In the first of a new series of regular blogs, Fields in Trust Development Manager Jamie Leeson discusses the Centenary Fields programme and his recent visit to Weston Park in Sheffield.
This is my first blog as Fields in Trust's Development Manager for the North of England and, to be completely frank with you (which is a theme I hope to continue with - not much point in a blog otherwise!) it's taken me a while to get round to writing it. It took even longer to decide what to write about (there's got to be a chicken and egg scenario in there...). So, when I finally decided to write about my invitation to attend a Somme commemoration event last month in Sheffield, I’ve done some soul-searching about why being asked to attend - and to lay a wreath during the service - has meant so much to me.
After all, my job's had some not-your-average-office-9-to-5 experiences. I work for a Royally-founded charity where I've shaken hands with the future King. I've fired a loaded weapon in a public park in front of the same King-in-waiting's Special Forces security (and without so much as a hi-vis vest or earphones in sight), and I've single-handedly created a picture that launched a thousand front pages worldwide (well, maybe not a thousand... but that tale is for another post!). With no shortage of interesting and unusual moments, you’d think attending a local service in a park wouldn't be at the pinnacle of my experiences in the job.
But it is. And most likely it is because the commemoration event, held at Sheffield City Council's Weston Park, was to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of The Battle of The Somme.
"Somme. The whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word." So wrote German Officer Friedrich Steinbrecher, of his experience.
Numbers are often used to impress. 9.58 seconds; the time it took Usain Bolt to break the 100 metres World Record. That the latest Lamborghini car can get from 0-60mph in 2.7 seconds. Or that the world's richest man, Bill Gates, is worth (at the time of writing) $78.5bn. Some are incomprehensible; the unravelled DNA strands in every human being would stretch from the Earth to the Sun (98 million miles away) hundreds of times.
Now here’s some numbers and facts in relation to the Battle of The Somme; during that time;
- In excess of 1.1 million men, on both sides of the battle, died. That's at least one man every 5 seconds. Or greater than the entire populations of Liverpool and Manchester combined. Imagine the impact of that being reported on social media and the 24-hour news coverage that we have today...
- In those 5 months of fighting, the battle was beset by horrific geographical, meteorological, topographical, medical, physical and psychological conditions.
- Allied forces, at the most, progressed six miles, only to find the enemy tactically retreated. In the north of the Battle lines, progress could be measured in yards. Hundreds of thousands of men dead. For yards... It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that the battle is widely regarded as unsuccessful and its legacy was not to end the War, but to create improved military tactics at further battles during World War I and to increase the severity of fighting and subsequently the duration of The War.
- The Somme was perhaps the first battle to significantly highlight the condition known then as 'Shell Shock,' (cautionary note; link contains graphic descriptions of battlefield conflict), later to be diagnosed as 'Post Traumatic Stress Disorder'. Over 300 allied soldiers and officers were shot at dawn during The Great War, following trial, as deserters, a number of whom were suffering from this psychological condition. This seems to somehow compound the horror of the torment these men endured, some for months during the battle and for years afterwards.
History has a tendency to romanticise events. To remember the successes without necessarily acknowledging the suffering it took to achieve them. But sheer weight of numbers like these can lay bare the stark realities of events such as this. What I do I know is that I feel enormous sorrow for those who fell in a truly horrific war - the war that was meant to end all wars.
There was no shortage of that emotion in Sheffield last month. I had some time alone before the service started, which quickly turned into reflection. Reading the long list of names (8,800 to be precise – 500 lives lost on the first day at The Somme) on the Weston Park War Memorial, knowing that there are similar and even longer lists across Britain, meant there was time to appreciate the loss felt across the United Kingdom a century ago and hopefully still felt today. Today with hindsight, my overriding emotion at the Somme commemoration event in Sheffield was one of pride. Ultimately pride in those impossibly brave individuals that went to battle from all over the United Kingdom. But also pride in the numbers of people, young and old, that attended the Sheffield commemoration service. Pride, also, in being invited to attend, to lay a wreath, to see the Centenary Fields plaque blessed and being able to convey that pride when interviewed live for BBC Radio Sheffield. You can listen back to my interview below.
Just after my radio interview (another 'perk' of the job!) had ended, the radio presenter pointed to a man in a wheelchair, escorted (I assume) by his family. The man, clearly a War veteran, judging by the medals on his blazer, had to be in his 90s. He was staring at the Centenary Fields plaque at the park, which designates every Centenary Field that Fields in Trust protects, openly sobbing. The radio presenter asked "where have we taken him back to?" I’ve heard national radio debates recently, asking if we should leave the past World Wars in the past and 'move on'. As a society on the whole do we, in 2016, need to metaphorically be taken back to 1916, or the early 1940s? Do we need to remember what these heroes fought for? I remain convinced that we do, 'Lest We Forget'.
I’ve recently visited World War I memorial playing fields (held in memorial to a town's men who fought and died) that have been developed for housing. We've had reports of World War I memorial plaques being found in skips. The passage of time has meant that there are few survivors of World War II and none from World War I to remind us of the ultimate sacrifice all too many made for our futures,
Centenary Fields is a project that remembers those heroes. Fields in Trust's Centenary Fields project, which runs until 2018, is not the most high profile commemoration event, nor perhaps the most tangible, as Great Britain remembers The Great War one hundred years on. But it offers those who own the land that bears a memorial to our fallen the opportunity to protect it in perpetuity, in their honour for the whole community.
These 420,000 British and allied men - and more - paid for these memorial parks, playing fields, gardens and green spaces that we enjoy today with their blood and their lives. They didn't serve for a memorial, or expect one, but they are there and remain a huge part of their legacies. Fields in Trust's Centenary Fields programme offers those who own the land that bears a memorial to our fallen the opportunity to protect it in perpetuity, in their honour, for the whole community. By 2018, we hope there will be 500 Centenary Fields across the UK, each telling its own story about its links to World War I.
The legacy of those who died shouldn't be a housing development. Or a supermarket. If we want a Britain to be proud of by remembering our fallen heroes, we should remember and respect that. It's very easy and perhaps convenient to look at the here and now and perhaps even to assume that these memorials will never be lost. But they have been, and will continue to be. So let's protect these spaces in their memories. With Centenary Fields - a programme I'm incredibly proud to be part of.
Jamie Leeson is Fields in Trust's Development Manager for the North of England. He can be contacted by any of the below means.
t: 020 7427 2110
m: 07525 182 414
Pictured above from top to bottom feature Centenary Fields protected sites: