Rotherham rejoiced 100 years ago at return of last of battalion

A hundred years ago, on June 19, 1919, the people of Rotherham turned out in their thousands to welcome home the last of the 1/5 Battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment to return from France.

Thursday, 16th May 2019, 1:24 pm
Regimental flags hanging in the Sheffield Cathedral Memorial Chapel which is dedicated to the York and Lancaster Regiment

Rotherham was the headquarters of the regiment and that day it seemed as if all the townspeople had turned out to express their heartfelt thankfulness and a deep indebtedness to their soldiers.

Sergeant Thomas Potter was one of the 25 returning soldiers.

He wrote in his diary: “It was a great day for us all. We marched from the Station to the Square in the centre of the town with the colours flying.

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Men of 1/5 York and Lancaster Regiment in International Trench near the Yser Canal north of Ypres, 1915. ©Jon Cooksey

“A vast crowd had gathered in the Square which included several Mayors from surrounding towns, towns from which the men of the battalion had been recruited.

“We had a wonderful reception and then a dinner at the Crown Hotel... The next day the local newspapers were full of the news and photographs of the reception.”

Imagine the scene:

The train conveying the precious party steamed into Masborough Station…

The scene in College Square, Rotherham on June 19, 1919 when the last of the York and Lancaster Regiment returned

As the Colours were borne through the portals of the station, the band struck up Old Lang Syne and everybody stood to attention.

The procession presented an imposing sight and, led by a mounted escort, the progress to College Square was witnessed by thousands of people, the warmth and sincerity of whose welcome could not be mistaken.

The church bells rang out a merry peal, and this continued until the speech-making commenced. In College Square itself the arrival of the cadre and flags was the signal for another spontaneous chorus of cheers which lasted for several minutes.

[After the speeches] three cheers were then given and the singing of the National Anthem brought the proceedings to a close – Rotherham Advertiser.

Newspaper photos of the ceremony in College Square reflect a more sombre occasion as the rejoicing and pride was intermixed with remembrance and sorrow – of 4587 soldiers who served with the battalion, 850 men and 41 officers died: 72 out of every 100 were killed or injured.

Tom Potter kept the photos and newspaper cuttings of that memorable day all his life.

He had joined the North Eastern Railway Battalion in 1915, aged 19, transferring to the 1/5 York and Lancaster Regiment in 1916. Before the War he lived in a small North Yorkshire village, leaving school on his 13th birthday to work as a telegraph messenger boy, and at 16 went to work as a lad porter on the railways.

In his speech the Mayor of Rotherham hoped their welcome that day would be a lasting one and that the men would find themselves better placed in the future than before they went away – that every effort would be made to settle the returning soldiers into suitable employment.

The next day Tom left Rotherham for Ripon where he handed in his equipment and received his demobilisation papers.

Tom wrote:

“I was back in civilian life.

“While serving with the Army in France I was asked if I would like a commission (Officer’s Rank) but I declined. It meant leaving the Battalion and men with whom you had a close relationship and comradeship and probably going to a strange Battalion where you were unknown.

“When I returned to work on the railway I found that men who had served as officers in the Army were trained to fill supervisory positions on the railway. When the station master at Pilmoor learnt that I had been mobilised he informed the Superintendent at York and I received a letter from him telling me that I had been appointed relief porter at Northallerton.!I did not want that job and wanted to work in the Telegraph Superintendents Dept and asked for an interview with the head of that Dept. They were not pleased with my request but I got an interview and the Telegraph Supt gave me a job as Assistant Lineman at Stockton, which I accepted.”

Did the words of the Mayor that day in Rotherham ring hollow in his ears when he was subsequently offered his old job as relief porter?

Did his Military Medal for bravery at the Battle of Kemmel Ridge and his training as a signaller count for nothing back in Civvy Street?

Tom had placed more value on the comradeship of his fellow soldiers than promotion to officer rank.

Eventually, through hard work and determination, he did achieve a managerial role on the railways.

Tom never spoke about his wartime experiences but I think he would always carry in his memory Rotherham’s tribute to its Territorial soldiers shown on that day in June 1919.