Book review: Preston in the First World War by David Huggonson

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‘There is little doubt that this will be a long and stern fight and one which will be extremely costly in life.’

When he wrote of the coming war in the August edition of his monthly newsletter in 1914, the words of the vicar of Preston’s St Thomas’s Church were extraordinarily prescient.

‘In one way or another,’ he added, ‘the whole country will feel its effects and we must prepare ourselves, if need be, to endure suffering.’

At this stage, the war was only three weeks old but already alarm bells were ringing that the hostilities would be more deadly, more all-consuming and more catastrophic than any conflict in human history.

David Huggonson, a Preston man who has explored the city’s First World War role in extensive detail, brings to life four years of hardship, uncertainty and terrible loss in this fully illustrated and informative new book.

In the centenary year of the war, Huggonson examines an assortment of first-hand accounts – including letters from the front, childhood memories and extracts from local newspapers – to show how Preston coped.

From recruitment and the formation of the Preston Pals to the work of women in munitions factories and from frontline news and rationing to the final demobilisation, this is a fascinating and moving insight into the city’s experience of one of the biggest events of the 20th century.

As the war got underway and men started to join up, mill owners like Horrockses made public promises that ‘the position of every man called away by the mobilisation order will be kept open until after the war.’

Unfortunately, many of the jobs preserved by local employers were unsuitable for the men by the time they returned home because of age or injuries.

The formation of the Preston Pals Battalion, part of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, gave many local men an incentive to enlist, assured by the knowledge that they would serve alongside friends, neighbours, work colleagues and even family.

At the end of August, 1914, an appeal was published in the Lancashire Daily Post by Cyril Cartmell, son of Preston’s mayor Harry Cartmell, proposing to form ‘a Company of young businessmen, clerks etc, to be drawn from Preston and the surrounding districts.’

Within days, 250 men, eager to exchange a work bench or office desk for the thrill of serving King and country, had enlisted and the mayor noted that ‘in contrast to the usual state of things, there were only five or six rejections on physical grounds.’

By the end of September, thousands of men had been recruited into the Lancashire regiments and Preston barracks was struggling to provide accommodation. One resident, who lived in military housing there, recalled the rush to clear married quarters for new recruits and ‘many horse-drawn furniture vans coming to move soldiers’ families,’ often into poor quality requisitioned houses.

And as the men left town for the front, women moved in to do their work in factories, mills and offices. By October 1915, the lost labour had been replaced, and in some cases increased, by women – but only on a day-to-day basis.

However, the working female population would continue to grow and remained part of the overall workforce long after the end of the war and into the 1920s. Some women worked on farms, others took clerical jobs but many worked in the mills and the munitions factories.

One of the town’s most successful war ventures was the Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Refreshment Buffet at Preston Railway Station. It was one of the busiest stations in England and the buffet room, which was open day and night and manned by a bevy of women helpers, welcomed thousands of servicemen passing through on their way to camps or overseas.

The final death toll of Preston servicemen is thought to have been over 1,800, with many killed or wounded at the fearsome Battle of the Somme in July, 1916.

One of the saddest notes of the war’s end in Preston was the tragic death of the town’s only Victoria Cross winner, father-of-nine Private Young of Heysham Street, who did not survive an operation on a battle injury only three months after he had been given a magnificent hero’s welcome and mayoral reception in front of ‘a great and enthusiastic multitude.’

In a poignant tribute, the mayor noted that Private Young ‘found a last resting place amongst his own people.’

(Amberley, paperback, £14.99)

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