Centenary salute to war dead

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Almost a century since the start of the ‘War to end all wars’ which saw thousands of men from South Yorkshire killed, Richard Marsden visited the Western Front to see where they fell.

‘Months in the making, minutes to destroy’ – the sad epitaph to the Pals battalions established during World War One to recruit soldiers from towns and cities including Sheffield.

Memorial to Sheffield Pals, Serre, France

Memorial to Sheffield Pals, Serre, France

Across the old Western Front in northern France and into Belgium are memorials and war graves to about 800,000 British troops.

And one of the most important sites for South Yorkshire is near the village of Serre, on the Somme battlefield, where the Sheffield City Pals and two Barnsley Pals battalions fought and died.

The whole Western Front area is expecting many British visitors from next year as part of centenary commemorations – and the Government has pledged funding to allow youngsters from every school to take a trip across the Channel.

At Serre, the Sheffield City Pals and Barnsley Pals - each battalion about 1,000 strong - were part of an offensive on the first day of the 1916 Somme offensive on July 1.

Battlefield expert Rod Bedford, a former sergeant major in the Grenadier Guards, says: “The pals regiments were drawn from northern towns and cities – the idea being that groups of men from the same area served together to boost morale and fighting spirit.

“Sheffield City Pals were the 12th Battalion York and Lancaster Regiment and among soldiers in the Somme offensive designed to drive back the German line at Serre.

“There had been seven days of constant bombardment of German lines and the British had been told that not a rat would be left alive when they advanced.”

In fact, Rod says, the Germans had dug deep defensive positions and were anticipating a British advance. Some Germans were in positions 20 to 30 feet below ground level.

At 7.30am, the British advance started across 300 metres of no man’s land between the trenches – into a hail of German fire.

“There were nearly 7,000 casualties across the British division in the area. The advance was over in 20 minutes,” Rod says.

In the 12 Battalion, there were about 750 casualties, most of them dead.

Overall, the Somme offensive left 44,000 wounded and 20,000 dead, out of the 130,000 British troops who took part.

Rod says that, from a military perspective, commanders credited the battle a success because, in a major battle, they only expected one third of men to emerge unscathed.

And after the war, German commanders credited British efforts including the Somme battle as major factors in the Allied victory, because it kept them on the back-foot, leading to their eventual defeat.

“But you can’t imagine the pain of people back home when whole streets were receiving telegrams informing them of the dead,” Rod says.

Serre is home to the Sheffield Memorial Park, which comprises three cemeteries. In the area are memorials dedicated to the Sheffield and Barnsley Pals.

The missing from the Somme Battle are named on the towering Thiepval monument, a few miles away.

One of the Sheffield Pals commemorated at Serre is 23-year-old Mosborough-born Private George Ward, who lived with his wife Jean in Greenock Street, Hillsborough. He is buried at Railway Cutting Cemetery, in the Sheffield Memorial Park.

His details – and those of all the dead in each Western Front cemetery – are listed in registers at all the memorials.

Among the other Pals’ casualties are poet and Sheffield University lecturer Corporal Alexander Robertson.

His name is on the Thiepval Memorial to 72,191 missing British and South African men who died in the Somme area between 1915 and 1918 with no known grave.

But there were some lucky men, too.

One 16-year-old boy soldier who had been commissioned as a Lieutenant – the most junior rank of officers – after his father approached the Mayor of Sheffield was shot in the wrist and thigh by Germans before the 1916 Somme advance at Serre.

He lay on the ground for six hours waiting for medical help and was invalided out. He survived the war and eventaully died in 1982.

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Many of Sheffield’s sons served and died in the Great War in various parts of the armed forces, as well as the Pals.

Three brothers from Firth Park – Isaac, Charlie and William Procter – enlisted, but and only one survived.

Charlie, a sergeant in the Royal Army Medical Corps, died, aged 29, on October 9, 1917, and is buried at La Laiterie cemetery, at Kemmel, near Ypres.

Isaac, also a medic, had earlier perished in 1915. Only William came home, but suffered from shell-shock.

The brothers’ nephew, Don, aged 84, who lives at Monyash, near Bakewell, said: “My father, George, was quite a bit younger, so was not old enough to serve in the war.

“I was just too young to serve in World War Two. I think World War One was a total tragedy, which is very difficult to imagine now.”

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World War One was expected to be ‘over by Christmas’, but was in fact a bloody stalemate for much of its four years, before a combination of German fatigue and America’s entry into the war led to the Germans being pushed out of France and Belgium.

The war started as a result of diplomatic incidents between different groups of allied powers around Europe.

Slav nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in Sarajevo.

Austria-Hungary blamed Serbia for the killing.

The affair escalated with disagreements between two powerful alliances – the Central Powers of Austria-Hungary, Germany and Italy – and the Triple Entente of Britain, France and Russia.

Britain declared war on August 4 after Germany invaded neutral Belgium, honouring a previous promise to protect Belgium from German invasion.

The Germans pushed through Belgium into France before coming to a halt faced with British and French troops – and so the war of attrition began.