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

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Time is running out to save Fenton Town Hall and its unique memorial

The Great War memorial inside Fenton Town Hall.

The Great War memorial inside Fenton Town Hall.

In less than two weeks’ time a group of campaigners from Stoke-on-Trent will take a trip to London to hand in a petition at 10 Downing Street.

This symbolic gesture is hugely significant because it takes the fight to protect and preserve what I believe is one of the city’s most important buildings to the heart of Government.

Last year Prime Minister David Cameron committed more than £50 million to commemorations of the Great War – including millions of pounds to encourage young people to learn about the conflict.

Consider then the irony of the fact that, as the nation gears up for four years of events to mark the ‘war to end all wars’, here in Stoke-on-Trent we are having to wage a battle to save a building which is inextricably linked to the First World War.

You see, despite what anyone says, the reality is Fenton Town Hall – and its Great War Memorial composed of Minton tiles – are under serious threat.

There’s a £500,000 price tag on the building which is now owned by the Ministry of Justice.

How it came to pass that the fate of a building bequeathed to the people of Stoke-on-Trent should rest with a Whitehall department is beyond me.

Yes, the future of Fenton Town Hall – for more than 40 years the central hub for North Staffordshire Magistrates – will not be decided upon by local people or even the local authority.

Rather it will be at the whim of civil servants who have no knowledge of the building or its heritage and no affinity with our city.

Civil servants presumably akin to the man with a clipboard who decided, inexplicably, a few years back that this historic gem wasn’t worthy of Listed Building status.

Since the Fenton498 campaign was launched a few months ago, more than 7,500 people have signed a petition to stop the desecration of the Great War Memorial inside the building.

The number 498 is important because that is how many local lads killed in the First World War are named on that tiled memorial inside a building none of us are allowed to enter.

The impressive memorial – which links directly to the cenotaph in the square which Fenton Town Hall dominates – was funded by local people who presumably thought it would stand the test of time.

But while the Ministry of Justice has given assurances that the memorial will be ‘preserved’ no matter what the future holds for the building, I – and those campaigning to have Fenton Town Hall transferred into community ownership – remain unconvinced.

For starters, if a private concern was to purchase the building I am not even sure this organisation would guarantee access for the public to allow people to pay their respects to the fallen – let alone look after the memorial it inherits.

The harsh truth here is that everyone on the fringes of this campaign is waiting for someone else to take a decision. The question is: Who will blink first?

Rest assured our MPs are well aware of what’s at stake. Officers at the city council seem at a loss to know which way to jump.

All the while a small band of campaigners are trying desperately to make their voices heard – stressing the importance of the building and its memorial while underlining the fact that Fenton really needs a community facility such as this.

Of course, the fight to save Fenton Town Hall and its Great War Memorial isn’t just about Fenton.

It’s about our city as whole and what we, as a wider society, think is important.

I, for one, think it’s vital to remember the sacrifices of past generations. I also think it’s crucial that future generations have impressive civic buildings of which they can be proud and in which they can come together.

In some respects, Fenton Town Hall can be considered a grave and, as such, I believe we should accord it due respect.

One of the campaigners travelling down to London on October 20 is Jane Jones, whose great-grandfather Ernest Heapy’s name is on the memorial.

I’d like to think that as the Great War commemorations begin Jane, and anyone else who wants to, can visit this breath-taking memorial to say thank you for his supreme sacrifice. If you agree with me, please make your voice heard.

*To sign the petition, log on to: http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/stop-the-desecration-of-fenton-great-war-memorial-1914-1918

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Time to pay our respects and celebrate the Tommies’ victories

Poppies to symbolise the fallen.

Poppies to symbolise the fallen.

As someone who strongly advocates that we do more to teach younger generations about historical conflicts and the sacrifices of previous generations, I am following plans for the centenary commemorations of the Great War – both locally and nationally – with interest.
Next year, on August 4, it will be exactly 100 years since Britain entered the first truly global war which led to the loss of 16 million lives.
It was carnage on an unimaginable scale: A conflict which changed the face of warfare forever.
It ended after four years with harsh reparations for the defeated Germany which, many historians have argued, sowed the seeds for the country’s militarisation under Hitler just over a decade later and contributed directly to the outbreak Second World War.
In recent years we have watched as the last surviving veterans of the conflict, such as Harry Patch – dubbed ‘The Last Fighting Tommy’ – slipped quietly away.
There are very few people still with us who recall those momentous days of the early 20th Century and those who remain were but children at the time their brothers, fathers, grandfathers and uncles went to fight overseas.
Thus the emphasis really is now on us, the Great British public, to determine how we mark the centenary of the First World War – its major battles and milestones.
In Whitehall, a committee under the umbrella of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is overseeing the planning of our centenary events.
The word is that the powers-that-be are split over how to strike the right tone for these commemorations.
In one camp, as it were, are those who believe we mustn’t upset the Germans by being too triumphalistic and say we should avoid a ‘VE-Day-like’ celebration.
There are even those who argue that Britain and its allies did not, in fact, win the war at all as an armistice was signed and therefore we have nothing to celebrate.
I am very clear in my own mind that Great War commemorations in the coming years must not be simply Remembrance Day will bells on.
I believe the centenary provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to highlight this country’s role in the conflict – both the good and the bad.
No amount of spin can persuade me that Britain and its allies didn’t ‘win’ the First World War and to my mind that fact, and the major battles of the conflict, must be properly commemorated.
You see, I had it drummed in to me by the most excellent Geoff Ball, head of history at Holden Lane High School, that Germany was forced to disarm, give up vast swathes of territory and pay heavy reparations precisely because it lost the war and the allies were able to dictate the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.
Remarkably, I can still recall that the region of Alsace-Lorraine was ceded by Germany to France and that Northern Schleswig was returned to Denmark after a plebiscite – along with other stuff about the size of Germany’s army being limited and the Kaiser being a very naughty man.
I’m hoping that the teaching of GCSE history hasn’t changed too much in the last 25 years.
I’d like to think that, like me, pupils in UK classrooms still learn about the Treaty of Versailles and leave school having come to the conclusion that Britain was indeed among the victors.
Equally importantly, I hope they leave school with something of a grasp of the incredible period in our history which their great, great (great) grandparents lived through.
I hope they appreciate how young lads of a similar age to today’s school-leavers had to go ‘over the top’ and face almost certain death at the hands of merciless machine guns.
Irrespective of the reasons for the Great War and irrespective of political failings or the failings of military commanders during the conflict, the courage and sacrifice of the combatants must celebrated along with their victories.
The sense of liberation and the outpouring of joy at the end of ‘The War To End All Wars’ was certainly equal to that felt by those living in this country and across the continent at the cessation of hostilities in Europe in 1945.
The centenary of the battles of Gallipoli, the Somme, Jutland and Passchendaele should be marked properly and the remarkable achievements of British soldiers, sailors and airmen should be honoured above any concerns over how our modern-day EU partners may feel.
‘Bugger that’, as any of the millions of Tommies might have said as they stood knee-deep in the freezing mud of the trenches.
We should, of course, never forget the role of our forefathers from this neck of the woods throughout the Great War.
We should remember that in September 1918 it was the men of the North and South Staffords – together with their brothers in arms from Leicestershire and Derbyshire – who changed the course of the war.
On that day the 46th Division smashed a hole in the Hindenberg Line and captured 4,200 prisoners and around 70 guns – undoubtedly shortening the conflict and saving countless lives.
I, for one, think that is a victory worth celebrating as part of centenary commemorations for a war this country should not be ashamed of having won.
This isn’t about triumphalism.
It is about recognising that a British generation not so far removed from ourselves went through indescribable horrors and came out victorious.
It is about showing that generation some respect.