The end of the Civil War was the last time that armed men met in battle near Doncaster. The town responded eagerly enough when the nation was in danger, and its military history alone would fill a web site.
It will be news to the present generation to know that Doncaster was a favourite training ground for troops. The rebellion of 1745, when Charles Stuart, the Young Pretender, invaded England and tried to secure the Crown, saw a great gathering of 6000 English and German troops on the stretch of high land north-east of Doncaster known as Wheatley Hills.
Curiously enough, during the great war of 1914-1918, when English soldiers were in training in Doncaster, German troops, (this time as prisoners) were doing farm work in the same neighbourhood, which is rather a contrast to the state of things in 1745, when English and Germans were encamped together in readiness for the invasion of the rebellious Scots!
Doncaster soldiers took a part in the continental wars of the period; and at Minden the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, had a share in one of the most glorious achievements in the annals of the British Army. As the regiment celebrated Minden Day every year, and we had a Minden House in Doncaster which was once occupied by an officer of the King’s Own, the story is worth telling, if only briefly.
We were at war with France – once again. The conflict was fought out in theContinent. Six thousand British infantrymen, in front of 10,000 of the finest cavalry in Europe (the French), were moved forward at Minden, to the east of Hanover, in what was truly a tragic blunder, commemorated by Kipling in his poem, “The Men that Fought at Minden” (Seven Seas). They were to move in attack “on sound of drum.” They misread it to mean “with sound of drum.” So the long thin line of infantry, on that first day of August, 1759, moved forward to the beat and roll of drum, and though the French horse rallied and rallied again and threw themselves six times on the steadily moving British front, and once or twice even broke through the line, the irresistible valour and stubbornness of the British carried everything before them.
A French General himself tells us the result. “I have seen,” he wrote, “what I never thought to be possible . . . a single line of infantry break through three lines of cavalry ranked in order of battle and tumble them into ruin.”
Such was Minden Day; and in future years, when it is again celebrated in Doncaster, it will be worth while remembering that it had its origin in an infantry attach which, in its way, is comparable with the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava, and in which, moreover, the town’s regiment had a noble share.
There have been several encampments on the Wheatley Hills, but they do not call for special notice; and they may be said to be the forerunners of the days when the Yorkshire Dragoons, whose headquarters were at Doncaster, used to meet and have their annual camp and training on Town Moor. This practice continued right down to 1914, and then, when the Great War broke out, the same site was chosen as the scene of the greatest military camp and training ground in the history of Doncaster.
When Napoleon threatened to invade this country in 1803, a regiment of volunteers was raised in Doncaster. The town, indeed, was always noted for its military sentiment, as might be imagined from its sporting associations, and the history of the Volunteer movement in Doncaster is theme that rouses the curiosity in the amateur historian, like me.
The York and Lancaster Regiment, and the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, always had a close association with Doncaster, and one of the results of the Great War was that the King’s Own, which before had its headquarters in Pontefract, was now centred at Doncaster; while another interesting circumstance was the fact that, when the War Office, at the conclusion of the war, decided to abolish the old Yeomanry with the exception of ten regiments, the Yorkshire Dragoons, so long associated with Doncaster, was one of the ten to be spared.
Furthermore, it may be added that when the local Territorial Regiment, the King’s Own, was mobilised for war service in 1914, and Doncaster was one of the first towns in the country to raise a battalion of volunteers of men either over military age or exempted from war service, the Commandant for the whole of the West Riding was found in General Sir Robert Bewicke-Copley, C.B., a Doncaster man, whose family name has for generations never been absent from the public and social life of the town.
Doncaster was, indeed, ever a loyal town, and it never failed to take advantage of the opportunity of celebrating national events. Those very few of us who remember how the town was almost delirious with joy and excitement when the Armistice was announced on the 11th November, 1918, may like to be reminded that when peace was proclaimed on the 7th April, 1763, there was a scene which rivalled that of 1918. The Mayor and Corporation headed a procession through the principal streets, and in the Market Place, on a platform in front of the old Town Hall, the Town Clerk read the proclamation of peace between England, France, Spain, and Portugal. There were scenes of great rejoicing, speeches, bells, fusilades (firing weapons) by the Militia, and a grand ball in the evening at the Mansion House.
If I had enough space, I could quote many such town’s celebrations, at coronations, royal weddings, and the like, generally finishing up with either dinner or dance, or both at the Mansion House, and the Corporation records under-estimating the cost of the beer and wine and food.
The corporation have always rendered good service to the local military forces. In 1796 they gave a royal standard to the Yeomanry, afterwards the Yorkshire Dragoons. It was probably the recollection of this gift that inspired them to make a present of a complete set of colours to the Doncaster, or 5th battalion, of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, which colours, by the way, were left in the keeping of the Mayor and Council when the force went to France in 1915.
In the same year the Corporation raised three companies of Royal Engineers in the town and neighbourhood for service in France, and as “Doncaster’s Own,” the exploits and gallantries of these local lads gave great satisfaction to the people of Doncaster. So that, “from the first, Doncaster’s association with the armed forces of the realm has been most commendable.”
To carry on this tradition, on Saturday June 25th, 2011, at the annual Armed Forces Day celebrations, the council conferred the Freedom of Entry on 219 Squadron, 150 (Yorkshire) Transport Regiment, Royal Logistics Corps, in recognition of the service provided by them. The R.L.C. headquarters has been located in Doncaster since 1919. The Corps has given support to the Authority and residents of the Borough, during times of conflict and peace.
This years Armed forces Day falls on Saturday 30th June, 2012 and is a fantastic way to show our support to all those brave individuals who risk their lives to defend our freedom.