Grandfather’s First World War medals back with family thanks to keen-eyed recycling centre worker
12:45 13 February 2014
A man has been reunited with his grandfather’s war medals after a keen-eyed recycling centre worker spotted them before they were lost forever.
Walter Westgate was awarded the medals for his service in the Somme trenches with the Army Service Corps in the First World War and as an air raid warden in Blofield in the Second World War.
But disaster nearly occurred when the family misplaced the First World War medals, a 1914-15 Star, the Victory Medal and the British War Medal, while sorting out Walter’s daughter’s possessions after her recent death.
They ended up at the recycling centre at Strumpshaw, near Norwich, where, luckily, worker Gary Downer, 60, spotted them at the top of the stairs leading up to one of the skips. He said: “I spotted the treasures while I was going through a box full of different items that had been left at the site, to see what could go in the recycling bins and what couldn’t.
“First of all I saw a pint-sized copper mug which was obviously very old and then I came across a couple of smallish boxes – also old. So I took a closer look and that’s when I discovered the medals.
“Both my grandparents were in the First World War and got wounded and survived, so it is very personal and important to me.”
Mr Downer, from Lingwood, contacted Norfolk County Council’s Historic Environment team who began to track down the owners, eventually leading them to Walter’s grandson, Tony Balmforth.
According to Mr Balmforth, who is 64, and lives in Catfield, the call came as a shock.
He said: “It was quite surprising because I was watching an item on The One Show with a First World War set of medals that were being reunited with a family. I wondered what had happened to Pop’s and called my brother to ask, but neither of us knew.
“Strangely, within half an hour I had got an email saying that I should urgently ring a member of my family.”
Mr Westgate was born in 1897 and brought up in Ormesby St Michael, near Great Yarmouth.
He was responsible for looking after horses in the trenches, including at the Somme, where he was gassed and sent away to recuperate.
Although Walter wasn’t given long to survive he lived in Blofield with his wife, Enid, until he was 86. Mr Balmforth added: “We are absolutely delighted to have these family heirlooms back with us, safe and sound.
“We’re so proud of Walter’s services in not just one, but two world wars. I can only think they were caught up in another box and lost by accident. They’re such an important part of our family history so we’re really grateful to the recycling team and Norfolk’s historians.” Broadland resident Mr Balmforth said that even mentioning the war to his grandfather “would start him off talking about it for hours”.
He continued: “He told me he’d lost his cap in the Somme, so I promised to take him back to find it.”
In 1972, Mr Balmforth took his grandfather on holiday to Austria and Northern France to see where he fought – an experience which he describes as moving.
David Gurney, historic environment manager at Norfolk County Council, was part of the team who tracked Mr Balmforth down.
He said: “The great clue was that they were deposited here.
“I looked at the air raid wardens in this area, and as it is a small area here to look at I eventually managed to find the family. This is the first time that we’ve worked on items found at one of our recycling centres.”
He continued: “These are not as ancient as most of the things we look at, but as we begin to commemorate 100 years since the outbreak of the First World War, medals like these begin to take on greater significance.”
Mr Gurney described the Army Services Corps as the “unsung heroes” of the war. He said: “They were part of the great logistical movement and the lines of communication. Now we have lost everyone who served in the war it is important to save these stories and objects.”
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