An article written in 2018 to commemorate the signing of the 1918 Armistice that ended World War One.
This article was originally written in 2018 to commemorate the centenary of the signing of the Armistice that brought about the end of World War 1, one of the bloodiest and most catastrophic conflicts humanity has ever seen. It tells the story of Tom Harry ‘Percy’ Cope, the last soldier from Skipton, my home town, to be killed in action.
Tom was born 1st January to Sam and Mary Cope who resided at 11 Brook Street, Skipton. His father owned and ran a grocer’s shop and would later go into business as a boot and shoe maker, a trade that Tom would himself enter upon completing his education. He studied at Ermysted’s Grammar School between May 1896 and July 1898 where he was taught English and Science alongside the more vocational subjects of book-keeping and arithmetic. Such an education was typical for the sons of the tradesmen who made up the lower middle classes of the time, with a view to preparing them for a career in commerce. After graduating Tom served as an apprentice to Freeman, Hardy and Willis, an established chain of boot makers and retailers before taking up the position of manager of the Public Benefit Boot Company. He married Mary Ellen Cope (nee Metcalfe) in1911, the couple would go on to have three children.
World War 1 began 28th July 1914 following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria with the Allies (Britain, France, Ireland, Russia and later the USA) fighting against the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary). At first the war enjoyed highly favourable public opinion and when the army advertised for volunteers to fight in France they were inundated with eager recruits, within the space of two months nearly 500,000 men enlisted. This included 250,000 underage boys who lied about their date of birth, often with the full knowledge of army recruiters. ‘Pals Battalions’ were also established; groups of men who knew one another professionally or socially joined up together and fought side by side. However by 1916 the army was short of new recruits, not least because of the huge number of casualties the country had suffered and conscription was introduced. By April 1918 it was expanded to include all able bodied men under the age of 50.
Tom was conscripted in 1916, joining the 2nd Battalion Yorkshire Regiment. Alongside his contemporaries he would have endured the unimaginable horrors of trench warfare. Men lived in filthy conditions, in close proximity to the buried corpses of their fallen comrades, frequently forced to wallow in sewage when the latrines flooded the trenches and existing alongside millions of rats. Many would develop ‘shell shock,’ a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that drew little understanding or sympathy from those in power, psychiatry being very much in its infancy at this point. 306 British men who froze or fled in the face of conflict were court-martialled and shot for cowardice, including at least three boys under the age of 18. Chemical weaponry, in the form of mustard gas, was used for the first time during the war. Letters sent home from soldiers stationed at the Front were heavily censored and the public fed a constant stream of propaganda, ‘Tommies’ were frequently to be seen grinning and waving from the cinema screens; the authorities being well aware that popular support for the war would fade rapidly if people knew of the true hell they had sent their sons, brothers and husbands to. It should be noted that both sides experienced such conditions, and indeed that when soldiers met their opponents in person they found there was far more to bind than to divide them. An unofficial truce was declared over Christmas 1914 and both sides met in the No-Man’s Land between the trenches, exchanging gifts, singing carols, talking and playing football.
Tom Harry Cope died on 6th November 1918, a mere five days before the guns of World War 1 finally fell silent. Peace was officially made with the signing of the Armistice at 11AM on 11th November 1918, ending a conflict that had taken 10 million lives worldwide. It was to be ‘The War To End All Wars,’ but as we now know, sadly an even deadlier conflict was to break out a mere 21 years later and there have been many others since. At a time when populism is again rising, when bigotry and intolerance finds new audiences through technology and world leaders face off with fingers poised above nuclear buttons, we would do well to remember Tom Harry Cope and those who fell beside him and to act with wisdom and compassion, both to respect his sacrifice and to ensure it was not in vain.
This article is dedicated to all those whose lives were lost between 1914-1918. With thanks to Chris Foster and Karen McKenzie for their invaluable help in researching this piece. For further information about Tom and many others from Skipton who contributed to the war effort, please visit http://www.cpgw.org.uk/.