Sometimes I wish I still believed in the heaven of my childhood, where departed souls met up with old friends and family while keeping a benign eye on those below they once knew. It would be such fun right now to picture the look of gobsmacked astonishment on the faces of my former history teachers who made it past St Peter’s scrutiny.
I hated history at school: all those kings and dates to remember, not to mention the names and fates of Henry VIII’s wives and who was the true heir to which throne and why. There were countless dukes and noblemen but not a hint of anyone like me.
And even worse were the endless wars, illustrated by maps strewn with arrows showing which general had outflanked his foe in a place I’d never heard of.
It was all so irrelevant to a teenage boy in Tunbridge Wells who was hooked on the lyrics of Bob Dylan and wore his CND badge with pride.
So you will appreciate the irony when I tell you that I am launching a World War I project that is going to take up the best part of five years of my retirement.
Some things haven’t changed. I still have no interest in battle tactics and while better minds than mine dispute the ‘lions led by donkeys’ theory of WWI, it does seem to me to have been the squandering of millions of young lives on behalf of hanging on to an oppressive empire.
But what is different – and the reason I am spending five or six hours most days on this project – is that I now understand that history is also about the lives of ordinary folk, people like you and me, men and women who in 1914-18 would have been our friends and neighbours.
And it is those lives I am exploring by working my way through the pages of the weekly newspaper the Shipley Times & Express from 3 July 1914 to the end of the war. It only took a couple of issues for me to become hooked and there were so many great stories, I just wanted to share them, so I have committed myself to publishing each week a digest of the articles that appeared in the newspaper exactly one hundred years before.
Much of what I am labelling Shipley Times+100 concentrates on the Home Front, building a picture, week by week, of what life was like in a small part of West Yorkshire. Some of the pieces have nothing to do with the war, snippets of court cases, news stories or adverts that remind us that only a hundred years ago, horse-drawn vehicles were still commonplace, cinema was coming into its own and houses were on sale for a couple of hundred pounds.
But a time of tumultuous conflict was bound to affect those at home. Trade boomed for some, died for others; women’s roles changed from giving up their time to knit socks for soldiers to taking on the jobs the men had left; incredible pressure was applied to young men to persuade them to enlist in Kitchener’s Army; men, too old to fight at the front, formed a ‘Dad’s Army’ to prepare in case of invasion; communities found ways of helping those impoverished because the bread-winner was at war and then dug even deeper to provide shelter for refugees from Belgium who streamed into Britain.
And week after week, alongside the official releases about the progress of the war, readers were able to get a sense of what it was like for the young men who until recently had been working in local mills, or on the railway, or delivering their letters but now found themselves in the trenches.
Men like Neville Stringfellow, a 29-year-old Windhill policeman, whose wife Annie regularly shared his letters home.
As a reservist, Neville was among the first sent to the front and he graphically described the conditions:
‘I’m beginning to feel a bit “scratchy,” he wrote. ‘It’s eleven weeks since we had our clothes off. We sleep anywhere. It’s getting very cold at night especially in the trenches but we don’t mind the cold as long as the rain keeps off. It rains for a week at a time here. We were up to our knees in the trenches in water and sludge and every time the shells burst, we had to duck under.’
A few weeks later he sent an even more harrowing letter about a battle he’d been involved in alongside his brother Bernard.
‘My brother and I were side by side. Our company was advancing and we got too far. We were lying down in the open and the Germans got nearly all around us.
‘Bernard and I, along with three more men, were laid down firing an hour after the others had retired. I lifted my head and saw that all the others were killed or wounded.
‘We then took our packs off and crawled along the side of a turnip field. All the time there were thousands of bullets being fired at us and we realised that we were between two fires, our own and the Germans.
‘We crawled for about a thousand yards on our stomachs and Bernard and another man got into the next field.
‘I did not see him again.
‘The man who was with him said he was all right until he got nearly to the end of the field when he got hit. We were all lying in a ditch half full of water for six hours. We dared not lift our heads on account of the bullets.
‘I tried to get back to Bernard but I could not. The Germans were within thirty yards of us so we laid still until night. The hours seemed to be years, shells dropping all around us. It was terrible. I shall never forget it. I said to my comrades, “We are done”.’
In fact Neville survived but Bernard didn’t and in heart-breaking letters he desperately tries to persuade his family that it was not his negligence that had allowed his brother to die.
His story and those of many others that I’m discovering as I continue this journey could have belonged to any of us if we had been born in a different time. For some families, indeed, they are the stories they are experiencing today as those with power still ignore the evidence and decide war is the way they will resolve their differences.
This is a history that resonates for me and in a way links me again with that teenager who heard Bob Dylan sing ‘How many deaths will it take til they know, that too many people have died?’
You can follow Shipley Times +100 on my website www.shipleyww1.org.uk