Chris Bond: Heroes emerge from shadows

WALKING slowly through the St Symphorien Cemetery outside Mons, you are struck by its tranquil beauty.

British troops in silhouette march towards trenches near Ypres
British troops in silhouette march towards trenches near Ypres

Row after row of wheat ripples gently in the warm breeze in the fields opposite, while in the cemetery itself the treetops act like a canopy creating soothing pools of light and shade on the immaculate grass below.

It is a restful place and some say the most beautiful of all the war cemeteries on the Western Front. You wouldn’t mind being buried here.

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The tragedy is that those lying in this quiet corner of Flanders went to their graves long before their time; their clocks abruptly stopped.

The leafy cemetery is home to an equal number of British and German soldiers and is where, later today, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will attend an official ceremony marking the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.

It is a fitting place to mark the anniversary for it was in Mons where the first and last British soldiers were killed in the conflict.

On August 21, 1914, John Parr, a 20 year-old private, was shot dead by German soldiers after being sent out on a bicycle patrol.

The last British casualty was Private George Ellison, of the 5th Irish Lancers, who was killed on the morning of November 11, 1918.

Pte Ellison, a former coal miner from Leeds, was not your typical conscript. The 40-year-old had been involved in the war from the very beginning – he was part of the British Expeditionary Force that retreated from Mons in August 1914.

More than 700,000 British soldiers died during the war but Pte Ellison had somehow survived. He fought in the first gas attack, he was there at the Somme in 1916 and later watched the first tanks roll into battle.

On that final day the ceasefire was just a matter of hours away, the war would be over and Pte Ellison would be able to return to his terrace house in Leeds to see his wife Hannah and their four year-old son James.

But then a bullet rang out and the Yorkshireman, the soldier who had survived for so long against all the odds, was dead.

He was among more than 10,000 men killed or injured on that final day of fighting and, along with Pte Parr, is buried at St Symphorien.

It’s sometimes said that everyone had their own war, each person with their own moving story. Many of these will remain untold forever buried beneath a nameless headstone in a foreign land.

For a long time the First World War was seen as a distant war, a conflict from a bygone age viewed through sepia-tinged photographs and silent newsreels.

It has been overshadowed, too, by the global conflict that followed. The Second World War still looms large in our collective memory as the recent D-Day commemorations showed. There are still veterans alive, albeit a dwindling number, who can describe in visceral detail what it was like. These personal testimonies, along with the vast archive of film footage and photographs, makes it feel closer to home.

We’re awash with anniversaries of one kind or another at the moment.

Next year is the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo which saw Napoleon finally brought to his knees. It was a battle that shaped Europe for the remainder of the 19th century, but apart from a flurry of books and newspaper articles, there will be no great commemoration.

However, 2014 has reawakened public interest in the Great War. There has been a growing desire among people to find out what happened to their relatives. For some this has meant going through musty notebooks that were gathering dust in the attic, for others it has been a voyage of discovery that has taken them to battlefields and cemeteries with strange, exotic names.

It is these precious personal stories that have helped bring this complex, and often harrowing, war back to life.

Six months ago The Yorkshire Post, in association with Leeds University’s Legacies of War project, began telling the story of the war through those who lived through it.

Each week we have focused on a different aspect, everything from life in the trenches to the women working in the hospitals and munitions factories. With the help of readers, local historians and curators we have been able to unearth stories that had either been forgotten about, or hidden away in a box somewhere waiting to be discovered.

Letters and emails have been sent in by relatives about the wartime exploits of family members that hitherto they assumed people wouldn’t be interested in.

There’s the story of Ernest Taylor from Leeds who, like so many of his friends, signed up after war broke out. He was killed in 1916 and 98 years later eight of his relatives, including three of his granddaughters, made an emotional journey to visit his grave in Northern France.

It’s a pilgrimage that has been repeated by thousands of other families in recent months.

There are countless other moving stories like that of Walter Ogden, a tank commander from Harrogate who was killed at the Battle of Cambrai. For almost a century his letters home and those sent to him by family and friends lay hidden in an attic before being discovered by relatives while refurbishing the family business.

There are uplifting stories, too, like Virginia De Coninck who was among the 10,500 Belgian refugees who arrived in Yorkshire after fleeing from the Germans in 1914. She started a new life, finding work at a munitions factory in Hunslet, in Leeds, where she met her future husband.

Then there are people like George Francis Robinson. He was among the brave Hull fishermen who risked their lives clearing mines in the North Sea where they played a deadly game of cat and mouse with the German U-boats. He lived to tell the tale, but many were not so lucky.

Although the war was about far more than just the mud and blood of the trenches, there is no escaping the dreadful human cost of a conflict that ripped families and sometimes whole communities apart.

It is the photographs that often pull at your heartstrings the most, like the brothers smiling sheepishly in their uniforms unaware that only one of them will come back alive.

One of the most poignant I’ve come across shows Sheffield’s King Edward VII school cricket team in the summer of 1913.

Some of the boys were barely old enough to shave, yet by the time the war was over half of them were 
dead.

It’s sobering to think that several were still only teenagers when they died. How many parents today could imagine their 18 year-old sons heading off to fight?

In the end, this wasn’t the war to end all wars. So why continue telling these stories when the people who fought in it and suffered its agonies, are no longer with us?

Perhaps it is precisely because they are no longer here that we must now pick up the baton.

Many of those who did return home, like Private James Prest, never spoke of their wartime experiences. His family were farmers in Coneysthorpe near Castle Howard and he joined the Army in 1916, later spending six months in a German prisoner of war camp.

It was only after he died that his family discovered his wartime diary which described in simple detail what life was like as a PoW.

It is the people who bring the story of the Great War to life, not the litany of facts and statistics. But they aren’t just fading faces on grainy photographs taken a lifetime ago, they are our fathers, our grandfathers and uncles, and through their stories, no matter how big or small, they live with us still.