When we think of the First World War, we remember an event that changed the course of history. It cannot be overstated the impact that this conflict had, from the loss that so many families suffered to the vast political and social change that it brought about. Those four years of war had implications in every corner of the globe.
In Britain, too, the war was a catalyst for social reform. The jobs that women took on in the absence of men, and the work they did to keep the country running, was vital in convincing Parliament and public opinion more widely to support the need for female suffrage, which was finally achieved in 1918. Moreover, the demographics of Britain changed so much that many young women, who would otherwise have become wives and mothers, turned to new professions that had previously been considered only the realm of men. The workforce of Britain would never be the same again.
Most of all, however, what we remember is the scale of the sacrifice in that conflict. The image of row after row of graves on the battlefield of the Somme is not quickly forgotten. No fewer than 750,000 British soldiers died, and a million and a half more returned home injured. Taken as a whole, the First World War claimed the lives of over 16 million people. This sacrifice alone, even without the great changes that occurred, would require remembrance, the loss of so many lives must never be forgotten.
Today, a name plaque will be unveiled at the Barnsley Town Hall square and gardens, in time for the 100 year anniversary of the First World War, and it will read ‘Barnsley Pals Centenary Square’. The Barnsley Pals formed the 13th and 14th Battalions of the York and Lancaster Regiment during the War, and they were composed of men who had enlisted in local recruitment drives on the promise of being able to serve with their friends and colleagues, rather than in regular army regiments.
Both Barnsley Pals battalions were part of the attack on Serre on the first day of the Somme campaign. In that one day, 1 July 1916, the 1st Barnsley Pals lost 275 men, while the 2nd lost 270. It is here that the true impact of the First World War can be understood when we think of the families that lost loved ones that day, the countless husbands, fathers and sons who never came home, and the irreplaceable loss suffered by those families and communities.
These sacrifices continue to this day. I know from my time serving in Afghanistan the dangers that our young men and women in uniform face, and the dedication and courage with which they serve is truly inspiring. The dignity with which the people of Barnsley continue to deal with losing loved ones is humbling, particularly the families of Martin Driver, Dave Marsh and Matthew Thornton, three young men from Barnsley who lost their lives in conflict in recent years. When we remember those who died in the First World War, we should also keep in mind those who are still serving and sacrificing today.
As we approach the 100th anniversary of the First World War, it is more important than ever that we remember the sacrifices that people from Barnsley and elsewhere made during that conflict. The reasons for war are often controversial, but remembering those who served and died is not, and this new plaque commemorating the Barnsley Pals reminds us all of that.
This article was first published in the Barnsley Chronicle on 13th September 2013.