Object lesson in wartime love and loss

Curator Clara Morgan with a German helmet.
Curator Clara Morgan with a German helmet.
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People’s War: Stephen McClarence takes a look at a new First World War exhibition which tells the story of a city in 150 objects.

The Sheffield City Battalion had a reputation for being a cut above most others in Yorkshire. “The Barnsley battalion called them ‘the coffee and buns boys’,” says Clara Morgan. “They seemed a bit posher.”

Some of Herbert Beaumont's items.

Some of Herbert Beaumont's items.

The Sheffielders, a “Pals” battalion set up specifically to fight in the First World War, could hardly have objected to a bit of gentle mockery. As a forthcoming exhibition – curated by Morgan – will show, they projected an exclusive image: an elite fighting force in a different sense.

“The Call to Arms,” trumpeted their recruitment posters. “This battalion is intended for present or past members of (Sheffield) University and public schools, commercial and professional men, and their office staffs.” It was an approach that targeted – flattered, even – the middle classes, and it worked.

“Teachers, librarians, journalists and students joined up,” says Morgan, curator of the Sheffield & the First World War exhibition at the city’s Weston Park Museum. “The thinking of the ‘Pals’ battalions was that people from similar backgrounds would gell better.”

Among the new recruits was Reg Glenn, a young clerk swept up in the gung-ho nationalism that gripped Britain at the start of the war. He enlisted in 1914 and was on the front line on July 1, 1916, the fateful first day of the Battle of the Somme.

Seventy years later, in his front room at Oughtibridge near Sheffield, he told me about “the perfectly blue Mediterranean sky, with skylarks singing” as the British troops went over the top at 7.30am. They were ordered to walk calmly towards the German lines, as though out for a Sunday stroll. It was a ghastly error. More than 21,000 British troops died that day, mown down by German machine guns. Another veteran never forgot the sound of their screaming, “like enormous wet fingers screeching across a pane of glass”.

By the time of his death in 1994, Reg Glenn was thought to be the Sheffield City Battalion’s last survivor, and one of the very last survivors of the war. He frequently visited schools to share his memories. The children could hardly believe that a man who had fought at The Somme was materialising out of history in front of them.

When I met him, he remembered the morning when he helped identify British corpses left on the battlefield. They were in lines where they had fallen, “just skeletons with identity discs”. The regiment’s padre held a short service for them. “We sang On the Resurrection Morning,” he said, and got up from his chair and opened his bookcase. “And this was the hymn book I sang from...” He handed it to me, an inexpressibly moving moment.

It demonstrated the potent power of simple objects linked to great events, an approach followed by the year-long exhibition. Marking the much-commemorated centenary of the outbreak of the war, it ranges wide over the experiences of Sheffield people, both in the trenches (50,000 Sheffield men went to the Front) and back home.

Some 150 objects from the museum’s collection, and others loaned by members of the public, include a German helmet brought back from the Front, curiously antique-looking for the 20th-century, made of brass and toughened leather with a spike. “It’s very light,” says Morgan, curator of social history at Museums Sheffield. “The steel helmets that the British had were much more sturdy.”

In the run-up to the exhibition, she takes me through a selection of exhibits. There’s a toy aeroplane made from bits of scrap salvaged from real wartime planes. There are postcards sent home to anxious relatives by wounded soldiers (“Just arrived in dear old Blighty on the Hospital Boat...”).

And there’s a striking photograph of a uniformed soldier with arms folded, looking fiercely uncompromising, as though daring the Hun to do his worst. Loaned by his grandson, it’s accompanied by a two-inch fragment of shrapnel that hit him on the head. Among the most poignant exhibits is a bundle of possessions left by a dead soldier. They include a ring and a rosary. “Sometimes all people had was the medals,” says Morgan.

Back home, the war effort was in full swing, with Sheffield’s steelworks turning out vast quantities of ammunition. The neatly written order book from Hadfields factory two months before The Somme is a chillingly precise inventory of human waste. Here is an order for 16,705 High Explosive Howitzers, cost £27,284, 16 shillings and eight pence. Here is another for 34,434 High Explosive eighteen-pounder shells, cost £21,521 and five shillings.

Firth Browns steelworks became the National Projectile Factory and is thought to have turned out 2.5 million shells over the course of the war. It employed hundreds of women from Sheffield and Rotherham and they had their own magazine, rather neatly called The Bombshell and full of cheery pieces written by workers.

An account of Tool-Setting in a Northern Factory by Marjorie Walford (‘Late of ‘D’ Shop’) begins: “‘Eeh, luv! Coom and look to my machine, ‘tis all brok down!’ called Ginger in her most ear-piercing accent as I walked past her.”

The exhibition recalls a 1916 Zeppelin raid on Sheffield; a plaque still fixed to a wall in the city’s East End commemorates the nine men, ten women and ten children it killed. A photograph shows police and soldiers searching the rubble for possible survivors.

Alongside the little-known story of German soldiers interned in Sheffield is a tribute to the pioneering Painted Fabrics company, set up after the war to provide work for injured soldiers; they made textiles – bedspreads, curtains, cushion covers – that were bought by royalty and the aristocracy. All this along with Pathe newsreels of the war and a new animation project involving local schools and students from Sheffield Hallam University.

“It’s been very moving to have so many people telling you about how a young relative died,” says Clara Morgan. “But I’ve tried not to be too judgemental and I’ve avoided cliches like ‘the horror of the war’. We’re presenting things that represent those who died and it’s up to people to make their own judgements and decide whether it was worthwhile. Though my personal opinion is that it was just awful.”

Thirty years ago in his front room, Reg Glenn echoed those thoughts. “It’s nice to have your reunions and regimental dinners,” he said. “But is it worth it? I don’t want my grandsons to have to decide if it’s worth it. We don’t want any more.”

And he put the hymn book back in the bookcase.

• Sheffield & the First World War runs from February 19 to March 1 2015 at Weston Park Museum, Sheffield. Free admission. 0114 278 2600, www.museum-sheffield.org.uk