In 2000 a Sheffield grandfather decided to research all 50,000 Sheffield WW1 soldiers. Colin Drury meets him 14 years on - and find the job is as big as ever...
It started when Dean Hill asked his mother a simple question: did my great grandfather fight in the Great War?
But the answer - he did, but she wasn’t entirely sure what happened to him - inspired what must be one of the most astonishing personal projects ever undertaken in Sheffield.
Since that day 14 years ago, Dean has been to 200 churches and dozens of graveyards, transcribed thousands of names from hundreds of memorials, travelled to cemeteries across northern Europe, and spent more time sifting through the records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission than even the most dedicated historians.
For he decided, in the end, not only to find out the fate of his own grandfather but also that of every single Sheffielder to have served during World War One.
“There are about 50,000 of them in all,” he says today at the Barker’s Pool war memorial. “So researching them is keeping me out of trouble.”
It will, it turns out, probably keep him out of trouble for the rest of his life.
Dean, of Pitsmoor, created a website - sheffieldsoldierww1.co.uk - with the ultimate aim of listing the names, service records, brief biographies and (if available) pictures of each and every one of those 50,000. It is the first attempt ever made to definitively chart the experience of all our troops in one place. So far he has got about 30,000 individual names online.
“It’s not been easy,” he admits. “But it felt like something that someone should be done. So I did it.”
Not easy is perhaps an understatement. In the intervening decade and half, this 51-year-old grandfather-of-two has visited pretty much all Sheffield’s churches along with memorials, cemeteries, public buildings, schools and work places featuring rolls of honours to take down the names of those who fought. He then researches each individual through the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, ancestry.co.uk, archive records and old newspaper reports.
Some names have remained just that: a name with no more information. But for others he’s found life stories, death stories and - previously unbeknown to families - pictures.
He has been joined by friend Stuart Reeves, of Halfway, in his quest. But largely he has trawled alone.
“I’m fascinated by World War One,” he says. “These guys were so brave. I just enjoyed finding out about them.”
Now, in this, the centenary of the conflict’s start, he’s hoping he can use the interest generated to generate some help. He’d like volunteers to join him.
“The scale of the task actually keeps getting bigger,” he says. “Pretty much everyday I switch on my computer and emails from people asking if I can find out what happened to their great grandfather. Sheffield Archives even point people in my direction these days. But it can get overwhelming - I have 5,000 pictures in my filing cabinet which still need scanning and putting online.”
And if no-one comes forward? He’s happy to keep plodding on alone.
“I don’t think it will be a job that ever ends,” he says. “The website will never be complete because there’ll always be more to find out.”
Oh, and Dean’s great grandfather, Albert Hill of Park? He did manage to find out more.
“It was tragic really,” says Dean. “He died in battle on September 18 1918, less than two months before the war ended.”