Twin towns united by loss

The river mouth towns of North and South Shields had a relationship of mutual interdependence 90 years ago that can be hard to imagine today.

The disappearance of the frequent 24 hour ferry connections in 1967, on the opening of the Tyne Tunnel, all but severed the commercial and social links, which in the years before the Great War were at the heart of the lives of the majority of their residents. The river was the factor that dominated the existence of the towns and had been the reason for the developments on the south bank in Roman times.

The vital strategic and commercial significance of the river in 1914-18, particularly the shipbuilding and repairing facilities, provided an obvious target for enemy action. Disruption of shipping approaching or leaving the Tyne was a constant theme in the unrestricted submarine warfare and mining of shipping lanes off the North East coast. That action was to lead to a tragic loss of life amongst the close-knit families of the River Tyne Pilots when on 31st December, 1916 the Pilot Cutter Protector (see above) was sunk by striking a mine just outside the river mouth.

The Tyne pilots can be traced back to Roman times, when boatmen from the River Tigris were employed to work ships bringing supplies to the river to support the Roman Empire along the Wall; with a large supply depot at the Arbeia Roman Fort located in what is now the Lawe Top area of South Shields. In 1536 Henry VIII granted a charter to the Brethren of Trinity House in Newcastle to provide pilotage services and collect dues. Initially an exclusive preserve of the religious community, local men were later recruited; and in due course the 'calling' of the pilots was reserved by resolution of Trinity House to the families of the pilot community. This monopoly on the recruitment of Tyne Pilots continued unbroken for hundreds of years until the end of the twentieth century.

robertphillipsIn the years from the end of the 18th century to the First World War, the pilots were a significant group of families in the local community in both North and South Shields. Often born on one bank of the river and settling on marriage on the other, it was this historic family structure which meant that the loss of nineteen men, when the Protector was blown up on New Year's Eve, 1916, created an impact which equalled the loss of twenty pilots in 1849 when attempting a rescue from the Betsy, a stricken ship, foundering on the then unprotected harbour entrance. The loss of the Protector was doubly sad as those men were not engaged in their long-established voluntary role providing the crews for the lifeboats of the Tyne Lifeboat service - the first established in the world - but merely awaiting approaching ships seeking their services to enter the river.

Six of the pilots and crew on board were residents of North Shields but many others had family connections on both sides of the river.

Only one body was recovered, that of the oldest man lost that day, First Class Pilot Robert Philips (aged 70), which was brought ashore over two months later in King Edward's Bay at Tynemouth. Although then resident in South Shields he was buried in Preston Cemetery (see left). His grandson Ralph was lost with him. At 20 he was a Pilots' Assistant just beginning the long period of training and waiting for a vacancy in the exclusive community of licensed pilots. Ralph had lived with his mother and father (also Ralph) at East George Street, North Shields.

The youngest casualty was Bertram Rumney aged only 16, of Burdon Main Row, He was cabin boy on the Protector and came from another family with river connections. His grandfather William was a boat-builder and his father a coppersmith, probably working in the marine industry which still thrived on the riverbanks of North Shields at that time.

robertphillips_grave1The details of the disaster were not published widely at the time for reasons of wartime censorship and with no bodies recovered immediately there was nothing to mark the tragedy by way of a significant number of funerals.

A plaque was installed later on the wall of the Church of St Aidan and St Stephen - known then as the 'Pilots' Church' in Mile End Road, South Shields and can be viewed today. It records the names of all of the victims from the Protector and two other trainee pilots lost at sea on merchant navy service during the war.

Sad epilogue as Somme battle finally drew to a close.

Autumn 1916 saw a series of small-scale battles which were a feature of all three of the major offensives of the war.

Starting with massive frontal assaults the Somme, Arras and Passchendaele campaigns all reduced rapidly in the scale of fighting after the initial objectives were denied to the allies by bad planning, poor tactics, inadequate artillery concentration or just the sheer difficulty of always being forced to attack an enemy well dug-in on higher ground.

The final battle of the Somme campaign — The battle of the Ancre — brought a heavy loss of life for the Northumberland Fusiliers of the 50th Division and the many local men enlisted in the RNVR who were posted to the Royal Naval Division — Churchill's contribution of men surplus to the requirements of the Navy for sea-going service.

The 188th and 189th Brigades (part of the 63rd Division) were comprised from battalions of the Royal Naval Division. Many of the men who filled their ranks were local to Tyneside and were volunteers in the RNVR, who were turned into the 'Bluejackets' and fought at great cost throughout the war in the battlefields of France and Flanders.

On the 13 November they were in the opening actions of the attack intended to seize the heights around Beaumont Hamel and Beaucourt. Meeting heavy resistance and withering machine gun fire they struggled forward. However, heavy losses meant they became ineffective as individual units and had to be rallied in mixed groups of those remaining uninjured. A small force of barely 100 men from the Howe, Anson and Nelson battalions succeeded in taking their first objective.

On the next day the 2nd Australian Division was joined in the attack with support from men of the 149th Brigade — part of the wholly Territorial 50th Division and mainly formed from units of the Northumberland Fusiliers and Durham Light Infantry. These men were 'Territorials' from pre-war days augmented by volunteers from the early months of the war; and some of the early conscripts then being brought into fighting units after initial training. The Australians met strong resistance and were supported later in the day by men of the Northumberland Fusiliers who suffered a similar fate and were unable to press home the attack or reach their objective.

Other units carried on the battle for another few days but by the 20 November, following an early snowfall and rapid thaw the Somme area became a quagmire and the Official History of the campaign regards that date as the effective end of the overall battle.

From 1 July, when the Tyneside battalions suffered so badly, through to the end of operations on the Somme, allied casualties (killed and wounded) were reckoned at over 400,000 British (including Dominion and Empire) troops and more than 150,000 French in their relatively successful sector of the front; with an estimated cost to the defending German forces of over 500,000 casualties. This cost to the enemy was reckoned to be evidence of the 'success' of the battle overall, in its often stated objective of wearing down the enemy by 'attritional' warfare. Whether these losses were a price worth paying by the allies can be judged against the fact that the German forces withdrew secretly, at little cost to themselves, in the winter months to even more well-defended positions they had been constructing in the rear along what came to be known by the British as the Hindenburg Line.

The German offensive at Verdun was halted by the French, and enemy reinforcements, otherwise available, were tied down on the Somme front. The cynical view has it that the French wished to see the British forces shoulder a greater share of the load and that the campaign in the Somme region was fought without any clear military objectives and against an area under occupation but of little strategic value otherwise, had the hoped for breakthrough even been achieved.

What is certain is that the name of an unremarkable area of northern France would come to be etched on the collective memory of the British mind for a century to come, as the unequalled exemplar of the horrors of the Great War and the alleged indifference of the High command to the sufferings of the troops; with the cataclysmic loss of life inflicted on small close knit communities across the nation.

Continuing Somme toll in autumn 1916 brought family's double tragedy.

As the long drawn out battle on the Somme ground on into September, 1916, the toll amongst local families was particularly acute for those whose sons, husbands and brothers had rushed to join up in the first Kitchener volunteer New Army in 1914.

That month saw heavy casualties amongst the men of the 8th Battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers who had been sent to France from the Middle East after reinforcement following the heavy losses suffered in the badly directed landings at Suvla Bay on the Dardanelles in August, 1915.

Now fighting as a part of the 11th Division they were thrown into the assaults launched as part of the campaign known as the Battle of Thiepval Ridge. On the morning of 26th September the Northumberlands were in the vanguard of the attack against the German positions in front of the Zollern Redoubt. Meeting heavy resistance the momentum of the attack was lost and the history of the campaign shows that the troops following on as 'moppers up' were killed almost to man leaving only 50 survivors with a sole remaining officer organising a temporary position in front of the German strongpoint.

On the following morning the Germans withdrew from the Redoubt and the Fusiliers were able to occupy the enemy position. Later that day the battalion was relieved and withdrawn from the front line. They were not employed further on the Somme as the battle petered out on the 18th of November after few more inconclusive 'pushes' gaining a few hundreds of yards of enemy positions.

Overall the battle cost the allied forces over 400,000 killed and wounded for a gain of no more than 4000 yards on any part of the 18 mile section of the front. The hoped for breakthrough never materialised; and during the winter standstill the Germans withdrew to a stronger defensive position — the Hindenburg Line. The small gains bought at enormous cost were only justified in the minds of the general staff by taking account of the similarly high cost to the enemy, whose casualties were reckoned to have exceeded those of the attackers.

September, 1916 also saw one of the rarer and tragic events of the war, the loss of two family members on the same day. Two brothers connected to North Shields were killed on the 4th of September. Their mother had left the town after the death of their father in 1912, presumably returning to the area from which they had come as a family many years previously. At present we do not know the address from which they left for war but both men joined the Norfolk Regiment and were commissioned as officers. Edwin Percival Wildman Brown was a Second Lieutenant in the 1st battalion of the Norfolk Regiment who had served previously in the 3rd battalion of the regiment.

That latter unit was the Depot battalion, located in East Anglia and to which new recruits would be posted prior to allocation to a unit in the field. In addition younger recruits not permitted to be on active operations would be held back on training and administrative duties pending reaching the age for posting into fighting units. A former pupil of Tynemouth Municipal High School, he had gone on to Durham University where he joined the Officers Training Corps. Enlisted in September, 1914, at the age of 17, he was killed in action at Delville Wood area.

His elder brother, William John Henry was recorded as a medical student in the 1911 census but appears not to have been serving as a doctor. Aged 24 he was an acting Captain and shown on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission register as a member of the 3rd battalion attached to the 15th battalion. It is not clear if this is with the Norfolk Regiment, which is unlikely as records today do not indicate the formation of a 15th Battalion of the Norfolks.

He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial which records the names of over 73,000 British and Dominion servicemen lost in the Somme theatre of operations from 1916 to 1918.

The family was of some substance, their father William Henry Brown was a doctor and a member of the Royal College of Surgeons. He had died on the 23rd of August 1912 aged only 52.

His widow, Fanny Sophia of Suffolk, suffered the loss of her husband at an early age and then the loss of two of her four sons on the same day in September, 1916. The family home in North Shields was a substantial terraced house in Northumberland Square, now unoccupied it was for many years used as offices by the Council.

Local men who had made lives far away recalled in project work.

The bloodiest month of the First World War is recalled in details of local émigré men who played parts in significant aspects of the war's history.

Two of the casualties in the list provided by the Tynemouth World War One Commemoration Project this week are men who were former residents of the borough whose relatives felt it was important that they be remembered by their inclusion in the local Roll of Honour.

John Storey Haw was serving with the 11th battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers when he was killed aged 37. At the outbreak of war John was serving in the merchant navy in the Far East but left his ship and joined the army. Initially attached to a unit of the South Wales Borderers he was engaged in the siege of Tsing Tau, a German Treaty Port on the China coast, and part of the Kaiser's Asian imperial possessions.

On the outbreak of war it was felt vital to capture these enemy outposts and deny German commerce raiders access to safe harbour and re-fuelling facilities. Details are needed of how John then came to be in Western Europe and serving with a local regiment. He was killed on 7th July on the Somme and is buried at Serre Road Cemetery.

Nicholas Mainger — possibly a relative of John Manger (sic) featured in last week's News Guardian regular casualty list — was an emigrant to Australia who was killed at the battle of Fromelles. That battle was a significant and 'painful' baptism of fire for the Australian Imperial forces in France. The story of Fromelles and its intended role as a diversionary attack to draw away German reinforcements believed to be headed south to the Somme from the Ypres front, is a long-held controversy in the minds of Australians and their near contempt for the British high command, who they believe sacrificed their men in an ill-thought out attack; doomed to failure and pointless losses for no tactical gain. Nicholas is remembered on the panels at 'VC Corner' Cemetery, where all those commemorated are victims of the battle with no known resting place. It is possible that he is amongst those recently reburied following the discovery of a mass grave created by the German forces at Pheasant Wood to take a large number of British and Australian dead from the ill-fated battle. Any information about him may add to the fascinating picture of the war now emerging as the project progresses.

Finally, a local resident has recently provided information regarding his grandfather, William Henry Grant (see News Guardian casualty list on 7th July, 2011). He was killed at La Boiselle on the 1st July, 1916, fighting with the 20th Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers (Tyneside Scottish). William's story features in the extensive coverage of the history of the Tyneside Scottish Brigade by Graham Stewart and John Sheen. The story of his part and cry out on the battlefield will be featured in a future article. What is of interest and demonstrates the impact of the project, is that local residents and people living far away are providing insights and materials previously unknown or lost.

William's exclamation on the battlefield is probably a succinct summation of the attitude of many of those sacrificed on the 1st of July and who felt a sense of hopelessness with their position but nevertheless fought on against impossible odds. The project has now received information about William, including photographs taken in uniform and with his former workmates at Smith's Docks and previously unavailable to researchers and others interested in his part in the ill-fated attack that morning.

Reminder of the cruel cost of Somme battle has awakened memories for many.

The details of casualties in the list provided by the Tynemouth World War One Commemoration Project this week is drawn again from the 74 men of the Borough killed in the first day of the great campaign launched on the Somme on 1st July, 1916.

Since the publication of details last week, of those from the Tyneside Scottish battalions of the Northumberland Fusiliers lost on that fateful day, a number of readers have contacted the project to provide information about relatives, and the difficult consequences for those left widowed and orphaned by the tragedy that befell many in the community.

grave_21st July, 1916 shattered the illusions of those who had rushed to volunteer in the heady atmosphere of patriotic fervour that engulfed the whole country in the autumn of 1914. Many of those who volunteered were well beyond the age for normal enlistment in pre-war days and often joined up together to serve in the great adventure which they believed the war would be.

Two local men from Preston Village (brothers-in-law), are typical of that group who left their peacetime employment to serve in the local battalions being raised to fill Kitchener's New Armies. John Glaister and George Thompson were employed at Ritson's colliery in Preston and both enlisted in the Tyneside Scottish. Both were killed on 1st July, 1916 and are noted on the family headstone (pictured left) just inside the main gates of Preston cemetery, behind the cemetery office in the first row of headstones behind the hedgerow, facing towards Walton Avenue.

Aged 39, they were typical of many family men swept away in the slaughter that day. The project would like any information about them to add to the growing collection of fascinating memories and materials of the consequences of the war.

Memories of tragic day in Borough's history recalled.

The Tynemouth World War One Commemoration Project's research teams have now begun the task of collecting information on the many casualties of the war as perhaps the most poignant event of the conflict has had its 95th anniversary.

The first of July 1916 was the day when the nation, as well as the inhabitants of the Borough of Tynemouth, waited with confident anticipation for news of the great offensive which was to be launched against the German forces dug-in along the 600 mile trench system of the Western Front; stretching from the North Sea coast of Belgium through France to the Swiss border.

The battle and offensive that was unleashed at 7.30am on a bright and sunny summer morning along the British section of the front, from Gommecourt in the north to Maricourt in the south, where the British armies linked with their French allies, was to become known as the battle of the Somme. The most evocative name in the history of the whole war, the battle of the Somme is for many the greatest exemplar of a disastrous strategy of massed frontal assault which was conducted on several occasions in the vain hope (as it turned out many times) that the German lines would be punched through and a successful breach would allow a more mobile series of operations to be conducted with the employment of the vast numbers of cavalry and mounted artillery units waiting just behind the front lines for the hoped for opening up and destruction of a length of the enemy trench systems.

The sad reality was that the intensive and unbelievably ferocious 7 day artillery bombardment of the front lines opposite the massed British, Dominion and French troops had failed almost everywhere to achieve the destruction of the enemy's barbed wire entanglements and front trench systems, which was essential if the attack was to be successful. All along the battle front were massed hundreds of thousands of troops, many of them awaiting the beginning of the campaign they had all eagerly trained for since their rush to join up in the New Armies called for by Field Marshal Kitchener in August of 1914.

Many of these troops had been recruited into so called 'Pals battalions' of men from small localities, cities and towns all over the British Isles who were told they could enlist and fight together. Names such as the Accrington Pals, the Grimsby Chums and the Barnsley Pals would soon come to have a sad resonance throughout the land as details of the truly horrific loss of life and injury in the first day's fighting emerged slowly in the most affected communities.

On Tyneside, the rush to join up had seen the formation of a number of 'pals' battalions under the banner of the Northumberland Fusiliers. The 16th, 18th and 19th. battalions were known as the 'Tyneside Commercials'; recruited from the quayside offices and businesses on Newcastle's bustling waterfront. The 8 battalions of the Tyneside Scottish and Tyneside Irish (approximately 8000 men) were recruited from across the North East region but principally from Northumberland and Durham, many of them from the Borough of Tynemouth.

These battalions of the Northumberland Fusiliers had been embodied to Divisions of the British armies on the Somme front that had been identified to attack stretches of the line where the artillery bombardment had in reality proved to be almost totally ineffective in destroying wire entanglements and the first line trench systems. The defenders were able to mount a withering machine gun fire into the advancing waves of troops who jumped off from their trench positions and walked across 'no man's land' towards their objectives.

By the end of the first day's action only a limited success had been achieved in the south alongside the French troops but without the hoped for breakthrough. Elsewhere the attack had been almost a total failure, with few gains of any significance achieved at an almost unbelievable cost in loss of life and injuries.

The British and Dominion troops suffered over 58,000 casualties with some 19,000 killed, although this would not become known publicly for many days and weeks until the truly staggering losses of some of the 'pals' battalions and other units became apparent from the seemingly endless casualty lists appearing in local newspapers across the land.

In Tynemouth Borough alone some 74 men were finally reported as killed in the first day's action on the Somme. The blackest day in the history of the British army would be reflected in the sad reaction as news reached the families of thousands of local men from the North East.

The Tyneside Scottish and Tyneside Irish brigades were so badly mauled that they had to be withdrawn from the 34th Division and moved to a quieter sector of the front in order to reform and replace losses.

We cannot now, at this distance in time, begin to imagine the reaction of the local population to the news of the multiple losses of family members, which is evident in the rolls of honour and other memorials of the war, when such a tragic loss of life in a single day became known.

Anniversary of greatest sea battle in WW1 draws together two projects.

This week in the News Guardian, the names featured in the List of casualties from the Tynemouth Roll of Honour have been drawn exclusively from those men and boys who were killed at the battle of Jutland on the 31st May-1st June 1916.

That battle was the greatest naval engagement of the war. Although the outcome was seen as a victory for the Royal Navy — the German High Seas Fleet never came out again to fight a major engagement, and remained 'bottled up' in port — the Royal Navy's losses far exceeded those of the German fleet. More than 6000 British sailors were killed or drowned and 6 capital ships totally lost.

Amongst those casualties were a number of men from Tynemouth including former boys who had been educated on the Training Ship Wellesley. The TS Wellesley (a redundant Royal Navy hulk) was destroyed by fire at her moorings off the Western Quay at North Shields in March, 1914, with the boys being accommodated on land thereafter. One of several training ships for young boys, she was a part of a Victorian tradition of taking youths, some at risk of falling into criminal ways, and giving them an education from which many would graduate into a career in the navy and merchant fleets.

The Wellesley would, over many years, be transformed into an 'Approved School' operated by Sunderland Borough Council and was finally housed in the former naval base at Blyth.

Recently, following Wellesley's closure some years ago, Sunderland Council put up for auction a collection of artefacts and memorabilia related to the TS Wellesley. Fortunately this was saved from being broken up when two local men purchased the bulk of the collection. One of them, Anthony Smithson, is a member of the Tynemouth World War One project and proprietor of the Keelrow Book Shop in North Shields.

At present the artefacts and materials are in the care of Tyne and Wear Museums and Archives Service with a view to their being exhibited in 2014. The Tynemouth World War One Commemoration Project hopes to be able to link into that proposal and include the results of its research and enquiries into the many Wellesley boys who were recorded in a special section of the Tynemouth Roll of Honour. Readers will note the wide–ranging origins of some of the casualties who were connected to the Wellesley and the information that is sought to clarify many missing details of the histories of the men and boys lost in a naval engagement which could have had dramatic consequences for the British and allied war effort, had the German Fleet been victorious and gained access to the High seas.

As was said at the time by Winston Churchill, of the senior British naval commander - Admiral of the Fleet and First Sea Lord, John Rushworth Jellicoe - "He was the one man who could 'lose the war' in an afternoon."