It is not the great sweep of history that truly affects us, the stories of the mass movement of troops, of armies and navies, of the politicians at home deliberating on the course of hoped-for events from a very safe distance. It is the intimate, personal details of families, of lives lost, of those who returned, the tales that they told – or, in many cases, the events that they had witnessed, what they had been through and the details of their suffering and torment which they took to their graves.
In a fascinating, poignant and perfectly curated new exhibition in Barnsley (one of many in the town to commemorate the end of the First World War) the people who for many years have just been sepia memories in the scrapbooks and albums of their descendants are brought vividly back to life, for us to experience, a hundred years on, their triumphs, their tragedies, and their indelible legacy. Not only do we have images of them, but also a few of their belongings. These people of that terrible conflict have touched these things, they have treasured them, they have handed them on. Some may not have been of great value in themselves, but they all link us to the past, to a turbulent time, and they each – along with the faces of their owners – tell us in detail the background to their bravery and sacrifice.
In the background, a screen reveals the names and the portrait photographs of some of the lads (and lasses) of those from this proud community who marched away. Many joined the Barnsley Pals, one of the fiercest battalions of the British Army, and one with a formidable reputation for valour and a good skirmish. They are permanently recognised in the square outside the Town Hall, which has been renamed in their honour. But inside, visitors can put names to faces. Young lads who lied about their age, and who should never local stories: The Great War Ends exhibition at Experience Barnsley. have been allowed to become the cannon fodder that they did. Men who “heard their country’s call”, and who enlisted to fight for their King. Older colleagues who were determined to “do their bit”, and who ignored the fact that they were, technically, a little long in the tooth to spend time in a waterlogged trench, but who – nonetheless, were determined to “do their duty”.
Here is the VC won by George Henry Wyatt, won on the fields of Mons, who survived the war, became a policeman in Doncaster, and who never mentioned his valour again. In another case is the FA cup medal of Wilfred Henry Charles Bartrop, who played for Barnsley in their momentous match of 1912. He transferred to Liverpool FC for the then eye-watering sum of £900, and was killed just five days before the Armistice was declared. And there’s the dry good humour of amputee Joseph Fretwell, who wrote home that “my legs are going by fine. They are better than the last and only weigh 5lb. You will probably be able to see me run”. He also lived – and raised a proud family. Dorothy Fox was part of the The Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) and from a wealthy local family. She was still nursing at the Front when the dreaded flu epidemic struck. She was just 24, and died eight days before the cessation of hostilities.
Here we have life, and death at its most raw, most personal, and astringent. A proud exhibition, commemorating a proud and valiant group of people.
The Great War Ends, Experience Barnsley, until March 31, 2019. barnsley.gov.uk/barnsleyremembers