Spen’s war chronicled by former journalist

SPEN'S WAR Andrew Bannister with his book, One Valley's War.
SPEN'S WAR Andrew Bannister with his book, One Valley's War.

“More than anything else at the moment, we are concerned that the people of the Spen Valley should bear themselves in the face of a great national crisis with a good courage, and with a spirit of consideration towards all with whom they are brought in contact.”

These are the words of the Cleckheaton Guardian editorial as Britain declared war on Germany.

IN ACTION The horror of the trenches in the Great War 1914-18.

IN ACTION The horror of the trenches in the Great War 1914-18.

The war’s impact on the Spen Valley was documented by former Guardian journalist Andrew Bannister in his 1994 book One Valley’s War, using the newspaper’s archives.
He said: “The archives turned out to be an incredibly detailed record frozen in time, blending national news with very local perspectives as the war unfolded in all its horror.

“Spen Valley people were involved from the very start, debating first of all the moral case for war and then being swept along in the great patriotic upsurge as fighting began in Belgium and France. After that there was no turning back - the industry of the valley was gradually focused on war work, the young men of the district were hastening to the recruiting stations 
or sometimes going through the courts for their objections to enlistment.

“Local people were sending back reports from all over the world, sharing their news of the big stories of the day.

“A woman from Spen Valley was on the liner Lusitania when it was torpedoed by a German U-boat and another was on the streets of Petrograd as the Russian Revolution broke out.

“Local soldiers, sailors and airmen fought on the Western Front, at Gallipoli, in the Balkans, in East Africa and Mesopotamia and on the high seas.”

Andrew said the Guardian’s editor, Eli Hirst, had two sons in the Cleckheaton Terriers. John and Alfred, known as Eddie, were sent to France and John wrote back weekly reports from the trenches, giving a readers a first hand account of life on the front line.

He said: “There was also much news from the home front as the local population rallied round to house Belgian refugees and fretted about Zeppelin raids. The columns of the paper give an insight into the unique patriotism of the time, but there were also perspectives on strikes, the transformed role of women, concerns about public morality and, increasingly as time went on, the difficulty of simply finding enough to eat.

“Above all there was the grim tide of casualties from the fighting, as friends 
who grew up and enlisted together from the same street were killed together on the Western Front.

“The ‘Terriers’ fought in the Battle of the Somme and Eddie Hirst was killed on September 3, 1916, Cleckheaton Feast Sunday, with 12 of his Spen Valley comrades. Everyone in the district knew someone who had been killed.

“As the war dragged on, the paper had an important role in keeping up morale but certainly didn’t mince words when it came to the realities of the time, reporting also on the plight of wounded soldiers returning home and the Spanish influenza which struck at the very end of the war.”

Andrew’s book continues into 1919, looking at the return of peace, the war’s legacy and the political turmoil which followed. He added: “It is no exaggeration to say the Spen Valley district changed beyond recognition and forever.”

Copies of Andrew’s book are available for a £5 donation to the Leeds Children’s Hospital Appeal. Email andybann1@aol.com.