He stands alone on a hill above the village of Shepley, a bronze statue of a soldier stood at ease looking down on the recreation ground and the school.
This was meant to be a constant and highly visible reminder of those villagers who died serving their country. Today, the Shepley War Memorial is largely hidden from view by a wood that’s grown around it.
Recent work has seen a freshly laid bark footpath leading up to the monument, but villager Geoff Peel who served in the Royal Navy for 12 years was inspired to find out more about the men whose initials mark the plaques.
After 30 years’ research, his book ‘If Somebody Remembers Me!’ is released this weekend featuring photographs and details about those who died in the Great War from his village.
“In 1982 myself, Dor and our son Carl had a week’s holiday in Ostend. Carl spent 22 years in the RAF Regiment and I served in the Royal Navy until 1975, firstly on HMS Dampier a survey ship and then on submarines.
“We went to Ypres and to Sanctuary Wood. That did something to me. I couldn’t believe how the lads lived out there. I saw the trenches and pictures that included horses hanging out of trees. I came home and read everything I could about it, including going up to the war memorial.
“All that appear there, like most war memorials, are the surnames and initials of their Christian names. I just felt that these lads deserved a little more than that so I took it upon myself to find out who they were and gather together what I could.”
In 1911 Shepley had a population of 1,879 and during the 1914-1918 war 261 from the village served their country. The war memorial commemorates 50 who were killed but in the course of his research Geoff found that there were others, now listed in his book - Private Harold Ellis, Private Arthur Kilkenny and Lance Corporal Walter Pearson - who were not included.
While it’s difficult to calculate the effect on this community nearly 100 years on from when these largely young men lost their lives, Geoff tells of one story that captures a mother’s feelings at the time.
“Trooper Kempton Windle who had worked as a wool piercer at Armitage’s Mill was reported as being shot by a sniper when leaving the trenches in October 1917 aged just 19. He had only been in Belgium for a few weeks.
“His sister-in-law gave me all the photographs and literature she had. She also told me that his mum would never accept that he’d been killed until the family went out to see his grave in 1935. Whenever she saw a young man who may have possessed a likeness in his gait or appearance she would chase after the unsuspecting young man in the street hoping it was him.”
Shepley of the early 20th century was made up largely of farmers, tailors, quarrymen and brewers. It had earned a reputation as one of Yorkshire’s wealthiest villages on the back of its cloth trade. Ironically it was a tailor who was the first Shepley man to lose his life. Private James Plaiter died of gas poisoning at Hill 60 in Ypres. He enlisted having changed from his trade profession to working at Stringers Colliery, Clayton West. He died on Wednesday, May 5, 1915, aged 20.
Farm labourers and farmer’s sons weren’t exempt from call up and lost their lives too. In the course of his research Geoff received two letters from Private Richard Boothroyd’s family. Richard had served with the Royal Marine Light Infantry and died of wounds sustained in Murmansk, Russia in 1919, at the age of 20. His captain sent a letter to his mother telling her that they had managed to get him back to the doctor by country cart but he died the next morning.
The family had a letter from his marine colleague ‘Geo’ Milne of Portsmouth who told them he’d secured a position for Richard after the war on a relative’s farm in New Zealand but that Dick, as he called him, had said he had to return to the family farm as his father was unwell. Most pertinent was his description of how Richard became fatally injured: “In case you’ve not heard of his last moment I’ll repeat Sergeant Butenham’s words. On the sixth day they were in Russia an attack was made. Dick was a signalman and provided with his morse code flag as well as a rifle but on going forward he cast his flag away saying ‘I shan’t need this here it looks a bit too hot.’ Shortly after he was wounded three times, once in the left thigh and twice in the left breast. He then said smiling ‘they’ve got me alright, I know I shan’t get over it’ and poor fellow he didn’t.”
Others around Shepley who lost their lives include: Private Joe Senior, a commercial traveller in animal feeds, and Private Stanley Hallas who served in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and worked for Drakes Animal Feeds in Honley.
In the day-by-day account of the Battle of Passchendaele the report for Monday, September 24, 1917, says ‘nothing of significance happened this day’ - the day of Stanley Hallas’ death. He was just 19.
‘If Somebody Remembers Me! – Men from the village of Shepley who served in the Great War 1914-1919’, is available from Shepley Newsagents or by contacting Geoff at: 27 Stocksway, Shepley HD8 8DL or via email firstname.lastname@example.org
Emotional stories retold
Geoff and Dor Peel have spent their holidays visiting graves, battlefields and cemeteries in search of the information for Geoff’s book.
They met many affected by the trauma of war and one story of survival will always remain in their hearts.
“One of our first trips saw us meet a Canadian veteran. He told us he was marching to the trenches one day and a shell burst. If it hadn’t been for his rifle slung over his shoulder he would have been dead. He was badly wounded and taken to hospital. When he awoke he saw all these angels, but they were really nurses dressed in white. He said that one turned out to be a real angel though because he had married her. His wife had just died when we met him and he’d come back for the first time.”