Herts At War: ‘We only have one chance to do justice to their sacrifice’

Reggie (seated centre) and his platoon and was taken on 3 June 1917 at Wormhoudt.  Many of the men in his platoon came from the Hemel Hempstead area.
Reggie (seated centre) and his platoon and was taken on 3 June 1917 at Wormhoudt. Many of the men in his platoon came from the Hemel Hempstead area.

A county-wide initiative which plans to tell the story of Hertfordshire life during the First World War, both at home and on the front, is now under way to help mark the centenary of the outbreak of the cataclysmic conflict.

The not-for-profit organisation behind the scheme, Herts At War, started up in Letchworth but has snowballed in line with growing interest in the 100th anniversary of the Great War’s outbreak in 1914.

The idea is to create a touring museum which will criss-cross the county, teaching people about the enormity of the war by focusing on a local perspective.

Project co-ordinator Dan Hill said: “The overriding concept is remembrance, to do the right thing by telling those stories and bringing it to the forefront of people’s minds.

“This did happen in people’s lives, and it was just as hard for people at home as it was for the soldiers fighting on the front line.”

As part of the centenary project, Herts At War ran its first visit to the Belgian battlefield site Ypres with historical tours company Battle Honours.

The tour followed in the footsteps of Hertfordshire soldiers – footsteps which, for many, were to be their last.

Organisers hope that, as the project picks up momentum, more and more trips can be organised for those in Hertfordshire.

Dan said: “The day went absolutely brilliantly. It was a very moving for me, to have done so much research on these guys and then to actually walk on the fields where they were during the war.

“It was a really powerful day topped off by laying a wreath to the Hertfordshire Regiment at the Menin Gate.”

The emotional journey was all the more poignant for historian and author Charles Fair, whose great uncle Reggie Secretan lost his life in Ypres during one of the most famous battles of the Great War.

Charles, inspired by his family connections, wrote the book Marjorie’s War using the hundreds of letters and documents collected by his grandmother and six young men from four interconnecting families. The Dodgson brothers, also featured in the book, hailed from Bovingdon.

He explains how Reggie, who came from Leverstock Green, tried to enlist for service on several occasions after leaving school in 1914, aged 19, but was turned down because of his eyesight.

He was, however, finally accepted just before Christmas the same year, writing home to his mother: “I am so bucked! I am a real soldier at last!”

In 1917, by then a second lieutenant, he joined the 1st Battalion of the Hertfordshire Regiment which was posted to the Ypres Salient, the location of Herts At War’s trip.

Many of the men in his command were drawn from Hemel Hempstead and Berkhamsted, and he advanced with this platoon on the opening of the third Ypres offensive on July 31.

On this day, the beginning of the infamous battle known as Passchendaele, every officer in the regiment was either killed or wounded, including Reggie, who was just 22.

Charles said: “Like so many other Herts men who died that day, Reggie’s body was never identified. If it was found, it must lie among the many other unknown soldiers whose headstones are inscribed as ‘known unto God’.”

The Hemel Hempstead hero’s name appears on the war monument at Leverstock Green and at the Menin Gate, where Herts At War laid a wreath in memory of the many other members of the Hertfordshire Regiment who made the ultimate sacrifice.

But misconceptions of the Great War still abound, and one thing the Herts At War project is keen to teach people is the fact that four out of five soldiers who left for the front would return.

They hope to tell their stories, and those of fallen soldiers like Reggie, using the concept of ‘small picture history’. Dan explains: “We want the project to work by taking one street or town or county, which is typical of so many others, and telling its story.

“This way, we can help tell it for everyone. It is a nice concept and it gives people in the community a chance to be involved, which is great.

“We are only ever going to see the centenary once, none of us will witness another.

“We want to do justice to the county as a whole for the sacrifice its people made.”

The Herts At War website is set to go live within the next week.

l To share your knowledge or family history and documents with the scheme, visit www.hertsatwar.co.uk or get in touch on Twitter using the handle @herts_at_war.

l To read more about Reggie Secretan, Charles Fair’s non-fiction book Marjorie’s War can be bought on Amazon.

l If you’re involved in any projects to mark the centenary, let us know – email details to thegazette@jpress.co.uk or call the newsdesk on 01442 262311