Sheffield war hero to feature in TV special

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A Sheffield man who survived one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War will have his wartime diaries featured in a TV programme to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.

City architect Frank Meakin, who signed up for the Sheffield City Battalion following a War Office recruitment drive in 1914, was one of the few who survived to tell the tale. And his dramatic account of World War 1 will feature on The Discovery Channel at 8pm on Sunday July 3 in ‘The Somme: The first 24 hours, with Tony Robinson’.

History leapt off the pages of Frank’s diaries which were faithfully transcribed by Penny Meakin, wife of Frank’s grandson, Nick. She spent a 15-year labour of love to get the diaries published and now, to mark 100 years since the Battle of the Somme, the Meakin Diaries will see a second edition published in hardback. And Frank’s words will be brought to life in the TV programme featuring actor and historian Sir Tony Robinson interviewing Penny.

Penny herself will make the poignant journey over to France where, on July 1 at 7.20 am, she aims to be at the Somme battlefield with the three battered leather-bound diaries – at the very place where those brave young men from Sheffield went over the top to fight the Germans. She will be accompanied by civic dignitaries from Sheffield and later that same day, on Radio Five Live, Frank’s great grandson, James Meakin, will read extracts from his great grandfather’s diaries to mark the battle’s centenary. In addition to this Penny will read extracts from the diary on BBC 1 as part of their Somme Commemoration coverage.

Five members of the Sheffield City Battalion will feature in the Discovery Channel programme with an actor playing Frank Meakin and extracts from his diaries superimposed across the TV footage. Frank, aged 34, of Fairbank Road, Sheffield, had been married for just six short months when he left the country for active service in Egypt and France.

Penny Meakin, who lectured at a North Staffordshire college for 21 years, is a former diarist herself and was always fascinated by the battered, leather-bound volumes passed down from the late Frank to her husband, Nick Meakin. She explained: “The keeping of diaries was strictly forbidden during active service but Frank rebelliously and comprehensively kept one throughout – from 1915 when, as a newlywed, he signed up for the Sheffield City Batallion until his discharge in 1918.”

So great was Penny’s fascination in Frank’s writings, that she set out on a mission to decipher the tiny handwriting on every page, reading everything she could lay her hands on about the First World War to help her, taking notes, circling places on Michelin maps of France and, eventually, making several journeys to France to visit the war cemeteries to find out what had happened to the brave young men he served with, many of whom were buried where they fell.

Most dramatic are Frank’s accounts of the bloody Battle of the Somme. We read of how, on June 27 1916, Frank and his comrades had to pack all their personal belongings away as they were going `over the top`. 650 men went but only 47 survived. Thankfully, Frank Meakin did and he was able to retrieve his beloved diary on July 18 and fill in the gaps to tell us exactly what happened.

Penny, who has provided a glossary to explain unfamiliar terms, commented: “What really drove me on was the fact that these diaries are virtually unique. There were many diarists from the Battalion who kept diaries prior to the Battle of the Somme but very few survived to recount the activities from July 1 onwards.

“Frank’s diaries are not only well written but they include vivid descriptions of the squalid living conditions, being covered in lice and rats, accounts of one to one combats with the German army and the shooting of Germans in self defence.

“While I was reading it I thought how wonderful it would be for the relatives of these young men to know how brave they had been in fighting for King and Country.”

To that end Penny researched every single name mentioned and, where possible, detailed where they are now buried. She notes that throughout the diary, Frank is obsessed with food and details some of his best and worst meals – the obsession was no doubt brought about by the diabetes which he never declared as it would have ruled him out of active service. Eventually, his diabetes got the better of him and he was discharged just ten days before his batallion was disbanded and he was sent to convalesce in Cheltenham.

Frank went back to his wife, Doll, and to his old job as an architect at Sheffield Town Hall. The couple went on to have two children but, tragically, he died aged just 54 from drowning while swimming in the sea at Bridlington. Following his death, the wartime diaries, along with the letters he lovingly wrote to his wife during active service, were locked away in a box for 80 years.

Frank has five surviving grandchildren and his diaries and letters are published in paperback by Austin Macauley Publishers, priced £9.99 and in hardback priced £16.99. Penny dedicated her work to the brave young men of the Sheffield City Battalion.