1915

No let-up at sea

The new year of 1915 began with many believing that the war would be brought to a conclusion within the year. The German advance in the west had been halted and a line of trenches now stretched from the North Sea coast of Belgium to the Swiss border. Look at an old pre-1914 school atlas of course, and you will find not the North Sea but the German Ocean - only one of the examples of early political correctness imposed in the wave of anti-German sentiment which was to grow throughout the period of the war. Our own royal family of course were to change their name to the House of Windsor from the rather less appealing Saxe Coburg Gotha.

hmsviknorThe wintertime brought a slackening of activity on land but no let-up at sea. The toll of casualties in the borough was mainly amongst men at sea, whether in the Royal Navy or working on the many merchant vessels carrying vital supplies to aid the war effort and feed the nation.

This week's News Guardian list of casualties shows a number of men from the borough serving together on ships which were lost. HMS Viknor (see left) was lost off Tory island on the North coast of Ireland on January 13. Previously named the Ataro, and later the Viking, she had been a Royal Mail ship but was converted to service as an armed merchant cruiser. 25 of her crew were members of the Royal Naval Reserve of Newfoundland, then a dominion separate from Canada. Only one body was recovered of the Newfoundlanders and is buried on the Scottish island of Colonsay. The others are commemorated on the Newfoundland Memorial to their missing at Beaumont Hamel, where they suffered grievous losses in the savage fighting in the final, battle of the Somme campaign in November 1916. The local casualties from the Viknor — there were no survivors from the 295 aboard — are remembered on the Royal Navy Memorials at Plymouth and Portsmouth.

The New Year began with high hopes which would be dashed in the abortive campaigns of April and September at Ypres and Loos. The loss of local men in 1914 was only 51 of the approximate total casualties we have identified (1700). That number was to escalate rapidly as the spring campaigns began. The army was now being reinforced rapidly by reservists and Territorial soldiers. The introduction of conscription was not then contemplated except by a few but in August 1915 the need to find more men would become acute as the flow of willing volunteers dried up. The British regular army of pre-August 1914 was all but destroyed in the first four months of the war. The war would become one fought by 'civilians in uniform' bringing with it the sad loss of life in families with no military traditions, who had no knowledge of the scale of the tragedy that wad to unfold over the coming four years.

Major fiasco of Great War inspired father's post-war tribute.

The casualties list in this week's News Guardian, from the Tynemouth World War One Commemoration Project, includes details of 2nd. Lieutenant William Ewart Robinson of Alma Place, North Shields, who was killed in the ill-fated Dardanelles campaign. He was the son of Capt. James Robinson, the former Secretary of Smiths Dock Company, who took on the enormous task of editing and collating the magazine founded in June 1919 for the benefit and enlightenment of the employees of the company at its shipyards in North and South Shields, and South Bank on the Tees estuary. The establishment of the magazine was part of the company's remembrance of the sacrifice of its employees in the war. Over 1000 employees from the three docks served in the armed forces, some 130 of whom were killed or died as a result of war service.

The campaign in the Dardanelles, intended to seize control of the narrow isthmus of land and Asian mainland opposite (both in Turkey), was proposed by Winston Churchill and others early in 1915 following the denial of international free access into the Black Sea, when Turkey bowed to German pressure in the early weeks of the war and mined the channel from the Mediterranean through 'the Narrows' at Chanak into the Sea of Marmora. After a failed naval attack on 18th March, 1915 it was decided to mount a large-scale landing by troops onto the isthmus and the mainland at the mouth of the Dardanelles.

A joint Anglo-French campaign was launched late in April with a significant contribution of troops from the newly formed Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) who had been earmarked for service in France but had been diverted to the Dardanelles when passing though the Suez Canal en route to Western Europe.

The landings in April and May 1915, at the tip of the peninsular and later at ANZAC Cove and Suvla Bay failed to dislodge the Turks, who, although viewed as the poorly trained army of the 'sick man of Europe', fought with a tenacity and courage matched by their adversaries from Britain, Australia, New Zealand and France.

helles_memBy August 1915 the British command was effectively playing the last throw of the dice before the first considerations of withdrawal were raised in September and October. The casualties listed this week from the project are all men killed on the Gallipoli peninsular and almost all are remembered on the Helles Memorial (see left). Many are men of the 8th Battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers, a Territorial battalion sent out to fight early in the war with little training or experience of the conditions and temperatures in which they would have to live and survive on the inhospitable and arid peninsular.

The ultimate failure of the campaign will feature in future items from the project but two little known incidents are relevant to this week's report. The one concerns the Australian news reporter whose report to his Prime Minister (ignoring an undertaking to submit it for censoring by the military authorities), concerning the poor morale and appalling conditions of the Australian forces and allied troops on the peninsular — caused in his opinion by the ineptitude and unsuitability of the 'old hands' in charge — led to the recall of the C-in-C Sir Ian Hamilton. That reporter — Keith Murdoch — went on to found a chain of Australian press titles and had a much more famous and recently very controversial son — Rupert Murdoch.

The other event, a little-known postscript to the campaign, which ended in an ignominious but successful withdrawal in January 1916 relates to the pre-eminent Turkish commander on the peninsular, Mustafa Kemal, who went on to become the first president of the new Turkish republic. In a gesture of reconciliation he addressed a statement to a visiting delegation of British Australian and New Zealand officials visiting the cemeteries and memorials on the Gallipoli peninsular in 1934 and which is perhaps one of the most poignant expressions of the sentiments of a soldier and statesman:

"Those heroes that shed their blood, and lost their lives... You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country Therefore, rest in peace.
There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side, here in this country of ours.
You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries...
Wipe away your tears.
Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well."

— Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

Sad end to 1915 — a year of costly failures and hopes dashed...

As the first full year of war drew to a close, any hopes of a swift conclusion to the conflict had been lost in a seemingly never ending series of setbacks. Bold plans to force the Dardanelles and seize control of the vital access to the Black Sea from the allegedly crumbling Ottoman Empire and thus allow Russia vital year round connections to the trade routes were in tatters as the British and French forces prepared for a largely successful but ignominious withdrawal from the Turkish territory overlooking the narrows to the Black Sea.

In October Sir Ian Hamilton was recalled and a new commander installed. The French were insistent that troops could not be withdrawn from the recently established positions in Salonika (Macedonia) placed to support the Serbians, so no immediate additional forces were available.

At first the political leadership in London and France was determined not to abandon the territory won at great cost but conceded that the lodgements at ANZAC Cove and Suvla Bay could be relinquished, leaving the occupation at Cape Helles to ensure that Turkish and German forces did not have access to the open sea.

Early in December a very successful withdrawal of forces from the two northerly positions was achieved. Many of the troops however found were re-located to the Cape Helles positions as other badly weakened units were withdrawn to rest and reorganise.

The commander reassured his troops that there was not to be a total withdrawal but by late December that policy was reversed. Although the subsequent organisation of the removal of the remaining 20,000+ troops was executed brilliantly, it was obvious to the Turks that we were planning to leave but not when. Nonetheless it was essential to act without giving any indication of when the front lines had been abandoned. Many ingenious devices were adopted and ruses adopted to mislead the enemy into believing we were not on the point of departing.

Trenches were lightly manned and 'automatic' firing of rifles was arranged with 'Heath Robinson' devices involving tin cans and dripping water to allow rifles to be fired randomly from unoccupied positions. As the withdrawal drew near communication lines and unwanted equipped were set with 'booby trap' explosive charges [known as IEDs today] to surprise the enemy as he finally realised the positions were abandoned and advanced towards the last strongholds on the invasion beaches beach heads. The Turkish forces on the ground under the command of a German general Liman von Sanders were not overly keen to attack an enemy who they perceived to be on the point of an ignominious withdrawal (a victory in Turkish eyes).

Faced with an enormous surplus of stores and equipment materials were removed by sea but empty packing cases and other ruses devised to confuse the Turks. A sad part of this part of the retreat was the decision (sometimes deliberately ignored) that pack mules and horses should be destroyed by shooting. Knowing that the Turks would not kill the animals, many were stripped of their bridles and released into the wild, possibly surviving the fate which was meted out to many animals.

The final departure was arranged for January and brought to an end a costly adventure for which Churchill would pay with his Cabinet position.

Meanwhile elsewhere the casualty rate continued to mount with a local man lost almost every other day as the never-ending work of patrolling the seas went on with significant losses of merchant ships and the many armed trawlers pressed into service. Of the 69 trawlers employed on the 'Dover patrol' in the narrow Channel seas 29 were lost in the course of the war, many manned by men from Shields.

Two local men were lost from the Trawler Speeton on 31 December — Thomas Gummett of Dockwray Square was drowned and his body subsequently buried in Preston Cemetery — see column in the News Guardian. His widow had already remarried when the Roll of Honour was printed. Her maiden name, Stenhouse, features twice in the Roll with two men who were relatives killed in 1917. This scale of family loss cannot be easily appreciated now but was surely a cause of great upheaval and disruption, with many women losing husbands and facing the difficulties of post-war life with little or no support. It is obvious from the research already carried out by the project that many women remarried very soon after the war.

Of 'Lions and Donkeys' - the facts and the fiction - The battle of Loos.

Loos, has been characterised as a battle fought with supreme courage in pursuit of 'criminally' ill-planned and manifestly unachievable objectives. It was taken as the prime example of enlisted men and junior officers sacrificed in their tens of thousands in pursuit of a 'breakthrough to bring a swift conclusion to the war' - a strategy which was to be repeated all too frequently thereafter, with even greater loss of life.

However the battle was near to a success and, had the reserves been in position and properly rested ready for battle, the result might have produced more tangible gain.

Unfortunately, the loss of life was such that all illusions of a short war and hopes for a swift return home for the men of the Kitchener New Armies were crushed in the few short days of the opening of the battle. 16 men from Tynemouth Borough were killed amongst the 8000 dead or wounded in the second phase of the four days of fighting.

To understand the disaster that befell the men of the 12th and 13th battalions of the Northumberland Fusiliers - early volunteers in the first of Kitchener's New Armies - it is necessary to consider the strategies of the British General staff, placed in the position throughout the war of being subordinate to the French High Command and under Kitcheners specific direction that we had to support the French at all costs even when the supporting roles demanded of us were ill-conceived.

In early summer 1915 Marshal Joffre the French commander wished to roll back the German front line in front of Paris. British forces were to create a diversionary attack to the north of the French in the Lens - La Bassee district - intended to prevent the Germans moving reserves south into the area of the main attack.

The Loos battlefield was regarded as totally unsuitable - an area of coalmines and slag heaps in otherwise flat undifferentiated countryside and villages providing ideal strong points for the defenders. Sir John French, Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force was conservatively - minded and regarded by his rivals and immediate subordinates as not the most brilliant tactical mind. Despite the protestations of French himself, Haig, Rawlinson and the junior generals, Kitchener insisted the battle must be fought as our ally demanded. General Haig, was to engineer French’s recall to London after the battle and 'gain the crown' for himself.

After an initial success in the southern sector around Lens, Haig demanded that the reserve divisions, including the 21st Division (all Kitchener volunteers), be brought into to battle to capitalise on the first day's gains. Unfortunately these troops had been positioned by French as a general reserve too far in the rear and after almost 36 hours marching in heavy rain without a cooked meal they were thrown into the battle on the morning of the 26 September.

loosWalking in long lines into a withering hail of machine gun fire, the men of the reserve divisions including the Tynemouth men crossed towards the German second line trenches to try to advance beyond the limit of the fighting on the 25th. Crossing ground littered by the dead of the previous day they advanced towards strong lines of uncut wire and were driven back without any further gain.

This wasteful 'blooding' of the first of the Kitchener volunteers was to result in Sir John French being dismissed and Haig being appointed to command the British forces in France after an acrimonious correspondence in The Times and the widespread reports from the wounded returning in crowded Hospital trains to England telling of the pointless loss of life they had witnessed.

The popular condemnation of the British generals was expressed in the alleged commentary of a German general - von FalkenHayn, who witnessed one of the fruitless mass assaults by British troops earlier in the year and said they were 'Lions led by Donkeys'. In fact the comment has been attributed to a Boer commander in the South African War (1899-1902).

Whatever the truth, the phrase has stuck in the popular imagination as signifying the cold indifference of the generals to the fate of thousands under their command.

Three men

The casualties list for this week includes three men for whom more information is sought and who have interesting connections to major aspects of the war.

William George Roper was a former pupil of Tynemouth Municipal High School and is shown on the School's 'Record of Service in the Great War' as having enlisted in June, 1915. At the date of his death in action he was a Corporal in the 1st Battalion, Special Brigade, Royal Engineers. This description of his unit was a euphemism adopted to conceal the true nature of its work installing and operating the poison gas apparatus brought into use by Britain following the first introduction of chemical warfare by German forces in April, 1915 at the Second Battle of Ypres. The project would like any further information about him as he is not obviously connected to Tynemouth apart from his schooling. Born in South Africa, his parents are living in Colchester by the time the Roll of Honour was published in 1923.

Two local men serving on an Admiralty trawler had a part in an aspect of the war which has much greater recognition in the history of the Second World War but was of equal importance during the Great War.

John High and Robert Newson were members of the crew of HM Trawler 'John High' lost through explosion of an enemy mine in the White Sea, near to Archangel in the far north of Russia.

Keeping the sea lanes open to Imperial Russia, via the dangerous and inhospitable waters off northern Norway, was equally vital in the First World War as goods and munitions could not be got into or out of the Russian Empire via the Black Sea because access through the Dardanelles was denied by Turkey.

The fact that the ship has the same name as its Skipper has pointed to a number of interesting areas for research. These will be reported later but it seems that only one of the 15 crew survived the explosion of an enemy mine beneath the ship, which it was reported at the time was 'blown to matchwood'. The first mate was standing on the bow and was thrown into the water and later rescued, suffering only shock and the effects of immersion in the icy Arctic waters.

Apart from John High and Robert Newson all other crew members were from elsewhere, serving as members of the Royal Naval Reserve. The trawler had only been built in 1916 in Aberdeen for Robert Hastie of North Shields, a well-known local businessman on the Fish Quay and a figure involved in many local institutions. It may well have been that John High was a holder of 'shares' in the vessel as it was common practice to invest in fishing boats on the basis of 16 shares, taken up by a number of investors; these often including members of the crew, particularly the skipper. Anyone with information about the 'John High' or the two crew members noted in the casualties list is asked to contact the project.