Archive creates fascinating view of the Great War

Tim Knebel and an enthusiast.
Tim Knebel and an enthusiast.
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Next year marks the centenary of the start of World War One. It was one of the deadliest conflicts in history, with an estimated 16 million deaths and 20 million people wounded globally and 995,935 deaths from the UK alone.

At its peak in 1918, the British Army deployed four million soldiers.

Among them were thousands of Sheffield fathers, sons, brothers and husbands, whose papers and photographs are now being digitised as part of a huge project led by Sheffield City Archives.

Key to this project is archivist Tim Knebel, who has the epic task of cataloguing all the material.

“It’s fascinating work,” says Tim. “You read about these men and look at where they lived and realise that they walked the same streets as we do today.

“There was one soldier called Private Ashton and he lived on my street. His house was just around the corner from mine.”

Every day, photographs of the killed and wounded, such as Private Ashton, were published in the Sheffield Independent throughout the First World War.

Tim has researched the background stories of many of these men.

“The men came from a variety of backgrounds and you can tell by their addresses. The soldiers of higher rank generally came from more well-to-do families whereas others lived in the slums of Sheffield.”

Sydney William Grummitt was one such man, and a young man at that.

He was killed at the age of 16 while working as a seaman. Sydney was from Darnall and joined the navy as a Boy First Class Seaman.

His ship – HMS Amethyst – was badly damaged while attempting to clear a minefield laid in the Dardanelles by the Ottoman enemy.

But while there were hundreds of men like Sydney from Sheffield, the Archives only has the personal papers of around 15 men.

And this makes the letters all the more interesting.

“The fact these were never intended for anyone else’s eyes other than the recipient adds to their appeal,” says Tim.

One such letter is that of 28 year-old soldier Tom Lockwood. His letter makes light of the awful circumstances in which he writes to his sister.

He writes: “I am writing from my dug out about 100 yards off the Germans but things seem quiet enough but for a few shells whistling round and they’re all right if they keep going over.”

He continues: “Remember me to enquiring friends, I’m in the pink... I’ll be pleased when I can take a few days off to see you.”

Tom was killed in action four days later. His memorial service was at High Green Primitive Methodist Church on December 24, 1916.

While Tom was killed in action before his life had barely started, another soldier, William Smithson Broadhead, discovered his talent for painting and drawing horses during the war and later became an artist, depicting many of the leading racehorses in the US.

“William Smithson Broadhead served in a cavalry regiment, though he studied at Sheffield School of Art and the Royal College of Art beforehand,” says Tim.

A testament to William’s talent are his letters to his parents and 12 siblings, which are illustrated with caricatures of himself and satirical sketches of the army major.

And like Tom Lockwood’s letter, William’s messages give an insight into what life was like for a soldier on the frontline.

In one letter he wrote: “It is not a bad place as French villages go. But there’s one thing I strongly object to and that is the plague of rats here.

“At night they run about... a night never passes without my being awakened by one either running across my head or jumping over my body.

“I think the plague is caused by the fact that there are hundreds of dead still unburied not many miles from here.”

To illustrate his point William included a sketch at the bottom of the page.

“That’s himself,” says Tim, pointing to the man in the sketch. “That’s the character he includes in all his letters.”

And there are many of these letters, all decorated with satirical cartoons and sketches.

“It’s so good that we can see these letters today and that people can access them online but it does lead us to question how today’s soldiers’ lives are documented. Our digital imprint is less permanent.”

“At least the records that we have here keep these men’s memories alive.”

For more information on the WW1 photographs and letters from individual soldiers visit the Sheffield Archives website at www.sheffield.gov.uk