WITH birdsong filling the air on Saturday, two councillors pulled away the sheets and unveiled a new statue dedicated to a First World War hero who hailed from their County Durham coal village.

Roland Bradford was born barely 100 yards away from the new memorial garden in the centre of Witton Park, near Bishop Auckland, and 100 years ago he won the Victoria Cross for his brave leadership of two battalions of the Durham Light Infantry on the Somme.

“It’s just amazing, really moving,” said his closest living relative, niece Waveney Brooks who had travelled from Kent for the occasion. “I grew up with the pictures of him and his brothers up in the house, and now there’s a beautiful memorial garden and a wonderful statue.”

Roland, who spent much of his childhood in Darlington, was one of four brothers who served in the First World War. Between them, they amassed two Victoria Crosses, a Distinguished Service Order and two Military Crosses, but three of them paid with their lives: James was killed aged 27 on May 14, 1917; Roland was killed aged 25 on November 30, 1917, and George was killed aged 31 winning his VC in a naval engagement on April 23, 1918. Only Thomas, the eldest son of the Witton Park colliery manager, survived.

“I knew my uncle Tommy quite well as we visited him up here quite often until he died in 1966,” said Mrs Brooks whose mother, Amy, was the boys’ only sister. “My mother idolised her brothers. She had one or two stories about them, particularly about Roland, because he would tease her and invent these terrible tragedies for her dolls.”

The Northern Echo: WAR HEROES: Roland, Thomas, George and James Bradford pictured at their home, Milbanke, Darlington, in 1914

WAR HEROES: Roland, Thomas, George and James Bradford pictured at their home, Milbanke House, Darlington, in 1914

The new metal statue is by Ray Lonsdale, the sculptor behind the giant Tommy memorial on the clifftop at Seaham Harbour. It shows a soldier, head bowed beneath his heavy tin hat and with the cares of the world, as well as the weight of his rifle, on his back, being brought home by a civilian in a broad cloth cap. The civilian, a miner with a moustache that bristles wonderfully in the corten steel, has handed him a lace-up leather football.

The Northern Echo:

The memorial garden features a new statue by Ray Lonsdale (pictured) called The Ball and the Bradford Boy Picture: Sarah Caldecott

“The brief was a returning soldier being greeted by a friend with a football involved somewhere because the brothers played cricket and football before the war,” said the sculptor. “The civilian is giving the soldier a football to get him back to his previous life before the war – it’s almost all the civilian can do to re-set his soul and take him back.”

The Northern Echo:

The inscribed stone in honour of Roland Bradford Picture: Sarah Caldecott

The Government is commemorating the century of each VC awarded during the First World War by installing an inscribed stone at the recipient’s birthplace. Witton Park councillors Robert Yorke and Christine Wilson decided to use the occasion to create a memorial garden on the site of the Cosy Cinema with the help of the Heritage Lottery Fund, Groundwork North-East and the county council.

With jackdaws squabbling in distant tall trees, a phalanx of geese flying back and forth overhead, and sparrows constantly chirping from the telephone wires, wreaths were laid at the memorial by Lord Derek Foster and his successor as local MP, Helen Goodman, by the leader of the county council, Eddie Bell, and by the Lord Lieutenant, Sue Snowden.

The Northern Echo:

Wreaths were laid during the unveiling ceremony Picture: Sarah Caldecott

“We are privileged to be here today,” said Mrs Snowden. “It shows one of the most amazing things about our county is the strength and warmth of the community spirit.”

The Northern Echo:

Sue Snowden views the new statue Picture: Sarah Caldecott

Honorary Colonel James Ramsbotham, chairman of the DLI Trustees, said: “The whole Bradford story is wrapped up with the DLI. We’re here in this small village in the heart of County Durham with a new memorial for a regiment that was at the heart of the county. And there’s a message here for future generations. It doesn’t matter where you grow up, what sort of background you have, you can achieve great things. This is a very human story, and a very County Durham story.”

The Northern Echo:

Another guest was Sir Peter de la Billiere, the Commander-in-Chief of British forces in the Gulf War who started his career in the DLI in the 1950s. In his address, he said: “I quickly learned that Durham soldiers were tough, resilient, brave and the most loyal of companions.

“The Bradford family were Durham born and bred, and the four brothers epitomised all the qualities of the DLI.

“Today’s ceremony is focused on this local hero who demonstrates the qualities of all Durham men.”

A day of commemorations also featured a performance by local schoolchildren of an adaption of The Fighting Bradfords play that was premiered last year at the Gala Theatre in Durham, and a showing of the film, The Wear at War.

During the Great War, Witton Park – population 3,100 – sent 336 men to fight, and 68 of them – 20 per cent – were killed.

“Witton Park is really proud of the family and what they achieved, and of all the village’s other men who went to the war,” said Cllr Yorke.

The Northern Echo:

“I’m delighted so many people and organisations have come together to do Roland proud. This is the culmination of 18 months work, and tomorrow we start work on honouring his brother, George, next year.”

Roland and George were the only brothers to win VCs in the First World War. The Heritage Lottery Fund has just awarded the village £50,000 to enhance the garden in memory of George, and there is space for his stone beside the one unveiled on Saturday to Roland.

Sir Peter de la Billiere said: “Sir Douglas Haig, the British commander, wrote when he heard that Roland had been killed: “This example of his unselfish courage and devotion to duty is, in my opinion, very worthy of being kept in continual remembrance by the nation he died to serve.”

On Saturday, this remarkable man from an extraordinary family was remembered as a local hero 100 years after his bravest day.