ONE of the most popular - and certainly most haunting - of all the paintings on display at York Art Gallery is Richard Jack's The Return to the Front: Victoria Railway Station, 1916.

It is a huge painting, which captures with a real intensity and vividness the ordered chaos at Victoria Station as troops prepare to return to the front from a period of leave.

Some of the men look bewildered; others stoical. One, in the foreground, sits on his kitbag, hands clasped, gazing at the ground before him with eyes that are clearly seeing nothing.

There are women in the painting, too: a matchbook seller, plus, in the foreground to the left, two anxious wives who are clearly saying an anguished goodbye.

It is a painting which has always had an especial resonance for Tony Lawton, a retired York solicitor (he was a partner in Grays) and one-time president of the Yorkshire Law Society.

That is because in 1917 his father Frederick (later the High Court judge Sir Frederick Lawton) went with his mother to Victoria Station to watch his own father (Tony's grandfather) William Lawton return to the front after a few brief days of leave.

Frederick was still just a young boy at the time, but he later described that painful goodbye in his diary. And Tony himself included his father's diary account in his 2016 book The Yorkshire Law Society 1786-2015 – A Personal Tribute.

Tony has given us permission to reproduce the extract, which we do so here:

"The next morning, shortly before 5am, she [Tony's father's mother] woke me up and got me dressed. The happenings of the next three hours are deeply implanted in my memory. When I got downstairs I found my grandparents already there. Breakfast was ready. My grandmother was upset. There was little conversation. I remember my grandmother insisting that my father had some whisky in his tea.

"My parents and I left for Mortlake station shortly before 6am. It was dark, foggy and cold. We travelled by train to Victoria, changing at Clapham Junction. It was still dark when we arrived there. The fog had got into the station, casting a yellowish haze around the dimmed lights. The concourse at the head of the platforms on the east side of the station was crowded with soldiers, many, like my father, accompanied by their wives and young children.

"Most of the men from infantry regiments were in full marching order. They were wearing their webbing equipment and packs. My father had his greatcoat over a leather cross belt and carried a canvas kitbag.  There was little movement on the concourse. The mood was sombre. At about 7.40am someone shouted orders to the effect that soldiers were to move on to Platform No.1. An empty train was standing at it. Accompanying women and children were allowed on to the platform. There we stood. The men mostly had their arms around their wives and their children were hanging on to them.

"At about 7.50am whistles were blown and orders shouted to get ready to entrain. The men kissed their wives and children goodbye and formed in ranks at the edge of the platform. Shortly afterwards the order to entrain was given and the train eventually moved away at about eight o’clock. It left behind what seemed a freezing silence, broken by the sobs of the women and the crying of most of the children. My mother cried. She knew, and I was old enough to know too, that we might never see my father again. Many of those on the platform that morning never did see their menfolk again."

Perhaps not surprisingly, Tony admits that this description is now deeply implanted in his own memory.

His grandfather, it turned out, was to be one of the 'lucky' ones.   "In the course of his wartime service in France he was wounded once and injured once – the latter occasion when he slipped and fell off an iced-up ammunition wagon and broke his leg which resulted in a hospital spell in Yorkshire," says Tony. "Yet somehow he survived the Somme and Passchendaele."  William's luck lasted right until the end of the war - and he needed it to.

"On November 10, 1918, on the very eve of the armistice ... there were a handful of officers ...determined to seize their last moment of glory whatever the risk to the lives of those under their command," Tony says. "My grandfather and his small unit received an order which they could all see was totally suicidal, involving a lone and determined German machine-gunner defending a Belgian canal.  "They decided as one not to obey and by 11am the following morning it was all over. Earlier in the war such a mutiny would doubtless have resulted in the perpetrators being court-martialled and shot (or even just shot) but fortunately on this particular occasion some wiser and more senior officer clearly had the good sense to turn a blind eye or lose the file."

And thank goodness that they did...

  • The Yorkshire Law Society 1786-2015 – A Personal Tribute by Tony Lawson is available from the author at, priced £18 plus £2 for P&P.