Former servicemen from across Yorkshire are among the leading lights in a national campaign to mark the immense sacrifices of an earlier generation. Andrew Robinson reports.
ALL the Great War veterans are gone now but their stories are kept alive by sons, daughters and grandchildren.
Tony Hodgetts’ father Rowland served in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment from September 1914 and he fondly recalls being told stories when he was a boy.
His father spared him the horror, instead focusing on the humour, the near-misses and stories about people he met.
“It was all jokes, he never told me the nasties,” recalls the 81-year-old former national serviceman from Bramhope, Leeds.
In the spring of 1915, while on sentry duty near Passchendaele, the sentry box was blown to smithereens by a German shell and his father was knocked unconscious.
“The smashed sentry box was all around him but he didn’t have a scratch on him. When he woke up he was still holding his rifle.”
Mr Hodgetts later discovered that his father had been Mentioned in Dispatches (MiD) for bravery while handing out ammunition and rations to forward line troops while under fire and that later he had been a prisoner of war in 1918 when his brigade headquarters was overrun during a German offensive.
He was MiD following the third battle of Ypres in November 1917 for gallantry in the field. His note of commendation was signed by Winston Churchill.
In 1918 his father, who had been a company quartermaster sergeant from 1916, had been out on an errand to collect rations from a rail depot only to return to HQ at Attily, near St Quentin, to find Germans had overrun the position.
Warrant Officer Hodgetts was taken prisoner and was not released until 1919.
“He was hooting with laughter when he told me the story about being taken prisoner. He had pulled up in a courtyard with a mule and cart and heard ‘hande hoch!’ (hands up) and had a German bayonet up his nose.
“He had what some people call a ‘good war’. He did get captured but he treated it as a joke.”
Mr Hodgetts will be lighting a commemorative candle on the evening of August 4 in memory of his father and of Uncle Arthur, his elder brother, who was shot in the shoulder but survived the war, and all their colleagues in the Royal Warwicks.
The Royal British Legion is hoping that a million candles will be lit and lights turned off as part of the Lights Out nationwide initiative.
Mr Hodgetts will be among Royal British Legion colleagues in the memorial gardens in Eastgate at Bramhope, Leeds, on August 4, a century to the day that Britain declared war on Germany.
The memorial honours 11 local men who died in the Great War.
Joining Mr Hodgetts will be David Marshall, 79, whose thoughts will turn to the tens of thousands of young men who fought and died.
His own father was an artilleryman who served but rarely spoke about his experiences.
Mr Marshall, 79, a former national serviceman, said it was important for people not to forget “the horror of it all”.
“One just cannot imagine what they went through and, in some regards, the futility of it all and the fact that these lads were pushed over the top for days and weeks on end with no endgame in sight.”
The courage of those young men should be remembered, he says.
“They all knew full well what was going to happen – the courage of all these fellows to keep on doing it and the brutality of it all.
“The conditions that they were in and yet they still had spirit and still prepared to do it again and again. They still kept cheerful despite all the hardships and they were very patriotic in fighting for King and Country.”
In the past Mr Marshall has spoken to youth groups including Scouts about the impact of the First World War.
It was difficult to convey the numbers who were killed, he said.
“I compared it to a football ground full of 55,000 people – and that is just the names commemorated on one memorial, Menin Gate at Ypres.”
Mr Marshall, who is secretary of the Bramhope branch of the Royal British Legion, and who served with the 10th Royal Hussars during national service, is urging other people to buy commemorative candles and have a quiet moment of reflection on August 4.
His father, Bertie Marshall, who was a farmer in civilian life, will be in his thoughts.
Though he served in the Royal Artillery, Bertie Marshall may have been among the thousands of reluctant soldiers.
“We understand that the police came and collected father, presumably because he hadn’t filled in the papers and answered the call.”
His father had been working at a Bramhope farm when, it is believed, police called to take him to war.
“He said very little about the war when we were growing up. Once, we were cutting grass for hay and he said he was cutting down Germans. That is all I can recall.”
During his service at the front, it is believed that Bertie was gassed and had to be brought back to England to recover.
He survived but 11 local men did not come back and over the years Mr Marshall and Royal British Legion colleagues have placed crosses at graves and war memorials in France to those 11 Bramhope men.
A century on, the British Legion members are keen for everyone to take part in remembering those who served.
Mr Hodgetts said: “This is not about celebration but commemorating the people who went off to war – ladies and lads – the lucky ones and the unlucky ones. It’s not a celebration – when we get to November 11 2018 we can have a celebration when the damned thing ended.” He added: “The beginning of the war was a catastrophe.”