The best Christmas presents are always the unexpected ones, and one that I certainly wasn’t expecting was this volume: Huddersfield’s Roll of Honour, 1914-1922. Thank you, Jo and John.
The book is a work of extraordinary scholarship, by Margaret Stansfield. In 1985 she joined a tour of the Great War battlefields in France and Belgium, and because of the experience was moved to compile a full register of all those soldiers (and sailors, too) from the Huddersfield area who died in the Great War.
This book is the fruit of her labours; it contains 3,349 entries, each recording everything she has been able to discover about a particular soldier. Typically this includes his date of birth and some family details, including the family address; the school he attended, and his work; his regimental number, and his unit; details of his death; details of where he is buried, and the Huddersfield memorial on which he is listed. In many cases there are quotations from letters home from officers or comrades, explaining how the man was killed. Many of these include consoling words such as ‘I am glad to say he had no suffering as his very sad death took place instantaneously.’ Well, sometimes these kindly-meant words were true, I expect.
The book is a tour de force of research. Mrs Stansfield has discovered a huge amount from archives, and also from chasing up local sources, including descendants of the men who died. She died before bringing the book to print, and it is her husband who enlisted the help of the University of Huddersfield in publishing it. My own guess is that she held back from publication until she was utterly satisfied that it was complete, and probably found it hard to let go of her research (and oh don’t I understand that feeling!)
Here is a fairly typical entry, with fewer biographical details than some, but with a personal tribute from his commanding officer:
Each entry gives you glimpses of a life, and makes you wonder about the person. One that particularly intrigues me is this:
Since he died in January 1916, this man was not a conscript; at 55 he was also, surely, an unlikely volunteer. My first guess was that he must have been a pre-war regular who gave in under the strain of industrial warfare, but the 1911 census shows him living in Huddersfield and working as a labourer. He had seven children.
Huddersfield has been fortunate in its local War historians: Cyril Pearce’s research into war resisters is unique in its presentation of a wartime radical community, and this labour of love gives the other side of the picture, showing the cost of war to those who went to fight. I moved to Huddersfield a couple of years ago, so I find this record of diverse local lives cut short by war especially interesting, but any student of the period would find much here to think about. There is a hint in the introduction that the information is going to be put into an electronic form, and I can see the usefulness of this. In book form it is a mass of detail ordered only by the soldiers’ names. A database could reveal patterns in the casualty list: what ages were likeliest to die; which areas of the town were most afflicted, and so on. It could also, perhaps, include the photographs and documents that Margaret Stansfield collected. In the meantime, the book offers plenty to think about.