This week the commemoration of the centenary of the Great War has been brought sharply into focus with the revealing of digitised British Army war diaries by the National Archives.
My gaffer here at The Sentinel downloaded the diary for the battalion which my great grandfather Private William Tansey served with (1st North Staffs) and it provides a fascinating glimpse into the daily activities, stories and battles of his unit.
Sometimes history can seem foggy, irrelevant and difficult to grasp – with our knowledge of what has gone before often based on best guesses and assumptions.
But the First World War is recent enough to be within emotional touching distance. Farmers in France and Belgium continue to plough up the detritus of this monumental conflict. Archaeologists are working hard in fields once criss-crossed with trenches and barbed wire under which tunnels unexplored for the best part of a century still lie.
The last combat veteran of the First World War, Royal Navy man Claude Choules, died in Australia aged 110 less than three years ago.
Wonderful books like The Last Fighting Tommy – which tell the story of Harry Patch – have reawakened our collective consciousness to the heroism, sacrifice and suffering of a generation still remembered by their sons, daughters and grandchildren. If you haven’t read it, I can highly recommend doing so.
It was a war unlike any other defined by senseless slaughter and brutal attritional conflict – occasionally tempered by the simple, common humanity of the ordinary men from both sides on the front lines of muddy trenches on the Western Front.
Over the last 20 or 30 years much of the focus of historians has been on the unnecessary loss of life. The phrase ‘lions led by donkeys’ is bandied around as accepted wisdom by people who know little or nothing about the Great War.
At present there’s great angst and hand-wringing going on over how we as a nation should mark the centenary of the start of the ‘War To End All Wars’ – not least because of a strange notion that we shouldn’t upset our friends on the continent.
Some have labelled The Great War ‘celebration’ a political football and Plaid Cymru candidate Dai Lloyd proved them right this week by making headlines when he called for the Royal Mint’s commemorative coin featuring a likeness of Lord Kitchener and the iconic ‘Your country needs you’ slogan to be scrapped.
Of course, the word ‘celebration’ is misplaced in the context of the First World War centenary. I don’t think anyone is actually advocating a celebration. I’ve always believed that with regard to the conflict we should pay due respect to the people who lived through it by reflecting their feelings and opinions towards it.
To that end The Sentinel is planning a series of souvenir supplements this year and I’ve been trawling through our archives to see exactly what we have by way of Great War articles and images.
It turns out we have a lot and you can expect letters from the front, brilliantly-detailed archive articles and evocative first-hand accounts from local soldiers from your Sentinel in the coming months.
In 1968, 50 years after the conflict ended, Sentinel reporter Dave Leake interviewed veterans who were by then in their seventies and eighties.
Time and again they would tell him ‘Don’t make me out to be a bloody hero – I was just doing my job’. They spoke about the ‘grand lads’ they went to war with – many of whom never returned.
They didn’t complain or obsess about the conditions in which battles were fought because these were hard men, many of whom had worked down pits or were well used to heavy manual labour.
What began as a great adventure for many turned into a fight for survival and their tales of individual bravery, gut-wrenching loss and bizarre blind luck make for compelling reading.
But what also comes across is the undeniable sense that they believed the cause they were fighting for was just. That they had a sense of duty to their King and country and that it was right to take on the Kaiser’s men.
When victory, and it was a victory, was at last achieved – thanks in no small part to the men of the British 46th (North Midlands) Division which included the North and South Staffords – the combatants saw it as such.
They had won and forced the German High Command to inform Kaiser Wilhelm II that his Army’s position was hopeless. It was, to our lads, an achievement – a victory paid for in blood and with hard graft over several years.
We don’t have to celebrate this but we should at least acknowledge these facts because they were important to the men who returned home to Britain.
It is a sobering thought when you learn that 12,410 men from the North and South Staffords – the predecessor of our local regiment The Staffords (now 3Mercian) were listed as killed or missing during the Great War.
The scale of the conflict is underlined by the fact that by the end of 1918 more men had worn the Staffordshire knot emblem during the previous four years than are serving in the entire regular British Army today.
Thousands more, of course, from our neck of the woods were killed or wounded while serving with other units across all three branches of our Armed Forces.
These staggering statistics bring home to us that it was a war which touched almost every family across all communities.
We all have relatives who fought during the Great War and this therefore connects us all to the conflict in a very personal way.
I see the centenary as a one-off opportunity to acknowledge the sacrifices our ancestors made and to educate current and future generations about the First World War and the mistakes that were made in order that we are able to learn from them.
It isn’t a celebration but that doesn’t mean we should not be rightly proud of the men from our area who fought on battleships, flew with the fledgling RAF or smashed through the Hindenberg Line in September 1918 – helping to shorten the war and, in doing so, saved countless lives.
Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel