Article originally published in the Saddleworth Independent on 23/2/2017. For this article, I attended the memorial service commemorating a local First World War soldier on behalf of the newspaper, and interviewed his relatives.
THE PROUD family of a World War One hero from Springhead joined more than 250 locals and special guests at an “emotional” ceremony to unveil a special commemorative paving stone.
The stone was erected at St Anne’s Church, Lydgate to honour Sergeant Thomas Steele on February 22, 2017 – exactly 100 years after his brave actions earned him a Victoria Cross.
The service was attended by members of Sgt Steele’s family, representatives of the armed forces, the Oldham Indian community, councillors and local dignitaries, and local primary school children.
Accounts of Sgt Steele’s brave actions were read by children from St Anne’s C of E Lydgate Primary and Knowsley Junior School Springhead.
Fazal Rahim from the Oldham Inter-Faith Forum and Shashi Mohandas from the Oldham Indian Association also gave readings, along with members of the police and the Queen’s Own Highlanders (Seaforth & Camerons) Regimental Association.
Then Sgt Steele’s family led a procession out of the church for the unveiling of the Commemorative paving stone by Mayor of Oldham, Cllr Derek Heffernan.
Christopher Rennie, a great nephew of Sgt Steele, said: “We didn’t expect such a high turnout, it’s great for Thomas to be acknowledged like this.
“The service was quite emotional for us. We only found out about it a week before, but the Council have been really good in organising.
“It was great to see children from the local school involved and the work the council has done to tidy up the family grave.
“I only visited Uncle Tom a few times after he returned to Springhead. There was never any mention of his medals though, and we didn’t know he was a VC until after he died.”
On February 22 1917, he played a crucial role in attempting to lift the Turkish siege at Ku-al-Amara, earning him a prestigious Victoria Cross.Sgt Steele, of the 1st Battalion Seaforth Highlanders, was born in Springhead on February 6 1891 and joined the army in 1911.
At a critical moment, he used a machine gun to beat off an enemy attack and then risked his life to rally a party of Indian soldiers who had lost all their officers.
In the 1930s he took up residence at Magazine Square in Leicester, but later returned to Springhead where he died on 11 July 1978 at the age of 87, and his ashes were interred in the family grave at St Anne’s, Lydgate.
The commemorative service is part of an on-going national campaign to lay lasting reminders in the birth places of Victoria Cross medal recipients from World War One on the 100th anniversary of their award.
In December, a similar service will take place in Oldham to honour Private Walter Mills, who was caught in a gas attack on the Western Front on December 10, 1917.
He stayed at his post alone and threw bombs until the enemy retreated. He died of gas poisoning as he was carried away.
The service will be held on 11 December at 11am at Oldham Parish Church, with the unveiling of the paving stone in the church grounds.