GALLERY: Remembering the Hertfordshire Regiment a century on
PUBLISHED: 17:06 24 May 2013 | UPDATED: 17:07 24 May 2013
WITH the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I next year, Comet reporter Nick Gill visited Ypres in Belgium for the launch of a county-wide project to commemorate the centenary.
IT MAY be almost a century since the Great War started but the Ypres salient still bears the battle scars.
Travelling across the area by coach, almost everywhere you look there are cemeteries lined with headstones belonging to soldiers who died serving for the allied forces.
It is the setting where the 1st Battalion of the Hertfordshire Regiment suffered its greatest number of casualties, fighting in the third Battle of Ypres – better known as Passchendaele.
Guided by Stevenage tour company Battle Honours, we retraced the same steps taken by the 620-strong battalion on July 31, 1917, when 459 of those men were either killed, injured or captured in the Battle of St Julien.
As the sun peeked through the clouds and cows grazed on the village fields, it was difficult to imagine that scene of destruction, which left more than 150 men dead.
The bodies of many of those who perished have never been identified.
One of those was Percy Buck, a 26-year-old man from Hitchin who was found mortally wounded by a German soldier.
We know this because the soldier took a photograph of Private Buck with his wife and child from the dying man’s hand, sending it to the Red Cross in Switzerland. The photograph was then returned to his family’s home in Baliol Road as requested.
"To be involved in the ceremony and to lay a wreath dedicated to the memory of the Hertfordshire Regiment was a great honour"
It is such remarkable stories that the Herts at War team wish to tell in an ambitious project to document the lives of soldiers in the Hertfordshire Regiment and those from across the county who served in World War I, as well as offering an insight into what was happening simultaneously on the home front.
“This has come about from looking at the Letchworth War Memorial, looking at the 147 names on there and wondering about the stories behind them,” said project co-ordinator Dan Hill, who lives in Letchworth GC.
“The idea is to bring these stories to life for people who have lived in the same streets and attended the same schools. We want to involve as many people across the county as possible and we’re looking for stories, memories and artefacts related to their own family’s experiences.”
During the trip Dan also spoke of Captain Sidney Lowry, one of 20 officers killed at St Julien on July 31, 1917.
Dispelling the myths from 1914-1918: World War I facts
•Typically soldiers spent 300 days in training and 65 days in trenches
•Of those days fighting, four would be spent in the trench, then eight days out and so on
•The average age of death in the British Army was 26
•If you were in the British Army in WWI, you had a 12.6 per cent chance of dying
•10,000 soldiers stayed in Ypres after the war
He was born almost a century to the day before myself and home was a property in North Road, Stevenage – not far from where I now live.
Although perhaps all we share in common – admittedly my family has never had three servants – his story and untimely death at the age of 29 struck a cord with me.
A letter to Cpt Lowry’s family from a fellow serviceman said that there wasn’t a “better officer or more gallant man serving in the army” and I felt duty-bound to show my respects.
Later I was able to do exactly that as we finished our tour in Ypres at the Menin Gate Memorial, where the names of almost 55,000 officers and men who served for the British and Commonwealth forces who have no known grave can be found.
"I just think it’s great we’re able to open up the history of the Great War and follow the lives of local soldiers. We can use that as a vehicle to challenge some of the misinformed stereotypes and preconceptions about the Great War"
The memorial itself is a fitting tribute but the fact that every night since November 1929 – barring a four-year German occupation during World War II – the sound of the Last Post can be heard there seems incredible to me.
And once I had found Cpt Lowry’s name on the wall and Pte Buck, I scanned the others wondering about what stories and heartbreak they might reveal.
Thanks to the Herts at War project, we may just find out.
•A website with more information about the project is due to go live next week – www.hertsatwar.co.uk