“Breathtaking.”- That is how Lee Whitworth, musical director of the West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service Band, describes how it will feel to lead out his members at what will be one of the band’s most poignant appearances in its 70-year history.
The band has been invited to play in Belgium to represent the UK at the Menin Gate in Ypres for Remembrance Day in November. To make the occasion even more special, this year the day will mark 100 years since the end of the First World War. Mr Whitworth said: “I am so proud and it will be breathtaking to lead the band out.”
Despite the performance being months away, the set list is being planned and – as with all performances – it is tailored to reflect each occasion at which the band plays.
It is not the first time the band has played at the Menin Gate Memorial, which is dedicated to the British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in the Ypres battlefields and whose graves are unknown.
Band chairman Kevin Fisher recalls: “It is very emotional, especially when you get older. My grandfather served with the Bradford Pals – only 50 came back.
“With it being 100 years, it is a great honour to be asked to lead the parade and for the brigade and the playing members to partake in an event televised world-wide and watched by the Royal Family.”
That rings even more true now as changes within the band over the years have seen it recruit members from now defunct military bands. It has also taken on a military or ‘wing’ band style of play – making it only one of two in the country to do so.
Mr Fisher explains: “In this area you are a particular (type of) band and never the two shall meet. You are a brass band player or you are a military band player.”
A brass band is like it says on the tin – brass instruments only. A military band has clarinets, flutes, saxophones and other woodwind instruments.
Over the last ten years the Fire band started taking recruits from army bands as, during combats such as Afghanistan, army bands were in decline. In its history the Fire band has a long allegiance with the Coldstream Guards and the Grenadiers. Mr Whitworth himself was a member of the Kings Regiment Liverpool before leaving the army. The Fire band was started in the 1950s when the then Chief Officer of the West Riding Fire Service, Harry Judge, decided he wanted the brigade to have a band.
Mr Fisher, a former firefighter who has been awarded an MBE for services to the profession, recalls: “It was much bigger in those days and the majority of players were serving firemen. It has been through various stages but what has really changed its allegiance to being a military band. We do concerts and marches and that makes us different as well. We have kept going because we are unique.”
Back in the day serving officers would get time off if there were gigs during the day but there are no serving members in the band any more.
The 40-strong ensemble today, however, is rather varied with members including teachers, lifeboat men and students – wherein lies another of the band’s great strengths.
One of the newest members is 18-year-old George Jenkins, who travels from Lightcliffe in Halifax to play. Others come as far as Catterick for the weekly rehearsals. Mr Jenkins is studying product design at university in Huddersfield. He has played for seven years and says there is no other band of the same standard.
“I have played in a few bands but this is a progression up the standards. This stands above the rest and had brought my playing along much faster.”