by GARETH DENNISON
A TRAIN carrying 25 men arrived at Masbrough Station at 12.25pm on June 19, 1919 — and heralded one of the biggest celebrations in Rotherham’s history.
The precious party alighted to the platform where they shook hands with the mayor, Ald George Gummer, and prepared themselves to greet the huge crowds outside.
These passengers — five officers and 20 men — were the last of the 5th Battalion York and Lancaster Regiment to return from France after the Great War.
Rotherham was the regiment’s headquarters and spiritual home — and that day a century ago it seemed as if all of the town’s residents had turned out to express their thanks to the soldiers.
There was hardly a dry eye anywhere as people were overjoyed at the return of these men and peace and saddened thinking of those lost to the conflict.
The Advertiser reported at the time: “Remarkable scenes of enthusiasm — such as have not been seen in Rotherham since the early days of the war, were witnessed on Thursday when the cadre and colours of the 5th Batt. York and Lancaster Regiment returned from France after over four years strenuous service on the Western Front.
“It was as late as Wednesday before the mayor was able to announce the actual time. The inhabitants of Rotherham rose to the occasion in a splendid manner.
“Flags hung from many private residences, whilst many people sported patriotic colours in their coats and dresses.”
From the relative hush of the railway platform at Masbrough, the men stepped outside to be met by a massive cheer and a band playing Auld Lang Syne.
They processed the mile to the town centre via Main Street and High Street with a mounted escort and thousands of onlookers, who tried every trick to obtain the best view — the steepness of Doncaster Gate making it a popular vantage point.
The Advertiser article said: “Just as the procession was nearing its destination the church bells rang out a merry peal, and this continued until the speech-making commenced.
“On College Square itself the arrival of the cadre and flags was the signal for another spontaneous chorus of cheers which lasted several minutes.”
Once he could be heard above the noise, the mayor said: “It is my proud privilege, on behalf of the town, to tender to you our warmest congratulations on your safe return, and offer to you, as representative of all those who have returned previously, a very, very hearty welcome.”
Joyce Evans (66), of Leeds, researched the occasion because her great uncle Sgt Tom Potter was one of the returning soldiers.
He wrote in his diary about the welcome they had received in Rotherham — and it struck her how much the day stayed with him.
She said: “What comes across with the Rotherham celebrations is the pride they had, and how much they had worked together, through any class differences.
“You can imagine, had it not been for that celebration in Rotherham, he would have just gone back to work. I think it was really important in helping him go forward when he got back from the war.”
Tom, from rural North Yorkshire, wrote: “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.
“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.”
Joyce described how photos from the day reflect the more sombre aspects of the occasion too. “The rejoicing and pride was intermixed with remembrance and sorrow,” she added. “Of 4,587 soldiers who served with the battalion, 850 men and 41 officers died. Seventy-two out of every 100 were killed or injured.”
Tom, who died in 1994, kept a lengthy account of his life — including 24 sides of A4 on his war experience.
“The diary is very special,” said Joyce. “It’s from an ordinary soldier’s point of view, when so many of these accounts are by people from more middle class backgrounds.
“In another part of the diary, he’s in the middle of all this horrendous fighting, but all he talks about are the football matches.”
Back in the square in Rotherham 100 years ago, the mayor ended the event by wishing the men well in their futures, including in settling into civilian life and regular employment.
Rising to a splendid ovation, Col TWH Mitchell also hoped that the men would be able to get work at a proper wage.
The next day Tom left Rotherham for Ripon, where he swapped his equipment for his demobilisation papers.
But finding suitable work proved tricky. While serving in France, Tom had refused a promotion to officer’s rank and so was only offered the job of relief porter at North Allerton station after the war.
He explained in his diary that he had declined the army commission because he felt a strong connection with his comrades and did not wish to leave them for another regiment.
But Joyce said: “Tom had placed more value on the comradeship of his fellow soldiers than promotion to officer rank. That was quite something.
“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? Did the words of the dignitaries that day in Rotherham ring hollow in his ears?
“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.”