Sheffield writer's book looks at contrasting lives of two city World War One soldiers

One was a Sheffield Wednesday footballer from a monied background and the other a clerk from a working-class city family.

Friday, 15th November 2019, 7:26 pm
Private Reg Glenn, holding his signal flags, in the back row of this picture of training with Sheffield City Battalion at Redmires camp, Sheffield
Private Reg Glenn, holding his signal flags, in the back row of this picture of training with Sheffield City Battalion at Redmires camp, Sheffield

World War One brought them together as both volunteered to fight in the Sheffield City Battalion and became officers.

The sportsman died on the battlefield and the clerk returned injured and became celebrated in the city as the longest-surviving of the Sheffield Pals, as the battalion were known.

The contrasting stories of Vivian Simpson and Reg Glenn have been intertwined in an excellent new book, The First and the Last of the Sheffield City Battalion, written by city historian John Cornwell.

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The Sheffield City Battalion marches to Redmires Camp in 1914

The book was launched in front of an invited audience at Sheffield Town Hall, where Lord Mayor Coun Tony Downing said that 1905 Lord Mayor Herbert Hughes was one of the first to volunteer for the battalion.

The men signed up in the very same building when the battalion was launched.

Col Geoffrey Norton of the York and Lancaster Regiment read from his foreword to the book.

He came up with the idea for the book after successfully initiating a move to buy Vivian Simpson’s Military Cross and two leather-bound books of letters he set home to his brother, George, which had come up for auction.

Vivian Simpson, sitting on the wall with his dog, with a group of friends in Derbyshire, including future wife May, right, just before the war. Courtesy of Vivian Simpson's family

They are now in the collection of the regimental museum in Rotherham.

He said: “It rapidly became obvious to us that these volumes contained an invaluable historical background to life in Kitchener’s Army”.

Col Norton had met Reg Glenn at a regimental lunch in 1993 to celebrate his 100th birthday and stayed in touch with his family.

They went together in 2007 to visit Serre on the Somme, where the battalion suffered catastrophic losses on July 1,1916.

Col Mainwaring leads the cheers as the Sheffield City Battalion march off to the Midland Station for the journey to Cannock Chase for training

Members of both families were at the launch and they had collaborated extensively on the book.

John Cornwell said that he had no trouble thinking of the title for the book, which “jumped off the page”.

Vivian Simpson was the first to join the battalion. “When Vivian Simpson signed up, he was at the building already as he had all sorts of connections. It was a bit of a coup for them.

“He was 31, considerably older than the vast majority such as Reg Glenn.

“He was exactly the sort of chap they blatantly wanted to attract. It was a middle-class battalion, working-class men need not apply.

“He was educated at Wesley College that became King Edward VII School and he was a solicitor with a family firm on Fargate.

“He had grown up in the large houses of Broomhill and Nether Edge and they always had two or three servants.

“He was known across the country because he played 38 tines for Sheffield Wednesday. He secured a hat trick in a 6-0 win versus Manchester United. not many now can say they can do that!”

He also played for Sheffield United, was a cricketer for Collegiate CC and an excellent golfer, playing at Wortley Golf Club.

John said: “He talked in his letters about how much he loved and missed that course. He anted to play two rounds a day.”

Vivian, who was commissioned as a second lieutenant, had a frustrating start to his war because he was kept behind training the men, including at the initial Redmires camp.

He finally got his chance to fight when he was needed to help replace officers lost on the first day of the Somme.

He won the Military Cross in 1917 but was killed in a German offensive on the Lys in April 1918, showing the leadership and bravery he was renowned for.

Private Reg Glenn, who was born in Burngreave and also lived as a boy in Hillsborough, was a clerk in the education offices at Leopold Square and went to the Central School.

John said that he and a friend saw the queue of volunteers one lunchtime and decided to join up. They expected to be told off for being late back to work and were surprised to be feted as heroes.

He trained at Redmires and signalling skills he had learned in the Church Lads’ Brigade meant he trained as a signaller.

In 1917 he put in for a commission and trained at New College, Oxford. He then served with the 8th Battalion North Staffordshire Regiment.

His war ended in June 1918 when he was wounded by shrapnel.

Reg became a well-known figure, speaking about the war in his 90s and a guest of honour at many remembrance ceremonies, and died aged 101.

The First and Last of the Sheffield City Battalion By John Cornwell (£25) is published by Pen & Sword Books.