The Controversies and Legacies of the British Empire

I was born in 1944 and the refrains when I was at (Grammar) school were of the calibre of Rule Britannia, Land of Hope and Glory, Hearts of Oak and the like. Our country was recovering from the Second World War in a generation. As far as I, at school age, was concerned we had beaten the invaders yet again. I along with my classmates sang with gusto.

I do not think we were subjected to propaganda as such but neither do I think we were given all the facts that we needed to make educated judgements.

Obviously with my advancing years and an enquiring mind, I have educated myself through whatever media has been readily available although I have never actively studied history as a serious student. I achieved no qualifications from school, my fault not theirs. I do however have a thirst for history now – including my own!

I recently enrolled in a free course looking at the controversies and legacies of the British Empire.

There can be no definitive answer regarding the legacy of the British Empire but perceptions of individuals are definitive as far as that individual is concerned.

The first consideration for me is to decide when the Empire was ‘born’. If it can be accepted that the likes of Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh, given a free rein to compete with the Spanish who were already building an empire of their own, set sail from England with the blessing of Elizabeth 1 to sow the seeds of the Empire, then imperial expansion measures the time between the two Elizabethan eras.

Drake, Raleigh etc including those from other European nations were the astronauts of their time. They set off from home on a wing and a prayer with very little knowledge to support their aspirations. They did not have the massive back up teams that their modern counterparts have available. That they returned home at all was a wonder of the world and many did not. What they reported on their return home however whetted the appetite of their ruling classes. Europe set off to take over the world.

Actions carried out first in the name of England and later Britain over the ensuing years after Elizabeth 1 show how powerful, ruthless, ingenious and influential the explorers, colonisers and financiers of the ages could become.

European nations were in great competition for influence all around the known world for long periods from the 16th to the 18th century and England was simply one of these. However, there was a change that took place in England that accelerated its power and influence; the industrial revolution!

The industrial revolution created the opportunities for the wealthy to make the use of the empire for both provision of raw materials but also, even more significantly a ready market for their goods producing the new technologies. Here is where the true positive legacy of the empire is displayed and also where the negative aspects are most felt.

In order for the industrial might of Britain to flourish, labour had to be cheap. It is shown that the decades after the spread of industry saw a sharp decline in the well being of workers. Friedrich Engels (a German!) did major research into the Condition of the English Working Class in England which also expanded into the major cities of Ireland, Scotland and Wales. His description of the depravities suffered by the workers in a book written in 1845 is illuminating. The exploitation of workers does not occur only at home, the workers around the empire toil under no better and in many cases worse conditions.

There are personal records for me to back up the assertions by Engels. in 1841, My grear, great grandfather at the age of 13 was a ‘hurrier’ in a coal mine. His job was to push wagons, loaded with coal, along tunnels too small for adult workers to use. He lived in Bradford, West Yorkshire where the odds of a child surviving to adulthood were around 50:50. My ancestor had 2 children by 1851 both had died before 1861. He and his wife had eight children of which only 2 achieved maturity. Even half a century later, in Leeds, his son and daughter-in-law had eight children of whom only four survived to maturity.

The wealthy became wealthier and there was no limit to their expansion within the British sphere of influence. Many of the industries that are regarded with great affection and reverence have their roots fertilised by the evil of slavery and exploitation of poor people. In particular, the huge corporations still producing sugar and chocolate received their raw materials from colonies using slave labour.

In order to protect this trade Britain took control or cultivated influences along the trade routes so that the Royal Navy could protect those routes and keep the trade flowing. Having the bases and the naval power to keep the routes open was a legacy of the power developed through immense wealth as a nation / empire. Hong Kong, Singapore, Cape Town, Malta, Gibraltar are just a few of the ports that were developed for the purpose of providing safe havens for trading ships.

Railways were built and in most cases still exist to help communications and other infrastructures in order for countries to continue developing. Many other industries exist throughout the former empire as a direct legacy of colonisation.

Legacies that can still be seen as lasting positive outcomes of empire are the adoption of many British customs that have allowed free and democratic governments to flourish in many countries and the continued success and popularity of the Commonwealth.

English style education systems and the adoption of English as an international language can be seen as positive legacies simply on the basis that any language adopted and used by so many communities worldwide must be an advantage for international communication.

Britain has rightly been criticised for using excessive force on many occasions and these cannot be overlooked. In particular, air policing was used in order to control problems without risking troops on the ground. I did not know of the term ‘air policing’ and I am unable to see it in any other terms than an aggressor using the best technology or means available to it. That is not justification because it is violence after all and the dropping of Atom bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the ultimate examples of people justifying unfathomable violence against civilians. There can be no justification.

Who can measure the harm, or the benefits for that matter, of imposing ‘culture’ and ‘education’ on people? I think it is true of human nature that they, particularly young people, will learn what they can. If what they learn is not what they would have learned if left to their own devices, does that mean they and their country have benefited from that education or not?

My closing comments however are related to the driving force of colonisation and imperial expansion. The winners throughout the imperial centuries have been the wealthy and the financiers who were able to take advantage of the conditions that developed around exploration, colonisation and industrialisation. The losers worked in the conditions set by the winners.

The real issues for me are around who were the power behind empire. Not the sovereign but the industrialists. Leopold, King of the Belgians, managed to combine both disciplines in the ‘Belgian Congo’using personal influence in order to cultivate immense personal wealth outside the control of the government of the country.

Perhaps the most poignant, and I do not remember this being mentioned in the course, is the fact that business men, and some from very well known families from our time, were paid substantial sums of money to compensate them for losing slaves when slavery was abolished. Even at that stage, the government put a price on a slave!



I am now looking back at the biblical three score years and ten milestone and my wife is approaching from the other side. It must be time now for a plan.

Over the years I have honed a skill in day dreaming that has often thrown up the plan for the future, I am looking at a particularly suitable pass-time that we can both indulge in and that will help to chisel our physical features. No I am not going down the line of Botox, Collagen or any form of cosmetic surgery. What I have in mind will achieve the results without resorting to a knife. There will be an initial financial outlay but since it will do the job for both of us, it will be much less expensive in the long run.

We have all been at the seaside or a roadside cafe when there has been an invasion of bikers.

They cruise in, park their bikes at the point nearest the action so there is a conglomeration of two-wheeled machines. Now it doesn’t matter if someone appears to be blocked in since they will all be leaving together. It appears to  be OK if they are parked on the pavement.

They slide off their machines and after a furtive glance around divest themselves of their helmets before ‘klomping’ off in their boots to the nearest fish and chip shop. I always arrive ten seconds after the last of the multitude arrives at the end of the queue.

It was being at the end of the queue that provided me with the first flash of inspiration for my plan.  Most of those who began by exuding an aura of youthful arrogance and malevolence were as far away from youthfulness as I am. They were in fact glancing around rather shyly. Malevolence had left the building about forty years ago.

The conversation was about the good old days, when the pension was paid in cash to your hand in the local post office, what time the grand-kids arrive for the taxi ride to school etc.etc. To show membership of the club, they all had their hair ‘dyed’ the same colour: a sparkling silver. Although a large proportion of the male population had no hair to dye.  However, in an attempt to show they belonged, the hair cascading from their ears blended with the rest. It is like the sixtieth ‘Children of the Damned’ sequel.

The realisation slowly dawned that they all had a stature that belied their age. I began to make notes!

I looked at motor cycle clothing and was amazed!

The following is a list, not exhaustive by any means, of common ailments that affect the aged. Sagging muscles and flesh, vertigo, arthritis, poor eyesight and hearing, various levels of incontinence, memory loss and slow reaction times.

Motor cycle clothing challenges all of these and banishes them to the ‘under the table’ category. No cures but nobody knows!

So let’s have a fitting. We will start at the bottom, the feet that is, to avoid any confusion and work upwards.

First a pair of thick socks already begins to address the swollen ankles. A foundation of thermal but firm undergarments or garment continues the squeeze. Now a pair of leather or leather like trousers. Must be tight so they will not flap in the wind. No room for flabby flesh which is being pushed upwards as you get them installed. Now assistance is needed to stand and force your feet into the boots. These have shin and ankle protection built-in on the plus side but a very large negative is that the zip is much too far from the hands. You will be beginning to realise why septuagenhairybikers are never seen alone. They do not function alone.

The vision now is reminiscent of the song ‘Big John’. Broad at the shoulders and narrow at the hip is the relevant phrase that all septuagenarians, not only bikers, will remember. There is a problem though, the flesh above waist level is beginning to look like a bubble about to burst and the corset has yet to be fitted. The ‘corset’ is in actual fact a kidney and back protector that can be a part of the trousers, part of the jacket or separate and independent. So the jacket has to be ‘slightly’ over-sized in order to make room for the new you but the external view is beginning to look appealing to the wearer.  The jacket plays its part though. You can have shoulder, neck and back supports which apart from having safety points to note also add to the broad shoulders and upstanding nature of the beast.

The helmet is, of course, not only a legal requirement. It changes Clark Kent into Superman and nobody recognises Clark. He has gone! Nobody sees the bottle bottom glasses but sliding them into place through the visor space without surgery is not easy. The helmet can be fitted with an internal sound system so you can leave the hearing aid at home!

Finally, fit the gloves. Lots of protection and centrally heated to slow the onset of arthritis. They can even be attached semi permanently to the handlebars to help avoid any confusion about left and right.

Now let us return to the list of complaints of the aged population.

Vertigo is characterised by a loss of balance when attempting to get vertical from a horizontal position. This is offset by the stiff and heavy nature of the boots and the fact that you are held vertical by the stiffness of the super tight clothing. Stubbing your arthritic toes and bashing your ankles are things of the past due to the protective pads built-in to feet, ankles, knees, elbows etc  You can’t fall over and even if you managed it you would be unhurt due to the strategic armour.

Poor memory is a thing of the past. At least when on the bike. You will not get lost since there are about thirty bikes all going to the same place. The chances of all thirty riders and their passengers forgetting the way is ‘almost’ beyond fathomable.The route is chosen carefully! You are riding a bike that is capable of covering three hundred miles in a couple of hours. The septuagenhairybikers though, need to stop at a ‘watering hole’ every fifteen minutes. Next time you are on the road on a warm weekend check how often you see a crowd of bikers outside a cafe. More important, notice that nobody is drinking. They can’t afford to take on any more liquid! So they go out for a weekend ‘blast’ and take all day riding to the nearest coast and back via half a dozen well known biker friendly cafes. Naturally, the waterproof nature of the biker trousers mitigates any incontinence issue that might arise from being at the back of the queue at the conveniences. Fill your boots has a different connotation here!

So it looks as if it would be the solution for us. Taking the tablets won’t do it but biking could. I have still got my biker licence from the days in the sixties when my faithful Francis Barnett seemed so powerful going downhill with the wind but woefully lacking in anything in the other direction. Before adding the weight of passengers, modern bikes have the power to weight ratio of a formula one car. Keeping the machine in 1st gear produces the howl we all hear when a group of bikers goes by without losing the element of surprise when they crawl by with legs outstretched like stabilisers to offset the problem of slow reaction times.

So, yes, there will be a financial implication to joining the ‘Hellz Methuzellers Chapter’ but it is not money down the drain. If we find the cafes are too far apart and I am falling asleep at the handlebars after the lunchtime fish and chips, we can part exchange the bike for a Harley Davidson lookalike Disability Scooter. We will look really mean! They can’t hear you coming!. We can continue wearing all the gear and really cause some pavement havoc on the daily Complan run from the sheltered housing centre to the One Stop Robber Shop……………..















Military Legacy

Many of my fellow employees had served in the forces. I started work in 1960, only 15 years after World War 2 ended.  The following decade and a half was to see Britain’s military in action in Korea, the Middle East, Cyprus and Kenya so national service was to extend until December 1960. I missed being called up by two years.

Some of my co-workers had been involved in war-time service although that did not apply to many as the motor industry was, and is, a young man’s ‘game’. Those who did serve in the war were almost invariably in REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) and had engineering training in the forces. At the time, these men appeared quite old to me but of course they only needed to be about 35 years old in 1960 to have spent a couple of years in WW2 service. With this hindsight, I look back at them with more respect than perhaps I accorded them at the time.

I know that there are some aspects of the military life that would have done some good for me. There was some inner discipline in them that certainly was not intrinsic to my being. Most but not all of my ex service colleagues were tidy workmen who looked after their equipment. They kept hand tools clean and in good condition. They were always easy to find being kept in an orderly fashion in the tool box. Generally, but not exclusively, they carried themselves in what could be described as a military manner. Upstanding and straight backed, they almost marched around the workshop.

Most young men had the option of deferring their service until they had completed their apprenticeship or job training as long as it was genuine vocational training. Some of my colleagues had deferred and had come from the forces quite recently. Others had not deferred but had, instead decided to take advantage of training offered by extending their national service into a limited regular service.

As far as the value of all this to a workshop like ours was concerned, I have no doubt that the infusion of men with military training had a very definite positive effect. These were well trained men who had known hard times and had the ability and mindset to tackle and succeed at their appointed task.

I have not many stories of the horrors of war. They did not talk about them, although some must have encountered some awful situations. What they did talk about were incidents that related to their job.

Even on national service and after WW2, some of my colleagues had been in very hazardous situations in Korea,fighting Mau Mau terrorists in Kenya, EOKA in Cyprus and of course dealing with the stress of the Cold War in Germany. In fact much of the relevant experience that found its way into our workshop was transferred from Tanks and other Military vehicles maintained and repaired in Germany.

Some of the ex military men were ex RAF of course and they perhaps more than any others fitted the stereotype of the day. In some cases there was a moustache on the top lip. Overalls were a lighter blue and although Brylcreem was not necessarily the order of the day, they were certainly less likely to be covered in the oil and grease that many of us absorbed.

Of course Mr Dapper Geniality was an ex RAF man. At the time he was lampooned as a Brylcreem boy, Fighter Pilot, Spitfire Jockey amongst others, never to his face of course; he was the boss! Much of the banter referred to his driving style which would have fitted quite well in the cockpit of the Spitfire. He had two speeds; fast and stop. His driving was, however, not much different to many of us at that time.

I did not know definitely that he had been in the RAF until fifty years later when a story appeared on the local television news programme. It turned out to be about Mr Dapper Geniality himself. He was in fact a celebrated Lancaster bomber pilot during the war and had flown a number of missions over Germany managing on one occasion to land a crippled plane and saving his crew. He was decorated for his actions.

A striking example of the need to be careful with tools is the subject of one of my favourite stories told by one of my colleagues who was an airframe fitter in the RAF. National service but post WW2 and in North Yorkshire, this individual had been carrying out repairs and maintenance on a Hawker Hunter jet fighter. The work required some access to the cockpit of the plane. On completion of the work, a pilot took the plane for ‘literally’ a spin. Whilst flying upside down at a speed which demands utmost concentration, a pair of pliers dropped into the glass dome of the cockpit cover. The pilot immediately shouted down the radio in highly descriptive language giving a brief commentary of the occurrence. This was heard in the hangar which had a radio receiver on loud speaker. According to my friend, this announcement was followed by a stampede of all mechanics to ensure they could produce a pair of well grounded pliers. My friend did manage to produce but I will never know where he got them from!

Another incident relayed to me by a different air frame mechanic involved him being required to slide down the air intake of a jet aircraft to check the state of rivets in the cowling. He had to be well down the intake tube to carry out a visual and manual check. Generally, aircraft have a cover in the intake to avoid the ingress of foreign bodies but of course this had been removed for access.

So the mechanic was well down the tube when he heard a jet engine start to fire up and rotate. His immediate thought was that it was the other engine on the twin jet he was working on and he had to get out as the next thing to happen would be the starting of the engine that was inches from his head. These intake tubes are very smooth and kept clean and shiny. They do not have hand hold or foot grips. His only thought was to exit the tube as fast as he could and that involved too many seconds of slithering like a snake but in reverse!

He exited the tube to find that the engine started was on the plane next to his in the hangar. Thinking it through later, he realised his worst fear could not have materialised as there were safeguards. His reaction was natural but unnecessary. The concept of a huge person processor rotating at 100,000rpm and dragging you in bodily would cause paranoia in anyone.

Next time you see a convoy of army trucks and it is not an uncommon sight in East and North Yorkshire look underneath the rear and you will see a white circle painted on the rear axle. The purpose of this circle is so that it is visible to vehicles following as part of a convoy which for operational reasons might be travelling without lights. Obviously, in the dark only the lead driver will have any idea what the route is and all the others follow a white circle without the time or option of looking around and enjoying the view.

One tale that came out over a cup of tea in the canteen, as was so often the case, involved the operational deficiency of the white circle. On a war time training exercise in Northern Ireland prior to a major offensive in Europe, a convoy of trucks was making its way through the countryside. Even now, Ireland is blessed with less light pollution than we have in the UK evidenced by the stumble back to friendly folk after a couple of drinks in the local pub when we visit family on the emerald isle. Back to the tale! This particular convoy was out much longer than expected and could have been a cause of a major international incident. Reports came in later that residents of the Republic of Ireland had reported a large convoy of military trucks trundling through the neutral state that was not in the habit of providing assistance or friendship to the army of Great Britain. The driver in truck number one had missed his way only to recognise his error when making his way past a hostelry at kicking out time. The name of the pub and the unmistakeable sign of its best selling liquid were the best hint he had to find his way back home as directly as possible. I suppose the lesson was well learned that it was a training run and for that reason less likely to be repeated in Holland, Belgium or France!

The footnote to this story is the unit involved were part of the exploratory set up organisation for preparation for the disastrous Arnhem (Bridge Too Far) venture. The man who told me the story recounted that his regiment were marching along a flat road in Holland with a drainage ditch on either side. Totally exposed! From behind them came sudden commotion and the ground either side of the marchers was disturbed by tiny explosions. An aircraft flew past them with a piercing roar the like of which none of them had ever heard before. It turned out they had been strafed in what had been one of the earliest known attacks by jet aircraft. The most outstanding element to the attack was that nobody heard the plane approaching, only its passing.

Many of those in service spent a great deal of time in the UK. They would regularly be given free time that would allow visits to local hostelries. One group had a relationship with the sergeant that was far from benevolent. He was regarded by most as a bully demanding no respect. On one leave sortie out of camp to the local pub, they had discussed what they would do to him in their wildest dreams.

Little did they know the opportunity that would present itself to them on their return to camp. As they walked towards their hut, they saw a motor-bike leaning against another hut. They had been drinking for two or three hours and were ready for reintroducing their bladders to the latrine. The motor-bike belonged to the sergeant. There were plenty of them to keep eyes peeled. Petrol filler caps did not have locks in those days. Petrol and urine were similar in colour and viscosity. They took turns to urinate into the petrol tank.

They had just settled into their bunks and began to relax when they heard a motor cycle start up and power off into the distance only to begin coughing and spluttering before there was the roar of silence followed by a spontaneous breakout of laughing fits from the bunks. Nobody was ever punished and it did not make the sergeants’ behaviour any better but it was certainly easier to live with.

Private Harold Bywater


Private Harold Bywater


Harold Bywater senior was born in 1896. His father was an engine tester and his grandfather had also been an engine tester. Although his father and grandfather were from Bradford in the West Riding of Yorkshire, they had moved to the hotbed of engineering and heavy industry that was Hunslet, a separate township at the time but later to be incorporated into the City of Leeds, before Harold and his siblings were born.

There was plenty of work in the district and the Bywaters did not shrink from the hardest kind: life was extremely hard.  Accommodation in Hunslet comprised of a warren of terrace houses. The occupants of the warren were the workers who populated the factories that belched out the smoke and fumes that were the by-products of the processes that took place inside these factories.

Apart from the engineering factories, there were foundries producing the steel that would be worked in these factories. There were glass works and pottery works, indeed part of Hunslet was known as Pottery Fields (Fields?).  Coal mines produced the fuel that would provide the intense heat needed to create the steel and the steel structures which would leave the factory gates to be exported world-wide.  It can be seen that Hunslet was at the centre of the Industrial Revolution that made Britain Great. The Empire needed clothing too, of course and Hunslet played its part along with Leeds in general by producing the textiles and garments required.

The price to be paid by the workers as a reward for their sweat and toil was often the highest possible contribution to the wealth of the country and its industrialists. Stories are told of the queues outside factories, particularly foundries. Accidents were so common, and so serious that workers would be stretchered out and immediately replaced by the next in line. Dead men’s shoes!

A study of death records and local grave stones of the era shows the terrible attrition wrought on the local population. Very high proportions of children died long before they reached anything like maturity.

The young Harold would be no stranger to the personal experiences of the above tragedies. His parents had eight children but only four of them reached adulthood.

Harold had hardly reached adulthood himself when the Kings, Kaisers, Czars, Emperors, Grand Dukes and their governments, all afraid of losing or even maintaining the status quo, blundered into a situation that none of them would be brave enough to back away from.

Europe, followed swiftly by the rest of the world went to war!

Harold volunteered and joined up September 3rd 1914 Duke of Wellingtons (West Riding Regiment). 3rd Battalion

He signed up in Leeds and joined his unit in Halifax before moving on to training at Earsdon, Northumberland

He was given the service number of 11677.  He was 5Ft 4 ½ inches tall and weighed 128lbs, just over 9 stones. He was a slight man with a chest of 36inches when expanded.

He was posted and transferred to France on 15th April 1915. Within three weeks, he was to have the first of his many terrible experiences.


Battle of Hill 60

Battle of Ypres 2nd battle 

(22 April – 15 May, 1915). This was the first mass use of poison gas by the German army; included first victories of a former colonial nation, Canada, over a European power, Germany, on European soil. In total, there were around 100,000 casualties. Harold was one!

On May 1st after many previous attempts to recapture Hill 60, the German attack was supported by great volumes of asphyxiating gas, which caused nearly all the men along a front of about 400 yards to be immediately struck down by its fumes. The Commanding officer in his despatch home praised his officers; ‘The splendid courage with which the leaders rallied their men and subdued the natural tendency to panic (which is inevitable on such occasions), combined with the prompt intervention of supports, once more drove the enemy back’; Note no praise for the bravery and sacrifice of the fighting men!

On 3rd May the Canadian army which had nearly 6000 casualties including over 1000 fatalities were relieved by the British including Harold and his comrades of the West Riding Regiment.

Two days later on the 5th May, in an attempt to regain the infamous Hill 60, the Germans made use of a favourable wind to release a wave of poisonous gas that swept over the British lines. Hundreds of soldiers were engulfed by a noxious yellow fog that killed half of those affected by it. Those who survived were temporarily blinded and stumbled about the battlefield coughing violently. Harold is listed as missing on 5th May but was returned to the Battery on 6th May and removed to Boulogne for treatment of his gas poisoning.

He was in Rouen from 13th May until he was returned to the Battery in the Field on 27th May. On 7th June he was admitted to Field Hospital No 2 suffering from an iron deficiency, likely to be a result of the gassing suffered previously. He returned to the Field Battery on 12th June 1915

What happened to Harold between this June 1915 and July 1st 1916 is not certain. What is certain is that he was in France from 15th April 1915 until July 1916.

Battle of the Somme, Battle of Albert

The Battle of the Somme was fought along a front that was around sixteen miles long.  The British high command had been persuaded by the leader of the French army, Marshall Joffre, against their better judgement, that it was a necessity and it would be a short and successful campaign.

The British had wanted to wait until later, in August, to allow them to properly train the troops required. The French argued that it would be too late and could mean defeat for their army. In the end, the date was set for 1st July 1916.

Harold was with his regiment in the trenches near to the town of Albert.

The decision was made to time the attack at 07.28.

Mines had been laid by tunnelling from the British lines under the German defences and high explosives were to be detonated at the pre ordained time. The mines were huge, containing up to 24 tons of explosive.  A couple of the craters are still visible today.

One of the bigger mines exploded at 07.20, eight minutes earlier than planned. It is not known whether the Germans were hampered, or warned by the error. Certainly it must have been terrifying for those in the vicinity and the British lines were only about a quarter of a mile away. The explosions later were heard in London about one hundred and fifty miles away!

The other mines exploded at 07.28 as planned and gave the signal for the bombardment and advance to begin.

I now see this situation through the eyes of Harold. I have personal connection. It is easy to see the battle of the Somme strictly in numerical terms and although the numbers are astronomic and all casualties (on both sides) were siblings, children, fathers, uncles of someone it is a century ago and no one lives today who fought in the war.

‘Going over the top’ was to be a straightforward walk to take over the German trenches which ‘had been ‘softened up’ and therefore would be devoid of manpower. The truth was of course much different.  The shelling and bombardment had been very spasmodic in its success rate. A huge percentage of the shells intended to render the German trenches undefended had failed to explode.

The weather had been mixed for some time and 1st July was a ‘nice’ sunny day, the early mist having cleared. The ground was slippery however after prolonged bombardment and periods of rain. The sunshine was not welcome to troops requiring to lift themselves from deep trenches and carry heavy loads towards the well armed, ready and waiting enemy.

Harold and his comrades in arms were told to ‘walk’ towards the enemy lines. ‘Walk’ because they were carrying 70 lbs of equipment. ‘Walk’ because crawling would allow a bigger surface area target for the shrapnel release from the shell exploding in the air. In any case, the ‘Germans posed little threat from the expected empty trenches’.

The reality was that soldiers struggled to advance from their own trenches due to the load they carried. Many fell dead or injured as soon as they appeared above the trench rim. Sixty percent of casualties were caused by the shrapnel, the other forty percent by small arms or machine gun fire.

Harold was hit by shrapnel that almost took his right arm away above the elbow. It shattered his humerus and embedded shrapnel into his skin. He was also listed in his record as having shell concussion. For the rest of his life shrapnel would work itself to the surface of his skin and had to be picked out causing great pain. Small black pieces of metal, evidence of hell on earth.

I do not know how long he was in so called ‘no man’s land’. How could it be ‘no man’s land’ when on that first day of July 1916, nearly 60,000 men were laid there dead, dying or seriously injured? To put this number into context, at the outbreak of hostilities, the British army in total was about 250,000 men. There can be no dramatic reconstruction that could in any way do justice to the scenes. The word Armageddon is just that, a word, and cannot be used to describe in general terms the personal suffering that was inflicted upon these individuals.

He arrived at No 6 general Hospital in Rouen on 3rd July. Where he was and in what condition between those dates can only be imagined.

He had his initial treatment in the field hospital. Contemporary photographs of the hospitals at this time can only give an idea of the conditions under which the medical staff toiled to try to save the lives and bodies of the unbelievably huge numbers of casualties. Harold did survive this ordeal.

Finally, on the 9th July, Harold was removed from the theatre of war and transported by sea to Bangour Village Hospital, West Lothian. At the time, this was Edinburgh War Hospital. He arrived there on 12th July 1916.

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Below is a section of the National Roll of The Great War. It shows Harold’s part in the war in a minimalistic way and also includes his brother William S Bywater

First World War Roll



Private Harold Bywater was one of the ‘lucky’ ones. Eight thousand members of his regiment lost their lives between 1914 and 1918.  The number of those who lost the promise of their pre-war years is impossible to contemplate.

He was discharged in Discharged 15th March 1918 and holds the following awards.

British War Medal

Victory Medal

Kings Certificate

War badge

His war pension at discharge was £1 7s 6d per week for 4 weeks then £1 2s 0d to be reviewed after 52 weeks.

The Kings Certificate and War Badge were issued to soldiers who had to be discharged due to injuries. Such was the attitude to the attrition being wrought on families at home that men of service age who were seen in the street ‘out of uniform’ were often ostracised and even physically attacked as cowards. The Kings Certificate and War Badge were worn as evidence that they had contributed but were no longer able.

I and my relatives are definitely among the lucky ones.  Harold came home earlier than some due to his injuries. He fell in love with a young war widow (one of many thousands), May Richardson, who had lost her husband, James Richardson, the father of her baby daughter. They married in 1918 and May gave him three sons and another daughter. Harold Bywater junior, the eldest son, became my father.

That is the reason that I regard myself as one of the lucky ones.

Harold Bywater senior was my Grandad!


I saw at first-hand evidence the injury to his right arm. The injuries to his lungs obviously were not visible but were obvious nevertheless. He never complained; there was not an ounce of bitterness in him. Note the entry on his military service sheet; Character Very Good. No question about that!

Yes, he was my Grandad, I am very proud of his memory but saddened that it has taken so long for me to appreciate his contribution to our country in that obnoxious war.

That war has been for me and I am sure many others, a statement of statistics, albeit difficult to comprehend, rather than a description of the genuine suffering felt by those present in those very dark times.

Even more sadly, only twenty years later, Harold senior and May would be waving a tearful goodbye to Harold Junior and his brother, Stanley as they went off to another war. Daughter, Frances, would be left producing munitions in Hunslet’s engineering workshops

It is my wish that in some small way, due to the reading of this small and inadequate personal tribute to Harold senior my family will not allow the memory of him to fade.



More Driving Mad

I recently paid a visit to Brighouse. A small town in the former Heavy Woollen District of West Yorkshire, Brighouse is on the eastern slopes of the Pennines. Being situated where it is, the town is separated from Leeds by a number of downward slopes. It is a lovely town with some beautiful Victorian buildings which remind the observer of affluent times gone by. My over-riding memories of Brighouse relate to neither affluence or beauty.

I was dispatched along with BP to collect a car which was broken down and needed the expertise of our Renault Main Dealership. We collected the Renault 750 from the local Renault dealership and commenced to attach it to the back of our Commer pickup with a rope. We had a journey of about fifteen miles which would have taken about thirty to forty-five minutes….

Nowadays, if you are going to tow a vehicle in a professional manner, you attach the two vehicles by means of a strong metal bar or, even more preferably, you would use an A-Frame or a vehicle transporter trailer. The solid bar method ensures the gap between towing and towed vehicles is maintained safely – particularly important since the one at the rear will almost certainly have compromised braking efficiency if the engine is not running. All the braking is done by the towing vehicles and the person controlling the towed vehicle simply concentrates on steering, not in itself always as simple as it sounds, but generally the towed vehicle is dragged along in the direction dictated by the towing vehicle.

BP was the senior member of our team of two so he pulled rank and was to drive the pickup whilst I was to command the rearguard! Now it is important to recognise the difference between modern day vehicles and the Renault. There was no power steering or brakes even if the engine was running, which it wasn’t. The brakes were not designed for high performance and power steering was not required for such a lightweight vehicle. We attached a rope and the nightmare began!

Being towed by rope requires a completely different strategy to a bar. The ‘driver’ of the towed vehicle has the job of keeping the tow-rope tight. If the rope is not tight, the towed vehicle freewheels towards the towing vehicle every time a gear change is made or the brake is pressed. The consequence of this is a resounding jerk every time the slack is taken up. If the rope is not strong enough, a break occurs; if the attachment site is not strong enough, a lump of bodywork is ripped off one or other of the vehicles. If these calamities are  avoided, there is a neck jarring shock transferred to the towed ‘driver’. So I was employed keeping the rope reasonably taut negotiating the hills down towards Leeds. Every junction, every bend, if I say so myself, I was quite good at it.

It did not take long though to realise that as time went on, I was having to press the brake harder to achieve the same retardation performance. Not only that but we were actually travelling faster as we progressed along our route.

I began to get a bit worried and pressed the horn hoping that BP might stop so that I could communicate my fears. I do not remember whether the horn worked or not but it had no effect on BP. The rest of the journey can best be described from my privileged position as careering. The runaway Renault came down the track and she did not blow! The brakes had gone into a complete fade, a comparatively common problem at the time if brake linings were allowed to get too hot.

About a mile from our garage, I had used up all the prayers and expletives I knew but the climax was about to unfold. On the Whitehall Road in Leeds is a public house called The Dragon. Close to The Dragon is a notorious S-Bend, generally referred to as The Dragon Bend. Approaching the bend, BP decided to overtake a vehicle that was impeding his high-speed progress. Now there was not really a safe opportunity for BP to overtake and get round the bend with the certainty of no vehicle approaching from the other direction. He made it and I had no alternative but to make it too. I went into the first bend alongside the vehicle that had so desperately threatened to delay BP from his lunch. There was no point in me attempting to do otherwise. If it had been a Formula 1 move, I would have been summoned before the stewards and punished with a multi-place grid penalty.

I, obviously, also made it round the second bend though The details are lost in a blur and the rest of the journey was relatively sedate.

When we pulled into the garage yard and stopped, I sat in the car gathering my thoughts, allowing my heart rate to return to normal until BP came to the drivers door of the Renault. I politely asked what he had been playing at. ‘I had forgotten you were there ‘ was his reply. So he was absolutely oblivious to any problems I had and could not even remember the manoeuvre at The Dragon bend!

Fifteen miles felt more like fifty and the half to three quarters relates to lifetimes not hours.

I had never had a journey like it before or since.


What is meant by austerity? I am sure my early childhood was not unusual. There were many families in the same, perhaps even worse predicament. A description of austerity then, with details would be very different from today. To my knowledge, there was never electricity in my first family home and that precludes installation of things like televisions, telephones, microwaves. The occasional introduction of a flashlight (torch) as a Christmas present for me was about as near as we would get to electricity and the quality of the battery left much to be desired. Of course when the battery failed, there was no money for replacements so that was the end of the torch. The final act was to try it again some time later to find that it still did not work and the battery and much of the interior of the torch was reduced to a sticky acidic mush. So if there is no television, there is no games console.

The only time we saw professional sport required a visit to the actual live match. Big matches, whatever the sport, would get limited coverage on the Pathe News at the cinema so the general public were aware of international matches and FA Cup Finals and that was how we would be dissolved into a state of awe by 10 seconds of poorly focussed, black and white magic from Stan Matthews or the legendary cricketers such as Don Bradman or particularly, in my case, as a Yorkshireman, Len Hutton. Yes, the ‘action replay’ would appear about two weeks later on the big screen.

Since Christmas got a mention, lets consider a typical seasonal celebration. Turkey was not an option. Even chicken was too expensive for most folks. To be fair, beef seemed to be, from my experience the normal meat for the weekend so pork made the table for Christmas. Most foods were still rationed. Bread was rationed until 1948 and sugar, meat and other products did not become free from rationing until well into the 1950’s. Little prospect of prawn cocktail starters, Turkey with the trimmings and as for Black Forest Gateau after six years of war with the Germans? Let’s not go there!

Christmas presents were, of course, limited by the family budget. The stocking would be hung on the mantel shelf and in the morning would appear magically bulging with an apple, an orange (probably a satsuma or clementine), a few nuts (requiring cracking open with the flat iron) and a brand new penny. There would be one ‘major’ present. I can only remember one of these major present. It was a train set. It had a circular track roughly eighteen inches (half a metre) in diameter and the train pulled a coal tender and a single carriage. The power source was clockwork. It ran for about three circuits of the track before the power was all consumed and the train stopped for refuelling (rewinding). I loved it! There was however an incident involving the train that left me in tears. My dad had a good friend who was doing the refuelling one day and he decided to add some reality to the proceedings. He placed a burning cigarette in the funnel of the train and set it off round the track, apparently with steam issuing from said funnel. I was young, naive and inexperienced. I reached out to touch the smoke and, of course, burnt my hand before I could be restrained. That was the end of reality although there was some authenticity in the train clattering along a metal track on the cold stone flags of our room!

Even if we were going to get more or bigger presents we would not really have an idea what to ask for! The lack of television meant that there was little visible advertising of products other than in the relevant shops, on advertising hoardings or at the cinema.

There was not an overabundance of money available even for the basic things in life so advertising tended to be limited to those things that, at the time might have been essential or at the very least adding gravy to the kitchen table. So we would see pictures of a couple of kids with an apparently desirable aroma wafting past their nostrils under a caption of ‘Aah Bisto’.  Oxo cubes were advertised as a meal, not just additional seasoning.

Cigarettes of course were essentials and they were advertised everywhere. Well everyone smoked didn’t they? So the brands were at war. I remember Craven A, Senior Service, Woodbine, Capstan Full Strength among others and the associated images endure!   At the cinema, the same products were advertised of course and there have been many critics over the years of the way that smoking was glamourised. In fact an enduring feature of any trip to the cinema in those days was the fog through which we observed our heroes.

Unless we were in a shop that sold them, we did not see the top rated toys of the time. Meccano Construction sets or Hornby train sets were saved for the rare occasion when, as a treat, we were taken into the large toy departments of the big shops in Leeds City Centre. In some ways, although it was well intentioned, in reality it was quite cruel. It is reminiscent of the old television show when the losing ‘finalist’ is  finally ground into the earth with the immortal words ‘Let’s see what you could have won!’. We were looking at extravagant displays featuring huge construction sites littered with wonderful creations made from lengths of steel held together with screws and operated by clockwork (later electric) motors. An array of Hornby electric trains, passenger and goods would clatter round a track many feet long with all sorts of junctions, rail-side furniture such as signal boxes and level crossings. At no time was there the suggestion “choose which one you want”! In any case I was five years old before I lived in a house that gave us access to the wonders of electricity.

Birthdays were the same but ‘less extravagant’! I have a vague recollection of receiving a toy car for one birthday but as my birthday is in August and we were on holiday with family in Blackpool. I think the car was bought by Grandma and Grandad who I am sure would have been imbued with the spirit of the holiday as motivation to treat me!

I repeat, I am in no way complaining, I was no different from most of my peers. We did not know what we were missing. Sweets were on ration so the odd occasion when we did get them, it was a real treat.

I am told that I was such an undemanding child that the first time I asked for an ice cream, my parents were so taken aback that my dad ran around the streets of Hunslet searching for the purveyor who pedalled around on a tricycle that had a cold storage box fitted between the front pair of wheels. I am sure that I would have been at least as surprised to get what I asked for as my parents were to be asked!

Driving Mad

Of course driving is intrinsic to a being a motor mechanic. There is no way even now for someone to be able to do the job properly, understanding the way a vehicle works and diagnosing faults if you can’t drive.

I was sixteen the week after I started in the job and I did not have too long to wait before one of the other young mechanics who was a qualified (he had passed his test) driver suggested that I have my first taste of the behind the wheel experience. I protested my innocence in such matters. I did not have any idea how to control a car but he was very persuasive and it was not long before I was sat in the driver’s seat of a Ford Popular (Pop). This was the model that Henry Ford produced for sale at the unbelievable price of £100.00 as long as you were happy with the choice of colour – black. No other choice was available!

Basic as it was, it was far too complicated for me to master. I need to explain the layout of the garage. Cars were repaired on the first floor and Trucks on the ground floor.  To access the car workshop, there was a steep ramp that went up the side of the building. At the top there was a sharp left hand turn, straight again for a few yards and then another left turn into the workshop which was usually packed with cars but fortunately not at this time.

I still do not know how I made it! My ‘instructor’ gave me a quick run down on the controls then gave me my head. To get up the ramp with a vehicle of that type required a lot of throttle pedal. So we roared up the ramp and I somehow managed to negotiate the two left hand turns into the workshop area. Instruction must have been given to remove my right foot from the throttle pedal and I was told to park up into a space angling towards the rail that ran alongside the steps back down into the Truck workshop. The instruction to brake quite quickly became a command but I could not find the brake pedal. Fortunately I did not find the accelerator either so I quite gently rolled into the stair rail rather than through it.

I was horror-stricken and we both jumped out to survey the damage. The car was in very nice condition but I had managed to add a blemish. There was a kink in the left side front wing.  My ‘instructor’ took on the responsibility of doing the repair and as it was Saturday afternoon and everyone had gone home, there were no witnesses. I had a scare but was unhurt and still in a job.

There are numerous incidents to relay and one of the funniest had occurred just before I started work. One of the first vehicles I saw when I entered the workshop on my first day was a Reliant Van (think only fools and horses). It was grey in colour. I was to find that it had just been fitted with a new body shell.

The story goes like this and again the layout of the building played a crucial part. The truck workshop had big doors at the entrance for access by the trucks. To the right of these doors was another bay where most of the lubrication was done. This bay had a pit that ran the length of the bay to allow access underneath vehicles by the lubrication worker Bryn Jones. On the day in question, there was no vehicle in the lube bay and the Truck foreman decided to take the Reliant from the Truck workshop onto the pit for Bryn to work on. Out of the big doors, a right U-turn into the lube bay. The hapless foreman forgot that the Reliant was a three-wheeler car, one at the front, two at the back. The front wheel dropped into the pit. The Reliant had a fibre glass body and fibre glass is very brittle. A huge crack appeared right across the middle of the roof. Not repairable so new body shell required!

My second driving experience was an altogether much more spectacular event!

This time it was a different ‘instructor’ but once again from the younger end of the employee spectrum and also as qualified as was necessary. I had been a passenger with Paul and he took no prisoners. I had never seen anyone drive as fast. He was enthusiastic in everything he did and to be fair to him, he would be a major factor in how my career shaped up in the long run. At this time, he wanted me to become a driver. It was only a couple of weeks after the first episode but no one knew about that!

He sat me behind the wheel of a two-tone blue, three-year old Hillman Minx and gave me the cursory instructions. The route he chose was exactly the same as my previous attempt so I could not get lost. I started off well enough and powered up the ramp. The Minx was significantly superior in power to the Ford Pop so as I approached the top of the ramp, Paul instructed me to slow down in preparation for the right angle left turn. I was concentrating on where I was going and how I was to steer round the bend. The slow down instructions became much more animated very quickly and slow became STOP! I still had no real idea how to carry out the instructions with the result that I was unable to get round the corner. There was a sickening crunch and the car climbed up the wall before becoming stalled. Just a few yards up the passageway the foremans’ office was full of mechanics signing off their work at the end of the day. They spilled out to survey the damage which was a quite severe mangling of the driver’s side front wing and bumper bar. Here I have to say that there was yet another example of chivalry. As soon as the car stopped moving, Paul instructed me to change seats with him. He wanted to take full responsibility  for the incident to keep me out of trouble. Of course there was no time anyway as witnesses appeared immediately.

The works manager told me to report to him first thing next morning so that I had to spend the night stewing in guilt and fear for an early end to my career.

Next morning I duly went to see the boss and was given a mild rollicking. Paul was given a bigger one for encouraging me into action and the net result was a six month ban from driving. This was, for me an absolute blessing and release. A greater punishment would have been to make me drive another vehicle up the ramp. Looking forward, however, six months seemed an awful long time.

I satisfied myself by accepting the punishment, which could be considered lenient anyway, and turning down any offers of ‘lessons’ however well-intentioned. I did however spend some time whenever possible to acquaint myself with the controls. After a while and having gained a little knowledge, I did get a little bolder and would sit in cars that I was expected to be working on and practice pressing the clutch and the brake, finding neutral with the gear lever even, eventually starting the car and practicing the ‘bite point’ on the clutch without moving the car. this gradual self indoctrination worked wonders for my confidence. Finally, the works manager inadvertently asked me to move a car for him. I duly reminded him of my ‘ban’. He restored my driving permission and I never looked back; except when reversing of course. I had served about three months of the ban and I am pleased to say I never damaged another vehicle in my working career.

On the day of my seventeenth birthday, I was out on the road having claimed my ‘provisional driving licence. The company had a very benevolent attitude to learner drivers. There was a company vehicle, at the time a Commer pickup which would be the equivalent of a modern-day Ford Transit. It was probably not the best vehicle to learn in and there were no dual control assurance available in modern driving school vehicles but it was nearly new so everything worked well.

Who was to be the ‘instructor ‘ would depend upon who wanted to be out for some reason of their own and was not fussy about driving ability. So, if someone wanted to move some furniture, collect parts for a ‘guvvie’ job or simply wanted a change of scenery, you would have an ‘instructor’. The ‘lesson’ always took place at lunchtime and if the vehicle was not out on works business, it was available. There was no need to ask permission, it was implicit. The vehicle had three seats across the front and often another apprentice would come along for a ride but the qualified driver always sat alongside the learner driver so that he was able to reach the controls for any adjustments that might be necessary. Adjustments might require a bash on the hand if I was driving with my hand on the gear lever or a hard kick on the ankle if my left foot was resting on the clutch pedal when not changing gear! This was possible because the layout of the vehicle had all the controls and most of the seating accommodation forward of the front axle so there was no transmission tunnel. The qualified observer/ instructor/ passenger could not however reach the handbrake to use in emergency as it was positioned well down to the drivers right side.

I was pushed to apply for my driving test as soon as possible and, of course, I did as I was told. I took the test after about three months of driving and was comparatively confident of success. However when I sat in the vehicle, the company pickup, with the examiner alongside me my legs began to shake uncontrollably. This is not just a figure of speech, ‘shaking like a leaf’ does no justice to the situation.

Once on the road, I was feeling a little bit more confident and the actual driving felt good. It started to go wrong when I was given the signal to perform an emergency stop. I had not practiced this and was only told one thing, ‘all anchors on including the handbrake’. Anyone who has attempted a handbrake turn will have a rough idea of what happened. Fortunately we were travelling straight on a straight, wide road and although the pickup rear axle swerved, skidding to the right, there was no major problem. Of course to operate the handbrake I had to take my right hand from the steering wheel. Not recommended particularly when performing an emergency stop. The tester questioned me about the tactic and I confessed to be simply doing what I had been told to do. No more comment at that time.

Later on the test I was asked to do a right reverse into a junction that was pointed out to me. I moved safely to the right side of the road and as I came level with the target road, pointed out to the tester that there was a post box that affected my vision at the junction. He asked me to move to the next road on the right and again, as I came level with the road, I noticed a group of young children playing where I was to reverse. I explained again to the tester who instructed me to move onto the next entrance. This time there was no problem and I executed the procedure without problem. The tester congratulated me on taking the right decisions but unfortunately, at the end of the test, he informed me that I had not achieved the required standard citing the technical error at the emergency stop as the chief reason.

It was no fun going back to work with a failure. Most of my workmates passed first time and one individual had passed his test before lunch on his seventeenth birthday!

I applied to resit as soon as possible and passed next time with no problem other than the change of test vehicle on the morning of the test. The pickup was required for work purposes and with suitable apologies, the works manager passed me his company car keys and that was that. It was a much more comfortable vehicle and being a Hillman Minx was very familiar to me. I had had my licence for only six months so I was happy!

So I passed and the next day, I was the ‘instructor’ accompanying one of my more junior workmates who had recently acquired his provisional licence.

Among the highlights of driving opportunities, particularly for those not entitled to be on the road was driving around the workshop area. The company was a distributor of Renault vehicles for the Yorkshire region. This required receiving and storing a large number of cars which would be delivered regularly from the factory before being collected by other Renault dealers. So there could be about forty vehicles to be driven into the workshop, for security reasons, at the end of the day. One day, I had completed my quota and was chatting to workmates whilst some of the younger apprentices continued to finish the task. We heard a vehicle coming up the ramp to the first floor workshop, then the engine stopped, there was a short lull before a crunching scraping noise pervaded the silence. Another ,quiet period then a louder crashing noise. We ran to the top of the ramp to see Golden Wonder Boy standing about three-quarters of the way up the ramp with a car door in his hands. The rest of the car was at the bottom of the ramp, twisted around a brand new Renault chassis that was stored alongside the entrance to the ramp for want of a better spot!

The smashed car was a brand new, five miles on the clock, straight from the factory Renault 4. It was a special edition; bright yellow with pretend basket work around the lower half of the body. Golden Wonder had been driving up the ramp when it ran out of petrol, there was never large quantities in these cars from the factory. He had pulled on the handbrake to get out of the car but the handbrake was like an umbrella handle that emerged from the dashboard and simply required a little twist to release. Golden Wonder had already started to get out of the car when he accidentally caught the lever. The car started to roll down the steep ramp. the open drivers door caught on the wall alongside the ramp ripping the door off its flimsy hinges. The car continued assisted by the force of gravity until it expired against the bottom of the ramp. Golden Wonder Boy was left holding the door!