Please help us to honour Our Heroes of 2014

Jonny Wilkes and Rachel Shenton with previous Child of Courage winner Corey Stephens-Goodall.

Jonny Wilkes and Rachel Shenton with previous Child of Courage winner Corey Stephens-Goodall.

It was back in early 2006 when I sat down with the then Editor of The Sentinel and we talked about creating a community awards campaign.

We kicked around some ideas for categories, thought about how the awards ceremony would work and finally came up with a name.

Nine years on and Our Heroes is firmly established as this newspaper’s flagship annual community event.

On September 25 an array of TV, stage and sporting stars and a host of civic dignitaries will gather on the red carpet to pay tribute to a remarkable group of individuals highlighted through our news pages.

Ask celebrities such as Jonny Wilkes, Nick Hancock, Rachel Shenton, Gordon Banks OBE and Olympic gold medallist Imran Sherwani and they will tell you that the Our Heroes Awards do is an incredibly humbling and grounding experience which makes all those in attendance feel extremely proud of our patch.

Every day now until July 31 you can read inspirational and humbling human interest stories in The Sentinel as we shine a light on each award nominee.

They range from children of courage and bright young things to charity fund-raisers, volunteers and carers, good neighbours and community groups. They include school stars and heroes of the NHS as well as emergency services and Armed Forces personnel who go beyond the call of duty.

Since 2006 we have published more than 1,000 Our Heroes nominations and more than 2,000 people have attended the gala awards dinner.

Previous award recipients have included foster carers, charity fund-raisers, paramedics, policemen and women, firefighters, soldiers, aspiring performers, doctors, nurses, receptionists, teachers, school caretakers and residents’ associations.

Winners have included cancer drug campaigners, the Women Fighting for Herceptin; courageous youngsters including meningitis sufferer Ellie-Mae Mellor and Caudwell Children ambassador Tilly Griffiths; ‘tin can man’ John Leese MBE who raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for Dougie Mac; and even the Staffordshire Regiment (now 3Mercian).

The local media is often criticised for focusing on the negative in society and fixating on bad news.

Our Heroes rather disproves that notion because it gets under the skin of the daily acts of kindness, bravery and selflessness shown by so many people in North Staffordshire and South Cheshire.

It’s not a campaign which will sell us thousands of extra newspapers but the goodwill and pride generated by highlighting all these amazing individuals is priceless.

The Our Heroes Awards is exactly what a local newspaper should be doing – a genuine antidote to all the hardship and misery, all the stories about deaths, crime, accidents, deprivation and job losses.

Each tale is inherently positive and highlights an unsung hero, heroine or group who perhaps otherwise would receive no recognition for their extraordinary lives.

And therein, of course, lies the problem for my colleagues and I which is that those nominated for an Our Heroes Award don’t believe what they do – day-in, day-out – is unusual.

It’s our job to convince them otherwise and to show them how special they really are.

In order to do that, however, we need your help. If you know someone, or a group, who deserves recognition then please just take a moment to pick up the telephone or email one of the reporters tasked with looking after a particular category.

Please help us to honour those who enrich the lives of others. Tell us who Our Heroes for 2014 really are.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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Don’t celebrate, but be proud of what our lads achieved during the Great War

British Tommies in a shallow trench during the Battle of the Somme.

British Tommies in a shallow trench during the Battle of the Somme.

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

My hopes for a happy, healthy and prosperous 2014

Frankie Allen with her mum Karen and Vale legend Peter Swan.

Frankie Allen with her mum Karen and Vale legend Peter Swan.

As we approach December 31, it’s a time to reflect but also to look forward to what 2014 may bring.

Top of my wish list for the New Year is a hope that a little girl from Burslem will move further down the road to recovery.

I’ve not met Francesca Allen but I’m one of the hundreds of people locally who’s done a little bit of fund-raising for her.

In August she was diagnosed with leukaemia and since then her courage and beautiful smile have inspired many of us.

Whatever 2014 brings, let’s hope it is a happier and healthier one for a three-year-old who has touched the hearts of people across the Potteries.

In February pop superstar Robbie Williams turns 40 and here in his home city we’re having a bit of a do to celebrate.

RWFanFest is a month-long festival which honours the achievements of Britain’s top-selling music artist and someone who has given £5 million of his own money away to worthy causes here in North Staffordshire.

There’ll be an exhibition of never-before-seen memorabilia and photographs at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Hanley, a charity gig in aid of the Donna Louise Children’s Hospice, a fans’ art exhibition at Burslem School of Art and bus tours around the ‘Robbie trail’.

That’s not all. Expect a lot more too as Stoke-on-Trent finally embraces its celebrity son. Watch this space…

This year Sentinel readers campaigned hard to help save the name of their local regiment.

The Staffords, or 3Mercian as they are now known, had been under threat from Ministry of Defence cutbacks.

But a 17,000-strong petition taken to 10 Downing Street showed the strength of feeling locally and Army top brass gave a commitment to preserve the name.

Our boys are currently on active service out in Afghanistan so spare a thought for them as you tuck into your left-over turkey and mince pies.

Here’s hoping they can complete their final tour as 3Mercian successfully and ALL return home to their loved ones safely.

Sticking with the military theme, 2014 promises to be a big year for commemorating conflicts.

It marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War and events and initiatives are being planned all over the country.

The Sentinel has a number of special supplements planned – including the re-publishing of interviews with First World War veterans as well as letters from The Front.

We will also be working with a variety of organisations to ensure that the county’s rich military heritage is celebrated.

On that note, June marks 70 years since D-Day and world leaders, veterans and tourists will gather in Normandy to pay tribute to the fallen of arguably the greatest invasion the world has ever seen.

The Sentinel has interviewed surviving veterans from all three branches of the services – both for the newspaper and on film for our website – and will be producing a souvenir pull-out to coincide with the anniversary.

Regular readers of this column will know I’m a big believer in celebrating our heritage and so I’ll be supporting Fenton residents in their campaign to save Fenton Town Hall and its unique Great War Memorial.

The fight has already received the backing of celebrities including Stephen Fry, and thousands of people have signed a petition calling for the building to be returned to public ownership rather than sold off to a private buyer by the Ministry of Justice.

Let’s hope justice prevails and the people of Fenton are allowed to retain this civic gem in 2014.

I’ll also be doing my bit in the New Year to help raise the profile of RW388.

That’s the serial number of the city’s Mark XVI Spitfire, housed in the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, which is in urgent need of some tender loving care.

Here in the birthplace of its designer Reginald Mitchell, I think it’s vital we do all we can to help restore and conserve this wonderful aircraft for future generations.

Expect plenty of coverage of the battle to save RW388 in The Sentinel and, if you want to make a contribution, you can pick up a copy of a fund-raising Spitfire calendar comprising terrific archive photographs from our reception, priced at £7.99.

If you do pop up to Hanley you’ll notice that work on the much-maligned Central Business District continues apace.

Given that I can’t see the powers-that-be at the council changing their mind about plans for the city centre, I just hope the CBD progresses quickly and there is movement on the long-awaited City Sentral shopping development.

I’m not holding my breath for the latter, given the delays and curious lack of communication from the developers but perhaps we will see a scaled-down version of the original plans. Anything would be better than nothing at this stage.

Turning to sport, I’d like to wish Peter Coates and Stoke City all the best for the remainder of the season.

Potters manager Mark Hughes is lucky to have such a passionate and reasonable bloke at the helm – one who will give him the time and resources to mould his own team in the hope of taking them to the next level.

Meanwhile, at my beloved Port Vale my only wish is for a period of stability – or rather, an end to any financial uncertainty.

Fingers crossed Micky Adams signs a new deal, anyone who is owed any money by the club gets paid, and Vale fans are given closure with regard to the activities of certain individuals who brought the club to its knees in 2012.

I know I speak for The Sentinel when I wish chairman Norman Smurthwaite and his team all the best for a successful and prosperous 2014 – hopefully free of media bans and full of goodwill to all fans… and journalists.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

It’s good that, at last, we are giving due recognition to our Armed Forces

Mercian Regiment emblem.

Mercian Regiment emblem.

I don’t have a personal connection with 3Mercian, or The Staffords, as we call them in these parts.

Not unless you count the fact that my great-grandfather was with the North Staffords, fighting in France during the First World War.

Or the fact that the last commanding officer of The Staffords, before they became 3Mercian, is a mate of mine.

But I’ve always felt an enormous sense of pride in our local regiment, in its history and honours, and in the lads who don the uniform and do what must be one of the toughest jobs imaginable.

That was why I thought it was so important that we fought to save the name of The Staffords earlier this year when Ministry of Defence (MoD) cutbacks almost led to the name being erased from the Army’s Order of Battle.

During the summer I took my girls to the Staffordshire Regiment Museum at Lichfield.

We enjoyed looking at all the exhibits – from Great War machine guns, Waterloo colours and battle dioramas to medals for valour and the terrific Coltman VC Trench – a faithful recreation of a WWI frontline British trench, complete with sound effects.

What came across to me during that visit was that The Staffords is, and always has been, a collection of remarkable individuals, rather than simply a regiment or a unit – each man as important as the next.

When the news broke on Tuesday evening that one of the lads from 3Mercian had been killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan I experienced a strange mixture of emotions.

I found it incredible that anyone would be mad enough to do such a thing.

I felt desperately sad about such a tragic waste of life and the heartache that it will bring to the soldier’s family and friends.

I also felt enormous pride at being reminded that the fallen Stafford and his comrades have been out there in Helmand again, gutsing it out, and under no illusion that they may have to make the ultimate sacrifice for Queen and country.

Warrant Officer Class 2 Ian Fisher, who lived in Werrington, was killed doing the job he loved in the certain knowledge that his family and friends were justly proud of the man he was.

The loss of any British soldier is an absolute tragedy but it will always be felt more keenly in the areas where recruiting for his unit is strongest and that bond with a city, town or county will, to my mind, always be priceless.

That we view them as ‘Our Boys’ (or girls) has to be a good thing.

It is good to know then that this newspaper has always supported our troops – from as far back as the Zulu Wars to last week’s update on operations in Helmand province.

I’m told that soldiers on operational tours love to hear news from back home, whether that’s Stoke and Vale results or the stuff of day-to-day life that fills the column inches of The Sentinel Monday to Saturday.

By the same token, our readers – not simply relatives and friends of services personnel – are genuinely fascinated by the work they do and love to read about local lads ‘doing their bit’, as we say round here.

It’s a mutually-beneficial relationship and one which I value enormously. Long may it continue.

Last night I was asked to officiate at the signing of the local Armed Forces Community Covenant at the in Stoke.

This is an MoD initiative whereby local authorities across the country pledge to do more, in conjunction with other organisations (and, ultimately local businesses), to offer help and support to ex-services personnel who settle in the area.

This help and support can include guarantees to give job interviews, provide assistance with benefits and housing needs and generally help ease the transition from military life to a civilian one.

It was pleasing to see so many people at the King’s Hall last night and to hear that so many local organisations are prepared to give a virtual hug to some very worthwhile individuals who have served their country.

It is well documented that ex-services personnel, given the demands of their unique roles, often find it hard to adjust from military to civilian life, put down roots or start a new career.

In my view the least we can do, as a society and – more pertinently – as a city and county, is to offer them our full support and acknowledge the debt of gratitude we owe for the job they’ve done.

I’ve always felt that we should be more like America in our attitude towards services personnel.

The job they do is extraordinary and it is one which, in truth, very few of us are cut out for.

Perhaps, at last, we are starting to recognise this.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

Our proud links with the Staffords must never be severed

In September of 1918 another stalemate loomed in the War To End All Wars.

The German Army had retreated behind the Hindenberg Line – a vast system of defences in Northeastern France stretching from Lens to Verdun.

Fortifications included concrete bunkers and machine gun emplacements, masses of barbed wire, tunnels, deep trenches, dug-outs and command posts.

Built by Russian prisoners of war, it was considered nigh on impregnable by the German commanding officer – General Ludendorff.

However, he hadn’t factored in the men of the British 46th (North Midland) Division.

On the morning of September 29, under the cover of a dense blanket of fog, the men of the North and South Staffords – together with their brothers in arms from Leicestershire and Derbyshire – formed up and fixed bayonets for what seemed to many to be an attack that couldn’t possibly succeed.

They had to wade across a wide waterway – the St. Quentin Canal – and faced 5,300 Germans in heavily fortified positions.

But just over three hours later the Staffords and their comrades had completed all their objectives – smashing a hole in Hindenberg Line and ultimately penetrating 6,000 yards into enemy territory.

On that day the 46th Division captured 4,200 prisoners and around 70 guns and suffered less than 600 casualties which, given the enormity of the achievement, could be classed as nothing short of miraculous.

This spectacular success, the breaching of the German Army’s last line of defence on the Western Front, undoubtedly shortened the Great War and saved countless lives.

What’s more, it was potters and miners from our neck of the woods who were instrumental in that decisive blow.

Men of the Staffords.

Fast forward now a quarter of a century and the 2nd Battalion (South Staffords) is part of the 1st Airlanding Brigade which arrives in North Africa and routes a battalion of crack German paratroopers.

Two years later, in September 1944, a butcher from Burslem by the name of John ‘Jack’ Baskeyfield wins a Victoria Cross for his actions in the Battle of Arnhem.

While defending the Oosterbeek perimeter three days into the battle, Lance-Sergeant Baskeyfield commanded a pair of anti tank guns that destroyed several enemy tanks before their crews were killed.

Despite being badly wounded himself he crawled from one destroyed gun to another and continued to fire upon the advancing German armour before he was killed. His body was never found.

Jack Baskeyfield VC served with the 2nd Battalion, the South Staffordshire Regiment.

His comrades in the 1st Battalion, South Staffords, formed part of the Chindit Force which flew into Burma in 1944 and were never defeated in a series of battles against the fearless Japanese.

Some 30 years later, at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Staffords establish for themselves a reputation as firm but fair peace-keepers. It leads one veteran helicopter pilot to describe them as ‘better than the Marines and the Paras’ at the difficult helicopter missions around Armagh where road travel was impossible.

More recently, during the Iraq War the Staffordshire Regiment was posted to the hot spots of Al Amarah and Basra where the lads were attacked, as their C.O. told me, ‘on an almost daily basis’ by insurgents.

Their textbook Christmas Day raid on the infamous Al Jameat Police Station on Christmas Day 2006 made headlines across the world.

That year the regiment was voted BBC Midlander of the Year by television viewers and in 2007 the Staffords picked up The Sentinel Editor’s Award just months before they became part of the Mercian Regiment.

These are mere glimpses into the long and distinguished history of our local regiment.

However, they perhaps go some way to explaining the response of the people of North Staffordshire to the Ministry of Defence’s decision to disband 3Mercian.

Most people in the Potteries know someone, a relative or a friend, who has served or is currently serving with the Staffords.

This has been a fertile recruiting ground for the Army and North Staffordshire has a proud history of producing fighting men.

In September 2007 General Sir Richard Dannatt was espousing the need for the British public to better support our Armed Forces personnel.

What perhaps he didn’t know was that 12 months earlier the people of North Staffordshire, through The Sentinel newspaper, were sending boxes of treats to Staffordshire Regiment soldiers on the frontline in Iraq as part of our Operation Christmas Cheer campaign.

On their return from operations, Staffordshire Regiment soldiers were invited to watch Stoke City and Port Vale matches free of charge – long before it became commonplace for football clubs to show their appreciation of what our Armed Forces were doing for us overseas.

Our current campaign – entitled ‘Save Our Staffords’ – has attracted more than 10,000 signatures in less than two weeks.

It has touched a chord with young and old alike and not simply ex-service personnel or people who have direct links with 3Mercian.

So we have a rich heritage and hopefully that will count for something in the coming weeks as Army top brass sit down to plan the reorganisation of the Mercian Regiment.

But if it doesn’t then I would just ask the powers-that-be the following questions:

Why should an 18-year-old from Stoke-on-Trent, Newcastle or the Staffordshire Moorlands in the coming years choose to join the Mercian Regiment over say The Rifles or any other another unit which seems to offer greater possibilities?

If our proud local links with the military are severed why should young recruits from our patch or the people of North Staffordshire consider what’s left of the Mercian Regiment as their local unit?

I would suggest those charged with reorganising the Mercian Regiment don’t put themselves into a position where these questions need answering.

The Staffords are our boys and that precious name must be saved.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel