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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History at our fingertips and we’ll never see the like again…

My friends with a U.S. Sherman tank at the Airborne museum in Sainte-Mère-Église.

My friends with a U.S. Sherman tank at the Airborne museum in Sainte-Mère-Église.

Earlier this week I walked in the footsteps of legends on a pilgrimage that millions before me have made.

In June of next year the places I visited with four friends will be rammed with tourists – that is when they are not entertaining heads of state.

The beaches, museums and towns of northern France will be filled with veterans, their families, and Armed Forces personnel paying their own tributes to those who fought and died on D-Day.

A few days ago my friends and I had these places, quite literally, to ourselves which was a genuine privilege.

At the age of 41, and as a student of military history, I’m just old enough to appreciate the significance of the Normandy Landings and their place in history.

As a child during the Seventies and early Eighties I was fascinated by black and white war films such as The Longest Day which were often shown on telly on a Sunday afternoon or around Christmas time.

Ask my mum and she’ll tell you I spent hours re-enacting battles with toy soldiers in our house and garden or drawing pictures of tanks, paratroopers, Spitfires and Messerschmitts.

My history teacher at Holden Lane High, Geoff Ball, had all sorts of militaria in his classroom which helped to bring the Second World War to life for me.

As each Remembrance Day came around I’d watch as the ranks of veterans in their mid-sixties would file past cenotaphs paying tribute to fallen comrades.

For me, the Second World War has always loomed large in my consciousness because my grandparents’ generation lived through it and I was able to talk to them about everything from rationing to Churchill.

I’ve lived through various conflicts – the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan – but nothing like the global war which engulfed Europe between 1939 and 1945.

I find it remarkable that in 1940 Britain stood alone against the all-conquering Nazis and that the world could so easily have been a very different place to the one we now know had it not been for the RAF, a certain Reginald Mitchell and his wonderful fighter plane, and a large slice of luck.

For me, the amazing thing is that you can still see and touch this part of our history.

You can visit our city’s Spitfire in the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery. You can still see some of the tanks and other period hardware at museums or vintage rallies.

Re-enactment societies dress up in 1940s clothing and dance the night away to big band tunes.

Television networks like HBO in America have produced exceptional series such as Band of Brothers and The Pacific which have portrayed the conflict like never before with true stories of those who fought in Europe and the Far East.

You can also do what me and my mates did and visit Normandy – a place where the landscape is still dotted with reminders of the greatest sea-borne invasion the world has ever seen.

Visit Arromanches (Gold Beach) like we did and you can see landing craft, pontoon bridges and the remains of the remarkable engineering feat that was the floating Mulberry Harbour which kept almost two million Allied troops supplied during their push into France.

Step into the D-Day Museum just off the beach and one of the first things you’ll spot on the wall to your left is a plaque dedicated to the men of the Cheshire Regiment who fought and died on June 6, 1944.

Visit the Arromanches 360º museum on top of the hill and watch a remarkable video presentation featuring archive footage from all nationalities involved in the conflict in glorious, evocative HD in a nine-screen circular cinema.

Drive past the sign for Omaha Beach where more than 4,000 American soldiers were killed or wounded in just a few hours as they disembarked from landing craft to be met with murderous machine gun fire.

Travel a little way in land, as we did, to the little market town of Sainte-Mère-Église – a key strategic objective for American paratroopers in the hours before the Normandy Landings began – and where a parachute and mannequin still hang from the famous church spire.

This is the town where you’ll find the inspirational museum dedicated to the men of the 101st and 82nd Airborne regiments – complete with an actual C47 Dakota aircraft and Waco glider which transported them across the Channel.

Modern-day Normandy is dotted with shrines, monuments and militaria such as gun emplacements and vehicles which have stood the test of time.

It is an area inextricably linked with the fight for freedom.

D-Day was an operation so large and ridiculously complex that the more you learn the more you come to realise it was astonishing that the Germans were caught by surprise.

These days as a nation we, quite rightly, pay due homage to the men and women of our Armed Forces who risk their lives daily in conflicts overseas.

When we lose one of them, as with the recent death of Warrant Officer (Class 2) Ian Fisher, there is a collective sense of grief and these sacrifices are mentioned in Parliament.

But in June 1944 those who went into battle did so knowing that it could be weeks before their loved ones back home would know of the success or otherwise of their actions – or indeed whether or not they had lived through D-Day and its aftermath.

The 10,000 plus Allied casualties on day one alone are unfathomable in today’s theatres of war where smart bombs, stealth bombers, drones and technology have mercifully reduced the numbers of dead and injured.

With each passing year the number of Normandy veterans grows ever smaller. Make no mistake we mark the passing of a special generation – the likes of which we will never see again.

*The Sentinel is planning a special 70th anniversary souvenir supplement which will include interviews with a dozen local survivors of D-Day. Tell us your stories of D-Day by emailing: martin.tideswell@thesentinel.co.uk or calling 01782 864412.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

RAF’s returning Afghan heroes to lead Vale stars out on to pitch

Port Vale is rolling out the red carpet for two servicemen who recently returned from war-torn Afghanistan.

Corporal Steve Buffey and his pal Senior Aircraftman (SAC) Pete Blakeman will have the honour of leading out the teams before tomorrow night’s home game against Dagenham and Redbridge.

Together with their families, the two die-hard Vale supporters will then be treated to a VIP match experience.

The friends are part of the close-knit team in the RAF Tactical Supply Wing which is based at Stafford.

While in Afghanistan, the unit was stationed at Camp Bastion, and was responsible for refuelling battlefield helicopters and Harrier jump jets.

They kept their morale up with regular updates from home on the fortunes of their team and through banter with another member of the team – 22-year-old SAC Alex Haycock, from Sandyford, who is an ardent Stoke City fan.

Father-of-two Cpl Buffey, aged 36, grew up in Kidsgrove but now lives in Stafford.

He is a former Clough Hall High School pupil who joined the RAF 13 years ago after working in the pottery industry.

SAC Blakeman, aged 29, who lives in Cheadle, signed up four years and is due to marry his fiancée Natalie Holdcroft in May of next year.

The idea to treat the RAF personnel to a special night at Vale Park came from users of internet fans’ forum Onevalefan (OVF).

Founder and Editor Rob Fielding explained: “Steve and Pete are users of OVF who had been corresponding with me during their recent tour of Afghanistan.

“The OVF community felt it would be really nice to honour them on their return to the UK and the club have been brilliant about it and really made an effort.

“Fingers crossed the lads can get three points for Steve and Pete.

“We are also going to use the match as an opportunity to raise funds for forces charity Help For Heroes.”

Club Secretary Bill Lodey said: “We were only too happy to help in these circumstances and pay our own special tribute to lads who are risking their lives out in the Middle East.

“We want to give them a night to remember and have other surprises planned too.

“Rob Fielding has volunteered to collect for Help For Heroes from fans in the away end and family members and friends of Cpl Buffey and SAC Blakeman will have collection tins around the other stands.

“It is a very worthy cause and we know that Vale fans will respond with their usual generosity.”

We must stop tinkering with our Armed Forces right now

The injuries suffered by Staffordshire Moorlands soldier Anthony Lownds are a grim reminder that, on a daily basis, somewhere in a foreign field there is generally a British serviceman or woman risking life and limb for Queen and country.

The 24-year-old Grenadier Guard was caught in the blast of an improvised explosive device (IED) planted by the Taliban.

He is currently receiving treatment at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham and has so far had four operations for injuries to his right hand and legs.

My thoughts are with Anthony and his family and friends and I wish him a speedy recovery.

While most of us have been enjoying the patriotic fervour generated by the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and, to a lesser extent, the Olympic Torch Relay, Anthony and his comrades have been unable to relax and join in the celebrations.

As we settle down to watch England’s exploits in Euro 2012, spare a thought for the almost 10,000 members of the British Armed Forces who are demonstrating incredible bravery and commitment day-in, day-out in Afghanistan.

To date, since 2001, 417 British personnel have been killed in operations in the place they called the ‘Graveyard of Empires’.

It is a total that, heart-breakingly, is as sure to rise as the sun over that troubled land.

There are, of course, some who would argue that we should never have sent troops to Afghanistan in the first place – in the same way that we should have kept our noses out of Iraq’s business.

But Britain’s Services personnel don’t have that luxury and always deploy and do their duty, regardless of any personal misgivings they may have, which is what makes them such remarkable people.

That is exactly what they are doing right now in Afghanistan and we should be immensely proud of their efforts in the most difficult of circumstances.

But I wonder how Anthony Lownds and his mates felt when they learned a few days ago of more proposed cutbacks to the regular Army?

Defence Secretary Philip Hammond spoke of ‘difficult decisions’ ahead as the standing Army is reduced from 102,000 personnel to just 82,000.

If you know your military history then you will know that this is significant because an Army used to be defined as being 100,000 strong. Anything less than that figure wasn’t considered an Army.

While the regimental system will not be abolished, Mr Hammond said it was inevitable that some units would be lost or forced to merge.

If the national papers are to believed, one of those units could be our own 3 Mercian – or the Staffordshire Regiment in old money – along with such prestigious names as The Coldstream Guards.

I have to say that, for me, enough really is enough.

For years now I have watched Defence Secretaries slash and burn as they have wittered on about making our Armed Forces more ‘mobile’ and ‘adaptable’.

Always the end result is the same: Fewer boots on the ground; Less hardware; More reliance on reservists or other nations; And, ultimately, less ability to react to crises around the world.

Britannia once ruled the waves. Now we will have to hope we don’t need an aircraft carrier until 2020.

The RAF was once the only thing preventing the whole of Europe from falling under Nazi occupation.

But in Afghanistan it was a chronic shortage of helicopters which actually added to the number of UK casualties.

I could go on. The bottom line is that penny-pinching at the MoD over the last two decades, at the behest of various administrations, has significantly undermined the ability of the UK’s Armed Forces to do its job.

This has happened at a time when the actual number of global conflicts involving British Services personnel has risen.

Where is the logic in that?

Whatever we think of the so-called ‘War on Terror’, there is no denying the world is becoming a more dangerous place – with revolutions and the rise of extremism fanning the flames of conflict.

Add to this the ever-increasing economic uncertainty and inevitable shortage of natural resources such as fuel, food and water in the coming years, and you have a recipe for decades of instability.

So what does Whitehall do? Continue to reduce the number of Army, Navy and RAF personnel.

This is madness.

I believe caution should be the watch-word with regard to the future of our military. We only have to look to history for guidance.

Infantry battalions that were mothballed after the end of the Cold War had to be reconstituted for service in Northern Ireland.

Having scrapped Harrier Jump Jets and the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal we realised both would actually have been quite handy for the Libyan crisis.

Yes, times are tough and each Government department has to make savings and each will plead it deserves protection.

But the MoD really is a special case involving tens of thousands of special people who do a very special and specialised job.

The UK’s Armed Forces personnel are our ‘go-to’ guys and gals at home and overseas for everything from industrial unrest and disaster relief to frontline warfare and their importance simply cannot be over-stated.

I firmly believe that for Britain to remain safe and secure and for our country to retain its position as an effective, relevant and respected player on the global stage then we must stop tinkering with our Armed Forces right now.