MANY communities are using the centenary of the end of the First World War as a reason to delve back into their collective past, with the war memorials that stand in their centre acting as the focal point for their research.

While it is important to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice, the vast majority of men came back having sacrificed their best years, and often their health, to the war.

In peacetime, they were expected to put the horrors that they had witnessed and pick up the pieces of their civilian life.

Coverdale is one such community that has been researching its First World War history.

The five sons of the Walls family, researched by their great niece, Val Slater, featured in a recent exhibition in Coverdale's village hall. All five left the village school at Carlton aged 13 with expectations no higher than making a living off the land, working for someone else. But the war blew those expectations apart, and all five signed up.

Several of them put their rural knowledge to good use – this may have been an industrial war, but it was also a war powered by horses – and, having survived the horrors of the Western Front where three of the brothers were involved in the world’s first tank battle, all five survived and returned to the dale.

There, as if nothing had happened, they resumed their rural way of life – only carrying the scars and the injuries with them forever.

Far more than the names on the memorials, their stories are the stories of the ordinary man’s experiences in the First World War because about 90 per cent of men who went to war returned.

These five were the sons of George Walls, who was born in 1839 in the Foresters’ Arms in Carlton. The pub, which the Walls family ran for most of the 19th Century, was named after the Coverdale Foresters’ Friendly Society which was formed in 1816 as a benevolent group and held its meetings in the pub’s Long Room. Several of the brothers were leading lights in the Foresters, which still holds biennial marches today.

George Walls was a cattle dealer whose travels took him as far afield as Devon where, in 1883, he met and married Catherine Polden. She was 24 and destined never to see her home county again; he was 44. Despite the age difference, it was a happy marriage that produced three daughters and five sons.

But in 1908, George died, aged 67, leaving Catherine with her youngest son just ten. She made ends meet by working as a washerwoman and the unofficial village midwife and “layer-out”. With the help of the Methodist church and a little parish relief, she made it through, but what agonies she must have suffered as all five of her big, brave boys strode off to war…



Born in 1889, George, the eldest, set a pattern his brothers followed. He left the village school at 13, to work on the land – the 1911 census records him as a “horseman” at Ellingstring, near Masham.

In late 1915, with two brothers, he enlisted at Leyburn in the 21st (Yeoman Rifles) Battalion of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, which was a “pals” regiment recruited from the farming communities of County Durham and North Yorkshire.

One of their officers was Anthony Eden, who had been born at Windlestone Hall, near Sedgefield. They served with him at Flers-Courcelette in September 15, 1916, the battle in which the British unleashed the tank on the unsuspecting Germans for the first time. After the battle, Eden, who, of course, became Prime Minister in the 1950s, wrote: "I have seen things lately that I am not likely to forget.

The Walls brothers must have seen those things, too.

On September 17, George was hit by shrapnel, which probably ended his war.

In peace, he returned to the land. In 1926, he married Anne Metcalfe at Hawes, and he remained at that end of the dale until he died in 1974 in Bainbridge at the age of 84.



Born in 1891, Alf became a farm hand at Nutwith Cote, near Masham. He gave his job as a “horseman” when he enlisted in September 1916 as a driver in the Army Service Corps, and was placed in the Horse Transport Section. The corps were responsible for keeping the frontline supplied with ammunition, food and equipment, most of which would have been delivered by horsedrawn vehicles – his experience would have been invaluable.

In August 1917, he went down with tonsillitis, and was hospitalised at Rouen. On his hospital forms, it was noted that his treatment was financially assisted by the Ancient Order of Foresters at Carlton.

He recovered, was transferred to the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment only to be hospitalised again, in June 1918, with eye problems after he’d been gassed – he was troubled by very watery eyes for the rest of his life.

And it was a long life: he worked as a shepherd, retired to Melmerby and died in the Friarage Hospital in Northallerton in 1981 four months after celebrating his 90th birthday with a family party on the ward.



Born 1893, Dick became a “farm servant” at Fearby, near Masham, and also gave his job as a “horseman” when he enlisted at Leyburn on December 5, 1915,

He fought through Flers-Courcelette and onto the Third Battle of Ypres, northern Italy and Passchendaele before he received gunshot wounds to his face and right hand. He therefore spent the summer of 1918 making picture frames in a camp in Wiltshire as physiotherapy for his injured fingers.

He returned to Coverdale after being demobbed, working with horses. He was treasurer of the Foresters, and never missed a march.

He married Annie in 1925 at Coverham church, had two children, and when he died in 1979 in Bedale, he was buried beside Annie in the churchyard.



Born in 1896, Joe worked as a servant for a wealthy Sheffield brewer, William Stuart Cockayne, who owned Coverdale Lodge. He enlisted with Dick in the King’s Royal Rifles, fought on the Somme in autumn 1916, but was discharged due to ill health on November 10.

In the 1920s, he worked at Fleensop Quarry, a remote pit on the top of Carlton Moor above Coverdale. The work, though, was probably too physically demanding and he and his wife, Jennie, found positions working as a gardener and housekeeper in Roundhay, Leeds.

Their only child, a boy, died soon after his birth, and Joe died of heart disease in 1953, aged 57.



Born in 1898, Will was only ten when his father died. Aged 13, he started work as a farm labourer. He joined the Yorkshire Regiment, and served as a transport driver – again working with horses – with the Machine Gun Corps from June 1917 until September 1919.

In peacetime, he worked at Fleensop Quarry, but then became a gardener and general hand at a large house in Ilkley.

He married Margaret. She died in 1979 and he died in 1984, aged 86, and they are buried side by side in Coverham churchyard.

With many thanks to Val Slater for sharing her research.