York Cemetery marks anniversary of outbreak of First World War

York Cemetery marks anniversary of outbreak of First World War

Geneologist Janet Lea walks past a First World War headstone at York Cemetery.

The Sykes Medal

The Sykes Medal

First published in First World War Centenary news
Last updated
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York Cemetery will be marking the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War on Monday in its own special way. CAROLINE KENNEDY reports

ON AUGUST 4, 1914, Britain declared war on Germany. Exactly 100 years later, on Monday, York Cemetery will commemorate this important date in a special way.

“This will be the biggest event York Cemetery has ever seen,” said Janet Lea, one of the cemetery’s genealogists. “It has been really well put together with a great deal of thought, sensitivity and enthusiasm. To say it will be spectacular is an understatement.”

The afternoon will start with the laying of a wreath on the cemetery’s Cross of Sacrifice by representatives from Yorkshire Regiments and the Royal British Legion, who will then proceed up to the chapel led by celtic piper Stephen Roughley, playing a lament.

Following this will be a service of remembrance, starting at 2pm in the Cemetery’s grade II* listed Chapel.

The Archdeacon of York, the Venerable Sarah Bullock, will conduct the service, assisted by the Reverend Ron Smith.

Many guests are expected to attend, including relatives of some of the fallen buried in York Cemetery and representatives from the Armed Forces, Royal British Legion and York city emergency services.

Jenny Hildyard, trustee of York Cemetery and the event’s organiser, said: “We anticipate a huge amount of interest so we are erecting a marquee next to the chapel to help accommodate everyone. We have technicians to create a special atmosphere and to make sure that the service can be seen and heard via 60in screens, which are being erected to ensure that nobody misses anything. On-site parking will be restricted, but don’t let this put you off as Q-Park Barbican car park in Kent Street is just a short walk away, or you may find a space on one of the residential streets close by. This is an event not to be missed.”

As visitors arrive they will be given an order of service, which also includes a list of First World War soldiers with Commonwealth war graves who are buried in York Cemetery, and gives their rank and age at death.

“The service was inspired both by the experience of the soldiers buried in York Cemetery and the impact of the war on the people of York”, said Johnny Hayes, a trustee of the cemetery. “This will be very much a local event of local significance but it will also bring to mind the general experience of the war; the soldier’s longing for home, patriotism, morale-boosting humour and a shared experience of the horrors of war. It will be a really interesting and varied afternoon.”

Ms Hildyard said: “We will be remembering the soldiers, their families and the people of York with prayers and poetry, hymns and famous First World War songs.”

Music will be provided by Simeon Wood, who can play more than 20 instruments including celtic whistles, quena and pan pipes, and Robin Dickson will play the piano.

There will be a number of special guest speakers. Ms Hildyard said each element of the service was selected for its “rousing spirit, poignancy or mindfulness of the faith in God that frequently has a particular importance for people when times are hard. It will be a rollercoaster for the emotions; I’m sure a few tears will be shed”.

As the service draws to a close, York trumpeter George Green will play The Last Post in the chapel portico, after which visitors will be invited to follow guides up to the Soldier’s Lawn to lay poppies while a verse from For the Fallen by Laurence Binyon is read.

Stephen Roughley will then play the lament Flowers of the Forest on the celtic pipes.

In the marquee after the service, complimentary refreshments including homemade remembrance biscuits will be served and members of York Cemetery’s genealogy team and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission will be on hand to help with inquiries. There will also be an exhibition of First World War inspired quilts and textiles and an exhibition about the cemetery’s war dead.

The cemetery’s genealogists are hoping that families of the war dead who are buried or memorialised in York Cemetery will be interested in finding out about their ancestors. In particular, they hope that relatives will come forward to claim the Victory Medal of soldier George Henry Sykes, who is buried there.

The Victory Medal was found by a Mr Binns many years ago when he was involved in building the children’s play area opposite the cemetery. Mr Binns did not realise what he had found but later contacted the cemetery for help with tracing the family of the soldier.

Ms Lea said: “Although born in Leeds, George Henry Sykes is buried in York Cemetery along with other family members.

‘‘He died in 1920 aged 50 and his cause of death is recorded as ‘gastric ulcer’.”

The genealogists enlisted the help of Ken Haywood, local family historian and expert on York’s soldiers, to find out more.

Ms Lea said, “Ken told us that Private Sykes went to the Western Front in August 1915 and at some point was re-posted with the Labour Corps. He said this was probably because the soldier was injured in battle and, unable to continue combat duties on the front, was given other duties to perform instead.”

Ms Lea discovered that “according to censuses, before joining the West Yorkshire Regiment and earning his First World War medal, he had been a general dealer and a fish hawker. He married Isabel Frances (spellings vary) nee Bonner in 1889 at St Lawrence’s Church. The 1911 census tells us that the couple had ten children (with eight still living) and that Isabel and some of the children were working at Rowntrees.

‘‘The family lived in the Walmgate and Groves areas of York. All of their children were born in York and many of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren were either born in York or nearby, so there must be family members still living in the area.”

Anyone with information that may help to trace descendants of the family can email genealogy@yorkcemetery.org.uk or phone the cemetery office on 01904 610578.

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