AS the nation fell silent to remember its war dead at the weekend, a moving service to commemorate the heroic deeds of the only Doncaster-born Victoria Cross recipient was unfolding in a corner of a desolate Belgian field. Features editor DARREN BURKE reports from Merksplas where 67 years ago, Hatfield-born Corporal John Harper was tragically killed - and how his bravery has helped forge lasting links between the two towns, including this weekend’s three-day visit by Hatfield Brass Band.
Little has changed since Corporal John William Harper lost his young life in a violent firefight which posthumously earned him the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest military honour.
The crumbling shell of a makeshift field hospital remains, as does the mud-filled, tree-lined dyke Cpl Harper bravely battled to seize from Nazi hands - a story told in last week’s Free Press - a heroic deed which ultimately helped Allied troops libreate the small Belgian town of Merksplas, a stone’s throw from the Dutch border.
On Sunday, as the clock struck eleven and Remembrance Sunday events took place around the globe, Hatfield Brass Band cornet player Jason Smith sombrely sounded the distinctive bugle call alongside a small and simple memorial to Cpl Harper.
The only other sound as the moving music rung through the cool, foggy skies was the sound of a pristine Union flag whipping against its flagpole as golden autumn leaves fluttered silenty to the ground amongst the locals and visiting dignitaries that had come together to remember and lay wreaths of poppies.
For the people of Merksplas are rightfully proud of the married, Doncaster peat cutter who died trying to free them from German occupation. His story is taught in local schools and a couple of days earlier, as I chatted to the town’s mayor, burgermeester Frank Wilrycx with Gordon Harper, one of Cpl Harper’s surviving relatives, in a bustling cafe bar, an excitable young girl ran over clutching a hastily drawn portrait of the fallen infantryman on the back of a beermat - confirming she did indeed know of what unfolded here in 1944.
It is stories like these that encouraged Hatfield Town Council to officially twin with Merksplas a few years ago and the weekend’s events saw twinning committee member Mr Harper and councillors Brian Jackson, Patsy Panks and her husband Paul lead a delegation which saw members of the band perform a series of concerts to cement the cultural links between the two.
The bond is strong - and next year, 45 pupils from Hatfield will visit the Belgian town while in June, Doncaster will welcome its European counterparts to these shores for a string of fun activities and official engagements.
Said Coun Panks: “We want this to be all about the culture and friendship between our towns, to encourage children to work together and build lasting links. We have been made so welcome over here and we want to give something back.”
Added Mr Harper, who has meticulously traced Cpl Harper’s story and bravely delivered his welcoming speech in some tongue-twisting Flemish: “We are here to remember the fallen - men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice of their lives. While we are remembering John Harper, children in his home village are remembering him too. The people of Merksplas regard John as a hero.”
And Mr Wilrycx said: “We are looking forward to visiting Hatfield to see how people live. That’s the true meaning of twinning and we are proud to be working with our friends from Hatfield.”
Coun Jackson said: “The children are the future of twinning and we want to encourage them to get involved. We have plenty of things lined up.”
However, as well as the service of remembrance, the weekend was also a chance for the 25 strong band to showcase their skills - and deliver a huge helping of Yorkshire hospitality to Flanders - although the series of concerts almost never happened.
Regular conductor Graham O’Connor was ruled out at the last minute after being admitted to hospital for a double lung transplant and respected band leader Barry Thompson, who has worked with the likes of Grimethorpe Colliery Band, stars of the hit movie, Brassed Off, picked up the baton at short notice.
The band was also forced to draft in nine stand-ins - with the likes of Trevor Hughes, a cornet player of 50 years standing, Rhona Carse, a Leeds student originally from the Orkney Islands and Joanna Cambray-Young, a vet from Cambridge, rubbing shoulders to make up the numbers alongside regular players including 13-year-old Epworth youngster, Lucy Edwards, the band’s youngest member and who delivered a capitivating solo at a concert in front of cheering and clapping Merksplas children.
Early exuberance at being off the leash abroad gave way to honed and polished professionalism as the warm brass sounds so closely associating with Yorkshire’s mining communities won over Belgian hearts in a town 690km from home - as the sign outside Merksplas’ town hall proudly proclaims.
Band members nervously perfected their routines, solos and paced the corridors, flicking through pages of sheet music, many settling pre-concert nerves with a nibble of piles of Belgian ham and cheese served up by eager to please hosts. One, Martin Ward, admitted the band would be eager to provide the people of Merksplas with a show to remember.
And then, looking resplendent in black uniforms, red poppies adding a splash of colour alongside glinting instruments, the band delivered a rousing set of brass classics such as Danny Boy and the theme tune from Rocky - although one nameless trombone player came unstuck in a stand-up, sit down routine, missing her chair and crashing to the floor - but the mishap was met with smiles by both giggling fellow players and the audience.
Said Brenda McLaughlin, the band’s organiser and mother figure: “They play hard, but they work hard too. We feel honoured to have been chosen to represent Hatfield in Merksplas. Everyone has been so kind and friendly. We have been made to feel wonderfully welcome.”
And as the bus pulled away from the town hall to begin the long journey back to Doncaster, with local children cheering and waving at tired band members, Mr Harper turned and smiled: “They have done us proud. I am ever so pleased with the band and what they did for us in remembering John. I am looking forward to us all being back again very soon.”
l For more information on Hatfield’s twinning links, or to get involved, contact Patsy on 890081 or Gordon on 844246.
l Hatfield Band is always on the lookout for members and anyone interested can contact Margaret Curran on 07870635875.