It was the War to end all Wars – and left more than 100 children in just one East Coast town fatherless.
The impact of the First World War on Bridlington is starkly revealed in a new book by Chris Bonnett with Mike Wilson, who both lost relatives at sea and on the battlefields of France and Belgium.
Mr Bonnett has spent five years collating details of the 334 men who are listed on the town’s cenotaph, when they were born, enlisted, and where they died. He has visited at least 40 graves, and in some cases is probably the first to have done so from Bridlington.
His research was inspired by one of his two great uncles to die in the War, William Henry Lamplough, whose name cropped up one day on a visit by his wife’s 99-year-old grandmother.
“She said she had an elder brother who died and the following day I went into the library and found out a bit more information from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission site. He was just 23 when he died on the Somme.”
As well as spending hours trawling through old copies of the Bridlington Free Press and in the town’s library, Mr Bonnett also interviewed many relatives: “Parents or grandparents very rarely mentioned the ones who died. I think it was an easier way for them to get over it. I know William Henry’s mother took to her bed for weeks – she couldn’t get over the fact her eldest boy had been killed – yet in public it was rarely talked about. It was a taboo.
“Some didn’t even know until their grandmother died that she’d lost a brother – they only knew from finding a death plaque. They said the war would be over by Christmas and for Christmas 1914-15 Princess Mary raised money by public subscription to present every serviceman and woman with a brass box, chocolate for the nurses and cigarettes or tobacco for the men.”
But in fact fighting only ceased in 1918 and the peace treaty that formally ended the conflict in Europe was not signed until the middle of 1919. A peace treaty with Turkey had to wait until 1923.
Added Mr Bonnett: “Reading the back copies was fantastic reading and I thought to myself all these lads shouldn’t be forgotten.”
Mr Wilson’s father was just two when his grandfather Jack died when his unit was ordered to fill a gap made by men retreating from the first gas attack by the Germans at St Julien, near Ypres, on April 25 1915.
A fortnight beforehand Jack’s own father had died in the street.
He said: “His mother lost her husband and son within a fortnight. It must have been a hell of a shock.
“There was always within the family a difficulty with grandma, who remarried soon after. She had five kids to look after. She was always portrayed as a difficult woman but it could have been that she was affected by the War.
“It was the same for so many families in Bridlington – the statistics are truly shocking.
“We found the youngest one who died was just 16 and he died on the same day as my grandfather, one of seven from Bridlington to die in the same action.
“There were four families who lost three sons; Frank and Helena Gresham lost three sons, all officers, and 16 sets of parents who lost two sons. Fanny Louisa Garbutt lost her husband and son as did Jane Gray. In all we worked out that 121 children were left fatherless as a result of the war.”
Mr Wilson said the First World War put fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq into perspective: “People are criticising the military and when one soldier dies there’s hell on. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme 60,000 died. There is a war on and you have to expect that is what young men join the Army for – to put their lives on the line.”
Several local businesses have financed a copy of Great War Heroes of Bridlington, allowing it to be presented to local schools. Chris and Mike have been in touch with 10 schools to hand over the books.
Mr Wilson said: “We want to say the cenotaph is not just a bus stop into town. It means something, and people should be aware that their family surname might be there.”
They will also be making donations from the sale of the books to Alderson House, the British Legion home in Bridlington, and to a local soldier, Aron Shelton, who lost a limb in Afghanistan.
The book has its official launch at 7.30pm on July 1 at Bridlington Central Library – the 95th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. Two local men were killed that day.
For a copy – priced £10 until July 1, and £11.99 afterwards, call Mike Wilson on 01262 609228.
Boys who died in savage conflict
George Denny was one of the youngest from Bridlington to lose his life.
He was only 16 when he died on April 25, 1915.
John Bagley Senior also died at 16 when a submarine sank his ship on June 21, 1918.
Percy Mason had enlisted when he was 15 and saw service in France.