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Illingworth House: 20 - On the Home Front

Abe Illingworth is awarded the Military Cross for his bravery in the Battle of Mons. His loveless marriage ends in divorce.

John Waddington-Feather continues the story of a Yorkshire mill-owning dynasty.

Captain Abe Illingworth was welcomed as a hero when he went home on leave for the first time. So was Sergeant Henry Johnson. They'd been in the thick of the Battle of Mons, and for their bravery Abe had been awarded the Military Cross and Johnson the Military Medal. With a mixture of sheer luck and skill they survived unscathed when many of their comrades had been killed or badly wounded. So many officers were lost that Abe was quickly promoted to captain, and by 1916 he and Johnson were veterans.

But they went on leave knowing the hell they would be returning to. The war had become stalemate and the two sides were slogging it out from water-logged trenches, often not more than eight hundred yards apart. Men drowned in their own blood and mud when their trenches caved in under bombardment. Despite the slaughter, their leaders refused to compromise and continued sending thousands to their deaths under incompetent generals.

At home the population remained largely ignorant of conditions at the front. Not until their loved ones returned injured, or, worse still, when the dreaded telegram arrived telling them of their deaths in action, did it finally sink in what the war was all about. As well as the military hospital, a prisoner-of-war camp was set up near Keighworth with many wounded Germans in it, but it had little impact on the town. The press continued glorifying the war and making heroes out of the fools at the top waging it.

Food was rationed. Luxuries like sweets and cigarettes disappeared for all except the upper-crustians. They never went short. And the whole of Keighworth from Garlic Lane to Illingworth House grew richer as munitions were turned out by the ton and cloth for uniforms woven by the mile.

By the beginning of 1916 the Illingworths' marriage was finished. Rachel had bought a flat in London and was well into the London girlie scene. She knew she would never return north and went there only on sufferance to see her son and her parents from time to time. She never stayed longer than a couple of days and couldn't get back to London fast enough.

When the war was finally over, she returned to Illingworth House briefly in December 1918 to arrange the divorce from her husband and take back her own effects. It was a strained empty meeting and they might have been strangers.

When Abe came on his first leave, he and Mary drove straight to the cottage he had bought in the Dales. They were as madly in love as ever and couldn't wait to get away by themselves.

His father was failing rapidly and finding running the business more and more exhausting. He still went daily to the office but left early, more often than not arriving home for lunch and taking a nap in the afternoon, so Mary Calow and Denton ran the office. A quarter of the male office staff were in the forces and their replacements were young women, whom Mary Calow kept well in line. If they didn't meet her high standards, they were out.

Yet the war left its mark on her. Though as attractive as ever, she aged. There were hints of grey in her rich auburn hair and crow's feet had appeared at the corners of her eyes. She didn't wear makeup so nothing was masked. But she still dressed immaculately and her bearing was enhanced by the new fashions the war brought in. Her figure and legs were shown to perfection and she still turned men's heads in the office - when they thought she wasn't looking.

When Abe saw her waiting at the station, she looked ravishing, and when he stepped onto the platform in his uniform he was more attractive to her than ever. But she was shocked to notice how grey he'd gone about the temples and how strange he looked about the eyes. There was a hardness in them, a pain, which wasn't there before and which never left them. But not once did he talk about the hell he had left, only about her, his son and his father as he drove to the cottage.

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