comilla he joined the West Yorkshire Regiment and took part in the battle of Meiktila commanded by General Bill Slim.  He spent some time in Chittagong Military Hospital being treated for jungle sores.  Being a talented musician he was delighted to find a piano in the hospital and his recovery was greatly aided by playing it.  He returned to England and was finally demobbed in 1947. 

Bert Thompson, who worked for a local builder, was called up, joined the Duke of Wellington's Regiment, and was posted to India.  He had many unpleasant experiences fighting the Japanese in the jungle.  Like many others he couldn't get home quick enough when the war ended.  He left for Stillington without even collecting his medals.  These he only received on his 80th birthday when his family applied for them.  Bert Thompson's brother, Charlie, who worked on the roads for the Council, was called up and joined the Yorkshire and Lancashire Regiment.  He was in the North African and Italian campaigns.  He too was also waiting to get home to England and Stillington.  His letter to the White Bear wished everyone a Happy Christmas and showed him sitting on a large tin of spam dreaming of turkey, Christmas pudding and the odd drink or two.  

Cecil Wood, a footballer who had trials with York City, joined the Royal Engineers in 1939.  He saw service in France and Belgium before being evacuated from Dunkirk.  Transferred to the Middle East, for bravery in the field he was mentioned in despatches on 12th December 1941.  He was captured in 1942 and became a Prisoner of War.  He was released from Stalag IVB in Saxony.  His girl friend, later to become his wife, Margaret, was shown a photograph of freed POW's and was amazed to see her future husband in the photo - safe but not home.  Cecil Wood finally returned home on 14 May 1945. 

Throughout World War II the Army had huge camps in the Vale of Pickering.  Many convoys went through the village, some so long they took 2-3 days to pass.  Tanks were frequently parked in the grounds of Stillington Hall.  Once a track came off a tank and it veered into the front door of Corner House.  The resident was at the door with a child in her arms - not surprisingly she disappeared into the depths of the house with great speed when the turret buried itself into the house. 

The war brought employment for many.  East Moor air base, three miles from Stillington, was a Royal Canadian Airforce base.  Before the war a farm worker's weekly wage was about 2 but one of the village blacksmiths, Ernest Burnett, found that when he went to work at East Moor, he could earn 5 a week. 

Canadian airmen frequently visited the pubs in Stillington and batmen brought leather boots and flying jackets to the Stillington cobbler, Arthur North, for repair.  One sad task when a plane was lost was to give away boots and jackets left by the crew. 

Associations formed between local girls and the visiting aircrews.  Gertie Burks, who lived on the Green and worked at Home Farm, had a Canadian boy friend.  Stillington was in line with the main runway at East Moor.  Loaded aircraft took off very slowly and gained height above the village.  She could easily recognise his plane by the number on its wing.  Many hours later she waited anxiously for his return and knew she still had a date when his plane flew back from Germany. 

Trainee pilots sometimes crashed.  One came down in Folly wood.  Another crashed on Sugar Hills where the Army had a look-out tower.  The pilot managed to climb out and raise the alarm by telephone but the WAAFS on duty hadn't heard a thing.  About fifteen soldiers and WAAFS were billeted in the village with their office in part of Wandell House.  In addition to the Sugar Hills look-out, they worked a searchlight on the Green. 

The village was never bombed but a land mine was dropped at Seaves Farm, near Brandsby, and a great deal of glass was shattered.  Another bomb fell close to South Farm but the blast went over the hill at the back of the house without causing any damage. 

In May 1945 the war in Europe ended.  The church bells, which were to be used as emergency signals, had not sounded since 1940.  On 8 May they rang out to celebrate VE Day and they rang again on 15 August for VJ Day.  The Welcome Home Committee raised money for gifts for all who served.  Flags and bunting decorated the village, there was a bonfire on the Green, a sports day for children and a whist drive with proceeds to the Welcome Home Fund.  And the bells rang... and rang... and rang...