Honour the valour call for forgotten heroes

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ACROSS the UK, servicemen who won the highest military honour for valour lay buried, many in unmarked or untended graves which give no indication of the bravery they showed in the face of the enemy.

Despite being awarded the Victoria Cross, some heroes who risked all for their country have been forgotten, but all that could change under ambitious plans drawn up by a former soldier from Yorkshire.

Gary Stapleton said he first realised that some VC recipients were not commemorated when he stumbled across the story of First World War soldier Thomas Bryan who is buried in a cemetery in Doncaster.

The Lance Corporal, who played rugby league for Castleford in 1906/07, was awarded the medal for disabling a machine gun during conflict with German troops at Vimy Ridge near Arras in France in 1917.

He later returned to Doncaster where he worked as a miner, and later opened his own greengrocer’s shop in the village of Bentley, but according to Mr Stapleton, his grave gives no sign of his heroism.

He added: “I was shocked at the state of the grave and I brought it to the attention of the council, which has done the best it can to re-turf the site and tidy it up in honour of what Thomas Bryan did.

“But after that I started wondering about all the other 1,356 people who had been awarded the VC over the years, where their graves were and whether they were getting the recognition they deserved.”

Mr Stapleton’s researches uncovered shocking tales, including that of Thomas Reeves, a Crimean War hero who was among the first men honoured for gallantry at the first Victoria Cross ceremony in 1857.

His remains were buried in a cemetery which was later cleared for a car park and toilet block at Portsmouth International Port, and although many bodies were removed, his was left behind by mistake.

Mr Stapleton has now set up a charity called the Victoria Cross Trust, which aims to provide a memorial park and museum dedicated to VC recipients, and he is currently in talks to open it in Doncaster.

He said: “There are stories like Bryan’s and Reeves’ all over the country, and we want to open a memorial park and museum to ensure that as memories of the conflicts fade, the names live on. There are six VC recipients from Doncaster alone.

“We have identified an ideal site, and we think Doncaster is an ideal location, in the centre of the country, allowing people from all over Britain and the world to come and pay their respects.

“The VC was also awarded to those from the Commonwealth and if we can mark the bravery of every recipient then it will be a place of international focus and remembrance.”

Negotiations are still under way with Doncaster Council, which owns the woodland site on the edge of the town, but if bosses agree the trust hopes to start work as soon as possible.

As well as providing a memorial, there are also plans for a museum, with an authentic trench system which will recreate conditions VC recipients were forced to endure during the First World War.

Mr Stapleton, whose 22-year-old son Jason has completed two tours of Afghanistan with the Blues and Royals, said the trenches would help make the museum relevant to young people without glorifying war.

He added: “This won’t be a theme park, and we are keen to stress that.

“But we don’t want it to be a boring place for kids, we want to engage with them. It’s important that we bring it to life for them.

“At the moment the site is unmanaged woodland, and if we can get permission to use it we have plans to plant trees which we can sell for timber to raise funds which will supplement the income from the museum and any grants we can access.

“We think that in 10 years time we could be attracting similar numbers of visitors to attractions such as the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, which gets around 300,000 people a year.

“With that number of people it could also have a major impact on the local economy and we hope as many people as possible will back it.”

Doncaster Council said it was aware of the proposal and that Mr Stapleton had contacted the office of the Mayor Peter Davies to discuss his plans.

A spokesman added: “Negotiations are on going with the Trust at the present time.”

martin.slack@ypn.co.uk