Bringing home the lost heroes of the First World War

It was a war to end all wars, or so they said, with a sacrifice so great it was to impact upon every community.

Women workers of Mexborough Brickworks, circa 1916

From the lives lost to the humbling tales of bravery and sacrifice, Doncaster was to be shaped by its own accounts and experiences of the First World War. Now, after years spent unearthing its lost legends, the borough’s missing men are to be brought home once again as part of a project to bring their stories back to life.

“The First World War had an impact on so many lives, over so many years,” said Jude Holland, of the Doncaster 1914-18 project to mark the centenary of the First World War. “It changed people’s lives; for men in the trenches but also for the women and communities left behind.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

“This is about remembering that and thinking about the lessons that we can learn from that today.”

The Salvation Army parade in Doncaster

The project, funded with a grant of more than £900,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund, is to launch a series of exhibitions and displays touring 125 sites over the next six months. There are online resources, exploring the wartime connections of 10,000 civilians and soldiers, walking trails and museum exhibitions.

Volunteers and history societies across the borough, putting in an estimated 4,000 hours of research, have been unearthing tales of lost heroes and of everyday communities.

From the six men awarded the Victoria Cross, the UK’s highest military honour, to the women’s football teams which sprung up in Doncaster’s factories, the stories are being reunited with communities, villages and even streets from which they came.

“This is about celebrating the history of our different areas, and the contribution that people made,” said project manager Ms Holland.

The Salvation Army parade in Doncaster

“It’s really now, while the sons and daughters of some of the people who fought in the First World War are still with us, that it’s so important to capture those memories before it’s too late.”

Among the mysteries unearthed by volunteers is the story of brothers Herbert and Albert Venus, the latter of whom was killed at Ypres in 2015. While recorded as missing, his remains were never found. In 2013, thanks to the diligence of researchers, archeologists were able to trace his last movements and he was given the burial he deserved after so many years.

At one event, Ms Holland recalls, they were approached by a gentleman who had spotted his own mother in one of the photographs they were displaying.

She was pictured among the players of the women’s football team for the Conisbrough powder works.

Barrie Dalby of Conisbrough and Denaby Main Heritage Group, who researched the story of his own uncle, has been involved with a walking trail to tell the stories of the borough’s VC heroes and a Communities At War exhibition.

“Unearthing these stories of outstanding bravery and sacrifice has been emotional and humbling – these were local men, women, and children who could have been our neighbours, or even our family 100 years ago,” he said.

“The new exhibitions and trails help bring home men who were lost in action or buried far from family, but they also shed new light on how local communities coped with war on the Home Front,” added Mr Dalby.