Being a mature student who was raised in Nidderdale, and as a self-confessed anorak (i.e., enthusiast) on the Great War, I thought I knew all there was to know about Colsterdale and Breary Banks. But I have learnt a lot of new facts about the site due to all the research we have carried out, mainly desk based assessment, most of which has been collected and collated by the University of York Archaeology department. The department has been carrying out excavation work on the site and liaising with the Leeds Museum staff.
Two areas of research we have struggled with are finding records of both the Navvy population on the camp and the Chapel. We understand from the archaeological records that toy dolls were found on site in previous years and photographic records from the archives show Navvy families too. For my voiceover on our audio guide I am speaking the voice of the Navvy and so have been reading about this much maligned workforce and their nomadic lifestyle, moving from job site to job site. In the early twentieth century health and safety and personal protection equipment were virtually unheard of. This made me think of a child watching their father go to work and their mother concerned that he would not return that evening. The workforce was originally put up in the local villages but an outbreak of small pox forced the Water Board (i.e., the company in charge of building the site’s reservoir) to relocate, so Breary Banks was constructed to house the workers.
As our team pooled our research on the site, a story started to appear, with each section dropping into place. The Navvy camp at the outbreak of war was given to the military for training. It was also used as a prisoner of war camp for German Officers and then eventually turned back into a workers’ construction site. Newspaper archives have produced some amazing stories about the formation of the Pals battalion. This includes accounts of their arrival at Breary Banks from diary entries written by both local people and the soldiers themselves, to their eventual deployment to Egypt to guard the Suez Canal, to their eventual move to the Western Front and the Somme. We’ve learnt what military life under canvass in the Yorkshire Dales was like and how many pounds of meat were needed to make an army stew! However everything has not yet been answered by our research. For instance, the small Methodist Chapel on site is still a mystery, although we did find out that religion was brought to the Navvys through the construction of this chapel in 1911.
Personally for me, looking at the many photographic images of Breary Banks evokes a lot of emotion. These photos show how a group of Leeds business men were turned into frontline troops. But they also show the camaraderie that was formed while training in such harsh conditions. Our team and the excavation students on site can vouch that it is still possible to create such camaraderie while having all types of weather at Breary in one day.
One poignant moment while we were listening to an app developed by one of last year’s students was when the commentary suggested we stopped and just listened to the surrounding environment.
Just at that moment a Sky Lark started to sing and immediately I recalled the first verse of a WW1 poem:
In Flanders Fields
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
(John McCrae, 1915)
The poem was written about the Second Battle of Ypres, it rings true for the Leeds Pals at the Somme on July 1st 1916. Just before zero hour (when the troops went into battle) at 07:30am the artillery stopped, and at that moment of relative silence the larks could be heard singing. I wonder how many men cast their minds back to their time training at Breary Banks just before the whistles blew and the carnage began.
Harold D. Bowtell (1979) Reservoir Railways of the Yorkshire Pennines. Oakwood Press.
Milner l (2015) Leeds Pals. Pen and Sword