Celebrating stories of heroes from First World War
5:30am Thursday 13th March 2014 in By Barrie Hudson
Mark Sutton and Mike Pringle who are spearheading the First World War memorial activities at Radnor Street Cemetery
THE organisers behind Swindon’s First World War commemoration want Adver readers with them every step of the way.
Everybody whose family history was touched by the conflict is invited to tell their story for posterity.
Between 1914 and 1918 we sent 5,000 men to war.
Of those, about a fifth didn’t come home and two fifths came back bearing physical and mental scars.
In those days Swindon had a population of 50,000 to 60,000; these days it’s about 200,000.
In 2014 terms, it’s roughly as if 66,000 men went away, 20,000 were wounded and 7,000 died.
Imagine a multiple repatriation of the dead every day, seven days a week, for more than four years, and that every flag-draped casket carried a local man and represented a local family bereaved.
To commemorate their sacrifice, the Swindon Advertiser has joined forces with Swindon in the Great War, a project putting together a series of events across the community.
Its committee of local historians, researchers and members of the public have formed around Dr Mike Pringle and Mark Sutton. Mike works in arts and heritage development, while Mark is a painter and decorator. Each has a lifelong interest in the conflict.
Mike, 51, said: “My dad was in the Royal Artillery, so I grew up in the Army, basically – grew up surrounded by khaki.
“I’ve always been fascinated not just by this war but by military matters. But I’m especially fascinated by this war because of the sheer scale of the thing.
“One of the things that has really interested me as this centenary has come forward is the sort of impact that it had on families and folk back home.
“We think of it in terms of the soldiers and their helmets and their guns, off fighting at the front, but the war didn’t stop there, obviously.
“I’ve written two books. One is a novel about Swindon lads going to the front and the other is about the history of Swindon in the Great War.
“As a consequence of doing that I very soon came across Mark’s name, as everybody was telling me he was the one to know.”
Mark, also 51, is the author of Tell Them of Us, which is subtitled: “Remembering Swindon’s Sons of the Great War, 1914-1918.”
He said: “I’m not from a military background; I just grew up with a military interest.
“It took off naturally and, of course, living next door to a war veteran as well, I used to plague him with questions.
“Like Mike, I’m just fascinated with that war – the social side as well, but also the scale of it, and how quick we are to invent things to kill and to destroy.
“In that war we developed everything so quickly.
“It was the stories this old man came out with – and, of course, some of my teachers were Second World War veterans. I just cottoned on to that.
“I used to ask them from a really young age.
“They used to talk about it, but mainly the funny side, the little tales.
“I was never one to ask, ‘How many men have you killed?’ and I never did ask that.
“I just wanted to know, and my old neighbour used to say, ‘You’ll never understand it.’”
A major coup was securing the backing of South Swindon MP Robert Buckland, who the two credit with opening numerous doors for their project.
Planned events include school visits with a touring collection of photographs, uniforms and other items.
There will be screenings of relevant films by Swindon Film Society, exhibitions at the Museum and Art Gallery and – hopefully – exhibitions at the Brunel Centre, including a ‘memory wall’ where people will be able to pin stories of their families’ experiences.
Mike added: “It just seems unfair not to celebrate some of the unbelievable tales of heroism.”
Meanwhile, a resting place for fallen heroes from Swindon will take a central role in the town’s programme to mark the First World War centenary.
Radnor Street Cemetery’s chapel will be fully refurbished after years of neglect and the grounds have been tidied up by the council.
The Swindon in the Great War group plans a series of events in which the long-neglected Kingshill graveyard features prominently.
The cemetery has 104 Commonwealth War Graves and an application is due to be made to the commission which looks after such resting places for a new information sign at the gates.
Local author and historian Mark Sutton, also a painter and decorator, who has been refurbishing the chapel, said: “Radnor Street will be central to the commemoration as it’s a Commonwealth War Graves cemetery.
“In April we’re going to redecorate the interior of the chapel and from then on we are going to start doing exhibitions and guided walks and we have been talking about a candlelight Christmas event.
“The schools are showing an interest as well because a lot of students can’t get to France or Belgium and they want to make use of a Commonwealth War Graves cemetery on their doorstep.
“We want to use the cemetery as much as possible.”
Photographs of the fallen will feature in exhibitions at the chapel and local families will be invited to contribute pictures and chat with local historians.
A memorial to more than 130 war dead from the former Sanford Street School was restored and put on display inside the building in November.
Organisers of Swindon in the Great War were pleasantly surprised at a large turnout for the launch of the commemoration a few days later.
The chapel – built in Gothic revival style in the late 1800s – no longer looks derelict after having windows fitted and the rest of the work is due for completion in April.
The new lease of life follows years of disuse when locals trying to spruce up the cemetery hit red tape in trying to use the chapel for public events.
“Radnor Street was known as the Swindon Cemetery,” Mark said. “There are many local families who have relatives buried there and, as well as the war graves, there is the Sanford Street School roll of honour.
“Everyone’s focus is on the cemetery now and I find it really exciting. People have been awakened to it and are finding old photographs and sharing stories about relatives buried there.
“It’s not just military history, it’s social history and people are remembering other aspects of Swindon’s past. It will be great to see the place become somewhere the town can be proud of.”
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission said earlier this month that it was installing information signs outside cemeteries around the UK, and Radnor Street is likely to be one such spot.
Your Swindon Advertiser needs you!
Or more specifically the Adver and local volunteers from the Swindon in the Great War group need your personal stories of the heroism and hardships of ancestors who had to endure the First World War.
Whether they are tales of the Western Front or the Home Front, people from all over town rose to the unprecedented challenges of the time.
As the 100th anniversary of the declaration approaches, a host of events and memorials are planned to commemorate it.
Local historians and authors Dr Mike Pringle and Mark Sutton are spearheading the community events and are gearing up for large-scale commemorations.
Mike said: “I started writing a book for the history press on Swindon in the Great War and I met with Mark, who has a huge passion for it. Once the two of us got together, things really took off very quickly.
“The idea behind it is united we stand and the more people we can get together the better.
“We were worried nothing was going to happen in Swindon and we’d be the only town in the county not to be organised.
“We are all volunteers and we are always looking for more.
“We also want people to get involved and tell their own family histories.
“There will be exhibitions, events in schools and memorials, and the main events will kick off in August, on the anniversary of when the war started.”
The Swindon in the Great War project will mark the town’s war effort with a series of events 100 years on from the start of hostilities. For more, visit swindonin thegreatwar.word press.com or follow @swindongreatwar on Twitter.