Friday, 23 December 2016

A nice slice of trench cake

If you've forgotten to make the Christmas cake, but still want to give something similar a go, why not try a First World War trench cake? Made by family members at home and sent to the loved ones serving abroad, it was a dense fruit cake, made to last and to withstand the journey from home to the front line.

Regular readers will already know about the First World Bake Off Competition we held at the Durham at War Volunteer Conference. We had sent out the recipe below, taken from The Telegraph, and I've now been in touch with a few of the participants about their cake-making experience.

1/2lb flour
4 oz margarine
1 teaspoon vinegar
1/4 pint of milk
3 oz brown sugar
3 oz cleaned currants
2 teaspoons cocoa
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
grated lemon rind


Grease a cake tin. Rub margarine into the flour in a basin. Add the dry ingredients. Mix well. Add the soda dissolved in vinegar and milk. Beat well. Turn into the tin. Bake in a moderate oven for about two hours.

Bake Off winner, Margaret Hedley, says she didn't tweak the recipe at all. However, she did do "a test bake beforehand and shared it with my history group."

Pigeon delivering the trench cake
Pigeon delivering the trench cake
Our balloon modelling volunteer, Margaret Eason, wrote this of her Bake Off experience:

"I confess I did use butter instead of margarine in the Trench Cake I made for the Bake Off but to no avail, it was still awful. It didn’t rise at all and if a similar effort had got to the trenches it would no doubt have been returned to sender with a pair of broken false teeth stuck in it. Many many congratulations to the winner, how she got her Trench Cake to rise with those ingredients is beyond me and I suspect beyond even Mary Berry!

With my cake surrendering to gravity, I decided to get it airborne by other means: it crossed my mind that pigeons had played a valiant part in the war effort and so had parcels. I decided to combine the two by making a pigeon out of balloons and attaching it to a Tupperware container wrapped in string and brown paper addressed to The Front. 

Parcels have a special meaning for me not only because I have sent many hundreds to my son who has lived abroad for more than 20 years, but also because I learned from the work I have done as a volunteer on the Durham at War project how important parcels were to the Prisoners of War in Germany. In May 1915 Mrs Grant Duff and the ladies of the British Legation Red Cross Organisation in Berne, Switzerland, sent the first Red Cross parcels to the prisoners of war. Bread was baked in Berne for 100,000 men. A loaf was sent to each prisoner and lasted 4-6 weeks, I was surprised to learn that undelivered parcels were returned to Berne from Germany when the addressee could not be traced. Sick and wounded prisoners of all the ‘belligerent’ states were interned in Switzerland. Colonel Picot, Commanding Officer of the British Internees in Switzerland, wrote in his report that the first train full of British POW’s, ‘battered remnants of humanity’ arrived in May 1916, ‘one carriage held 27 men with only 3 legs between them, but they were cheery, full of joy at their escape from captivity and very disinclined to speak of their past experiences.’ 

Recording the experiences of those who fought is very harrowing at times so getting together and having a Bake Off rallies the troops no end, so thank you to Jo and Victoria and congratulations again to the worthy winner."

And with that, we would like to wish all our readers a Happy Christmas from the Durham at War team.

Friday, 16 December 2016

An amazing turn up

This week, we have another post from John Sheen.

Having written several books on the Northumberland Fusiliers and the Durham Light Infantry, almost every week I get one or two requests for information about men who served in the units I have written about. I always try to reply and, if needed, do a little bit of research for the enquiry. However, in quite a few cases once the reply is sent, I never hear again from the person requesting the information, not even a thank you.

Recently though, I have had a real treat, and in some ways an eye opener. Many will be familiar with the story of the execution of the three members of 19th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry (Bantams), in 1917 (for those who aren’t, you can read their stories here:
Lance Corporal John McDonald, 19th Battalion Durham Light Infantry, photograph kindly provided by his family
Lance Corporal John McDonald, 19th Battalion Durham Light Infantry, photograph kindly provided by his family
I received a letter via my publishers from a couple who bought my book, ‘Durham Pals: 18th, 19th, and 22nd (Service) Battalions of the Durham Light Infantry’, as they were very interested in Lance Corporal John McDonald, one of three ‘shot at dawn’. This couple had a received a request from their cousin in Australia whose maiden name was McDonald and grew up in Hartley’s Buildings, Sunderland, to do some family research. Her daughter was coming to the UK and would be visiting Sunderland to see if she could find the buildings.

The couple did so, and they discovered that the John McDonald who was ‘shot at dawn’, was their cousin’s father, and the visiting daughter’s grandfather. The information came as a shock as ‘no one in the family in Australia knew anything about this and hardly anything about the family in general.’ They go on to say that ‘a very poignant fact in this story, as you will maybe have realised … John McDonald’s daughter is still alive at the age of 102 and lives in Fremantle, Western Australia.’ Luckily, they found this information before the end of John’s granddaughter’s visit, and they were able to take a trip to France to visit his grave. 

I have been able to tell the family that the three Bantams are commemorated still in County Durham and in particular on the Durham at War website. I received this email in reply, ‘Thank you very much for the information on John McDonald. The family in Australia are more than pleased with the outcome so far. We shall keep trying to find out more about him, mainly for his 102 year old daughter in Australia. No one in the Family in Australia can hardly remember his name being mentioned since they emigrated in 1928. Perhaps this is understandable. It is very nice to know that the three men ‘shot at dawn’ are still remembered in Durham.’  The family in Australia were able to find a photograph of John and emailed a copy for inclusion on Durham at War. 

At about the same time, I received another request, this time from David, an active reservist with the Gendarmerie in France who is researching Commonwealth soldiers who fought in the First and Second World Wars. Six years ago, he found some First World War medals being sold by a dealer and started researching the recipient. This was Company Quarter Master Sergeant (CQMS) Gawin Wild of 26th Battalion (Tyneside Irish), Northumberland Fusiliers, he features in my collection of Tyneside Irish photographs and is one of the soldiers researched on Durham at War. 
The medals of CQMS Gawin Wild, photograph kindly provided by David Devigne
The medals of CQMS Gawin Wild, photograph kindly provided by David Devigne
David, and his colleague Al, have supplied further information on Gawin, including that he went on to work for the diplomatic corps. He was made vice Consul in Bordeaux in the early part of the Second World War, once Paris had fallen to the Nazi’s in 1940, the French government moved to Bordeaux, thus increasing the importance of this role. In 1942, he was posted to Algiers in the same role. In 1919, Gawin had married a French girl, and they retired back to France in 1952. Gawin died in 1957 and is buried in Saint Seurin de Cadourne. David’s email read:

‘I wish that this man be honoured by the UK’s civil and military authorities in this Centenary of WW1. Gawin Wild was at first a miner, deserving soldier and member of the UK’s diplomatic corps and he rest in a place where he is not honoured as he should be. 

There are no plaques over his grave site describing his service to the Land of Hope and Glory.  There is no mention of that proud and hard fighting regiment he fought with in WW1 and its 52 Battalions of the Northumberland Fusiliers.

I am in contact with the Mayor where he and his wife rest in peace, and their resting place has not been flowered for years. I also explained to the Mayor who he was and the Mayor now understands the significance and the honour that his town has of having such a great man buried here.’

We have exchanged many emails and the Regimental Headquarters of the Fusiliers are now involved, it is hoped that something may be done to remember CQMS Wild. Al’s last reply included the following:

''From miner and soldier to Vice Consul' what a story, what a life lived with gusto. Be also aware that the secretary of the mayor said ... "if the Mayor had known that such a gentleman and soldier was buried here he would have had a ceremony over his grave every November 11."'

So the work of remembering the men of County Durham does not slow down, indeed it appears to get faster by the day.

Friday, 9 December 2016

A Butte de Warlencourt Commemoration

This week’s blog post is by Kevin Richardson of the Fallen Servicemen of South West Durham project. Some of the text has already appeared on the website, with more information about the action:

A view of the Warlencourt Cemetery and the Butte, taken by Kevin Richardson
A view of the Warlencourt British Cemetery and the Butte, taken by Kevin Richardson
5 November 1916: It has been estimated that there were the following casualties:
1st/6th DLI
11 officers killed, wounded or missing
34 other ranks dead
114 wounded
111 missing

1st/8th DLI
9 officers killed, wounded or missing
38 other ranks dead
100 wounded
83 missing

1st/9th DLI
17 officers killed, wounded or missing
30 other ranks dead
250 wounded
111 missing

151st Machine Gun Company
3 dead
20 wounded
8 missing

There are 10 officers and 264 other ranks of the above DLI Battalions with 5 November 1916 recorded as their date of death (from Officers and Soldiers Died in the Great War). With almost 1000 casualties, misery was brought to many Durham homes including the following south west Durham men (information from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission).

1672 Private Alfred Brown 1/6 DLI from Staindrop, buried at Warlencourt British Cemetery grave reference VIII.B.7.

2211 Corporal Ralph Hebdon, 1/6 DLI from Tindale Crescent, buried at Warlencourt British Cemetery grave reference VIII.B.6.

3429 Private Fred Brunskill, 1/6 DLI from High Etherley, buried at Warlencourt British Cemetery, grave ref, VIII.B.11.

3472 Corporal George Thomas Cox, 1/6 DLI from Evenwood, he has no known grave and is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

2264 Corporal George H. Smith, 1/6 DLI from Barnard Castle, he has no known grave and is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial. 

3124 Private Robert Wilson, 1/6 DLI from West Auckland, he has no known grave and commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial. 

7421 Private Charles Russell, 1/9 DLI from Cockfield who died of wounds 8 November 1916 and is buried at Douchy-les-Ayette British Cemetery grave reference III.E.6. His body was re-interred having been brought in from an isolated burial or small cemetery. 
Warlencourt British Cemetery with the Butte in the background, taken by Kevin Richardson
Warlencourt British Cemetery with the Butte in the background, taken by Kevin Richardson
So had the Durhams failed? Perhaps Brigadier General Hugh Tudor and Lieutenant Colonel Roland Bradford had an answer:

“The attack is fixed for tomorrow, in spite of the weather. It seems rather hopeless expecting infantry to attack with any success in this mud. The trench mortars have only their muzzles showing above it. Yesterday we had two barrages by brigades. They seemed fairly good but I should like more guns. To be effective, a barrage should be an 18-pounder to every seven yards of enemy front and the guns should be capable of firing four rounds a minute at least to start with, without the recuperator springs giving out.”
Brigadier General Hugh Tudor, Commander Royal Artillery, 9th Division

"There were many reasons why the 9th DLI was unable to hold its ground. The failure of the troops on the right to reach their objectives and the fact that the division on our left was not attacking caused both flanks of the battalion to be in the air. The positions to be held were very much exposed and the Germans could see all our trenches and control their fire accordingly. It was a local attack and the enemy was able to concentrate his guns onto a small portion of our line. The ground was a sea of mud and it was almost impossible to consolidate our posts. The terribly intense German barrages and the difficult nature of the ground prevented reinforcements from being sent up to help the 9th DLI. Four hundred yards north of the Butte the enemy had a steep bank behind which they were able to assemble without being molested. The terrain was very favourable to a German counter-attack.”
Lieutenant Colonel Roland Bradford, 1/9 DLI

Clearly, the contention was that they had not failed.  Rather, they had no chance of success given the shortcomings of the British artillery barrage, a narrow fronted attack against superior forces and appalling weather conditions. With the benefit of hindsight, it is generally agreed that the possession of the Butte was not a major asset to the enemy and from the British trenches it was possible to prevent the Germans from using it as an observation point. In any case, the Butte would have been of little use as an observation point. Roland Bradford also wrote:

“The Butte de Warlencourt had become an obsession. Everybody wanted it. It loomed large in the minds of the soldiers in the forward area and they attributed many of their misfortunes to it. Newspaper correspondents talked about ‘that miniature Gibraltar’. It seems that the attack was one of those tempting and, unfortunately, frequent local operations which are so costly and which are rarely worthwhile.”

Some of the above was taken from Peter Hart's book 'The Somme', he goes on to say "Actions like the attack of the 151st Brigade on the Butte de Warlencourt on 5 November had no real importance within the context of the huge Somme offensive.  However, they surely contained a seed of truth within them, this kind of attack was achieving nothing but swollen casualty lists."  Detailed accounts of the action can also be found in Harry Moses' books on the 6th and 9th Battalions, and EH Veitch’s history of 8th Battalion.

A Commemoration
The Western Front Association placed a memorial on the Butte some years ago.  This followed the principle made by the officers of the DLI who placed wooden crosses on the Butte. For commemoration of the action, these crosses were brought together in Durham Cathedral.  
Warlencourt-Eaucourt Village Remembrance Committee poster, photo by Kevin Richardson
Warlencourt-Eaucourt Village Remembrance Committee poster, photo by Kevin Richardson
The residents of the village of Warlencourt-Eaucourt which is overlooked by the Butte decided to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the tragic event.  

Paul Simpson and I have been committed to visit the Butte on the 5 November 2016 for some time. Our friends, the Bell family, asked us to place a wreath at the Butte and a cross at the Thiepval Memorial in honour of their uncle and great-uncle, Corporal George Thomas 'Dode' Cox who met his death on that day. We were honoured to do so. We also did this for another uncle and great uncle, Lance Corporal John William Arkless, 2/5th Battalion, Lincolnshire Regiment who was killed in action 11 April 1917
The Butte de Warlencourt: the Western Front Association Memorial, Kevin & Paul with Charles & Blanch Crossan, photo supplied by Kevin Richardson
The Butte de Warlencourt: the Western Front Association Memorial, Kevin & Paul with Charles & Blanch Crossan, photo supplied by Kevin Richardson
Together with Neil Milburn and Alan Goldsmith we visited the Butte, placed the wreath and “walked the walk” around the mound. We spoke to other groups of descendants with the same intentions at the Butte or in Warlencourt Cemetery. We met Charles and Blanche Crossan, residents of Warlencourt-Eaucourt, and other members of the organising committee at the Butte and the village hall. The ‘official’ village commemoration took place the following day, Sunday 6 November, but we had to be away to catch a train home. Blanche described it as follows:
“The ceremony on the Butte on the Sunday was simple and dignified but the crowd was such that the Somme Battlefield Pipeband could not get a place on the Butte but had to remain below. However the piper had pride of place beside the memorial. Our mayor was the master of ceremonies and wreaths were laid by him, the local MP who also is the Mayor of Bapaume and a representative of the Souvenir Français followed by the National Anthems of Britain, France and Germany being played. It was quite poignant.”

Friday, 2 December 2016

Conference 2016

Well. What a great day we had at the Durham at War Conference last Saturday (26 November). Thank you to everyone involved, nothing went wrong, there were lots of interesting talks and lots (and lots) of food, from the lovely buffet to the First World War Bake Off entries.

Most of the Durham at War volunteers work remotely so don’t get to see each other, or see how the project is going as a whole. Indeed, there were some people we were only meeting for the first time.

We had a variety of stalls from projects we had partnered with to local history groups, the Record Office itself, and the Friends of Durham Record Office running one of their always fantastic tombolas.

The Chairman of the Council, Eddie Bell, opened the proceedings before we had a video from Zelda at the Heritage Lottery Fund.

John Sheen was the first speaker of the day, telling us how his interest in the First World War began, running through to where he is today. regular readers will know that John has written several blog posts for us, as well as books, and he is now writing essays for a Masters degree. He is also sharing some of his vast collection of militaria with the Durham at War website.
Prizes for the First World War Bake Off (Photo by Durham at War team)
Prizes for the First World War Bake Off (Photo by Durham at War team)
Then it was time for the First World War Bake Off, with several trench cakes, some parkin, and a variety of Anzac biscuits. Attendees voted and the winners were announced just before lunch. First prize of the golden wooden rolling pin went to Margaret Hedley of Wheatley Hill History Group. There was a tie for second place between John Sheen and Kevin Richardson of the Fallen Men of South West Durham. John conceded his position, and Kevin accepted the golden wooden spoon on behalf of his wife who actually did the baking. We also discovered that another of our volunteers, Margaret, does balloon modelling, when she delivered her Bake Off entry by pigeon post! 
Pigeon post! (Photo by Durham at War team)
Pigeon post! (Photo by Durham at War team)
Our keynote speech was given by Anthea Lang and Dr Malcolm Grady about their ongoing research into German pork butchers in the North East, and the different triggers for the anti-German sentiment they faced. This talk was complemented by Carol Hunt and Andrea McIver-Hunt talking about their great-grandfather, Theodor Fiedler, who was a German pork butcher in Shadforth. Readers may remember their account of their visit to The German Pork Butchers’ Descendants’ Reunion. The pigs, Sir Scoff-a-lot and Sir Scratch-a-lot, were in attendance at the conference.

Next up was the winner of ‘furthest distance travelled’, Jim Busby, who flew in all the way from Winnipeg in Canada. Jim talked about his own First World War research, and how he, without any prior Durham connection got involved in the project. He is connected to the county now with the help he is giving us, and volunteer Jean, in researching the men of County Durham who emigrated to Canada.
People enjoying the conference (Photo by DCC Media Officer)
People enjoying the conference (Photo by DCC Media Officer)
After lunch, Dr Sarah Price, from Durham University, gave us a run down on the collaboration between the University Library at Palace Green and the DLI Collection at Sevenhills to help continue access to these unique objects.

The last of the official speakers was Peter Welsh from the Wessington U3A War Memorials Project who wowed us with a rendition of the Lambton Worm by way of introduction. He went on to speak about the films, and other work, the group have done, and showed an excerpt from their latest, ‘Wear at War’. Copies of this are available to buy here in Durham County Record Office for £3, or two for £5, and comes with a choice of cover.

The day was rounded off with people able to informally say a few words about their contribution to the project. 

We are really pleased with how the day went and have had some lovely feedback. The only thing is, everyone enjoyed it so much they want another one next year, and I think we have set a high bar for ourselves!

On a final note, Jo thought it would be a good idea to ask each other questions about the day. See below for our Q&A.

Jo’s questions to Victoria 
What was the highlight of the day? 

Balloon pigeons 
Getting to meet volunteers I’d previously only been in email contact with 
Seeing the volunteers mingling and chatting with each other 
Not panicking over talking to everyone in the Council Chamber 

Conversely, was there a low point? What should we do differently next time? 

Check that the sound is working earlier than 10 minutes before we were due to start. 

How many sausage rolls did you eat? 
Only two (but three on Monday, including as I was writing this) 

If the conference was a Marvel character, which one would it be? 

Captain America. He stands for honour, he stands up for the ‘little guy’; we’re trying to highlight the stories of the everyday people and honour them. That’s probably more the project than the conference specifically.

Victoria’s questions to Jo
Did you learn anything new at the conference?

I learnt that even if you have two technical run-throughs everything can go pear-shaped 10 minutes before everything is due to start when the sound doesn’t work on the audio-visual system. 

What have you taken away from the day (aside from leftover food)?

Well, the food is a given! Never knowingly under-catered! For me, the day was a great chance to meet old friends, new faces and some new faces that instantly became old friends. I was also just amazingly impressed by the range of work that the volunteers do for us and how we have, somehow, managed to assemble this fantastic array of individuals, groups and supporters from within the county, throughout the country and across the world.

How many pieces of trench cake did you eat?

Not sure. I lost count! My favourite was the parkin; that’s what got my vote. And, to be honest, after all that talk of Pork Butchers, I was hanging for a sausage roll.

If the conference was a cake, which one would it be?

Mmmm, cake. I might have to say trench cake. It wasn’t particularly fancy, it had some unusual things in it but all the ingredients worked together to create something that was genuine and that hopefully people will appreciate for some time to come.

Friday, 25 November 2016

Larceny of potatoes

In preparation for the Durham at War volunteers’ conference which is happening this weekend, we have been looking for recipes in the newspapers for our First World War Bake Off. This was partly inspired one of the talks we attended at the Voices of the Home Fronts conference at The National Archives back in September, that was bread and the restrictions placed on it.
Members of the Glasgow Battalion, Women's Volunteer Reserve tending to the potatoes grown on their plot, c.1915 © IWM (Q 108002)
Members of the Glasgow Battalion, Women's Volunteer Reserve tending to the potatoes grown on their plot, c.1915 © IWM (Q 108002) IWMNon Commercial Licence  
We have recently had a volunteer going through the Auckland Chronicle for 1917, around the time that food shortages were getting more severe. Despite potatoes initially being used to help pad out bread, by spring, they themselves were becoming scarce as the following newspaper articles recount.

22 March 1917
Potatoes over price
The first prosecution at Stanley
The first case in the district of having sold potatoes in excess of the Potato (Main Crop) Prices Order came before Stanley magistrates on Monday, when Patrick McCarthy, aged 69, was charged with having retailed four stones of the now much prized tubers to Catherine Noble at the rate of 2s per stone, being 3d in excess of the restricted price.

The defendant, who pleaded not guilty, saying that those were seed potatoes, was discharged on payment of costs. 
Mrs Ed. Wilson (62 Maple Street) said she bought potatoes to cook for their dinner. She paid 1s for half a stone. 
PC Graham saw the defendant on 28 February owing to a complaint from Mrs Wilson, and cautioned him that if he continued to sell potatoes at 2s instead of 1s 9d he would be reported. He said that he had paid a big price and wanted to get something out of them. The defendant said that he sold no more potatoes at 2s after being cautioned.

The case was, as already stated, dismissed on the payment of costs (9s), but the Chairman cautioned the defendant not to repeat the offence.

29 March 1917
Remarkable Scene at Stores
Remarkable scenes were witnessed on Saturday morning at the Co-operative Stores, Shildon. The manager had succeeded in securing a quantity of potatoes, and it was decided to apportion them out as long as they lasted at the rate of 4lbs per member. Special arrangements were made to cope with a rush of customers, but so great was the crush that one woman fainted. 
The whole of the potatoes were sold out in an hour and a half, and at least 200 would-be purchasers were turned away unsupplied.

5 April 1917
Attempted Potato Raid
Thomas McBurnie, aged 26, and Clarence McBurnie, aged 24, were each charged with the attempted larceny of potatoes, at West Herrington, on 3 March.

PC Adams said that on the date names about 11:45pm, he visited the potato pits of Mr William McLaren, farmer, Herrington Hill, and observed two men going along the fence side. One had a bag. He said to them, ‘Now the, what is this game?’ and one of them replied, ‘Well, it is a fair cop, we won’t deny it; we were fairly held; we were going to the pits to get some potatoes.’ Both commented to plead not to be summoned, and one said they were ‘hard up’. The place was about 140 yards from the highway. 
The defendants pleaded guilty to the charge, and had nothing to say.
They were each fined 30s.

Friday, 18 November 2016

A Very British Romance, part 5: Making it official

This next instalment of a Very British Romance is only a brief one. Our volunteer, Margaret, picks up the events of November 1916, using documents held in the Foreign Office records at The National Archives in London.

All is quiet for the next couple of months until November, when Angus makes his request, dated 14 November 1916, for Connie to be allowed to visit him in Switzerland as his fiancé.

This application is refused by Lieutenant Colonel HP Picot, Senior Officer, British Interned Switzerland, on the grounds that Angus' understanding of the rules concerning visits from fiancés of officers and men is that a marriage is being contemplated in Switzerland.

Angus states in his follow up request dated 20 November 1916, that 'the question of the date and place of my marriage I must reserve as the course of the war in the next few months influences matters considerably.' He also states that Connie has been refused a Passport but her visit would incur no cost to the Public.
A copy of the letter sent by Angus appealing for Connie to visit Switzerland (The National Archives FO 383/217)
FO 383/217 A copy of the letter sent by Angus appealing for Connie to visit Switzerland (The National Archives)
He encloses a Newspaper cutting from home:
'An engagement is announced between Elliot Angus, Lieutenant Durham Light Infantry, only son of the late SJ Leybourne JP and Mrs Leybourne of Bircholme, Gateshead-on-Tyne, and Constance, only daughter of Philip Kirkup, JP, N Inst. C E, and Mrs Kirkup of Leafield, Birtley, County Durham.'

Angus' courage and persistence is again rewarded as Lieutenant Colonel Picot relents and writes to the secretary at the War Office in London to ask to be advised what action he should take regarding Connie's visit. He goes on to say that, 'I have no objection to Miss Kirkup, the lady immediately concerned, coming out. She seems to be in every way desirable and would be under the care of Lieutenant Leybourne's mother.'

Friday, 11 November 2016

The faces of the men

On the evening of 4 November 2016, Jo and I attended a screening of The Battle of the Somme at the Gala Theatre, with a live soundtrack performed by Durham University Symphony Orchestra. The composer of the score, Laura Rossi, was in attendance and gave a brief introduction.

Rossi was commissioned to write the score by the Imperial War Museum in 2006, for the 90th anniversary of the Battle and the completion of the digitally remastered film. As part of her research, Rossi visited the Somme battlefields, taking with her the diaries of her Great Uncle who she had known, and discovered had been a stretcher bearer during those opening days of the battle. 

Most of the footage that makes up the film was recorded by Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell during the first week of the battle that was to rage for months after. During the autumn of 1916, some 20 million British people saw the film.
Photograph the same as a scene from The Battle of the Somme: Gunners of the Royal Marine Artillery cleaning 15-inch shells near Acheux, July 1916. © IWM (Q 878)
For me, it was the first time seeing it in full, and what I had seen was on a small screen. For me, three things stood out, especially being able to see this restored film on a big screen.

1) Just how big some of the guns were and how many people it took to operate them
2) The faces of the men: Smiling. Determined. Pained. Bandaged. Unseeing.
3) The moments of humanity. The moment a British soldier gives a German prisoner a cigarette and a box of matches. A man having a gunshot wound to his arm patched up. A unit happy to be receiving post in the trenches, immediately followed by shots of bodies on the battlefield. 

It was an emotional evening.

I think I have said before that working on this project, you feel like you get to know some of these men we research, whose diaries and letters are transcribed. Often though, we only have a construct of them in our minds. Seeing the moving images of soldiers, sometimes up close, we see them as the real people they were. And we remember them. 

More about the making of The Battle of the Somme:

More about Laura Rossi's score, including the diaries of her Great Uncle:

Friday, 4 November 2016

Three Wooden Crosses

This week we have another post by Steve Shannon.
Drawing by Captain Robert Mauchlen of soldiers attacking the Butte de Warlencourt (D/DLI 7/920/10(5))
D/DLI 7/920/10(5) Drawing by Captain Robert Mauchlen of soldiers attacking the Butte de Warlencourt
In early 1917, the German Army pulled back from the devastated Somme battlefield to a new trench system fifteen miles to the east, leaving a wasteland of shattered trenches, mud-filled shell holes and ruined villages. Into this wasteland the British Army advanced.

Within a few weeks, three wooden crosses had been erected on a shell-blasted, white chalk hill, in memory of the DLI soldiers of the 6th, 8th, and 9th Battalions, who had died attacking the hill on 5 November 1916. This hill was the Butte de Warlencourt and the three crosses remained on the Butte until autumn 1926. They were then brought home to the North East.
6th Battalion DLI's memorial cross, St Andrew's, South Church, Bishop Auckland, taken by Steve Shannon 2006
6th Battalion, DLI, memorial cross, St Andrew's, South Church, Bishop Auckland, taken by Steve Shannon 2006
The one for 6th Battalion went to St Andrew’s, South Church, Bishop Auckland; the one for 8th Battalion to Chester le Street Parish Church; and the one for 151st Brigade, the largest, to the Regimental Chapel in Durham Cathedral. And there they stayed until 2006. 

In 2006, to mark the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, I arranged a small exhibition in the DLI Museum and the centrepiece was to be the three crosses. Contact was made with the relevant authorities early in 2006 and, after some negotiation, the loans were agreed.
8th Battalion DLI's memorial cross, Chester le Street Parish Church, taken by Steve Shannon 2006
8th Battalion, DLI, memorial cross, Chester le Street Parish Church, taken by Steve Shannon 2006
Before arriving with a van on 7 June, I had already recced and photographed the crosses and, whilst the pick-ups at St Andrew’s and the Cathedral were straight forward, the cross at Chester le Street was mounted high on a wall. A ladder, a soft brush to remove cobwebs, WD40, and a good screwdriver were all required. Needless to say I held the bottom of the ladder for one of the Museum’s Visitor Assistants to climb. 

The exhibition The Somme Remembered opened on 10 June 2006, and, as well as the three crosses, featured original letters, photographs, diaries, postcards, trench maps, plus a sketch of the Butte de Warlencourt drawn by Captain Robert Mauchlen in November 1916 (DCRO ref: D/DLI 2/9/1) and a highly-critical report written by Lieutenant Colonel Roland Bradford VC after the failure of his battalion’s attack on the Butte (DCROref: D/DLI 2/9/37). These items, part of the DLI’s archive, had been specially loaned to the Museum by Durham County Record Office.

But the centrepiece was the three crosses. 
151st Brigade's memorial cross, the Regimental Chapel, Durham Cathedral, taken by Steve Shannon 2006
151st Brigade memorial cross, the Regimental Chapel, Durham Cathedral, taken by Steve Shannon 2006
Currently (until 20 November 2016), all three crosses are back together on display outside the Regimental Chapel in Durham Cathedral to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. 

When you look at the three crosses in the Cathedral, you may wonder why the 6th and 8th Battalions’ crosses are on display but not the 9th Battalion’s. Instead, there is an ornate cross to the memory of the men of the 151st Brigade that was made up of 6, 8 and 9 DLI. 

This is, in fact, 9 DLI’s cross specially made by the battalion on the orders of Lieutenant Colonel Roland Bradford VC. This cross was designed by the architect Captain Robert Mauchlen and constructed by Private Sutton from wood supplied by the Royal Engineers, with lettering by Sergeant Mitchell. 

And, if you look closely, you can still see near the bottom of the wooden plinth supporting this cross '9 D.L.I.' painted in black.
Base of the 151st Brigade memorial cross, taken by Steve Shannon 2006

Friday, 28 October 2016

A pile of sketchbooks

This week we have a post from Steve Shannon.
Watercolour illustration, by Robert Mauchlen, of animal transport lines in open countryside [in France], [1917] (D/DLI 7/920/11(3))
D/DLI 7/920/11(3) Watercolour illustration, by Robert Mauchlen, of animal transport lines in open countryside [in France], captioned Transport, n.d. [1917]
People often arrived at the reception desk at the DLI Museum carrying bags or small boxes of family treasures that they wished to donate. Amongst the most memorable were two bags brought in one morning by an elderly lady, who had, some fifteen years before, generously donated her father’s Military Cross and First World War campaign medals. 

She explained that whilst preparing to move to a smaller house, she had found some items belonging to her late father and asked if the museum would be interested. She then emptied the contents of the two carrier bags on to the table.

Would the museum be interested?
Watercolour illustration caricature, by Robert Mauchlen, of an officer, n.d. [1917] (D/DLI 7'920/11(15))
D/DLI 7'920/11(15) Watercolour illustration caricature, by Robert Mauchlen, of an officer, captioned T.O. [Transport Officer], n.d. [1917]
On the table were her father’s sketchbooks with pencil and coloured sketches drawn in the trenches and behind the front line. I turned over the pages and discovered ‘The Colonel’ – Roland Bradford – asleep in a deck chair; soldiers drinking rum; the interiors of dug outs; studies of French civilians; and views of ruined buildings and shattered landscapes. There were also vivid coloured sketches of British soldiers sheltering from the rain in a ruined trench; of a frightened German soldier being taken prisoner; and of infantry attacking the infamous Butte de Warlencourt.

Would the museum be interested? 
Colour pencil sketch, by Robert Mauchlen, of soldiers gathered around a table in a courtyard, n.d. [1915] (D/DLI 7/920/8(20))
D/DLI 7/920/8(20) Colour pencil sketch, by Robert Mauchlen, of soldiers gathered around a table in a courtyard, captioned Signallers at HQ, n.d. [1915] 
Robert Mauchlen’s sketchbooks were one of the most significant donations of Great War material to the museum in my time there. I used his sketches in the museum’s new display, opened in 2000, and in a Somme exhibition in 2006; Harry Moses used them in his book The Gateshead Gurkhas; and they featured in the University of Durham’s major Somme exhibition of this year. And, no doubt, his sketches will be used over and over again whenever more than just photographs are needed to illustrate the First World War.
Captain Robert Mauchlen, photo from the DLI Collection
Born in Newcastle in 1885, Robert Mauchlen was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the 9th Battalion DLI in October 1914 and served with that battalion until late 1916. On 1 October 1916, during the Battle of the Somme, he was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery in an attack near Eaucourt L'Abbaye under very heavy fire. It was in this action that his Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Roland Bradford, gained his Victoria Cross. 

For the rest of the war, Robert Mauchlen was at the Army’s Lewis Gun School. When the 9th Battalion reformed in 1920, Major Mauchlen rejoined, before finally retiring in 1924. 

Robert Mauchlen was an architect in civilian life and much of his work, especially in Northumberland, still survives. He also designed the War Memorial lychgate at St Cuthbert’s Church in Bellingham. 

Whilst serving with 9 DLI, Robert Mauchlen designed in 1916 two wooden memorial crosses. The first, originally erected in High Wood, is now in the DLI Collection. The second, originally on the summit of the Butte de Warlencourt, is now in the DLI’s Regimental Chapel in Durham Cathedral.

Robert Mauchlen died in 1972. His son, Douglas, died in North Africa serving with the RAF. He was 20 years old.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Five Durham cycling pals pay a visit of remembrance to the Somme and Ypres (Part Two)

This week we have the final part of David D's account of his cycling tour of France and Flanders.

Day two of our trip began with every indication that it was going to be a clear, warm and still day which would be perfect for cycling. We set off after breakfast to ride the kilometre or so into the centre of Ypres to visit the Menin Gate Memorial. We found our first experience of riding in an urban area to be a very positive one, with dedicated cycle lanes along roads where space allowed, and light controlled crossings at busy intersections. In the town centre I was glad to see it was permitted to cycle either way along the one way streets, as some of our party are prone to do this even where it isn't permitted!

The Menin Gate proved to be an impressive monument to the fallen. It was chosen because of the hundreds of thousands of men who passed through it on their way to the battlefields. We learnt it bears the names of more than 54,000 officers and men whose graves are not known. One of the names is that of John Henderson, a coal miner from Shield Row, Stanley. He enlisted in the Yorkshire Hussars in 1916 and served as Private 39174. He died somewhere in Flanders on 7 June 1917 at the age of 24. We planned to return to the Menin Gate for the evening service at 8pm, and as we had been warned that it would be very busy after the service, we booked a table in a restaurant in the square next to the Cloth Market.

We saddled up and left town eastwards on the Zonnebeekseweg (N332), connecting Ypres to Zonnebeke. We soon came to the Ypres Town Cemetery Extension on the right hand side of the road. There are 604 Commonwealth casualties buried or commemorated in the extension, 141 of the burials are unidentified. We had researched one of the known casualties as it seemed appropriate to honour a member of the Army Cyclist Corps on our trip. We chose Cecil Christopher Iley, a draper and gentlemen's outfitter from Gateshead, who served as Private 20982 in VII Corps Cyclist Battalion. He disembarked in Boulogne, France in May 1917 and was posted to his battalion in June. Cyclists were employed in combat but during trench warfare were found to be generally ineffective. However, when the deadlock of the trenches was overcome in 1918 cyclists proved invaluable in a reconnaissance and messenger role. Cecil died in action on 29 September 1918.

We continued our journey and for the first and only time the cycling became a bit fraught as we rode along a short but busy narrow road with cars parked on both sides. At times the space the overtaking cars left was less than desirable so we were glad to come to a dedicated cycle route going our way. 

I'm sure banter played an important role for the troops just as it does for our band of cyclists. I happened to confuse my words when reading the map and instead of saying either cycle track or bicycle way I came out with "bicleway". Needless to say the other four in our group found the opportunity to drop that new word into conversation at every possible opportunity, and I fear will now do so well into the future.
At the village of Zonnebeke we turned off the main road onto quiet country lanes which we followed to the Tyne Cot Cemetery and Memorial. This was the busiest site we visited on our entire trip which we noticed immediately when we saw the parked coaches, minibuses, and cars, as we put our bikes into racks. However, even though it was busy, the atmosphere was perfectly respectful as befits the largest Commonwealth military cemetery in the world. We learnt the Tyne Cot Cemetery has 11,961 Commonwealth servicemen buried or commemorated with 8373 of the burials unidentified. The adjacent memorial commemorates a staggering 34,887 soldiers from the United Kingdom and New Zealand who died in the Ypres Salient after 16 August 1917 and whose graves are not known. One thing we found especially poignant was that as you walk along the path to the visitor centre, a quiet female voice calls out a name every few seconds on a continuous speaker system. Each of the names is for one of the soldiers commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing.

We visited the grave of Private 3283 Henry Mather of the Royal Marines Medical Unit who had a direct family connection to one of our group. He was a coal miner living in Craghead when he joined up at the age of 29. As a member of 149th Field Ambulance he would have been in the thick of things, and he was killed in action on 26 October 1917. He was originally buried on the battlefield with a cross bearing his name and service details. Mather's body was exhumed after the Armistice, identified by means of the cross and a disc he was wearing, and reburied with full military honours in Tyne Cot Cemetery, next to another member of his Field Ambulance unit who died in the same action.

The cyclists at Tyne Cot Cemetery (photo David D)
The cyclists at Tyne Cot Cemetery (photo David D)
In researching Henry's details before our trip, we learned that he was one member of a group from the Craghead Division of the St John's Ambulance Corps who joined up at around the same time. Miners trained in first aid were highly valued by the Field Ambulances for both their medical knowledge, their experience of dangerous situations, and their strength to be able to carry wounded men over broken terrain. We were amazed to find that within our small party we had links to two other Craghead members. One was a great uncle who served and died of illness in Gallipoli, and another was a grandfather who applied to return to coal mining duties at his colliery manager's request, and who survived the war. Henry was one of five Craghead St John's Ambulance men who died in the war. We paused for a while to consider their sacrifice.

Leaving Tyne Cot we headed along Schipstraat,  and as we noted elsewhere on our rides, we found that one of the major benefits of cycling the routes is that you notice the slight rises in the ground that must have been so important during the war. The land we crossed was so generally flat that every piece of higher ground took on enormous significance. At the first crossroads we came to was the New Zealand Memorial, a white obelisk with the following dedication "This monument marks the site of Gravenstafel which on October the 4th 1917 was captured by the New Zealand Division as part of the general advance towards Passchendaele".

We continued ahead to Vancouver Corner and the St Julien Canadian Memorial. Known as “The Brooding Soldier”, this immense sculpture commemorates the Canadian 1st Division in action in April 1915. The Canadian division held its position after the German Army launched the first ever large-scale gas attack. Over a few days the Canadians were involved in heavy fighting, with some 2000 killed, wounded or missing. Today, on a beautiful early afternoon, the soldier looked down on a group of visiting schoolchildren having their lunch on the grass.
St Julien Canadian Memorial (photo David D)
St Julien Canadian Memorial (photo David D)
Throughout our second day's ride we could see the spires of Ypres in the distance and we now prepared to loop back on ourselves to complete our circuit. We made one final stop at New Irish Farm Cemetery where there are 4719 Commonwealth servicemen buried or commemorated. One of them is William Coxon, a house painter from Stanley. who served as Private 2694 in the 8th Battalion DLI, and lost his life on the 2 March 1916 at the age of 26.

We passed under the N38 on an underpass and made our way back to our hotel. After freshening up we made our way down to Ypres town centre and settled down for refreshments outside a cafe in the town square. At about 7pm we heard stirring music and saw a band lead a party to the front of the Cloth Market. We later found out this was the visiting Ardrossan Winton Flute Band who we followed to the Menin Gate in time for the moving service of remembrance which was held there at 8pm. This simple service, which is held every day, was an eloquent tribute witnessed by a large crowd which immaculately respected the request to observe the service with quiet dignity.

When the service finished we took a meal at our leisure when we tried the Belgian national dishes of moules, or mussels, cooked with onions and celery, and carbonade flamande - a Belgian beef stew - similar to the French beef bourguignon, but made with beer instead of red wine. We finished our trip by trying some Belgian beers in a very unusual, but welcoming, bar called De 12 Apostels that was crammed with religious pictures and statues, and reflected on our trip.
The cyclists enjoying a beer (or few) (photo David D)
The cyclists enjoying a beer (or few) (photo David D)
We found that cycling between sites is an excellent way of appreciating the lie of the land that was so important in the various phases of the battles. Cycling meant we could get to some quieter sites off the beaten track. The local people and tourists we met were almost unfailingly friendly, courteous and interested to hear what we were doing. The Commonwealth War Grave sites are immaculately kept and truly honour the soldiers buried and commemorated there. The distances we cycled were less than we usually cycle on our rides but there was so much to see it would have been wrong to go further and spend less time at the various sites. Belgian beer is a lot stronger than British beer and needs to be treated with respect. Bicleway is quite a good word!

When we arrived home we saw in the local press that a Durham Pals bench that was a partner to the bench we saw at Thiepval had been unveiled on the Racecourse in Durham. We will cycle there to remember the Durham Pals, our relatives who served, soldiers from our home town of Stanley and all who served and were lost in the war - we will remember them.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Five Durham cycling pals pay a visit of remembrance to the Somme and Ypres (Part One)

This week we have the first of two blogs by Durham at War volunteer David D, giving an account of his cycling tour of remembrance.

On Wednesday 21 September 2016 our small group of five cycling friends set off from Stanley to travel to Hull to catch a ferry to Zeebrugge. Our plan on arriving in Belgium was to drive to the Somme to carry out a circular tour of some of the key First World War memorials before driving to Ypres for a further tour of sites in Flanders. Two of our party have ancestors from three generations ago buried in France and Flanders who we planned to honour. It also seemed appropriate as a group of friends from County Durham to pay remembrance to the Durham Pals and other members of the Durham Light Infantry (DLI). We had also identified men in other regiments who had travelled to war from our home town of Stanley to pay our respects to.

Our journey to the Somme was more direct than that made by the 18th Battalion of the DLI which was raised in Durham on 10 September 1914 as a Pals battalion. After action at home at Heugh Battery, Hartlepool when a German naval taskforce bombarded the town in December 1914 the 18th DLI set sail for Egypt in December 1915 to defend the Suez Canal. The 31st Division, of which they were a part, transferred to France via Marseilles in March 1916 in preparation for the Battle of the Somme in July 1916. They took over the front line opposite the village of Serre, the northern most point of the Somme line. By contrast we had a two and a half hour drive in a comfortable minibus, were on the ferry by 5pm and enjoyed a convivial meal before turning in for the night.

The ferry docked just after 8am and within an hour we were on our way to the starting point for our first ride. As we crossed the border into France we began to see signs to memorials that became increasingly frequent. By mid-morning we had pulled into Thiepval and set off on foot to visit the famous Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. We already knew that it bears the names of more than 72,000 officers and men of the United Kingdom and South African forces who died in the Somme and have no known grave, but we all felt that actually seeing the memorial truly emphasises the scale of this loss.

Our research had picked out two Stanley men to bring the scale of the numbers of missing down to a more understandable human level. Second Lieutenant Cuthbert Green of the 2nd Battalion DLI was a student for the civil service when war broke out. He was the son of the Registrar of Births and Deaths in Stanley. He was reported missing presumed dead on the 15 October 1916 at the age of 23. Harry Falgate, a coal miner from South Moor, joined the 19th Battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers shortly after his 18th birthday. He served as Private 19/1467 landing in France on 29 January 1916. He was killed in action on 11 July 1916 at the age of 19.

After locating these names on the piers and faces of the memorial and a subdued walk among the 300 British and Commonwealth and 300 French graves at the foot of the memorial our group made its way back to the visitor centre. Between the memorial and the entrance we paused at the bench commemorating the Durham Pals that had been unveiled 3 days earlier on 19 September. This bench faces the now beautiful and peaceful landscape towards Pozières and Mouquet Farm, and is a tranquil spot for a time of quiet reflection on their sacrifice.
Four of the five cycling pals at the Durham Pals memorial bench (photo David D)
Four of the five cycling pals at the Durham Pals memorial bench (photo David D)
After a brief visit to the visitor centre we saddled up our bikes in beautiful sunny weather and set off. Our first stop came almost immediately at Connaught Cemetery on the Thiepval-Hamel road (D73). Here we learned there were 1268 Commonwealth servicemen buried or commemorated in the cemetery. Almost directly opposite, about 500m up a rough track, we saw the Mill Road Cemetery where 1304 Commonwealth servicemen are buried or commemorated. This is where we realised that it would be impossible to visit every site in the locality in the time available to us. We made our way the short distance to the imposing Ulster Memorial which stands 70 feet tall and is a tribute to the men of Ulster who gave their lives during the First World War. Here we stopped for a quick lunch to the sound of accents from Northern Ireland from the staff and visitors.

Suitably refreshed, we set off towards the village of Pozières which during the war was at the centre of the British sector of the Somme. Our next stop was at the entrance to Mouquet Farm which we learned from information boards was known as "Mucky Farm" to British troops and "Moo Cow Farm" to Australian troops. Heavily fortified by the Germans, it was of strategic importance as it commanded high ground with views over the Allied trenches. It was the site of fierce attacks and counter attacks between July-September 1916.

The Australians were major participants in the Battle for Mouquet Farm as they were in other areas in and around Pozières. This explains the First Australian Division Memorial at our next stop. Here we learned that the fighting in this small area was at a huge cost to the Australians and that in six weeks of fighting they suffered 23,000 casualties which was almost as many as in eight months at Gallipoli. The excellent information panels also informed us that Australia provided the greatest military contribution of all the British dominions supplying 331,000 volunteers out of a population of less than five million. At this memorial a raised viewing platform gave us clear views across the Somme battlefields. Nearby there were also the remains of a large German bunker which was known as Gibraltar.

We rode through Pozières on the D929 and after about 1.5km came to the Tank Memorial at the foot of a radio mast with satellite dishes that had been a useful guidepost to us throughout our ride so far. This spot is close to where tanks first went into action against the Germans on 15 September 1916. Almost directly opposite we saw the grassed over remains of the German reinforced position know as the Windmill which was the scene of bitter fighting and is now a preserved battlefield site.

From Pozières we took the D73 road towards Bazentin and almost immediately after turning on to this road saw a memorial to Lieutenant George Sainton Kaye Butterworth MC the famous musician and composer of 13th Battalion DLI. It informed us that he died in sight of this spot on 5 August 1916 aged 31. We continued along this road which became increasingly quiet and rural and we began to see shells left by farmers at the edges of fields after they surfaced through ploughing. 
Shell left at the side of the road (photo David D)
Shell left at the side of the road (photo David D)
Before long we came to Flat Iron Copse Cemetery. We were the only visitors to this cemetery at the time of our visit and it was immensely peaceful with no passing traffic. Flat Iron Copse was the name given by the British Army to a small plantation a little to the east of Mametz Wood. When it was captured on 14 July 1916 an advanced dressing station was established at the copse and a cemetery was begun later that month. It remained in use until April 1917 and after the Armistice more than a thousand graves were brought in from the neighbouring battlefields and from smaller cemeteries. There are now 1572 buried or commemorated here. One of them is Private 17308 John George Donkin then serving with 15th Battalion DLI. He was an iron foundry labourer from Hartlepool who died on 17 July 1916 aged 25.

Continuing on our way the road turned in to a dirt track until we reached the Welsh Memorial which is a striking sculpture of a red dragon holding barbed wire in its claws. It honours the Welsh Division who attacked Mametz Wood several times losing over 4000 men before finally clearing the German resistance. Poignantly we noticed several Welsh flags and other tokens to lost men attached to trees in the wood across the fields in front of the memorial. Passing through the village of Mametz we made our way to Fricourt and visited the second largest German Military Cemetery on the Somme with 17,072 graves.

We continued on the D147 to La Boiselle where we turned off to the Lochnagar Crater which is described as follows in the words of the owner . "The largest crater ever made by man in anger is now a unique memorial to all those who suffered in the Great War. It is dedicated to peace, fellowship and reconciliation between all nations who fought on the Western Front." A very helpful volunteer gave us some of the facts about the crater and the role it played in the Battle of the Somme and the work that volunteers do to keep vegetation at bay and fight erosion. He also helpfully gave us directions to Ovillers our final destination of the day on our way back to Thiepval.

We wanted to visit Ovillers Military Cemetery because amongst the 3440 Commonwealth servicemen buried or commemorated in the cemetery was the great grandfather of one of our group. This was Joseph Thomas Fenwick, a pit deputy from Greencroft, who served as Private 22/371 in the 3rd Tyneside Scottish (22nd Service Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers). He died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme at the age of 36. Because we shared this connection and it was our last stop of the day were shared a dram from a hip flask with him and reflected on the generations of his family that he didn't get to see.
Gravestone of Private Joseph Fenwick (photo David D)
Gravestone of Private Joseph Fenwick (photo David D)
Taking our leave all we had to do was to make our way back to Thiepval, and as seems to happen on every bike ride we do, the last couple of miles were up the steepest hill of the day! However because of the visibility of the Thiepval Memorial we were able to plan a shortcut and avoid the main route which went downhill before turning back up hill. We crossed a field on a rough farm track and went through a small plantation before emerging on the road in front of the memorial. We acknowledged the Durham Pals bench again as we passed knowing more about their role and the terrain they fought in than when we set off. Returning to our vehicle we loaded up our bikes to drive to Ypres and our accommodation for the night.

Friday, 7 October 2016

Echoes of Loos

This week we have a blog post by our Record Office colleague Gabriel.

Earlier this year Durham County Record Office was contacted by a member of Teesdale and Weardale Search and Mountain Rescue Team (TWSMRT), who, together with two other team members, takes part in surveying and excavating First World War trenches near Loos in France.

Together with members of the Durand Group that specializes in surveying and investigating First World War underground installations, they made several very interesting discoveries last year. They found various artefacts including rusty explosives and degraded black powder, various items used by soldiers during the digging and military operations underground, and several examples of graffiti pencilled on tunnel walls including names, service numbers and regiments. Even remains of the soldiers themselves have been found and efforts were made to identify them to find their living descendants, so they could take part in full honours burials. To find out more about the Durand Group and other projects they are involved in, please visit the association’s website:

We were given three images of graffiti on tunnel walls showing the names and service numbers of three soldiers from the Durham Light Infantry in the hope that we can find more about them and their families, which might lead to finding living relatives. This is what we started with:
Graffiti at Loos with kind permission of members of TWSMRT
Photographs with kind permission of members of TWSMRT
As the Record Office holds the Durham Light Infantry’s regimental collection, Durham at War ( volunteers were able to establish some facts about their military service and interesting intelligence reports from actions on the front line, as found in the war diaries. Also, census records and parish registers were very helpful in establishing who the soldiers were before they enlisted, and their family background.

Making sure that we were following the right person was very tricky in the post-war period, and the fact that the soldiers’ names were also among the most common ones, only made the task more laborious.

We hope that by reading this article someone can identify the soldiers or any of their family members and help us contact their living descendants. We would be delighted, if you could participate in connecting the story from the past with a living person!  Here is what we have learnt about each of them so far:

20/857 Pte. Rrt Slater, 14 DLI
Private Robert Slater (D/DLI 2/20/5/45)
D/DLI 2/20/5/45 Private Robert Slater
Robert married Hilda Ruddock of Ryhope in 1918. We think they had a son born in 1920, who married Margaret Williams in 1943 and had two children born in 1945 and 1947, but this requires confirmation.

During the search in various parish records we also found a family of Slaters in Cornforth, Coxhoe and Ferryhill, all connected with a Robert Slater.

The following is what we have managed to establish about Robert’s siblings:
  • William Jobson was born 1891 in Ryhope Colliery and worked as a boot repairer for his father before going to war. He married Jane Worrall in 1912, settled in Thornley and had at least three children that we know of: Elsie born 1912, William born 1915, and Jennie born 1917. 
  • George, born 1894 in Ryhope Colliery and died 1896 in Thornley Colliery
  • George Tearson, born 1898 in Thornley Colliery
  • Albert, born 1901 in the same place
  • Dorothy, born 1905 in the same place; we found that she married Ernest Cunningham in 1929
  • Elizabeth Alice, born 1907 in the same place, married Arthur Edwin Morgan in 1929
  • Norman, born 1910 in the same place, died in 1915 at home

’55 L/Cpl R.G. Walker, 2 DLI
This one was particularly tricky to find, as he scribbled only the last two digits of his service number on the wall, so we first had to establish which RG Walker he was as, again, it is a common name. After comparing several records we finally believe he is Private Reginald George Walker, 27955, who enlisted in Consett on 10 November 1915, aged 19. He initially joined 18th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, but a few weeks later was transferred to 2 DLI. 

In 1917 he applied for an unpaid post as a Lance Corporal and was sent to a signalling course. Walker did not serve long, as he suffered from acute appendicitis and spent months in various hospitals in France and in England due to complications that occurred during the treatment. Eventually he was transferred to the reserve in August 1918 as medically unfit for active service and completely discharged in April 1919. He was awarded the Silver War Badge.

From the 1911 census we know that he was born in Sacriston in 1897 to Joseph Walker, a coke yard foreman, and Dorothy. Reginald’s occupation is given as joinery apprentice and had four brothers: 
  • John Robert, born in Sacriston in 1887, colliery joiner
  • Joseph, born in the same place in 1891, colliery blacksmith
  • Frederick, born in the same place in 1896, pit heap token boy
  • Arthur, born in Winlaton in 1905
  • They all lived at 5 Greenhead Terrace in Chopwell in 1911 
After the war Reginald married Dora Turnbull in 1922 in Chopwell and had a daughter, Josephine in 1925. We know that not long afterwards, in 1927, he emigrated to Fremantle in Australia on board SS Baradine. On the passenger list his address is given as 9 Nelson Terrace, Chopwell and he travels alone as a miner. He died in Perth in 1966. We don’t know what happened with the rest of the family, whether they followed him to Australia or not.

9533 Pte J. Brown(e), 2 DLI
Unfortunately we do not know much about this soldier. He enlisted in September 1914 and was discharged in March 1919 due to the same reasons as the two above soldiers (medically unfit for further service). He was awarded the Silver War Badge, Victory Medal, British War Medal and 1914 Star. We don’t know where he lived before enlistment and what his life’s circumstances were after the war. 

All these soldiers served in France, they all left their names in tunnels under Loos and all three were discharged due to becoming medically unfit for further service. 

If you can identify any of the soldiers mentioned above, or their family members, please contact Gabriel at the Record Office: