Sunday, 5 January 2014

First World War and connections

The Imperial War Museum is asking people to contribute family memories of the First World War. Next August sees the 100th anniversary of Britain declaring war on Germany leading to this country’s participation in a struggle that would kill over 800,000 Britons. The “Great War” continues to exert a powerful hold on our collective imagination and anyone like me in their 50s will also most have known one who had direct experience of the war. I met several people who were involved. Horace Barks from Ipstones who I knew at the end of his life of public service as an Alderman on Stoke Council when I was a young Councillor. Horace who died in 1984 left a vivid memoir of his time on the Western Front which is currently in the archive of Hanley Library. He was wounded at Loos in 1915. An old man I had a conversation with on a bus in York in 1977 was in the “ Sheffield Pals” and luckily avoided the First Day of the Somme by catching pneumonia “ the best days work I ever did” he told me. The ancient I talked to in Cromer church in the late 80s who achieved absurdly early promotion to the Deputy Town of the town at 16 because all the men were at the front. He recalled looking out of his office window one day in 1917 to see the harbour crammed with ships of all size during the height of the war. Mr Stafford born in 1900 had the misfortune to have been involved in both World Wars as a young officer in the Australian forces in 1918 and then as a Colonel captured by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore. One should also not forget the contribution that women made; my Great Aunt Betsy who worked in Hanley at a factory cleaning out the toxic substances from gas shells, the effect of this war work had a catastrophic impact on her health for the rest of her life. My grandmother Cawley witnessed a Zeppelin raid over Shelton in 1916.

And then there were the people who did not come back. Five relatives were killed between 1914-18 in the Sherwin family- my mother’s side.  Sgt Harry Cartwright, Pt Hamlet Nixon, Pt George Mitchell, Sgt Albert Reece and Sgt James Sherwin.

The picture is of my grandfather Bill Sherwin who is seated. His brother Jim Sherwin standing was a Sergeant in the East Yorkshire Regiment and was killed in July 1915 in Belgium. One thing I know about him was that was he was an excellent guitarist, note his big hands, who earned extra money from his day job as a telephone engineer by playing in the pubs of Hanley and Shelton. His brother Bill was in the Middle East in what is modern day Iraq. He claimed to have seen Lawrence of Arabia and gave a cigarette to a dying Turk. He was later badly wounded and caught Malaria which shortened is life. He died in 1958 when I was three.