Friday, 19 January 2018

So far from England

This week, we have a blog post from Mel Brown who has been uploading the research of John B, one of the Cowshill history group, to Durham at War.
St John’s Chapel War Memorial © Durham County Council, Keys to the Past website
St John’s Chapel War Memorial © Durham County Council, Keys to the Past
The First World War is so well documented that many of us know a great deal about the lives of soldiers, especially those on the Western Front. When I edited and recorded the stories of a group of soldiers whose names are recorded on the Saint John’s Chapel war memorial, provided by a local researcher, many of the details were no different from other accounts I had studied over the years.

But as I worked through the stories of these men, seventeen in all, I found that, yet again, the experiences of those caught up in that war, can still make us amazed or moved by what happened to them. Perhaps it was the experience of reading about local men from a very close-knit community, whose families would almost certainly have known each other, through work, or schools, or chapels and churches. 

These young soldiers, whose ages ranged from 18 to early 30s, were the sons of railway workers, farmers, lead miners, quarrymen – one or two had fathers who were schoolmasters or shopkeepers, so these were essentially working-class families. Many were still living in the family home when they joined up and most of them had attended either Wearhead School or Saint John’s Chapel School.

Not all the service records for these men have survived but quite a few do still exist and these have revealed a number of details. Most of these men served as in the ranks as privates in the Durham Light Infantry, but also the Loyal Lancashires, Royal Field Artillery, Northumberland Fusiliers, and even the Essex and Dorset Regiments.

One or two had emigrated to Australia and so returned to Europe to fight with the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). The service record of Isaac Thompson, for example, reveals how a young working-class Weardale man travelled so far from England, fought with the Australian army in the Gallipoli campaign and then was transferred to the Western Front in France. He was promoted and decorated for his bravery in the field, but was killed and buried in France. Isaac may have started life in the small village of Saint John’s Chapel in the late 19th century but, like several other local men, the war took him to places he would never have expected to see. 

A large number of British soldiers were, at some point during their military service, disciplined by officers, and some of the Weardale men also had this experience. Many were charged with being absent without leave, sometimes for a day, sometimes for only a few hours. This wasn’t in any way regarded as desertion and the punishments reflect that, for the men would lose a day’s pay or be confined to barracks. Most of them were probably enjoying a drinking spree and a chance to escape the boredom of life in their barracks. Wilfred Race, aged only 22 and originally from the Stanhope area, was disciplined for such an offence in Cape Town, as he travelled back to Europe with the AIF, having emigrated to Australia three years earlier. Since he, and many other young British troops, died not long after their offence, I must confess to a certain sympathy for them. They were escaping for a few hours and they weren’t stupid, they knew what awaited them in France and Belgium. In many cases, they were right.
British War Cemetery, Jerusalem, where Robert William Hodgson is buried, taken by Arielinson, Commons Wikimedia, Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) License
Virtually all the men in this group were killed during the war. Some have no known graves but their names are recorded on the great memorials such as Tyne Cot or the Menin Gate, both in Ypres, Belgium. Others are buried in France or Belgium though the graves of some are further away. Thomas Smith’s grave is in Berlin and Robert William Hodgson is buried in the Jerusalem War Cemetery. Only one of this group, Joseph Jackson from Stanhope, died from his wounds in England and was attended by his family, a rare event indeed.

Once a soldier had been killed, efforts were made to return their belongings to families. It is very poignant to see the signature of a mother or father, acknowledging the delivery of such items as wallets, cigarette cards, photos and letters, belts and razors. The family of Thomas Hodgson received only one photo, all that remained.

The family would eventually receive modest sums of money from the men’s accounts. The brothers and sisters of Thomas Watson received just over £1 each in 1919.

All these men were awarded the British War Medal and the Victory medals posthumously, and one or two, such as Private Thomas Heatherington, received the 1914/15 Star if they served with the Expeditionary Force in France in those years.

The men’s names are also recorded on various local memorials as well as those overseas, including the war memorial at Saint John’s Chapel. In Australia, Isaac Thompson's name is located in the Commemorative Area at the Australian War Memorial and in 2018 his name will be projected onto the exterior of the memorial’s Hall of Memory on three occasions. 

A few of the Weardale men were married, and any records of the widows seem to indicate that these women did not remarry, since they retain their married surname. One or two survived into the 1970s, for example, Robert Magden’s widow, Margaretta, and one lady died in the 1990s, a stark reminder of the youth of these soldiers when they died.

You can read the stories of these men on the St John's Chapel War Memorial by following the 'related to this story' links at the bottom of this page:

Friday, 12 January 2018

Commonwealth War Graves Appeal - Joseph Winn

Earlier this week (9 Jan), the Commonwealth War Graves put out an appeal to find the next of kin of four soldiers, including one from the Durham Light Infantry (DLI).

1706 Private Joseph Winn of 3/5th Battalion, DLI, from Thornaby-on-Tees, son of Alexander, died on 16 January 1918 and is buried in the local cemetery. 

Census records show Joseph living in Thornaby-on-Tees, and to have been born in 1892, the fourth of nine children born to Alexander and Rebecca Winn. Alexander and Rebecca had both been born in Ireland. The men of working age in the family were employed in iron works, a large industry on Teesside. Joseph’s older siblings were William, Catherine, and Margaret. Younger than him were Alexander, Agnes, Mary, Samuel, and Rebecca. 

Ancestry shows that some information of his army service survived amongst the pension records. Joseph joined the local territorial battalion, 5 DLI in 1912 and was discharged in May 1916. He did not serve abroad during the war, but remained in the reserve battalion on home service. Joseph received the Silver War Badge as his discharge from service was due to being medically unfit (records suggest that he did not apply for it when he was first eligible). One of the documents in the pension record provides quite detailed information on Joseph’s condition, and is stamped ‘Total disablement’, and a pension of 20/- per week from 1 January to 3 April 1917, then 27/6, and offered sanatorium. He was medically unfit due to ‘Tubercle of the lung and fistula in ano’, meaning that he had tuberculosis and an anal fistula. 

The report of the medical board of 6 April 1916 says:
‘Originated (haemoptysis [coughing up blood]) in April 1913 at Thornaby-on-Tees. Recovering from haemoptysis. Sputum examined for tubercle bacilli, result positive… Not result or aggravated by ordinary military service’.

A further report on 26 October 1917 says:
‘Very emaciated and anaemic…severe case of tubercle of lung…From history although he had a haemorrhage in 1913, he got over this and was able to carry on his work until enlistment in 1914 when he states he did not report sick until December 1915 and was not admitted to hospital March 1916 with a severe haemorrhage. Condition was aggravated by his military service’. [This text is as written, and is not very clear].

On 11 November 1917:
‘Sanatorium treatment recommended subject to opinion of local tuberculosis medical officer’.
There is no indication whether Joseph made it to a sanatorium before his death in January 1918. 

If you believe you have a connection with Joseph Winn, contact the Commonwealth War Graves commission at:

Friday, 5 January 2018

Bed ridden

I am starting this year’s run of blog posts with some letters Colonel Hubert Morant, commanding officer of 10th battalion, Durham Light Infantry, wrote to his wife from an old chateau in France being used as a training school. On the 27 January 1917, he writes, ‘The cold of this chateau is terrific, in my room everything is frozen, even a shirt I washed and put in the chest of drawers is absolutely stiff’.
Drawing of a bed by Reverend JAG Birch, 5th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry (D/DLI 7/63/2(103))
D/DLI 7/63/2(103) Drawing of a bed by Reverend JAG Birch, 5th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry
On 5 February 1917, Morant describes how ill he has been: 
‘Ever since I wrote last, on the 3rd I think, I have been ill! After writing to you I took my temperature and found it was nearly 103 degrees, it has been about 102 at night and 100-101 by day since. I have a nasty tight cough, but am getting better now. Everything in the room was frozen of course. My bed was fairly comfortable but hopeless to move about on as it has an enormous chasm in the centre - fairly comfortable when you are there but impossible to get out of except by a great effort. My servant was also sick so I was left pretty well on my own. I have not eaten anything since this started ,I occasionally drink a little tea… The doctor seems of course to have no medicine that is the slightest use, the number of bad coughs about is terrific… Well I’m going on alright but very uncomfortable and look awful not having shaved for three days.’

I have sympathy with Morant as I too have been laid up in bed this week with a very nasty cold, (hence the late posting), but I at least had a warm, and flat, bed.