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The Great War Centenary - 1917

From Front Line to White Lund

White Lund Disaster

Lancaster Observer, Friday 24 January 1919
(continued from last week)

Some Incidents of the Night.
[The following was written for publication at the time of the explosion and fire on the 1st October 1917, but has only now been released – Editor]

Notwithstanding the tragedies and thrills of the past three years of war, the glorious feats of valour and the great spirit of sacrifice the fateful night of 1st October 1917, will stand out memorably in the annals of an industrious community near Lancaster and Morecambe, a community brought together by the exigencies of the time from all parts. Men and women had left their homes to help in the gigantic task of feeding the guns for those brave armies in the field out to strike a blow for the liberty of the world against a cruel and tyrannical foe, and in the midst of their might endeavours in the cause of right there came a catastrophe. The possibility of such a thing did not deter those thousands of workers, and on they sped at their divergent tasks without fear and without trembling, anxious only that the famous British forces and those of her brave Allies should not suffer. It was some time after 10 p.m. that the discovery of a fire was made and warnings had to be given. No undue risks were thinkable, but away must go the busy workers before a greater calamity should follow. With startling rapidity the flames spread, and with a grim determination to save hands and brain for further service the workers left the place. From surrounding points the danger was scented. The fire-glow burst upon the skyline, and whilst hoping for the best it was the worst that was anticipated. That wonderful hive – one of many built, fitted and equipped, and manned by a piece of brilliant foresight and masterly organisation – was destined to partial destruction. No; it might be saved! Probably it did not arise from that important corner, a large corner, it is true, but verily a corner! Might it not be from some other cause, from one of those many accidental sources which have brought about destruction of other buildings? It may be, but –

Throughout the day the weather had been delightful. After a spell of wet, cold days the sun smiled over the earth, and winter appeared a long way off. In a quiet way the summer like conditions had been keenly appreciated, and the day was drawing to a close with that grave uncertainty as to the full significance of the new projects. Many residents had retired for the night to gain repose for the toil of another day and they were innocent of approaching danger. But something was amiss, and confirmation of the worst fears were soon forthcoming. A violent explosion, a crash, a rumbling echo around the neighbouring fells, a shaking of everything on the surrounding earth, and instinctively the great mass of humanity, whether asleep or awake, had full knowledge. The fire-glow was more brilliant and more terrible. What had happened to those near the scene? Had they had time to make good their escape from that furnace fraught with such grave danger? Or had they perished with the first earthquake? That could not be. The fates must have been more kind, and at least some must escape, all, we hope, and the surrounding mass, too. But it is action that counts. Words are useless, and in a corner, face to face with the consequences, the British people do not waste words. Aroused from peaceful slumbers, a large proportion of people suspected a visit from those insidious invaders who degrade warfare by killed and maiming defenceless women and children. A sharp reconnoitre revealed the truth.

There were women and children in this eventful chapter, and they must be helped. Orders from the authorities in case of that other emergency were borne in mind, and families made to the basements. Many tried to see, of course, and were out in the open courting danger, but the frequent explosions, following with great rapidity and increasing intensity, threatened awful penalties, and a tramp to fields, those quaint haunts of nature, seemed to hold a brighter and happier prospect. So away they went thither, leaving behind the view of that spectre on the sky, but still failing to get out of sound of those terrible explosions.

A hurried exodus gives little time for detailed arrangements, but an expeditions move is the key to such a situation. And such a move it proved to be. The bright moonlight and mildness of the atmosphere helped wonderfully to strengthen the determination to get in the open and stay there until the danger should end, and crashes like those which electrified the air for miles around could not long survive. Still the die had been cast, and in the open country seemed the great opportunity towards safety. Country lanes were thronged quickly. Those in doubt as to the wisdom of their action gained confidence in that anxious crowd of young and old, attired anyhow. In that perplexing moment many things were forgotten. It was human life that was sacred, and out of reach of those repeated blasts became the only motive.

Babies in arms cried piteously, and the frightened mothers did their best to soothe them. Little boys and girls of tender years were startled, and clung to their parental protectors or elder sisters and brothers amazed at the force of every expedition. They were scantily clad, but never complained. Mothers failed to gather up adequate wearing apparel to face such unusual times in the lanes and fields, but there were many good-hearted souls who had taken greater precautions in that respect, and they shared willingly their scarves, coats, mufflers, handkerchiefs, caps etc. There were those who stayed indoors, adhering to official injunctions to keep in the basement of their dwellings. The shaking and shattering of windows at close quarters was not a cheerful accompaniment to the continued crashes from afar. And those weird volumes of flames in the sky became more vivid and terrible, producing a feeling of dread as to later eventualities. But it would not, and could not, last long! The whole concern could not bear those rendings for long, and yet they seemed never-ending. The police, both the regular min in blue and “specials” tendered advice and assistance wherever possible, and, like all the rest, hoped that a lasting peace would soon follow the explosions – that fiery disturbance which had begun at the close of an October day. Some parents had not neglected to bring perambulators or go-carts for their offspring, and in the cool night air, which was remarkable refreshing, the children slept peacefully on – a peace so remote from the prevailing storm around, with its attendant hopes and fears.

In other directions there was great activity on part of the firemen, special contingents of police from other districts, medical men, nurses, infirmaries and other institutions. Such a calamity might mean much for those busy people and organisations, and they are always ready to devote their best skill and attention to the needs of the occasion, however great or small. The first contingents of employees from the blazing factory near that stretch of water (which, by the way, formed an important factor in the selection of the site) began to arrive from unusual directions, for they saw no reason to confine themselves to limited regular paths. They needed assistance, and they got help from many sources. They were directed over difficult pieces of grounds to roads of safety, and though tired, they did not stop within easy distance of that peril which burst out in such a surprising manner. Like those other weary people who had deserted a comfortable bed or a warm fireside to the hills and valleys, they had not dallied to get their out-door attire or even their food, which had been brought for the meals during the night turn or work. Some of them had be fortunate enough to get away with their rations, which were eagerly shared with companions and others whom they met on that otherwise lonely road. All this time the explosions came from the direction of that danger flame, followed by a shrill whistle or a big crash, and these incidents were explained as representing some of the works’ destruction.

But this buoyancy which had given such vigour and confidence to early movement, combined with the hope of an early conclusion of that “tremendous bombardment,” could not extend itself through a long night. Fatigue began to show itself. The people could withstand a good deal, but hunger and thirst were …..[a line of text cannot be read from the newspaper cutting] …..roadside, and stone heaps were utilised for resting places, and for hours the people hardened themselves to find an element of comfort in those trying circumstances. Then the reports of explosions became louder, and people, though tired and weary, followed advice to get further out in the country lanes. At farms and cottages, good Samaritans rose from their beds, and supplied hot tea, coffee, cocoa, milk, biscuits, etc to forlorn and beaten pedestrians, who had tramped about, many with the burden of a child in arms, for hours to escape coming into close proximity with the terrible effects of that continuous uproar. A little country church, a village institute, and other accommodating premises were thrown open as “rest stations,” and utilised to the fullest limits. Refreshments were brought from generously disposed country friends and what a treat they proved to the children, what a blessing to the old people, and at the same time most acceptable to the young men and young women?

We heard of one farmer who from 1 a.m. to 4 a.m. must have provided hospitality to over 400 people. The record of generosity on the part others was none the less praiseworthy. Cottages also entertained to the best of their ability. There were a few people who did not respond to the needs of those tired, weary, all-night travellers. But there are always some who never rise to an occasion. We had them at the outbreak of the war. We have had them during the progress of the war. We had them during that night, but their failure to meet a needy cause only increased the measure of praise and gratitude bestowed upon those who so willingly came forward at a trying time. There came a longing for home, but the explosions, though less frequent, continued, and a recollection of the early horrors caused considerable restraint. Eventually news came round that danger was over, and towards 9 a.m. weary people returned to homes or took refugee with newly made friends whom they had met in their distress.

It was not an easy journey home. There were serious misgivings as to whether the danger was over, as to what had happened in the houses they had left behind, and even slight explosions from that same quarter gave cause for further alarm, a trifling noise compared with the experience of the previous ten hours causing no little amount of concern in the nervous state in which the people found themselves. A baseless rumour that more trouble was expected resulted in many people retracing their footsteps, but the report was unfounded, and a contradiction put matters right. Then as to the damage. Surprise was expressed that so little material destruction had followed so long a series of explosions. In the centre of Lancaster plate glass windows in business premises had been smashed, and many houses suffered by the smashing of panes of glass. The opening of windows by some thoughtful person had saved many panes. Another town, nearer to the works, suffered to a greater extent. It is smaller in size, but the chief breakages were in respect of windows in shops and private houses. In one case a missile had been flung through the roof of a house, but as the occupants were in the basement no personal injuries were sustained. A barn was damaged by the fall of the roof, and several farms also suffered damage to buildings and the loss of cattle. The window frames and lintels from a second storey had also been sent outside, crashing down with such force as to smash the iron railings round the front garden.

Missiles had also been embedded in the fields and on footpaths, and the windows of a small mission church had also been forced in, not more than a square inch of glass remaining. Here the people also took refuge in the open, and in some instances they went out very long distances. Both towns had many of the employees billeted with them, but they go so scattered in their search for safety that no new of their whereabouts was available at short notice. Throughout Tuesday there were further reports, and more anxiety. Business was quite at a standstill in both towns in question. The train service between the two places was suspended by one route awaiting orders for resumption. The road traffic proceeded as usual and many sightseeing engaged in the task of picking up souvenirs. Through out the day thousands of the girls who had undergone such a trying ordeal, made their way home, startled it is true, but still bent upon finding a fresh outlet for their energies in the grim task before the nation to beat the Hun and those fighting with him. The result of the night’s work was terrible enough, but there was admirable testimony to the wisdom in selecting such a site, seeing that comparatively speaking so little damage was suffered after such a ghastly spectacle of destruction by fire and explosion. It will take more than that mishap – so terrible and so tragic – to damp the ardour of the British industrial classes.

Even the injury to the works, which is described in the official communiqués as being “much damage,” is more restrained that the extent of the explosions and fire suggested. With the number of casualties so small one might be accused of exaggeration as to the intensity of the fire and the subsequent explosions, but those who were in it have most accurate knowledge and the most realistic recollections. A soldier of many years service described the 3 a.m. crash as similar to the Messines episode. Upon that testimony, is it unlikely that the night of 1st October 1917 will be most memorable? We think not. Do you?


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