It was a rainy Wednesday night, on 14 June 1916, and a soldiers’ buffet was opened at Midland Station for the convenience of soldiers and sailors’ night-travelling through Sheffield. A sailor was the first man in and was on his way to Newcastle to spend brief respite with friends after taking part in the Battle of Jutland.
Jean Lois Legrand, is a bit of an embarrassment to the village of Serre-lès-Puisieux, and he’s also a nuisance to the French police. The volatile farmer works land near Sheffield Memorial Park in northern France where there are memorials to the famous Pals Battalions of World War One.
To reach the Pals’ Battalions memorial, which is owned by Sheffield City Council, visitors must use an unmade public right of way that crosses land owned by Legrand. The path is owned by the town of Serre whilst the park itself is looked after and maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC).
The fiery farmer has been threatening visitors who use a track that leads to it, shouting at them, starting fires – and even driving his van towards them at high speed.
The matter is yet to be resolved, the French aren’t happy about him, and it clouds this quiet place on the Somme battlefields.
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.
In 1927, Alderman Wardley chaired the Sheffield-Serre Memorial Park committee which raised £978, part of the proceeds for which came from a friendly football match between Sheffield Wednesday and Huddersfield Town, and a gift of £60 from Sheffield Town Trustees.
The Park on land at Railway Hollow, near Serre, where the Pals had been entrenched on the 1 July 1916, contains a cemetery with the graves of 107 British and two French soldiers. Only some of the graves are of Sheffield soldiers because the practice was adopted of burying those who could be identified near where they had fallen, irrespective of their nationality or regiment.
Sheffield Memorial Park was opened in May 1931 by Mr J. Lawson, M.P., Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour, who represented Sir Fabian Ware, Chief of the Imperial War Graves Commission, and the dedication service was conducted by the Rev. Edward Cattell, of Sheffield. Also present, was bugler Heber Joseph Revitt, the Sheffield man who sounded the ‘cease fire’ call in France on 11 November 1918, and who rang the Last Post and Reveille on the same bugle.
Sheffield’s greatest benefactor, J.G. Graves, presided over the ceremony:
“Let me say how grateful we all feel to the former owner of this land for his kindness in making its use for this noble purpose. So now we may count this little plot of ground ‘Forever Sheffield’.
“Well may we count this soil sacred and desire that it shall remain forever consecrated and apart as an altar on which was offered the greatest sacrifice our city has ever made in the cause of right and freedom.”
The memorial represented some 10,000 men whose names were inscribed in a roll of honour (4,898 from Sheffield) kept in a stainless-steel casket given by Sir Robert Hadfield and placed in a teak case with a glass front presented by Walker & Hall in a shelter, designed by Mr F. Ratcliffe, an original member of the Sheffield Battalion.
Observers will notice that the shelter we see today is different to the one unveiled in 1931.
During the Second World War, Sheffield Memorial Park didn’t suffer as badly as it might have. The Germans allowed a Commission gardener, Mr B.M. Leach, to maintain the grounds, and he hid the memorial casket and roll of honour in his tool shed and at the end of hostilities deposited it at the nearby Chapel of Notre Dame de Treile, Serre, but was found to be in damp condition. This casket is now in the Town Hall at Puisieux. However, the shelter didn’t fare so well, and was eventually replaced with a more modest structure.
The Sheffield Memorial Park is a wooded area where the original frontline trenches and the shell-holes in the ground have been preserved. There is an information tablet placed by Sheffield City Council near the front of the park. This has a coloured map, showing the positions of the various battalions here on July the 1st 1916, along with the German trenches and machine-gun positions they advanced against.
The memorial park slopes downhill, and the land still bears the scars of battle, with shell-holes and vague outlines of other trenches still visible today. Within the park are several memorials to the various “Pals” battalions that fought here or near here that day, including the Accrington Pals, the Barnsley Pals, and the Y (Chorley) and Z (Burnley and District) Companies of the 11th East Lancashire Regiment.
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).
In our investigations into the Victoria Station one structure appeared on old photographs that deserved further investigation.
This was an elegant memorial that stood at the entrance of the railway station. The classical portico, with colonnade, contained nine columns with the names of workers of the Great Central Railway who died in World War One.
The names of 1,304 men were inscribed on tablets of French marble, and the memorial was unveiled by Earl Haig on Wednesday 9th August 1922. He had commanded the British Expeditionary Force on the WesternFront from late 1915 until the end of the war.
Sheffield had been chosen for the memorial because it was the centre of the railway’s operations. About 8,000 people turned up for the ceremony, including hundreds of relatives of the fallen.
Haig inspected a guard of honour composed of over 200 ex-servicemen employees who had gained decorations for gallantry in the field.
“The day will come when we in our turn will have passed on, but these stones will still stand as evidence of the splendid sacrifice and glorious achievement of the 1,300 brave and gallant men whose names they bear.”
The ceremony was presided by Lord Faringdon, chairman of the Great Central Railway, who said the memorial had been subscribed by no fewer than 3,000 shareholders and servants of the company as far afield as Canada, India, Australia, and Africa. He pointed out that over 10,000 employees had gone to war.
Canon Houghton dedicated the memorial, after which wreaths of remembrance were laid, and the service closed with a rousing rendition of the National Anthem.
They would have been forgiven that the future of the memorial was secured. However, within two years the marble had crumbled, and some names were already illegible.
In 1925, the London North Eastern Railway (LNER), which had absorbed the Great Central Railway, graciously replaced the tablets with Kupron bronze plaques. The memorial stood on its own until 1938 when LNER improved the station, extending the booking hall, so that the memorial became its eastern wall. (I presume the memorial was reversed and the tablets were relocated inside).
It remained until the Victoria Station’s closure in 1970 and might have been lost with subsequent demolition.
A handful of survivors campaigned for it to be saved and the bronze tablets were re-erected (somewhat hidden) underneath Wicker Arch, where it was rededicated in November 1971. The magnificent portico, in which they had stood, was sadly lost).
The decline of The Wicker is well publicised, and the memorial suffered from neglect and vandalism. Various locations were suggested as an alternative site, but it was the owners of the Royal Victoria Holiday Inn (the former Victoria Station railway hotel) that offered it a permanent home.
With support of the hotel, sponsors and a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Great Central Railway Society organised rescue of the plaques and relocation to its new home, almost on the site of the original memorial.
It was rededicated on Remembrance Day 2008 and remains outside the Royal Victoria Crowne Plaza. A Roll of Honour for all the men listed, collated by the Great Central Railway Society, can be found inside the hotel.