Quick links
Quick links

When war came to town

leeds students officer training corps

Leeds in World War 1

Curiosity about Belgians, a POW rescue by a toffee tin and the worst tragedy in the history of the city.

By Phil Sutcliffe


Over there was where it started and mostly stayed, but the First World War had hardly drawn breath before it came home to Leeds.

17 September 1914, six weeks after Germany’s invasion of Belgium triggered the British declaration of hostilities, a train arrived at Midland Station bearing 90 wounded men, the first wave of casualties from the Battle of Mons and subsequent Great Retreat.

Ambulances awaited and conveyed them, not straight to hospital as they might have anticipated, but to City Square where stood Lord Mayor Edward Brotherton in full regalia, proffering a formal civic reception. But he was not alone.

Forewarned by the press, Leeds had come out en masse, packing the Square, craning and jostling to view this new phenomenon – casualties of war.

Some of the wounded could walk with sticks or an arm to support them. Many were carried by stretcher-bearers. Some, as the chaplain of Beckett Park Hospital later recalled, had been “entirely covered from view and, of these, some would not have been recognised by those who knew them best.”

“It was exciting and scary at the same time,” wrote Ronald Dalley, a Boy Scout chosen to drive an ambulance (because he’d done his first aid badge). Regardless, the citizenry cheered and threw cigarettes and tobacco at wounded soldiers they glimpsed along the route to the hospital in Headingley.

But that wasn’t all. Within days, a group of Belgian refugees arrived in Leeds and again the mayor donned his chain and robes, says Alison Fell, Professor of French Cultural History and leader of the University’s farreaching Legacies of War project.

“The whole city came out to have a look – they needed police to keep the crowd back.” Looking back, such intense interest may seem strange but, she says: “People had read so much about atrocities committed by German troops in Belgium, especially against women and children, and they felt afraid it could happen here. This was war arriving on the doorstep.”

leeds students otc members

Leeds student members of the Officer Training Corps

The Legacies of War project drew hundreds of people together in a common cause, with cash support and/or researchers coming from Leeds City Council, the Imperial War Museums, the BBC, the Arts & Humanities Research Council (a welcome £150,000) – but most notably from the local public.

And why did ordinary people come forward to help with history research? “Sometimes a family link, sometimes an interest in local history or a more general curiosity stimulated by the centenary,” says Professor Fell. 

The wartime story of University and City keeps on unfolding. Already it’s become clear how much more closely entwined were town and gown back then, maybe more so than in any subsequent period.

For instance, it was a Leeds Medical School graduate and Leeds Infirmary surgeon Dr Joseph Faulkner Dobson, who started preparing Beckett Park Hospital for war in 1912. By the time that first contingent of wounded arrived he had 600 beds and 92 nurses ready.

One of Dobson’s colleagues at Beckett Park was Sir Berkeley Moynihan, the University’s Professor of Clinical Surgery, who devised new procedures for operating on jaw injuries and served intermittently as a medic on the Western Front – twice mentioned in dispatches – while serving nationally as Chair of the Army’s Medical Advisory Board.

Over the five years of war and its immediate aftermath, Beckett Park dealt with 57,200 wounded men, of whom only 266 died. Likewise, the University usefully augmented Leeds’ support for the displaced Belgians – 1,500 arrived by Christmas, 1914 – with a lot of fundraising effort coming from students and academics’ wives’ groups.

The refugees’ higher educational needs won prompt consideration too, as the University Council voted on November 4: “Belgian students who know English sufficiently well to enable them to follow lectures” could attend classes fee-free.

However, it has to be said that the University was forced to make one grievous exception to its generosity – in the case of Albert Schüddekopf, Professor of German since 1890. Schüddekopf’s fate rested on the City Council, which provided the University with a modest Education Committee grant.

The Aliens Registration Act decreed that Germans of military age living in the UK should be interned (mostly on the Isle of Man) or repatriated – but Professor Schüddekopf was legally safe because he had taken British nationality two years earlier. “The Council didn’t want to be paying a German’s wages,” says Professor Fell. “They threatened to withdraw the University’s grant if he stayed in post.

Michael Sadler, the Vice-Chancellor, defended him for as long as he could, but eventually, in 1916, Sadler succumbed.” Professor Schüddekopf, aged 54, died of a stroke two days after Sadler delivered the bad news to his home in Harrogate. The Professor’s son, a Leeds graduate and member of the Leeds Regiment was a doctor who survived the War, but when he came home he changed his name to Shuttleworth.

That personal story has its wider significance. One of the themes emerging through Legacies of War is the diversity of the University’s involvement, sometimes entanglement, in the war effort via funding from local and national government.

With war looming, the City Fathers took stock. Knowing that Leeds had abundant heavy industry, but hardly any arms factories, they set about rectifying the situation post-haste. They founded the Leeds Munitions Committee, which immediately turned to the University as a crucial ally.

“The logistics of keeping the Forces going, millions of men, meant research of every kind became geared around the war,” says Professor Fell. “It was total war. Such domination of so many spheres of activity had never happened before. The State did start to control everything. The University was very cooperative and patriotic – and happy to be paid to do the work.”

Legacies of War researchers Professor Graeme Gooday, David Stowe and Ruth Allison report how University departments pitched in to grow flax for the fabric of early warplanes, manufacturing antiseptics, anaesthetics, varnishes for shells, and dyes for uniforms (with a spin-off into explosives successfully pursued by aptly named Tinctorial Chemistry Professor Arthur Green – who later, in Manchester, moved on to the production of Britain’s mercifully little
used mustard gas supplies).

One Munitions Committee venture which proved the dynamism – and the hazards – of military-commercial-political-academic collaboration was Barnbow shell factory at Crossgates on the east side of the city. Built from scratch in 1915, at its peak it employed 16,000, more than 90 per cent of them women – “the Barnbow lasses” – on three shifts round the clock, packing explosives and fuses into howitzer shells.


Leeds students in research laboratory of explosives factory

The University was right there. “When the Government needed manual workers trained for agriculture – or an armaments factory – they turned to the University because, with its foundation in textiles, it had very close links with industry,” says Professor Fell. “The University helped to train women as munitions workers. And, meanwhile, its chemists had labs to develop explosives in local factories.”

In 1916, December 5, something went wrong at the Barnbow factory and a massive explosion killed 35 women outright, injuring many more. It’s commonly referred to as “the worst tragedy in the history of Leeds” in terms of the death toll but, at the time, censorship ensured it passed unreported beyond word of mouth. With wages hitting £12 a week (more than £1,000 at today’s values) work resumed within hours. A war on, you know…

“All was mud and desolation, and there the depths of human misery, suicidal futility, and despair were surely plumbed,” wrote former Leeds Grammar School boy Captain Harry Oldham, 50 years on, recalling a day on the Western Front. “The casualties were frightful; indeed the dead seemed better off than the living. Oh what a lovely war.”

A group of students in the School of History uncovered his story while ferreting through the papers and other memorabilia from 4,000 people who lived through the First World War which comprise the University Library’s Liddle Collection. But the material they found and brought to life in local schools wasn’t all muck and bullets by any means.

War having its daft and random aspects, the project came up with bizarre stories too. Captain Oldham himself actually got denounced as a spy when,
on a York military hospital operating table after 1917’s third Battle of Ypres, he babbled in German. Not only that, he ended up marrying the nurse who’d accused him!

Then there’s the tale of Bertie Ratcliffe, nephew of the very same Brotherton, the Leeds Mayor who later endowed the University Library. Taken prisoner in 1915, he soon escaped and became the first POW to make it back to England, partly by dint of a compass which his mother had sent him concealed in a tin of Harrogate toffee – said compass now resident in the Liddle Collection, naturally.

The University’s participation in the fighting centred on the Officer Training Corps – of course, commissioned officers formed the majority of the 1,596 staff and students who joined the Forces. Around 85 per cent of the 350-odd killed in battle were captains or lieutenants, usually the highest ranks left in the line when action threatened; about 40 of the dead had gone straight from Leeds studies to fight, according to research by Professor Edward Spiers.

leeds students otc members

Leeds student OTC members

The University’s Officer Training Corps switched almost overnight from a lark with annual camp “a free holiday”, as one member put it, to deadly serious
preparation for the real thing. All university OTCs had to double their numbers pronto as the early weeks of combat laid waste to not only the poor
Bloody Infantry of the standing Army but to the experienced, professional “officer class”.

Hence, this closing sombre note from the student newspaper in March, 1916: “The University has now lost the greater part of its men students. Many have left us, some sacrificing careers which can never be taken up again and the number increases of those who have made the greatest sacrifice of all.”










War on the doorstep

“People had read so much about atrocities committed by German troops in Belgium. This was war arriving on the doorstep.”











Oh what a lovely war

“All was mud and desolation, and there the depths of human misery, suicidal futility, and despair were surely plumbed”

The cable guy

In the shadow of the Fenton pub, recruits, both equine and human, trained to keep the Forces in touch with each other. Leeds lad Norman Woodcock joined the Royal Engineers Signals Corps at seventeen and, like many of his generation, it wasn’t until after the war that Norman studied at Leeds.

First he had communications drills to follow, including “airline work – not flying but working up poles,” he’d later joke. Long hours training in signalling, horse care, riding, jumping and wagon driving prepared the recruits to transport and use precious communications cargo.

Norman said, “the wagons we used were, in fact, the signal offices with all the equipment on board to communicate along cables and lines.” They’d set off to train in the Yorkshire countryside, past the University’s OTC training ground, where was, until recently,  the old Mining Building.

Their six-horse-drawn wagons barrelled down winding country lanes while recruits fed communications lines off the back to Norman, who rode at speed close behind with his “crook-stick”.

The stick, when not entangled with galloping hooves and flailing stirrups, helped Norman lay the cables along the ground. A treacherous task in rural Yorkshire, let alone on the Front.

In the book “On that day I left my childhood behind”, Norman’s granddaughter, Susan Burnett (Mathematics 1983) brought
together Norman’s memoires.

Photos from Special Collections

Check your Scrapbook

Photo link to scrapbook
Facebook Twitter Linkedin

© 2018 University of Leeds, Leeds, LS2 9JT | The University of Leeds is an exempt charity under Schedule 3 of the Charities Act 2011, ref. X6861