Centenary Fields: A Living Legacy of World War I

Centenary Fields: A Living Legacy of World War I

In the wake of the First World War Prime Minister David Lloyd George committed to build a "Land fit for heroes..." Recognising the shocking lack of fitness amongst many conscripts, wide-ranging post war reconstruction included fundamental reform to planning, housing, health and education with an aspiration to improve the lot of returning servicemen, whilst ensuring life for future generations would be happier and healthier.

It was soon after the War that Fields in Trust was formed - as the National Playing Fields Association - with a mission much the same now and as it was then: to ensure that everyone - young or old, able or disabled and wherever they live - should have access to free, local outdoor space for sport, play and recreation. Lloyd George’s government legislated changes to Land, Planning and Housing regulations just as our current Government have done, to build much needed affordable housing. The 1919 Act is known as the ‘Addison Act’ after its author, Dr Christopher Addison, the Minister of Health. Crucially the enlightened politicians of a century ago developed new housing with parks, playing fields and recreation grounds as part of the urban landscape to support a healthy population.

These newly emerging green spaces were often identified as war memorial playing fields - casualties of the Great War were buried close to where they died, and it was common practice to create a community memorial and dedicate land in memory of the fallen. Many green spaces were dedicated as memorial parks – or were the site of a town or village war memorial to remember the locals who did not return from the trenches.

As part of the centenary commemoration of WWI outdoor recreational spaces across the UK have been protected forever as Centenary Fields. Run by national charity Fields in Trust, in partnership with The Royal British Legion and Legion Scotland, Centenary Fields protects war memorial playing fields, parks and green spaces in memory of those who served, or lost their lives, during World War I. This UK-wide programme is a unique way to commemorate the centenary of World War I. It gives land owners, the opportunity to dedicate space to remember the sacrifices of those who gave their lives during the conflict, but also to ensure that future generations have valuable green space to enjoy as a living legacy.

The anniversary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme will be marked with national remembrance events - and whilst Centenary Fields is a four year programme, there are specific moments which bring sharply into focus the impact of the War. The first day of the Battle of the Somme saw more casualties than any other day in military history and had an immense impact on their families and wider communities who lost loved ones. For example Sheffield, in common with other industrial towns was quick to form its own “Pals” battalion in the early weeks of the First World War. Pals battalions were made up of local neighbours, workmates - often sports teams - who volunteered together to join the forces. In September 1914 a full complement of around 1,000 Sheffield men were recruited within just two days. On July 1st 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the Sheffield City Battalion fought alongside the Accrington and Barnsley Pals in the heroic but failed attempt to capture the heavily fortified village of Serre in France. Tragically, the Sheffield City Battalion was largely wiped out, with around 500 men being killed or wounded in battle on this single day alone. The Sheffield men who died during the First World War are to be honoured with a new dedicated Centenary Field at Weston Park, home to two separate War memorials; The York & Lancaster Memorial within the park commemorates the loss of more than 8,800 soldiers during the First World War, including the Sheffield Pals.

The centenary of the Great War has generated an interest in the history of the men who served and their individual stories - Alasdair Fisher of Wanstead Rugby Football Club in east London for example has identified 18 of their 22 members who died in World War I as they prepare to protect their playing fields as a memorial Centenary Field. One young man, Edward Brunton was a 23 year old clerk from Walthamstow east London when he married his sweetheart, Mabel Anne Phillips. In May 1915 Brunton is listed in the London Gazette as a temporary 2nd Lieutenant in the Duke of Cambridge’s Own (Middlesex Regiment) 17th Battalion (Football). A battalion of footballers had been established by MP William Joynson-Hicks after Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, suggested it as part of the Pals battalion scheme. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle appealed for footballers to volunteer for service, saying "If a footballer has strength of limb, let them serve and march in the field of battle". The footballers battalion was led by an England International who was swiftly promoted to Major. Recruits included the whole of Clapton Orient (later to be known as Leyton Orient). The entire Heart of Midlothian team had signed up prior to the formation of the battalion. One soldier Walter Tull, became the first Black Infantry Officer in the British Army and was recommended for the Military Cross during the war. However many of those who signed-up were not from the ranks of professional footballers – but from the supporters on the terraces who wanted to serve alongside their sporting heroes. After basic training the Footballers Battallion travelled to France in November where they suffered heavy losses in the Battles of the Somme and the Operations on the Ancre.

Second Lieutenant Edward Benjamin Durford Brunton, age 23 years, of the Duke of Cambridge’s Own (Middlesex Regiment) 17th Battalion (Football) fought and died on the 13th November 1916 on the first day of the 2nd battle of Acre. Mabel Annie Phillips was married for less than a year and she was made a widow at the age of 23 years. She never married again and died in 1968 aged 76 years.

Already the Centenary Fields programme has ensured significant green spaces are protected in perpetuity and serve as a reminder of the often remarkable stories of those returning from the Great War. Redoubt Gardens is Eastbourne for example is home to a tree and plaque honouring the memory of former Eastbourne resident and World War I veteran Henry Allingham who died in 2009 aged 113; these gardens join a recreation ground in Somerset, recently dedicated as a Centenary Field, which was purchased by public subscription as a memorial to those lost in the war and where in 1921 their War Memorial was unveiled in the presence of the Last Fighting Tommy, Harry Patch.

Bellevue Park is an Edwardian Park located in the centre of Wrexham which has served as the site of memorial events with veterans of two world wars, over the years. Part of the park was dedicated as a Centenary Field to mark the 100th anniversary the Battle of Mametz Wood which saw thousands killed from the Royal Welch Fusiliers.

An event in Antrim in July will mark the protection of Bentra Golf Course as a Centenary Field and safeguard this recreational land in perpetuity. Bentra Golf Course & Whitehead Diamond Jubilee Wood was home to the Whitehead Aerodrome from 1915 to 1917, the first military aviation facility in Ireland.

But it is not just historic sites that are safeguarded by the Centenary Fields scheme. Cumbernauld Community Memorial Peace Garden in North Lanarkshire has been created as new recreational space from a formerly vacant and overgrown area of land to establish a war memorial in a place that has not had one before now. This is a shining example of community led commemoration which, while supported by the council, has been funded by local people and organised by volunteers.

Whilst we celebrate the safeguarding of memorial parks and recreation space not all communities have been so fortunate. On the Wirral, the Birkenhead Institute Memorial Playing Field was created in memory of the 88 students who died during World War I, including the war poet Wilfred Owen who is one of three soldiers awarded the Military Cross among the 88 old boys commemorated at the ground. This year the war memorial will move from “at risk” to “lost” on the Imperial War Museum Memorials Register. Although covenants were in place to ensure the site remained as a playing field this form of protection was not enough to stop planning permission from being granted for a housing estate - bulldozers began to dig up the memorial playing field in 2015. Each of the men was represented by a tree at the boundary of the field, four of which were removed in the redevelopment. Once lost to development recreational spaces cannot be retrieved.

The Fields in Trust Centenary Fields programme is a fitting way for us to mark the sacrifices made by so many in World War I whilst looking to the future through a living remembrance. The robust legal protection ensures the land will be safeguarded for future generations. We are delighted that communities across the UK are embracing Centenary Fields, commemorating the centenary of World War I for local people in a way they can appreciate forever. We look forward to many more landowners following their lead.