WHEN Patrick Dolan discovered his late grandfather’s Military Medal and a sheaf of photographs it shed light on the story of a ‘Band of Brothers’ from Yorkshire who fought together 100 years ago.
After finding the possessions in a box room at his grandmother’s house in Sheffield, Mr Dolan set about researching the story of Private Benjamin Smith and the fate of each of the 54 comrades he served alongside in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry.
He discovered that one third had died, five had deserted at some stage – including one who was ‘shot at dawn’ for desertion – and several more were discharged from the Army owing to wounds or sickness.
A century on, Mr Dolan has used his skills as a graphic designer to put together a book to help explain to his family what grandfather did in the war and what happened to his comrades.
“Of the 54 men of the part-time Special Reserve who joined the 2nd Battalion on the Western Front on November 11 1914, 17 died, which is a third.
“A number of them were in their thirties, but mostly they were still teenagers when they went to war. All were working class manual workers, the majority of the Sheffield men working in the steel related trades.”
Mr Dolan, who lives in Sheffield, is keen to put into perspective the statistic that “only” 12 per cent of those mobilised in the UK – around 700,000 – were killed.
Although that figure is correct, it does not reflect the reality faced by infantry regiments, he says.
“If you were frontline infantry, the losses were much more than 12 per cent. I tried to trace everybody who went from the Special Reserve to the theatre of war on November 11 1914. I discovered that 17 – one-third – died.”
Among the possessions left by his grandfather was a Military Medal awarded for “gallantry and devotion to duty” between November 16-19 1916.
Private Smith, a despatch rider, carried messages day and night over ground which was continuously shelled. The recommendation for the medal, signed by a Lieutenant Colonel, reads: “He passed several times through the barrage fire. Other runners became exhausted and he did more than his share of work.
“He showed very great keenness, energy and bravery.”
Mr Dolan discovered that his grandfather kept photographs of 11 wartime comrades.
These include William Tompkins, who died of wounds after Passchendaele and served in the same unit as Private Smith; Albert Cooksey, from Barnsley, who died during an attack in December 1917; and photos of two men of the 11th (Lonsdale) Battalion of the Border Regiment: Stanley Nicholson, of Winton, Kirkby Stephen, who survived the war, and Ernest Cameron McIntosh, a dentist who won the Military Medal on the same day as Private Smith and was reported killed that very day.
Mr Dolan’s research uncovered the story of Sheffield man Private George Roe, who joined the KOYLI in Belgium on the same day as Private Smith.
The Battalion war diary’s brutally succinct entry for June 10 1915 states: “Quiet day...Pvt Roe 2/KOYLI was shot for desertion by firing party of Royal West Kents at 5am.”
He was shot although a witness had told his court martial: “(Roe) came up to me and asked if I was a policeman.
“He told me that he had lost his way and had been wandering about for two days.”
Discovering such stories can make difficult reading, says Mr Dolan.
“Going through these people’s stories can be emotional. When you look through the medal rolls the number KIA (Killed in Action) is staggering and depressing because they were all so young.
“When I look at my grandfather’s war record, it is remarkable he survived four years.”