100 years ago today, on the 10th of November 1917, The Third Battle of Ypres ended. It was a battle so terrible that it grew to symbolise the true horror of the First World War and became synonymous with the village where it ended; Passchendaele.
November 1917 also witnessed another important battle in British military history. The 20th of November was the beginning of the Battle of Cambrai and the birth of what became known as Combined Arms warfare – with its emphasis on combining tanks, artillery and infantry. The battle demonstrated that even the strongest defences could be overcome by combining the equipment provided by 20th century industry. It is for this reason that Cambrai has found a unique place in British military history.
But in this current period of Remembrance, there is one name that should have special significance for the people of Barnsley; that of Albert Edward Shepherd. Albert was born in 1897 in Royston, the son of a Shropshire miner, Noah, and Laura, a local woman from Hoyland Common. Like his father, Albert was a miner and worked in New Monckton Colliery in Royston. In 1915, he enlisted into the Army and was drafted into one of Lord Kitchener’s Service Battalions, the 12thKing’s Royal Rifle Corps.
By the age of twenty, Albert had seen action in both the Battle of the Somme and, in 1917, the Battle of Passchendaele. However, it was in the Battle of Cambrai at the village of Villers Plouich, in Northern France, that Albert demonstrated such heroism that he was awarded the Victoria Cross - the UK’s highest award for gallantry. His citation read:
On 20 November 1917 at Villers Plouich, France, when his company was held up by a machine-gun at point-blank range, Private Shepherd volunteered to rush the gun and although ordered not to, rushed forward and threw a Mills bomb killing two gunners and capturing the gun. The company, continuing its advance, came under heavy enfilade machine-gun fire and when the last officer and NCO had become casualties, Private Shepherd took command of the company, ordered the men to lie down and went back some 70 yards to get the help of a tank. He then returned to his company and led them to their last objective.
Though his bravery was exceptional, his service was not. He was one of many men from Barnsley who, in 1914, responded to Lord Kitchener’s famous recruitment poster, and chose to enlist. The included miners, glassworkers, labourers and clerks – many of them family and friends. They joined up together, trained together, fought together and many of them died together.
Of course, in the 100 years since the savagery of World War One, the world has changed in innumerable ways. Many of the technological advancements that caused this change have also served to make the mechanics of war more efficient and even more brutal. But the sacrifice and the service remain a constant.
That is why, as well as reminding us of our past, the act of remembrance is an opportunity to be mindful of the present. So, over this period of remembrance, let us think about heroes like Albert, and the many who have laid down their lives, especially those young men from Barnsley; Martin Driver, David Marsh and Matthew Thornton who all fell in Afghanistan, but let us also think of the veterans whose lives have been changed by conflict and the families whose loved ones did not come home. Not celebrating but commemorating – remembering the past, respecting the present, and working towards a better and more peaceful future.
A memorial stone to Albert Shepherd VC will be laid in front of the Barnsley War memorial at 2.30pm on Mon 20 Nov 2017.