The ‘War to End All Wars’ – attributed to President Woodrow Wilson (1856 – 1924) – was an appallingly bloody conflict. It was sparked by the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, in Sarajevo (at that time in a backwater province of the Empire), by Gavrilo Princip, a fervent Bosnian nationalist on the 28th June, 1914. Within weeks, a series of incidents, and a set of interlocking alliances, lead to the outbreak of hostilities between England, France and Russia on the one hand, and Germany and Austria-Hungary on the other. Eventually, most of Europe was involved, (in this war, Italy was on the side of England and France), although there were notable neutral nations such as Holland and Switzerland.
Britain sent her small, professional army across the Channel, to the aid of France and ‘plucky little Belgium’. It became a dash to the North Sea coast, as rival forces attempted to outflank each other. By the end of autumn, trench warfare had begun, with trench systems constructed opposite each other, all the way from the North Sea to the Swiss border. The war became a meat grinder, with poison gas, the newly developed machine gun and the even newer aircraft turning the Western Front into a bloodbath.
The local regiment for the Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire area was the ‘Sherwood Foresters’, an amalgamation, in 1881, of two earlier infantry units. The 2nd Battalion, which was in England when war broke out in August 1914, was sent to France with the British Expeditionary Force, to shore up the left of the French line of battle. Fierce German attacks meant that the Foresters were thrown into defence of the River Aisne. The Ist Battalion arrived from garrison duty in India in time to take part in the bloody battles of Loos and Neuve Chapelle. Earlier, the Colonel of the Regiment, General Sir Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien GCB, GCMG, DSO, ADC, (who had been promoted to a senior position, but still retained the Colonelcy of the ‘Foresters’), had become isolated on the 24th August, 1914, with a British unit and finding himself facing a far superior German force at Le Cateau, had uttered the memorable words, ‘Gentlemen, we will stand and fight’. The British force suffered many casualties, but held their ground and so mauled the invading Germans that the other British units were able to reform.
The Regiment formed a total of 13 Battalions during the First World War, and won numerous awards for gallantry, including no less than nine Victoria Crosses – one of which was awarded to the air ace, Albert Ball, who had joined the Sherwood Foresters, then transferred to the Royal Flying Corps (as many officers did). The total of those killed in action by war’s end was horrifying; no less than 11,409 dead from just the two counties. In response, there was a public subscription to raise a memorial to those who had served and died. A site on a 1,000 foot hill, on the edge of a quarry in Crich, Derbyshire was chosen. It had been the site of a stone observatory tower, called Crich Stand, built on the foundations of an earlier edifice by Francis Hurt, the grandson of Richard Arkwright. This had been badly affected in a landslip, so was demolished to make way for the new memorial, which was opened by General Smith-Dorrien, in the presence of the Lord Lieutenants of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire and many thousands of people, on the 6th August, 1923.
The Foresters were to lose over 1,500 dead in WW2, and these men are also memorialized at Crich, as are those who fell in Malaya in the 1950s and in other actions, including the Gulf War, after the Foresters had been first merged with the Worcestershire Regiment, then further reduced to Battalion status within the new Mercian Regiment (formed in 2007). The site is a green and peaceful spot, with a small refreshment room and a Warden’s lodge. For those who visit, (and I used to live about 6 miles from this memorial), the climb to the top of the tower yields a stunning panoramic view over no less than eight English counties – Derbyshire, Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Staffordshire, Cheshire, Lancashire and Leicestershire. The rotating latern, the first of which was installed there in 1934, shines bravely on the darkest of nights. ‘Crich Stand’ as Derbyshire folk call it, truly stands for poignant sacrifice on a grand scale.