Halifax is marking the centenary of the start of the First World War with a new exhibition at Bankfield Museum which tells Calderdale’s story during the conflict. Chris Bond reports.
WHEN Rachel Taylor stumbled across an old photograph of an airman in a Hebden Bridge antiques shop, she wondered who he was.
She bought the postcard-sized picture and began delving into his story. His name was Reginald Pohlmann and he came from a well- known family that made pianos in Halifax. She found out that he was a pilot in the First World War who was shot down and killed in 1917, and that his name is among those listed on the Hipperholme Grammar School memorial.
The photograph now forms part of the new First World War exhibition, For King and Country, which opens at Bankfield Museum in Halifax this weekend. Angela Clare, the museum’s project officer, says there is a heart-wrenching twist to the story. “On the back of the photograph is an inscription which appears to be written to a sweetheart and in a different hand it says ‘I’m returning this to you’, so we think this was sent back to his mother.
“As a young woman if you weren’t married and lost someone, you had to move on and it looks like she gave the picture back to his mum and when she passed away it ended up in an antiques shop. But then this lovely lady called Rachel found it and wants people to know about him.”
It is one of 50 moving stories featured in the exhibition that commemorates Calderdale’s wartime contribution. As well as the exhibition, the local council is taking part in the nationwide Lights Out initiative and on Monday at 10pm the lights in Halifax Town Hall will be switched off for an hour and a candle lit to illuminate the Book of Remembrance housed there.
It will be a poignant moment, one reflected in the museum’s exhibition which covers the conflict overseas as well as what was happening on the home front and the impact the war had on hospitals, factories and public support, which slowly waned over the four years as the casualties mounted.
It’s an eclectic collection containing everything from a captured German machine gun to simple, everyday items like whistles and spoons. There are some historic artefacts, too, including a bugle that was taken to, and played at, the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and a piece of the organ that was destroyed at the cathedral in Ypres.
One of the most moving stories is that of St Patricks, an amateur football club in Sowerby Bridge. A creased, well-thumbed photograph of the 1913-14 team still exists featuring Dominic Madden, who was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal in July 1918. “He was one of just two men in the photograph who survived,” says Clare. “A lot of them worked together and they were probably all in the Dukes [Duke of Wellington’s Regiment] that went over to fight together.”
After the war Madden became a foreman in a mill in Sowerby Bridge while his wife Rose opened a chocolate shop in the town. “His granddaughter told us about his story and provided us with the photographs and they spoke so highly of him.”
The tragic story of the football team underlines the fact that a soldier’s chances of survival were something of a lottery. For although 88 per cent of British soldiers mobilised during the First World War made it back home alive, there were huge disparities and casualties were sometimes shockingly high among those battalions that found themselves on the front line on the eve of a big battle.
“Your survival rate was pretty reasonable, about eight out of ten. But sometimes a whole bunch of men were lost,” explains Clare.
“We have this image of soldiers serving alongside their friends, living and dying together, but you often didn’t know who you were with because you were moved around so much.
“If you look at the Todmorden war memorial there are 70 different regiments listed, which shows that not everyone from the local area was in the Dukes.”
While there are no shortage of harrowing accounts of lives lost, Clare says the exhibition is keen to show that not all stories ended in tragedy. “We often think of those who died but actually those who survived have an important story, too.”
She points to the case of three brothers from Halifax – Arthur, Fred and Earnest Smith. “All three served and although they got injured they did all survive and we have some of their belongings in the exhibition.
“Arthur Smith was in the Royal Horse Artillery and we have his spurs and badges. Fred was a bandsman and we have his musical instrument badge and then there’s Earnest, he was the youngest who got injured quite early on.
“He was sent back to train as a signaller and we have his work book which talks about training pigeons, and we actually have the message that was written and folded into a tiny leg tube attached to a pigeon and sent away. So just in one family we have three very interesting, and very different, stories.”
Frank Kershaw, a stretcher bearer in the Northumberland Fusiliers, who saw action in France and Belgium and was injured in the Battle of Messines, is another local man featured in the exhibition. “He won the Military Medal after taking a bullet for a comrade while trying to help somebody. When he came home he was in the St John Ambulance and served with them for the rest of his life, which makes you think he was someone who cared about other people.”
Clare, who is speaking at the event at Halifax Town Hall on Monday night, believes the Lights Out initiative is a simple way for people to reflect on the war and the anniversary.
“Normally we commemorate the end of something but this was such a big moment in our history. We have the benefit of hindsight but a hundred years ago people had no idea what they were walking into, so I think it’s important that we pause and remember.”
• For King and Country, at Bankfield Museum, Halifax, runs until December 2018.
YORKSHIRE pOST Newspapers is supporting the Lights Out campaign marking the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.
Everyone is invited to take part by turning off their lights from 10pm to 11pm on August 4, leaving on a single light or candle for a shared moment of reflection.
Tell us why you are marking the occasion – and where – and let us know what happened to your family in the 1914-18 war.
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