ON Boxing Day 1914, a letter appeared in the Pocklington Weekly News. It was signed simply 'eye witness, supply column, Army Service Corps', and related a remarkable story of coolness under fire on the western front.

The letter described the exploits of 'Yorkshire Billy': Pocklington farmworker William Hardy, who had joined the Wolds Wagoners, a reserve army transport unit of 1200-odd skilled wagon drivers raised by Sir Mark Sykes of Sledmere House.

"Dear Sir - I wish to bring to your notice the deeds of one of your local residents now at the front," the letter began.

"On several occasions he has been under heavy shell fire, and on one particular occasion whilst taking supplies to the firing line, the column was shelled very heavily.

"'Yorkshire Billy', as we call him, was in the rear of the column, when the order was passed back for all waggons (sic) to keep a certain distance apart and proceed at the trot.

"Everybody got to the specified distance and trotted off, leaving Billy alone to follow on, but thinking more of his horses than the shells, (he) calmly kept to the walk and although shells were bursting all around his waggon, not 100 yards away, Billy simply smiled and started whistling 'The girl I left behind me'.

"I may say that it takes a brave man to keep calm under such heavy shell fire as we sometimes get here. Before this occasion, the Yorkshire Waggoners were always laughed at but I can tell you "Yorkshire Billy" has distinguished himself with his comrades."

York Press:
 Wolds Wagoners at Sledmere Station in 1914

The man who came to be known as Yorkshire Billy actually hailed originally from Norfolk.

"Agriculture was more buoyant in Yorkshire than East Anglia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and Billy Hardy was one of numerous young men who trekked north in search of work and settled in East Yorkshire," says Phil Gilbank of the Pocklington & District History Group, which has been researching the Wagoners.

According to his entry in Army Book 303, William Hardy was 20 years old at the time he signed up to the Wagoners in Pocklington in 1914. He was a small man - just five foot two inches tall, with light hair and grey eyes. But a photograph of him as a young man in uniform, standing beside his wife Ellen and daughters Rosie and Emily, shows him to have had a gaze of steely boldness. He wasn't a man you'd want to cross.

That letter in the Pocklington Weekly News on December 26, 1914, recorded another of 'Yorkshire Billy's exploits.

"When a German Officer's horse bolted, Billy was highly commended by the onlookers for the way in which he brought the horse to a standstill," the letter reported.

"The horse came down the road at a mad gallop, people running in all directions; Billy sighted the horse and making a firm stand in the road, heedless of the danger from shell and the horse... made a leap at its bridle; although dragged some considerable distance, he kept a firm hold on the horse's head and brought it to a standstill."

The letter ended with a bit of unashamed recruitment propaganda: "I think the village should be proud to have such a Hero representing them at the Front; so send us a few more like him, as the Drivers of the A.S.C. are proud to take him by the hand. 'Well done Yorkie' is their cry. "

Yorkshire Billie was just one of 1247 young farmworkers who served with The Wagoner's Special Reserve, to give the unit its official title, in the early part of the war.

Recruitment to the Wagoners actually began some time before war broke out. They were initially a pre-war territorial unit, with over 1,000 young men signed up before war began, according to Phil Gilbank. Sir Mark Sykes - a veteran of the Boer War - must have sensed that the winds of war were blowing, perhaps as early as 1912, Phil says. He even organised wagon driving competitions in 1912 and 1913 to hone the men' skills.

York Press:
Seth Gilbank at the annual Sledmere estate pre-war wagon-driving competition at Fimber Bottoms in 1913. Seth was 18 and he became Wagoner No 12 - one of the first of the 1,247 Wagoners to be recruited

Initially recruited from Sir Mark's estates at Sledmere and elsewhere in east Yorkshire, Wagoners were soon being recruited more widely from across north and east Yorkshire.

Some were amongst the first young men to go to war.

"The wagoners were mobilised within a couple of days of the declaration of war," says a tribute on the website of the Western Front Association. "It was an exceptionally early harvest that year and not a few were handed their mobilisation papers in the harvest field."

Among the young men who took part in Sir Mark Sykes' early pre-war wagon-driving competitions was Phil Gilbank's own great uncle, Seth Gilbank.

The Gilbanks were a large family of shepherds and farm labourers from Wetwang. A photo shows Seth with his horse and wagon in the 1913 Sledmere estate wagon driving competition, held at Fimber Bottoms in 1913. With him in the picture - seen holding the horse - was Seth's employer, the farmer William Megginson, who went on become the Wagoners first 'Roadmaster', or officer. Seth was to become 'Wagoner No 12 - one of the first of the 1247 Wagoners to be recruited.

He survived the war, and saw out the rest of his working life as a farmworker in East and North Yorkshire, before retiring to Flaxton.

Many of the young men who joined the Wagoners, however, never returned. They signed up initially for one year, says Phil Gilbank, after which theoretically they could return home. In fact, many were persuaded to join other units when their initial year of service was up.

After the war, Sir Mark Sykes commissioned a unique memorial to the Wagoners who gave their lives. Carved in 1919 by Carlo Magnoni from designs by Sir Mark himself, it stands in the village of Sledmere to this day, not far from the larger Eleanor Cross memorial nearby.

York Press: Billy Hardy on the right at a Wagoners’ reunion in the 1960s Billy Hardy on the right at a Wagoners’ reunion in the 1960s
Billy Hardy on the right at a Wagoners’ reunion in the 1960s 

And Yorkshire Billy? He, too, survived the war, going on to to work for many years on farms in East Yorkshire - and developing a bit of a sideline as a poacher, by some accounts. In the 1960s he was photographed at a Wagoners' reunion, neatly dressed in a tweed jacket and pullover, clinking a glass of beer with two other veterans, indomitable to the end.

* Sue Cartledge will give a talk about the Wolds Wagoners at the next meeting of the Pocklington and District Local History Group at the Old Courthouse on George Street, Pocklington, at 7.30pm on Thursday (January 22). Nine of Sue's relatives - including her great uncle Harry Pledger, pictured on these pages - were Wagoners. Admission is £2 on the door.