The cemetery was difficult to find, never mind the headstone. I drove about five miles down Meltham Road scanning for church spires. The surrounding countryside offered nothing up so I drove the length again then again and stopped for a coffee from the flask to wonder if my brain was melting. I drove into Meltham town and nobody could help so I drove about five miles to Huddersfield end – a church – yes but no cemetery – bum! A man who was even scruffier than me was swaggering down the road swigging from a can of lager. He was a local and told me where the cemetery was.
“I’ll be in there myself within ten years,” he said with a smile showing teeth that could have been painted with Ronseal fence paint (the green or brown version.)
I thanked him and he said, “You haven’t got a couple of fags ‘ave yer?” I wish I had to thank him as I wouldn’t have found the graveyard without his directions (I almost dipped in my pocket for 50p.)
It took about fifteen minutes to find the headstone and all I had was a grainy photograph from The Sun newspaper. They’d mounted a noteworthy campaign to restore many of the neglected headstones of soldiers awarded the Victoria Cross. I matched up the blurry trees in to the photograph with the real tress and stumbled on the headstone – literally. Here is Ernest Sykes.
You’d think a man with a name like Ernest Sykes may be a shy unassuming gentleman running a small pet shop or keeping an oven in a biscuits factory. However aged 32 he was in the Northumberland Fusiliers fighting in the First World War near Arras in France. On Easter Monday 9th April 1917 when families back at home were enjoying a day off with their families he was under deathly gun attack with his battalion. The firepower from the front and sides was so fierce the battalion couldn’t fight back and they were held up. Many were bleeding, many had died instantly. Nobody knew if they’d get out of this.
Ernest rushed out into the blooded bullet-peppered fields and brought back a wounded man - five times. Normally someone would face death under relentless machine gun fire but, for unknown reasons akin to kismet and fortune, some people survived without so much as a cut finger. He had bandaged all those too badly injured to be moved. Until help came.
He fought again in World War II in the 25th Battalion West Riding Home Guard but died just 64 after working for many years for the railways.
I knew I’d find it as I’d read an article about the headstone being cleaned up….
Meeting George V to pick up the medal…
…and there it is…