Reviews, ‘Photos on the Wall’

Paul Ward, Professor of Modern British History, University of Huddersfield

Like any other town in Britain between 1914 and 1918, the textile town of New Mill, close to Holmfirth in West Yorkshire, experienced the horrors of lives cut short by an unexpected war that raged across European and other parts of the world for four years. In memory of the thirty or so New Mill men who died in the war, the small town raised enough money by public subscription to build the New Mill Memorial Institute, which then displayed photographs of each of them on its walls. Photos on the Wall: A Short History of New Mill and the Great War by Tom Ashworth, written to mark the centenary of the Great  War, serves to rededicate this memorial by doing justice to the lives not only of those who died, but also to their families, friends and work colleagues. It is a local history book, written with much knowledge and evident affection for New Mill, but it successfully sets the story in its regional and national context. This is not just a book about a mill town at war but about a town connected to Holmfirth, to Huddersfield, to England and to Empire.

The impressive depth of research serves as a further accolade to the young men whose lives were lost in the Great War, delving as Ashworth does into contemporary newspapers, photographs and reminiscences to recount the different histories of the people of New Mill. It doesn’t neglect opponents of the war, including socialists and conscientious objectors. Nor does it miss out the role of women and civilian men at home: twelve Fulstone men, for example, were arrested for gaming with coins in the last weeks of the war. And it is this attention to detail that provides its greatest tribute to those who diedsince it enables remembrance in this generation and the next.

Reverend Canon Sean Robertshaw, Vicar of the Parish of New Mill & Chaplain to the Forces Class 2, (Lt. Col.)

‘Photos on the Wall’ does not glorify war, rather it tells the very human story and therefore a universal story of how young lads from our local communities, who were playing cricket, fancying pigeons, or getting married were called into service during the Great War waged in Europe between July 1914 and Nov 1918. Tom Ashworth calls us into a speedy, thoroughly researched, busy, energised, and at times frenetic narrative of village life. The picture of a lone woman in her mourning garments on Sude Hill emphasises the futility and emptiness felt in so many hearts and in our communities at that time. Tom recounts that the effects of war galvanised local communities into action and demonstrates the challenges faced by the people of that time in finding suitable places of remembrance for the fallen. With meticulous and great detail Tom puts into context the national need and brings back to life battles at home, pg. 36 ‘religious persecution’; pg. 52 the changing role of women, ‘[T]hey became a critical part of the labour force,’ alongside the letters and the stories of the 34 men from New Mill who went aboard and served in the front line.

Randal Atkinson’s picture (pg.71) has always fascinated me. His is the first name read out from the Roll of Honour on Remembrance Sunday. There is a tinge of vulnerability, perhaps even of longing in his picture. For Helena Child, his sweetheart and wife, life would never be the same again. He was 19 years old when he was killed with six others by a German shell. Randal is one representative of the 34 men commemorated on the New Mill War Memorial 1914-1919. Tom recounts their lives before the war, their service and their deaths. The photographs, now accompanied by Tom’s narrative, of young lads from our village and surrounding area are reminders of their heroic commitment in war and also of our many failures as a human race to love our neighbour. The community can now boast a rich resource to draw upon when remembering its fallen from the Great War. Tom Ashworth has given us a gift. This remarkable tribute to those 34 men and their families is a true testament to any family of the sacrifices made at home and abroad when men (and now women) are called to fight in armed conflict:

“Move him into the sun—

Gently its touch awoke him once,

At home, whispering of fields half-sown.”

Wilfred Owen May 1918

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