“The first and the last of the Sheffield City Battalion”
by John Cornwell
published by Pen & Sword Military in 2019
Hardback ISBN 978 1 52676 224 5
203 pages plus bibliography and index. Illustrated
Cover price £25
The Sheffield City Battalion, one of the “pals” units raised as part of Lord Kitchener’s new armies in 1914, has received a fair mount of attention from historians in the past. Anyone interested in the battalion may have already seen Ralph Gibson and Paul Oldfield’s history from 1988 (reprinted 2006) and also been impressed with John Harris’s 1961 fictional account “Covenant with death”, which is based on the battalion’s experiences up until their terrible fate at Serre on 1 July 1916. I have also noticed a 2016 work which I have not read, Penny Meakin’s “The Meakin Diaries – Sheffield in the Trenches”, which is from the diary of (I presume) a relative who fought with the battalion.
“The first and last” is not a battalion history. It is the biographies of two men who served with it. Vivian Simpson, a local solicitor well known as a good footballer for Sheffield Wednesday and an England prospect: he is said to have been the first to enlist when recruitment opened in 1914. The “last” also enlisted early, clerk Reg Glenn: his distinction is that he lived to a great age and is believed to have been the last of the men who saw service with the battalion to leave this Earth. Along with others of that band of men as their numbers dwindled through the 1980s and 90s, he was featured in several documentary TV programmes.
John Cornwell is no newcomer, for this is his nineteenth book, with most being on matters of local Sheffield history. His research is excellent, broad and deep; his writing is fluid and very readable. The book is well illustrated, too, and generally makes for an absorbing and entertaining couple of hours.
It is curious and probably fortunate that Vivian Simpson missed the terrible action at Serre. Despite joining early and then bring commissioned as an officer in early 1915, he was retained at home for training the reserves when the battalion went overseas. He finally rejoined it on 3 August 1916, one of several officers sent to replace the 17 killed or wounded at Serre. With a Military Cross to his name, he was killed in action during the Battle of the Lys in April 1918. By that time, Reg Glenn had been through Serre and many periods in the front line but had also left the battalion. He was commissioned into the North Staffordshire Regiment in 1917. The biographies take the reader from their birth and origins – both from fairly comfortable backgrounds in what could be a hard and grim steel city – and up until they met their ends in such differing circumstances.
This is a rather different take on Great War history and I recommend it.