Soldiers' heroics told for a new generation

'Live History' volunteer Pete Neal in a Light Infantry uniform from the First World War outside the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum

'Live History' volunteer Pete Neal in a Light Infantry uniform from the First World War outside the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum

First published in News Banbury Cake: Photograph of the Author by , Reporter covering Abingdon and Wantage, South Oxford and Kennington. Call me on 01865 425431

AS Britain marks 100 years since the outbreak of the First World War, the new Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum is preparing to open its doors.

A special exhibition at the Woodstock museum, from August 2, will show 12 Oxfordshire residents with pictures of their ancestors who fought in the 1914 to 1918 conflict.

Many of them were members of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry (OBLI), which lost 5,875 soldiers during the conflict.

The Oxfordshire Yeomanry, also known as the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars, a Territorial Army cavalry regiment, lost 125 soldiers between 1914 and 1918.

Michele Baston, 49, from Long Hanborough, became involved with the museum while researching her great-grandfather, who died in the Battle of the Somme.

Now she is a volunteer for the museum, helping to create the exhibition.

She said: “This is our only chance to remember these people for the next 100 years. In between anniversaries, they get forgotten.”

The Park Street museum’s Heritage Lottery funding will also pay for projects to engage the community in marking the centenary of the war.

One of those projects will see Oxford Sikhs create a video about the involvement of Sikh soldiers in the war, which will tour museums nationally.

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During the First World War, the 1st Battalion of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry was deployed to what is now Iraq where it fought alongside Sikh soldiers against the Turkish Ottoman Empire.

Exhibition project manager Stephen Barker said: “Not many people know that 72,000 Indians were killed in the First World War.

“Sikh students inspired by our exhibition will produce a short film that will tour libraries and museums.”

That is one of 12 projects funded by the lottery grant engaging pensioners, school children and the disabled.

The museum’s education officer, Vicki Wood, said: “People want to know what happened to their ancestors.

“They will probably have heard that their great uncle so-and-so did this or that, but I am really keen that kids can empathise with their relatives. That is the beauty of objects and equipment that their loved ones actually used in the trenches.”

The exhibition will showcase some of the museum’s 1,500 artefacts from the Great War.

Another project, working with children at Five Acres Primary School in Ambrosden, near Bicester, where many children come from military families, will look at letters written from families to their relatives in the trenches.

Mrs Wood said: “Many of the children there have parents overseas themselves. The communication methods are different, but the sentiments are the same.”

The exhibition, will tell the story of the first two years of the war, 1914 to 1916, will run for one year.

Then there will be a year’s break, and a second exhibition, due to open in November 2017, will tell the story of the second half of the Great War.

The new £3.5m museum, which will open next month, can trace its roots date back to 1997, when it began life as a small display of uniforms and artefacts linked to the OBLI at the now closed Slade Park barracks in Oxford.

The Soldiers of Oxfordshire Trust was founded in 2000 to create a permanent home.

Fading snapshot's a picture of heroism.

A FEW weeks ago, all that Michele Baston knew about her great-grandfather was this picture which had been slowly decomposing in an attic for 90 years.

She now knows that he gave his life in the Battle of the Somme in 1916, as part of the Fifth Battalion of the OBLI, in the first attack in history involving tanks.

Banbury Cake:

Michele Baston with a picture of her great-grandfather Sgt George Thomas Bowerman, of the 5th Battalion of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry

Her great-grandmother, Nellie Whitley, remarried after his death, and kept the picture of her former husband, Sgt George Thomas Bowerman, in the loft, until the family found it there in 2005.

Miss Baston, 49, of Long Hanborough, got in touch with the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Trust, and now she has joined the project creating an exhibition about soldiers like her great grandfather.

Miss Baston said: “There is a story behind every picture like this.

“What makes somebody join up like that, and put their life on the line?

“In those days people didn’t even move out of their village.”

Sgt Bowerman, who was from Kidlington, is now remembered on a war memorial at Thiepval, in France, as well as on the Kidlington war memorial.

A poignant reminder.

SGT Major Edward Brooks, of the OBLI, was one of only two soldiers in that regiment to win a Victoria Cross in the First World War.

Banbury Cake:

Keith Brooks and his grandfather’s photograph

His medal, now kept in a bank vault in Winchester, is worth about £150,000.

He earned it by capturing a German machine gun at Fayet in France on April 28, 1917, and turning it on the enemy.

In 2009, the Ministry of Defence named the Territorial Army’s Edward Brooks Barracks, in Abingdon, in his honour.

Although his grandson Keith never met him, he still appreciates the bravery that the medal he used to play with as a child represents.

Banbury Cake:

Sgt Major Edward Brooks' medals

Mr Brooks, 67, of Horspath, said: “People don’t appreciate not only him, but all the others, the millions who died, they don’t get recognised and it has got worse over time.

“People think it is just history, it is long gone, but people are too fast to dismiss it.

“The sacrifice they made, you can’t do more than that.”

The exhibition will include a German machine gun believed to be the one that earned Sgt Major Brooks his VC, which was brought back from France as a trophy.

Living history.

HISTORIAN Pete Neal said he wants people to know what really happened in the First World War.

Mr Neal, 25, from Banbury, has been helping the museum to prepare and promote its exhibition.

He said: “There are a lot of myths about the First World War, like the one that every Tom, Dick and Harry was shot for cowardice.

“Action at the front didn’t happen every day of the week, it was once every six months at most.

“There were also long periods where nothing happened.

“The chaps at the Somme, some had been in the country for 15 months.”

Mr Neal, an instructor in the Army Cadet Force, said he wanted to help because it was a local museum.

He said: “It if weren’t for the armed forces, none of us would be sat here.

“We should all know about our history.”

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