Michael Dugher: Memories of the Barnsley Pals bring home human cost of war

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LIKE in other parts of Yorkshire and throughout the whole country, many hundreds of people will gather around Barnsley’s cenotaph for Remembrance Sunday.

Built in 1925, on Church Street, the cenotaph includes, amongst the inscriptions, the words “Their Name Liveth for Evermore”.

On the top of the cenotaph is a 2.4 metre high bronze statue of an infantryman – a “Tommy” – standing at ease, his rifle grounded, complete with the British Army greatcoat and helmet of the First World War.

It is from this same spot in Barnsley, in 1914, that two companies of infantry, men of the 5th Battalion, the York and Lancaster Regiment, departed for France with a signals and ambulance corps.

As the town turned out to cheer farewell to the 200 “reservists”, civic leaders and local employers got together and agreed to send a telegram to Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, offering to provide a battalion of 1,100 men, volunteers to be recruited from Barnsley and the surrounding district. In just three weeks, this small county borough had recruited over a thousand men.

All in all, some two battalions were raised – what would become the 13th and 14th Battalions of the York and Lancaster Regiment, or as they would famously come to be known, the “Barnsley Pals”. Again, as in 1914, the people of Barnsley would turn out in large numbers in May 1915 to proudly wave off their boys.

When we think of the First World War, we often think of the terrible, almost unimaginable, statistics for the loss of life. Over 900,000 people serving in the British Armed Forces, drawn from the UK and the colonies, died during that war, with more than two million wounded.

But behind these shocking statistics, there are the individual stories of ordinary men, all doing extraordinary things, that really brings the war home to you. Men like Lance Corporal John “Johnnie” Davies. Although he had originally joined the Barnsley Pals, like several dozen local men who were former miners, Davies had been transferred in 1915 to the Royal Engineers to join new tunnelling units.

On June 20, 1915, Davies went down a shaft into the mines of the infamous Hill 60, held by the Germans and a key objective for the British. According to reports, Davies was either buried alive or crushed to death that day. He has no known grave, though he is commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial to the missing at Ypres. Described as a “family man through and through” by Jon Cooksey, author of Pals, the brilliant history of the battalions, Davies left a wife and three young sons at Vernon Street, Barnsley.

Or there is the story of Private Thomas Burns of Brittania Street, Barnsley. Burns was 36 years old – my age today – when he became the first “Pal” to be killed in action as the Barnsley battalions served together on the front line in France in April 1916.

Born in Wolverhampton, Burns spent most of his life working at Barrow Colliery in Barnsley before being one of the very first men to enlist. According to reports, a machine gun shot penetrated his steel helmet and he died instantly.

But it was on the morning of July 1, 1916, the first morning of the Battle of the Somme, that the losses to the Barnsley Pals were most stark.

According to the casualty roll, compiled by Stewart Eastwood for the book Pals, there are some 200 men listed as being killed on that one day, or who died as a result of their wounds.

Most of the men were born in Barnsley, though many were born further afield – men from elsewhere in Yorkshire or from other parts of the Midlands and the North, the vast majority of whom had settled in Barnsley for work.

Where occupations are listed on the casualty roll, nearly all the men who were killed had been miners working at the many collieries throughout the Barnsley area. But there were also glassworkers, platelayers on the Great Central Railway, chemical workers, a joiner, foundry workers, a barman from the Queen’s Hotel and a curate at St Thomas Church in Worsborough.

Many were very young. Harry Dobson, of Regent Street, worked at the Barnsley Tramways. He was killed aged just 18. But some were men in their forties. Like Private Roddy Heaversedge, aged 47, from Bloomhouse Green and who worked at Barugh Chemical Works before the war.

They left wives and families behind. Like Albert Ernest Jones, a miner at Woolley Colliery before the war, who left a wife and six children behind at School Street, Darton. Or David Askin, a miner at Grimethorpe, who died leaving five children at Chapel Square, Worsborough Common.

But even beyond the horror of the Somme, there were continued family tragedies. Like the tale of a widow, a Mrs Edon of Grafton Street, pictured at the start of the war with her three sons: William, Arthur and Alfred.

Beginning with Arthur, a member of the 13th “Pals” Battalion, in May 1917, Mrs Edon would lose all three sons in the war.

The First World War was said at the time to be the “war to end all wars”. But as Marshall Foch, the commander of the Allies on the Western Front, said prophetically in 1919, Europe did not have a peace, but merely “an armistice for 20 years”.

And after the Second World War, other conflicts followed, as has the loss of life, including in Afghanistan today. Remembrance Weekend is when we come together in our communities to pay tribute to our Armed Forces, past and present.

As I stand at the cenotaph in Barnsley on Sunday, on the same spot where the Barnsley Pals were cheered off and where far fewer of them returned home, I’ll think of the Pals and the generations of other local people who followed in serving our country.

And our thoughts and prayers, of course, will be with the family and friends of TA reservist Pte Matthew Thornton, from Barnsley, who was killed in Afghanistan this week while serving with the 4th Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment.

His death was another timely reminder of the service and sacrifice of our brave Armed Forces. They will never be forgotten.

• Michael Dugher is Labour MP for Barnsley East and Shadow Minister without Portfolio.