There are many war memorials and plaques located around Sheffield, including the City War Memorial in Barker’s Pool. All of these are cared for by Sheffield City Council, but did you know that it also maintains the Sheffield Battalion Memorial in Serre-lès-Puisieux, a village in northern France.
On the first day of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916 men of the 12th Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment (“the Sheffield Pals”) were entrenched ready to launch an attack on the German position in the fortified hilltop hamlet of Serre. The troops met with devastating machine gun fire and by the end of the day, the Battalion reported 248 killed, 246 wounded and 18 missing.
This tiny village has been indelibly stamped on the pages of Sheffield history – stamped with the blood of city sons, for in a fruitless endeavour to take Serre, the Sheffield City Battalion suffered enormous losses.
In October 1920, the Lord Mayor of Sheffield received the following correspondence from the Mayor of Puisieux:
“I am happy to send you the resolution by which the Municipal Council of Puisieux has decided unanimously to offer to the City of Sheffield the ground necessary for the erection of a monument. This monument will perpetuate among the population of Puisieux a souvenir of your dear lost ones. Believe me sincerely, that even without this monument they will not be forgotten.”
After World War One, the area around Puisieux was one of the saddest and most desolate-looking heaps of ruins. It looked like it had been dead for many years! Very little signs of life or vegetation, the once beautiful, wooded country was just a collection of dead stumps and bits of trees—a few odd ones standing here and there, but all dead, as the asphyxiating gas used by the Germans killed every living thing.
Serre was really part of Puisieux, but had no inhabitants left. Puisieux had about 250 but before the war had a population of over 1,000. The reason they had not returned was the lack of money to work their devastated fields into order again. Sheffield had given a steam tractor, but it was at Arras because no one knew how to drive it, but a man had been sent from Puisieux to take lessons.
A Sheffield-Serre Memorial committee, chaired by Alderman Wardley, raised funds for the memorial, and Major C.B. Flockton, architect, offered a prize of five guineas for the best design, won by J.S. Brown, of Barnsley Road, an ex-serviceman studying in the Department of Architecture at Sheffield University.
The memorial, in Villebois stone, was erected on a slope overlooking the field where within an hour the battalion suffered 600 casualties. On its inscription, in English and French:
“To the memory of the officers and men of the 12th Battalion York and Lancaster Regiment (Sheffield City Battalion) who fell before Serre 1916.”
Above were four bronze plaques, representative of Sheffield’s Coat of Arms, those of Serre, and the regimental badge of the York and Lancasters.
The memorial was unveiled on Monday 21 May 1923. The gathering of Frenchmen and Englishmen included about a hundred people from Sheffield, among them a company of survivors of the battalion, besides parents and friends, and citizens who occupied prominent positions during the war.
It was unveiled by Lieutenant-Colonel G.H. Wedgewood, D.S.O., commanding the 1st Battalion York and Lancaster Regiment, and was dedicated by Dr H. Gresford Jones, Bishop of Kampala (who was Vicar of Sheffield from 1912 to 1920).
Perhaps the saddest moment of all was the sounding of the Last Post and the Reveille. As these well-known notes rang over the battlefields, thoughts fled back to the happy days at Redmires, and again to the long rows of little wooden crosses in the valley yonder, beside stinted, and blasted trees that had once been copses.
In 1926, a large wooden hut was erected nearby, much to the disappointment of survivors, and even the Mayor of Puisieux, who complained that it overshadowed the memorial. After months of negotiation, the owner of the land adjoining the memorial agreed to remove two huts after he was paid 3,000 francs, the cost met by the Sheffield ‘Twelfth Club’ (made up of ex-servicemen) on condition that the owner would not erect anything else of a similar nature.
Serre-lès-Puisieux was slowly rebuilt, but only as a hamlet of houses dotted along the road. The Sheffield Battalion Memorial survived World War Two and remains as a tribute to Sheffield’s lost sons – still honoured by the French who regularly lay flowers and wreaths around it.
In 2006, the memorial was restored and re-dedicated by the Right Rev. Jack Nicholls, Bishop of Sheffield.
(The Sheffield Battalion Memorial isn’t the only dedication to those lost in France, and in a future post we’ll look at the nearby park owned by the City of Sheffield).
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