Why Fenton and our city need the Town Hall and memorial to be saved

The Great War memorial inside Fenton Town Hall.

The Great War memorial inside Fenton Town Hall.

Tomorrow the first of The Sentinel’s four Great War centenary supplements is published and I can honestly say it has been a privilege to be involved in the project.

Occasions like this, when we are required to delve deep into the newspaper’s archives are rare, and the process has thrown up some astonishing tales, some wonderful images and – I have to say – some terrific writing by my predecessors.

Slowly but surely the 100th anniversary of the start of the ‘War to end all wars’ is seeping into the nation’s consciousness and here in North Staffordshire we are uncovering just how the conflict changed lives forever.

It was a war which altered Britain beyond imagining and had a dramatic and often devastating effect on communities and families across the land.

Among them, of course, were the 498 men of Fenton who paid the ultimate price for serving King and country and whose names are recorded on the unique Minton Hollins tiled memorial inside Fenton Town Hall.

For many of those brave souls that memorial is, to all intents and purposes, their grave marker.

They include Frederick Heath, of Mill Street, Fenton, who historians recently credited as being the soldier most likely to have written the definitive account of the famous ‘Christmas Truce’ of 1914.

Sadly, in the year that some of the £50 million the Government has set aside starts to be spent on a variety of projects to commemorate the Great War, this memorial – and indeed the building which houses it – remain under serious threat.

Fenton Town Hall, created for and bequeathed to the people of Fenton, is up for grabs with a price tag of around £500,000.

A moratorium on its sale has just expired and campaigners seeking what is snappily-titled a ‘community asset transfer’ are concerned that officials at the Ministry of Justice – which somehow acquired the building during its time as a magistrates’ court – have gone awfully quiet all of a sudden.

The positive meeting which took place in December between the Friends of Fenton Town Hall and the man who will ultimately decide the building’s fate gave everyone hope that Whitehall’s bureaucrats were perhaps listening at last.

After all, a 10,000-signature petition calling on the building to be given back to the community was handed in at Downing Street late last year and campaigners have, to their credit, made an awful lot of noise.

Even the national treasure that is Stephen Fry Tweeted his support for their cause.

But having been fobbed off for weeks now I can understand why campaigners are growing increasingly worried that this historically important building may be sold off from under their noses.

If that were to happen then, irrespective of any protection order placed on the memorial as a condition of sale, its safety could simply not be guaranteed.

Also, I suspect it is unlikely new owners would want members of the public trooping up their stairs to view the memorial or pay their respects to relatives.

I find it hard to understand why the cenotaph outside Fenton Town Hall – which links directly to the memorial inside – was given listed status and yet the unique tiled memorial was not.

Sadly, a man with a clipboard from English Heritage decided not to list Fenton Town Hall and, therefore, its interior – including the Minton tiling and the memorial itself – is unprotected.

I am in full agreement with campaigners and the Victorian Society who are urging the MoJ to work with Stoke-on-Trent City Council to find a new role for Fenton Town Hall which ensures that its vaulted chamber and First World War memorial remain intact and accessible to the public.

I believe the town and people of Fenton need this building as a focal point. The city owes it to philanthropist William Meath Baker who built it, and to the men whose names are listed on the memorial inside, to preserve it for future generations.

How can we, in all good conscience, sit idly by and allow it to be sold off in the year when we commemorate the centenary of the start of the First World War?

Wouldn’t it be great if the city’s MPs and the city council could help to broker some sort of deal whereby the campaigners – and indeed the people of Fenton – were given a chance to resurrect the Town Hall for community use?

The campaigners are doing their bit and I would suggest it is time for the powers-that-be to stand up and be counted.

Ultimately, of course, the decision on the building’s fate lies with civil servants in Whitehall.

The department these taxpayer-funded civil servants work for is called the Ministry of Justice. So let’s see some justice for the 498 men of Fenton who gave their lives in pursuit of the freedoms we all enjoy today.

*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

Time to back sure-fire winners which matter to our Six Towns

The Sentinel's front page reporting the £20m city council cutbacks.

The Sentinel’s front page reporting the £20m city council cutbacks.

When you’re staring down the barrel of £20 million cuts, every penny really does count.

The truth is that because of the way the squeeze is being applied to local authorities, in a few short years practically all they will be responsible for will be the most basic of statutory services.

What that means is the non-essential stuff inevitably diminishes or is lost altogether.

Departments such as sport and leisure and facilities like museums and libraries will see their budgets scaled back enormously as councillors focus on what they have to deliver by law.

So the street lights will stay on, bins will be emptied, children’s services and adult social care will be ring-fenced. But in all honesty virtually everything else local authorities are responsible for will be up for discussion.

Here in Stoke-on-Trent, where the public sector cutbacks are being felt as keenly as any other city in the UK, councillors have attempted in recent years to protect frontline services as Whitehall has slashed and burned.

Now there’s very little wriggle-room left and how the comparatively small amount of money which doesn’t cover the costs of essential services is spent, will come under greater scrutiny than ever before.

Things like the British Ceramics Biennial (BCB), hosting the Tour Series cycle ride events, the staging of summer pop concerts or the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Awards will all have to be carefully considered.

The problem is they cost money. Some cost a lot more than you’d think. And taxpayers will want to know there is a tangible benefit to the city in staging or hosting such events.

They will want to know what is gained from them. They will ask about the benefits of having highlights of a bicycle race which starts in the city being shown on ITV4. Does it really boost trade in the city centre and has there been a huge spike in the numbers of people cycling locally?

Is it better instead to continue with a 39-year tradition of honouring local sportsmen and women and inspiring future stars from our patch with an event which is a fraction of the cost?

Taxpayers will want to know how the BCB, an event which most people in the city don’t understand, don’t know is happening and will never attend, helps to raise the profile of the city.

More to the point, they will ask how pottery manufacturers who employ local people benefit from it in terms of increased sales and new contracts.

They will want to know if it really is worth paying hundreds of thousands of pounds towards the cost of a garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

Does it really help to attract investment? If so, they will say, then show us the money.

We really will have to get down to brass tacks now because the time for gambles and indulgences is over.

It is time instead to back sure-fire winners and to protect the things which really matter to people here in the Six Towns. It is time to safeguard things like free admission to the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery which houses exhibits such as the priceless Staffordshire Hoard, the city’s Spitfire and an unrivalled, world-class collection of ceramics.

Now isn’t the time to start charging admission fees for somewhere like this. Instead, let’s make the museum the best it can possibly be – somewhere tourists marvel at and people boast about.

Let’s put in place plans to protect the fabulous Mitchell Youth Arts Centre, The Regent theatre, the Victoria Hall and Bethesda Chapel because, let’s face it, without them there would be no such thing as a ‘Cultural Quarter’.

Let’s protect the libraries which have chronicled local life for decades – places where the less well-off, the students and mums with young children can congregate to laugh and learn.

Let’s invest in the people of the Potteries – from better pitches for the Ladsandads leagues and better facilities for am-dram productions to making the tradition that is the Potters’ Arf bigger and better.

Let’s shout about Robbie Williams and Sir Stan and Reginald Mitchell and Arnold Bennett and all the greats our city has produced.

Let’s be proud of our history and heritage and fight to protect buildings like the deteriorating Wedgwood Big House in Burslem or the under-threat Fenton Town Hall with its unique Great War memorial.

Personally, I‘d far rather money be spent on giving the people of Fenton a focal point for events in their town than paying a company from outside the city to create a short-lived garden in London that none of us will ever see.

To my mind, if we want others to invest in our city then we need to polish what we have across the Six Towns rather than putting all our eggs in Hanley’s basket and spending money on vanity projects which yield little in the way of results.

It’s time we started looking after our own and trumpeting the wonderful assets Stoke-on-Trent has which other cities would be making a virtue of.

One thing’s for sure: If we don’t, no-one else will.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Friday.

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

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

Act now to preserve historic town hall and Fenton’s unique war memorial

The Great War memorial inside Fenton Town Hall.

The Great War memorial inside Fenton Town Hall.

I received an email, out of the blue, at two minutes past four on Sunday morning.

It was sent by a man I don’t know on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean who wanted me to pass on a message of solidarity to people here in the Potteries.

Ryan Daniels is a teacher who lives in Braintree, Massachusetts.

He had spotted a video on the internet and was moved to contact The Sentinel to give his best wishes to campaigners here in Stoke-on-Trent who are campaigning to save Fenton Town Hall.

I say save because I genuinely fear for the future of this historic building, and its hidden treasures, if Fenton Community Association loses its fight.

As we approach the centenary commemorations of the start of the Great War, Ryan Daniels is one of those who is fearful that our city is about to lose something very precious indeed.

For inside Fenton Town Hall is a memorial to hundreds of men from Fenton who gave their lives for King and country during the First World War.

It is a memorial that very few people will actually have seen – unless, that is, you have had cause within the last 40 years or so to visit what was the City Magistrates’ Court.

The large plaque, made from Minton tiles, features the name of almost 500 men from the town and was commissioned just a few years after the war ended as a permanent memorial to their ultimate sacrifice.

They are names that will be familiar to Sentinel readers. Among many others, there’s an Abberley, a Bourne, a Clewlow, a Colclough, a Cope, a Durose, an Egerton, two Finneys, a Goodwin, a Holdcroft, a Meakin, a Mottram and a Povey.

The list goes on and on. All common Stokie names. All names you’ll recognise.

But you can’t visit this memorial that so few have seen because since the Ministry of Justice relocated its magistrates’ court to Newcastle-under-Lyme, Fenton Town Hall has been closed to the public.

It is now up for sale and campaigners face the daunting task of trying to raise £500,000 in just six months to purchase the building under the auspices of a community trust.

They would like to make it a focal point for the community once more. They would like local businesses to operate from inside the town hall.

But first they have to persuade the city council and the Ministry of Justice that the previous use of the building known to Sentinel hacks as ‘Fenton mags’, benefited the local community.

Given its history, I fail to see how Fenton Town Hall can be viewed as anything other than a building which has served the people of the Potteries for generations.
But perhaps that’s just me.

All that said, could it really be that the Ministry of Justice is still about to visit a great injustice on the people of Fenton and our city as a whole?

As the bean counters in Whitehall attempt to raise whatever funds they can through the sale of public assets, one has to fear for the future of the memorial.

Imagine it being bulldozed to make way for, perhaps, housing or new retail premises.

As it stands, these are very real possibilities.

Let us not forget that it is only by a quirk of fate that Fenton Town Hall finds itself in such a precarious position.

Some 10 years ago the building which brought all of the city’s magistrates’ courts under one roof in 1968, passed from local ownership to that of the state.

Suddenly, the future of one of Stoke-on-Trent’s six town halls was no longer in the hands of local people or even the local authority.

To make matters worse, Fenton Town Hall isn’t even a listed building.

Why? Because a man with a clipboard – a man perhaps used to grander architecture than this ‘portly’ Gothic edifice in red brick and stone and without a feel for the history of our city – once said so.

Personally speaking, I find it hard to conceive of a Potteries where one of the Six Towns doesn’t have a town hall – an iconic civic building to call its own.

The building of Fenton Town Hall in 1889 was funded at a cost of £6,000 by local pottery owner and philanthropist William Meath Baker.

It suppose it was no real surprise when it was chosen three decades later as the location for the impressive, tiled Great War memorial.

Fentonians of the day would doubtless have considered this a building that would last for many hundreds of years.

Yet here we are in 2013 with a huge black cloud hanging over the town hall and its hidden war memorial.

As we turn our thoughts towards commemorations for the Great War, I find it inconceivable that anyone would wish to dismantle or move this tribute to the fallen.

I hope you feel the same and are moved to sign the petition to help protect it and thereby honour the men immortalised by that long, sad roll call.

I will leave the final words to my new American friend Ryan Daniels whose great, great grandfather fought in France with a U.S. cavalry regiment during 1917-18 and, unlike the men on the Fenton memorial, was fortunate enough to make it home.

Ryan wrote: ‘I suppose I am sending this email to show that complete strangers separated by a vast ocean do care and wish goodwill to the people of Fenton in their struggle to preserve this vital piece of UK history’.

Sign the petition at: http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/stop-the-desecration-of-this-great-war-memorial

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.