Second tragedy in the unlucky history of three ships named 'Birtley'...

The winter period of 1917-18 was marked, as in previous years, by a lessening of the toll on land as the year began. However there was no optimism now that the war would be brought to a conclusion in the coming year; and at home the population had even begun to lose interest in the conduct of the war, reserving their opinion for complaints about their own inconveniences engendered by the war and its seemingly fruitless continuation.

At sea the losses of shipping continued and for the seaport towns such as Tynemouth the daily risks faced by the many men needed to supply vital materials across the sea to France meant regular notice of yet another ship sent to the bottom by torpedo or mining.

One such ship was ss Birtley, a collier returning from Dunkirk, which was lost a few miles off the Yorkshire coast after being attacked by a submarine. The ship was the second of three named Birtley which was to prove less than auspicious. All were lost in the coastal waters of the North Sea en route to or from the Tyne. Built at the same shipyard by Wood, Skinner and Company of Bill Quay, Gateshead, they were operated by the Burnett Shipping Company of Newcastle.

The first and third ships were also lost in unfortunate circumstances. The first in 1905 by wreck and the latter, built in 1923, two years before the Wood Skinner yard went into liquidation - was also lost by enemy action in 1941.

The second ship of that name was sunk on 4th January, 1918 with a crew which included four men from North Shields. All the crew are remembered on the Tower Hill memorial in London except the two crew members who were regarded as part of the Indian Merchant Navy service. They are remembered on the CWGC memorial in Mumbai (Bombay) where all crew members from the Indian sub-continent, south Arabian Peninsular and East Africa are remembered.

The tradition of employing crew from the tropical climates who could withstand the extreme temperatures of the engine room and hard physical labour feeding the boiler furnaces with coal had of course led to the establishment of the community of Yemeni seamen in South Shields and similarly men known as Lascars were recruited from the Indian sub-continent.

The ethnic diversity of North Shields was probably greater at this time than at any time in its history. The ship-repairing industry brought ships with international crews and the streets of the low town from the New Quay to the Fish Quay were a melting pot of nationalities with Greek and Maltese shopkeepers, and other nations represented in the lanes and narrow staircases leading up to the new town centre, above the steep banksides.

The crew of the ss Birtley even include a man - A. Maaronen - who is recorded on Tower Hill Memorial as coming from Perkjarvi Station, Kankjani, Finland. The crews of such ships represented their own miniature 'united nations' in the dangerous task of maintaining the military effort of a war which would appear to them to seemingly have no end in sight.

Anyone who has any information about men included on this week's casualty list or who wishes to learn more about the project is welcome visit the workroom at the Linskill Community Centre, Mondays to Fridays, 10:00am to 4:00pm. If you wish to be involved or have material that you think should be included in our project work please get in touch.

No respite in maritime toll as 1917 ended.

A particular feature of the enormous loss suffered by the community in Tynemouth borough during the Great War was the significant loss of life at sea amongst men serving in the Royal Navy as well as with the merchant navy and fishing fleets.

This also meant that many of those killed were well beyond the age for military service but still found themselves in the 'frontline' at sea. William Dixon lost on the SS Ilvington Court was 63 when he lost his life and a member of the crew of the ST Ranter Robert Newson (see below) was aged 61.

1917 had been the year of the greatest loss of merchant shipping (by tonnage), as the U-boat menace threatened the very continuation of the war and forced the introduction of the convoy system to stem the unsustainable loss of merchant vessels. The casualties list for this week shows the scale of loss in just one month, when men from several merchant ships were killed.

In addition, two trawlers fishing 10 miles north east of the mouth of the Tyne were attacked by a German torpedo boat destroyer on 12 December. The steam trawler John M. Smart was lost with all hands but the ST Ranter got back to port though badly damaged. Unfortunately three crew members from that Shields fishing boat were killed by gunfire at sea and have graves in Preston Cemetery - see photos.

Robert Newson was the husband of the late Margaret and father of seven children. A copy of the family tree and other information held by the Local Studies Section of North Shields Library shows that he was to be buried on the following Saturday with the funeral cortege leaving from the residence of his daughter - probably Priscilla Wright - at 4 Laet Street.

Robert (senior) was the second member of his family to be lost in the war - his son, also named Robert, aged 34, of 73 Howdon Road was lost in the Admiralty trawler John High on the Russian convoy service in August 1916 (see News Guardian story on 18 August, 2011).

The Tynemouth Roll of Honour also shows Joseph Newson of the Northumberland Fusiliers who died at home at 4 Laet Street on 23 August, 1918 - the residence of his sister. No record for him is shown on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission registers and it may be that he died after discharge from the army. The project would be grateful to receive any information about him from relatives of the family with knowledge of the history of this sad loss of three loved ones.

We are grateful to Chris Lambert, Historian of the Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade, for information about the crews of the two trawlers and the photograph of the shrapnel-damaged galley chimney of the Ranter which is displayed in the Brigade Watch House at the Spanish Battery, Tynemouth and is a potent reminder of the conflict almost 100 years ago.

If anyone wishes to get involved in the work of the project they are most welcome to come along to the workroom at Linskill Community centre and see some of the fascinating materials already being built up into what it is hoped will be a comprehensive record of the contribution and sacrifices of local families in the Great War.

The project Workroom at Linskill Community centre will be closed from noon on Friday 23 December until 10:00am on 3 January, 2012 in line with the general closure of the building. To find out more about the project and how you can assist call into the Project Workroom on week-days from 10:00am to 16:00pm, Room B9, Linskill Centre, Trevor Terrace, North Shields.

Home thoughts from abroad' - how Tynesider's nickname was immortalised in largest Commonwealth war cemetery.

September, 1917 was one of the bloodiest months of the First World War. Local men were fighting on the battlefields to the north east of Ieper (Ypres), in a campaign retrospectively named the Third Battle of Ypres and which came to be known more generally as the battle of (Passchendaele), a battle fought in the most unimaginable conditions of gunfire, death and destruction, where men drowned in a slough of glutinous mud if they slipped off the temporary network of duckboards and wooden tracks laid across the mire of the flood plain to the east of the town of Ypres.

It was here, seeking to advance against a carefully planned network of concrete blockhouses, that men of the Northumberland Fusiliers and Durham Light Infantry fought in appalling conditions at great cost. These German strong points were constructed to provide cross-cutting support to each position, making an assault almost impossible in the conditions of the battlefield. The blockhouses were nicknamed 'Tyne Cottages' by the 'Geordies' attacking them.

The unknown men who bestowed this nickname could not have imagined the lasting significance it would take on in the collective memory of the conflict and the memorialising of the dead.

When the Imperial War Graves Commission set about establishing the cemeteries and memorials to the missing they faced an almost impossible task when it came to the 100,000 men reported missing and presumed killed in the Ypres salient area. The well-known memorial at the Menin Gate in Ypres was conceived to bear the names of the missing but it was realised that monument, massive though it was, would not be sufficient to feature all of the names. Therefore it was decided to divide the names by reference to the date a man was listed missing or presumed killed. Using 16 August,1917 — the first day of the battle of Passchendaele — it was agreed that those lost from then until the Armistice (11 November, 1918) — would be recorded on the semi-circular memorial wall in a cemetery to be constructed near to the final line of the battle when it drew to an inconclusive close late in 1917.

tynecotThe site chosen included several of the damaged but still intact German blockhouses and thus the cemetery was named Tyne Cot. This largest of all Commonwealth war cemeteries has almost 12,000 graves of known and unknown soldiers as well as the wall recording 34,000 names of those missing in the Ypres salient from 16 August 1917 onwards. Men of the 50th Northumbrian Division and the Australian 3rd Division who finally captured the site on October 4, who were buried temporarily in the vicinity; and over 11,500 other casualties, were recovered to the site, into what was known as a 'concentration' cemetery. The unique feature of the cemetery is the ‘Cross of Sacrifice’ which stands atop one of the former German blockhouses. All large cemeteries have such a cross (see photo left) but in this case, at the suggestion of King George V on a visit to the unfinished site, the cross was mounted on the remains of a pillbox — one of several which were left in the cemetery as reminders of the bitter struggle which took place there.

c_r_southernAmongst those recorded on the great semi-circular wall, behind the Cross of Sacrifice, is Serjeant Cornelius Reed Southern of Percy Main. A married man with three children, employed in the docks of the Tyne Improvement Commissioners as a trimmer, he had enlisted in November, 1914 into the Tyneside Scottish brigade of the Northumberland Fusiliers.

By September, 1917 he was posted as a Serjeant in the 20th (S) battalion of the Durham Light Infantry, one of the service battalions of the Kitchener volunteer armies. His family are not aware of why he was transferred into this latter unit.

Serjeant Southern's grandson, Mr. Gordon Southern has provided the photograph of his relative featured this week and would be interested to learn more of his grandfather's military career and family history.

Project's research uncovers fascinating coincidence.

The casualties list from the Tynemouth World War One Commemoration Project has brought to light a fascinating connection between two men of very different family origins who, by a strange twist of fate, came together in war, when their social origins would otherwise have meant they would have been unlikely ever to have had any contact.

Kenneth Gordon Garnett MC (died of wounds 22nd August, 1917) was born in Tynemouth in 1892 and went off to a famous public school before entering Cambridge University where he distinguished himself both academically and in the sport of rowing, being a member of the winning team in 1914 in the annual 'varsity' rowing match against Oxford. During a period serving as a volunteer on a luxury yacht employed on minesweeping duties he would have become aware of another local man — Percy Main — who was serving as a member of the crew of the yacht (HMY Zarefah) — see News Guardian list of casualties on 5th May, 2011.

The circumstances which brought these two natives of the Borough together will be reported later when further research by the project is completed.

The men featured this week include many who fell in that other 'bloodbath' of the war, which rivalled the Battle of the Somme for the sheer horror and ferocity of the fighting and appalling conditions in which they were expected to fight. The Third battle of Ypres, which commenced in June 1917 following on from the battle of Arras, started optimistically with the massive attack on the enemy positions along Messines Ridge in the Ypres sector. However, the second phase of the battle (commencing in August 1917), which came to be known as the Battle of Passchendaele, exceeded, if that were possible, the futile and hopeless 'attritional' tactics of the British High Command on the Somme in 1916, which sought to grind down the enemy by sheer persistence and dogged refusal to recognise the impossibility of gaining any worthwhile military advantage, when measured against the appalling cost in casualties and conditions imposed on the frontline troops.

That battle claimed the life of the Borough's highest ranking officer to die in the war, as far as can be seen from the Roll of Honour. Lt. Col Francis Dawson Blandy MC, died as a result of wounds sustained whilst tending to injured men out on the battlefield. He was a resident of Tynemouth who is recorded in the historical records of the Royal Army Medical Corps relating to the Great War. A former student of the Middlesex hospital in London, he had qualified in 1900 and was a member of the Territorial Forces at the outbreak of war and in practice in Tynemouth where he held several local medical appointments. He served with the 1st/1st Wessex Field Ambulance having enlisted for war service on 26th June, 1915. He was killed whilst tending to the wounded under intense shell fire on the 14th August, 1917. The citation for the posthumous award of the Military Cross was as follows:

"For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He worked continuously for 36 hours under heavy shell fire and adverse conditions of weather, not only collecting the wounded of his own Brigade, but also those of another, who were lying in an advanced position. To do this he collected all the bearer parties that he could find and personally led them to spots under heavy shell fire. By his gallant conduct in going forward again and again, regardless of his personal safety, he undoubtedly saved many lives."

He is buried at Reninghelst New Military Cemetery in the Ypres salient.

Letter passed to Great War commemoration project highlights tragedy of war.

cpl_john_dixon Among the many casualties for the month of June, 1917 was Corporal John Dixon, of the 8th (Territorial) Battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers.

In 1914, aged just 16, a member of the 8th (Territorial) battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers, he had been called up for active service on the day war was declared. By the time of the battle of Arras in spring 1917 he was in France and a Corporal in the 13th battalion of the regiment.

  In a letter sent to his brother on the 14th of June (click on right image to view in a new window) he tells of his wish for an end to the war and a return home. Sadly it was not to be. He was killed on the 16th June, in the fighting to which he notes he will soon return. His letter was received a day after his death.

His name is included on the Arras memorial amongst the 34,716 names of those lost in the area from spring 1916 to August 1918 for whom no known grave exists.

The battle of Arras was to be the major offensive of 1917 but like the previous year on the Somme the fighting failed to produce any significant advantage for the allies and resulted in the heaviest daily casualty rate of the whole war in the period from April to May 1917.

cpl_john_dixon_letter_2A collection of papers held by Corporal Dixon's relatives has been passed to the project and will be included in the items which it is intended will contribute to an exhibition of war related materials planned to be organised for the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the war in 2014.