A Story of The Somme

Guest blogger: Graham Walker, Graham is an award winning journalist and commercial content editor with JP media, representing over 50 titles including Yorkshire Post, Yorkshire Evening Post and The Star in Sheffield. He has also been a Trustee of Barnsley Museums and Heritage Trust since 2017

“THEY shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old.

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them…”

The emotive words of remembrance always have a special meaning for me – as a boy I was raised on the story of bravery, pride and family heartbreak. My great-grandfather Fred Walker, aged 35, of Wombwell, along with his Barnsley brothers Ernest, 33, and Charles, 31, were all killed in action on the very first day of the Battle of the Somme, on July 1, 1916.

Images of the three Walker brothers on the Light Lines installation

The death of three brothers would be national headline news today. But the tragedy back then was lost among the carnage of war, as brigade after brigade was ground to a bloody pulp.

Sheets of bullets from German Maxim machine guns slaughtered many of the Walker brothers’ comrades in the 13th & 14th York & Lancaster Regiment, the so-called Barnsley Pals – volunteers of family, friends and colliery workmates.

On that first day, the British lost 19,240 men. Think about that.

Their families received an inscribed circular bronze plaque – known as a “Death Penny” – and a scroll of honour, like the treasured heirlooms handed down to me, along with Fred’s own prayer book and a cap badge.

Like thousands of others, I was stirred to make the pilgrimage to his final resting place in northern France. What was hell on Earth is now a well-tended farmer’s field, down a tranquil, idyllic country lane near the tiny village of Serre. The only signs of war were the rusty shells at the side of the field, still farmed to the surface, and the lovingly tended war cemeteries which mark the battlefield.

Fred and Ernest do not have graves. Their bodies, as far as I’ve discovered, are still in that field where they fell. Their names are carved on the nearby Thiepval Memorial, commemorating the 72,085 men who died there.

It is the final resting place of the brothers. Where bullets, bombs and death cries filled the air, there’s now an eerie sense of calm and quiet, a haunting spirit of courage, bravery and pride.

As my then two young sons, Joshua and Harry, smiled for a photograph near poppies down this real-life memory lane, it wasn’t difficult to imagine Fred, Ernest and Charles looking down on us.

They would be smiling too – knowing that their ultimate sacrifice for a better tomorrow would never be forgotten.

The Light Lines installation in front of Barnsley Town Hall

‘Light Lines’ in its original location at the front of the town hall in 2016 as part of the ‘Stories of The Somme’ exhibition.

This is why Light Lines, the artwork memorial of glass panels, lit at night and engraved with individual faces of many of the 300 Barnsley Pals who never came home, is not just an incredible tribute.

The work by artists Neil Musson and Jono Retallick, which also feature medals made by local school children, puts the men back on parade, a permanent reminder of the past we should never forget.

But it is much more than that. It also gives families, like me, a grave to visit, to pay final respects.

We had proud tears in our eyes at a centenary service when it was first unveiled outside the Town Hall and then moved to its permanent home nearby in Churchfield Peace Gardens, an old disused cemetery opposite St Mary’s Church, in Church Lane.

Unfortunately, this unique and important installation has been badly damaged during the summer and fundraising has begun for its repair.

So now is the time to show the same spirit as our brave war heroes and soldier on; together through our generosity we can show that good will always win.

I’ve put my hand in my pocket with a donation towards the repairs and I’ll do more, in memory of Fred, Charles and Ernest. And I encourage you to do the same.

Just some of the soldier portraits from local newspapers that Barnsley Archives and Local Studies has access to. Visit The Discovery Centre in the Barnsley Town Hall to learn more about your family’s military history https://www.experience-barnsley.com/our-archives

Light Lines must shine again. God bless ’em all.

Any donation, big or small, will help us in repairing this very special piece of work. if you would like to contribute in anyway you can do this at any of our five museum sites, by texting BARNSLEYPALS followed by the amount you wish to donate to 70085 or online at www.bmht.org/make-a-donation/

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