Friday, 26 February 2016

The Tyneside Irish and the Somme part 2: Training and trenches

In the last blog by John Sheen, we left the Tyneside Irish Brigade (24th, 25th, 26th, and 27th Battalions of the Northumberland Fusiliers) on 12 January 1916, landing in France and being moved off to the sector behind the front line.  John continues the story.

After landing in France the Tyneside Irish Brigade was given instructions to move to the Blendeques area where on arrival they detrained and marched to billets in various villages, as follows:
24th to Esquerdes
25th A and B Companies to Hallines
25th C and D Companies to Wizernes
26th to Wizernes
27th to Quiestede
Billet locations, France
Billet locations, France
Training was undertaken which included route marches and musketry. Inspections of one form or another were the order of the day. Battalion specialists, i.e. signallers, scouts, snipers and bombers, all began intensive training, with men being sent on courses of instruction to the 23rd Divisional School. The training carried on until the 20th January when the whole of the 34th Division was inspected by Sir Douglas Haig and General Joffre. 

The inspection was timed for noon on a very cold and windy day with sleet showers but it was not until three o'clock that the motor vehicles carrying the inspecting officers arrived and drove slowly along the lines of the assembled troops. 

By the end of the first week of February, the battalions were considered ready for the trenches, and were to be attached to experienced units for instruction.

The 24th Battalion was to be attached to 24 Brigade. The companies were allotted as follows:
A to 1st Battalion, Sherwood Foresters
B to 2nd Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment
C to 2nd Battalion, Northamptonshire Regiment
D to 1st Battalion, 1/Worcestershire Regiment

C and D Companies moved off at 9:00am on 9 February, and marched to Rue Marle where they went into billets. A and B Companies did not move off until 4:30pm and went straight in to the trenches. On 12 February A and B Companies were relieved by C and D Companies. The next day the battalion had its first casualty when Lieutenant Short of C Company was wounded during a trench mortar barrage. That night the two companies returned to billets. 

On 14 February, the battalion relieved the 2nd Battalion, Northamptonshire Regiment, with A, B, and C Companies in the front line and D Company in support in the Bois Grenier line.
The trenches in the area of Bois Grenier had to be built up as the water table was so high. [from ‘The Tyneside Irish’, by John Sheen]
The trenches in the area of Bois Grenier had to be built up as the water table was so high. Image from ‘The Tyneside Irish’, by John Sheen
The 25th Battalion were attached to 68 Brigade of the 23rd Division, with the companies attached to various battalions, although the exact allocations are unknown. 

During the occupation of the trenches by A and B Companies on 12 February, the enemy heavily shelled the Bois Grenier line, resulting in the death of 25/1102 Private Joseph March of Teresa Street, Blaydon, County Durham, and the wounding of four other men. Private William Smith of B Company, a stretcher bearer, from Gateshead, and a member of the Battalion band, put pen to paper and wrote a poem about the bombardment.

Twas on the 12th February, on a cold Saturday 
The 25th NFs in the trenches lay 
They had just finished breakfast, and all was bright and gay 
Until that German bully thought he would spoil their play 

He started to bombard us and mind they made it hot 
But our brave lads stood bravely and did not care a jot 
The faithful 23 Northumberlands alongside us did stand 
For we all knew they were eager to give us a helping hand 

First two verses of ‘A Rough Day in the Trenches’, Private William Smith

At 11:00am on 14 February, the Bombing Officer, the Regimental Sergeant Major, all Company Sergeant Majors and Company Signallers of the 25th Battalion began the relief of 1st Battalion, Worcestershire Regiment. At 2:00pm the Company Commanders went into the line. At 6:00pm the battalion paraded, and marched off from the billets, reaching the trenches at 7:45pm. By 8:40pm the relief was complete, and work started on rebuilding the trenches. 

The 26th Battalion received its baptism of trench warfare under the guidance of the 2nd Rifle Brigade, and 2nd Battalion, Lincolnshire Regiment of the 8th Division, with A and B Companies going into the trenches on 10 February. Two days later on the 12th, C and D Companies replaced the other two companies. 

It was about now that the 103 Light Trench Mortar Battery was formed, with the personnel found from all four battalions of the Tyneside Irish Brigade. The war diary of the 26th Battalion records that Second Lieutenant Brown and 12 other ranks were transferred to the new unit. 

The Company Sergeant Major came from D Company of the 27th Battalion, and Sergeant Richard Madden from Washington was promoted to fill the company’s vacancy. CSM Madden was to be wounded on 1 July 1916 and subsequently awarded the DCM and the MM with a Mention in Despatches. The battery was commanded by Captain DH James from the 24th Battalion.

The Brigade Light Trench Mortar Battery was not very popular with some of those who served in the front line. Captain Jack Fleming, 26th Battalion, described the activities of the battery in a letter:

'My pet aversion, Trench Mortars! Why my pet aversion I'll tell you. 

The TM Officer here it's the softest job in the Brigade. He stays 

well behind the firing line and calls up with his satellites 

occasionally to do a strafe. Locates himself behind a bay and lets 
fly a dozen or so at the Hun and retires not too gracefully to his 
lair. Now the Hun with all his faults is some strafer and he always 
acknowledges receipt. We get the receipt, while the unmentionable 
TMO is taking his tea in perfect safety somewhere.'

At 9:00am on 10 February a party of officers and non-commissioned officers of the 27th Battalion proceeded to the trenches for instruction, under 10th Battalion, Sherwood Foresters and 8th Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment. 

It was on this day that the Tyneside Irish Brigade had its first fatal battle casualty, Major EA Leather, officer commanding B Company, 27th Battalion. Major Leather was not strictly a Tyneside Irishman but had originally joined the 3rd Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers during the Boer War and served with that unit in Malta. On the outbreak of the Great War he had volunteered his services and had been appointed as Second in Command of the 10th (Service) Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers. 

A bad accident, caused by his horse falling, prevented Leather from embarking overseas with the 10th Battalion. On his recovery, he was initially posted to the 15th (Reserve) Battalion but just before the embarkation of the Tyneside Irish the post of officer commanding B Company of the 27th Battalion became vacant. Leather was appointed to fill the vacancy. Major Leather was one of six brothers who served during both the Boer War and The Great War. One of his brothers, Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth Leather, commanded the 20th (Wearside) Battalion Durham Light Infantry.
Major Ernest Arthur Leonard
Major Ernest Arthur Leonard killed in action 10 February 1916, aged 48. Officer commanding B Company 27th (Service) Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers (4th Tyneside Irish). Buried at Rue-David Military Cemetery, Fleurbaix.  Image from  ‘The Tyneside Irish’ by John Sheen

Sunday, 14 February 2016

A very British romance: part 1

This is the first is another ongoing blog series, this one written by Margaret Eason, one of our project volunteers, who has been transcribing some of the letters of an army officer and the sister of one of his friends. It is a rare occurrence where we have access to both sides of the correspondence. The letters have been kindly loaned to Durham at War by the Leybourne family. This first post brings us from April 1915 to early 1916, and subsequent posts will be made close to the 100th anniversary of the events described. 

Letters and photographs belonging to the Leybourne family
Letters and photographs belonging to the Leybourne family
If you have ever visited Durham Record Office, you will have had good reason to thank the staff there for the support and encouragement they give to all who turn up to rummage in the Records, hoping to find out who they think they are! Inspired by the 'Durham Pals' photographs on display for the Heritage Open Day 2015, I asked to be a volunteer transcriber for the Durham at War project, and felt privileged to be accepted. Original documents are scanned at the Record Office and sent by email for transcription.

The files I received revealed an extraordinary story that unfolded within the letters written by Connie Kirkup and Lieutenant Elliot Angus Leybourne (known as Angus) of the 8th Battalion Durham Light Infantry, between April 1915 and May 1917. As their letters passed back and forth across a Continent mired in the mud and misery of war, neither of these two young people could have an inkling of the important role a Swiss businessman, Henry Dunant, would have in their lives; nor how instrumental his influence would prove to be in their future happiness. Henry's vision of an 'all-world-brotherhood' became, through time, The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). 

Thanks to the tireless efforts of the Red Cross volunteers and supporters in the countries at war, and to the dedicated staff of the Durham County Record Office, also to the generosity of the Leybourne family, we now have on record what I hope you will agree is...


To begin we join Connie in Beaumaris, Anglesey. It is April 30th 1915. Connie writes to Angus. She has heard 'that the Durhams' are in the thick of it' when she imagined they were still in training, and she is concerned for him and her brother Phil, who is Angus's friend, and hopes they are both all right. At the same time she is feeling selfish that she is away enjoying herself, but must console herself because as she writes, 'it wouldn't make any difference if I went into a torture chamber, would it?
[Editor’s note: as part of the 8th Battalion, Philip Kirkup and Angus Leybourne joined the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915.  The battalion war diary shows Angus as having been injured on 25th April, the ICRC Prisoner of War Agency index cards suggest he was also taken prisoner on this date.]

D/DLI 2/8/59(6) Angus is on the far left, Philip is third from the right
D/DLI 2/8/59(6) Angus is on the far left, Philip is third from the right
Connie is spending her time sailing and 'learning to row, - result blisters'. The boats are not allowed into the Strait because of, 'those Germans, (who we expect to be subdued now that the 8th have met them)'. Connie and Angus are chums in the way that most sisters are with their brother's friends; she has no notion that he thinks any more about her than any other girl. When he came to her home in Birtley to say goodbye before leaving for France, her thoughts were all for her brother Phil, who was leaving with him. 

She is staying with friends in Anglesey and tells Angus that he would fall in love with Mary (‘the babe’) who is a perfect cherub, and Connie is sure that the babe 'would chuckle at your laugh, I don't mean in amusement, it is infectious'. She betrays an affection for his laugh in a later letter to him when he has sent her a photo in which he looks rather solemn, she tells him that he, 'mustn't forget how to laugh as that is what we are all looking forward to hearing again so much.', but then teases him, as a chum would, by telling him she prefers the other photo he has sent where he is showing off his socks.

In the letter from Anglesey, she adds a postscript asking Angus pointedly, 'Any messages for Miss Elgar?' Suggesting that she has a notion that Miss Elgar is of special interest to Angus. 

Connie caught fishing as well as sailing, I think!

Back home in Birtley, Connie writes to Angus again on December 13th 1915; just a few lines because she is hurrying off to Newcastle where she is in training at the Royal Victoria Infirmary. She takes him through her the ride she had the day before - ‘a glorious ride with Uncle Austin ...over by Urpeth through the woods & over Uncle George's fields'. Uncle Austin tried to teach her to jump, 'but I just managed to scramble through a hedge (tearing my new habit en route!).’ Then she rolled off on her back on the frosty ground. 'Have you ever come off a gee? I never felt so absolutely pumped, I couldn't get my breath for ever so long, lucky thing Uncle was there to catch Lassie.'

She tells Angus that when he comes home they must try to beg, borrow or steal a horse so that he can come with them some morning.

She goes on with news of her visit to Harrogate, 'Phyllis is in black for Geoff Simpson, poor old Geoff has been killed, he was very badly wounded and was under chloroform but died, and really it seems better that he is dead, if he had lived he would have lost both legs. Phyllis never really appreciated him, she wasn't engaged to him, but he intended to be on his first leave, and left money in his will to buy her a ring. It isn't the funny looking Manchester Geoff Simpson, it is the Harrogate Geoff, an awfully nice fellow.

We can only imagine how Angus receives this news of mutual friends because I haven't seen any replies from him, at this point. Connie keeps him up-to-date about news of these acquaintances. 

Having run out of time and news Connie asks Angus how he likes the calendar she sent him. Then, sounding just a little out of patience, which is not at all the way to catch fish, she writes, 'Look here I don't expect you to write me, as I have said before Mrs. Leybourne must have all (except an occasional line to Elsie Elgar I suppose, isn't that her name? Yours sincerely Connie.

Tired of tickling the trout Connie has thrown a grenade in the water.

Constance Kirkup, from the Leybourne family's private collection
Constance Kirkup, from the Leybourne family's private collection
Just over a month later, on Wednesday 19th January 1916, Connie is writing to 'Dear old Angus, Not that I really mean it in the literal sense only as old pals.' She mentions that she had to check her diary to see when she last wrote and asks him if he keeps a diary. 'They are a horrible nuisance to keep at the time, but they are sport (well not always) at any rate interesting to look back at. The only trouble is it brings to mind what a fool one has been which isn't palatable. I am one of the biggest cuckoos out, even now at my time of life.

New Year's Day 1916 was very quiet, Connie spent it on duty at the Royal Infirmary in the accident room, but there wasn't much doing so she got off early and went for a tramp over the Fell, clad in strong boots and a Mac and felt better after that. She has been called up for service as the Honorary Matron at the Munition Works at Birtley, and her time now is mostly spent superintending the setting up and cleaning of the Hospital Hut there. She says she will be working there until the end of the war, 'or until they sack us. We expect to start to attend to accidents about the middle of next week, poor fellows!!'

She has had a postcard from Angus, dated December 29th 1915, and tells him that she telephoned his mother immediately in case it was later news than she had had, and she seemed very pleased to hear about it. His postcard arrived just as she was going out for a ride on Lassie. She read it once quickly and then re-read it on the hill above Kibblesworth. She takes him back to the last time she rode some of that route, 'about a year ago, and the Brigade were having a sham fight, I had to ride through the whole crowd, every hedge held dozens of Tommies.

She is at pains not to tell him old news, and often mentions that she is aware that she is not his only correspondent. She goes on to tell him, 'What a good looking lass Muriel (his sister) is growing'.

Connie is going to spend summer half term weekend with Mrs. Leybourne and Muriel in St. Andrews, 'won't it be jolly? and as Muriel said this morning it will be much jollier if Angus is there as well.' His Mother had left her muff when she visited Connie and her parents the day before and Connie called on her way to town to return it. Obviously, the swapping of news is bringing them all much closer.

There are no barbs from Connie about Miss Elgar this time, just a request for Angus to send another post card when he can, because as she says, 'I do like 'em'.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Proud to belong


Vajiravudh, King of Siam, Rama VI, in ans officers uniform of the Durham Light Infantry, 1916 (D/DLI 2/2/384)
D/DLI 2/2/384 Vajiravudh, King of Siam, Rama VI, in an officers uniform of the Durham Light Infantry, 1916
On the Durham at War website, you can read about how the King of Siam was briefly part of the Durham Light Infantry, and never forgot his ties to the regiment. During the First World War, he donated a total of £2000 to the Durham Light Infantry benevolent fund to help the families of the fallen. 

A hundred years ago today, on 12 February 1916, the war diary entry of the 2nd Battalion, Durham Light Infantry reads:
Rest at POPERINGHE. The town was shelled by enemy at 5.40pm, about 12 shells. Enemy aeroplanes dropped about 12 bombs at 5.00pm. The order “Stand-to ready to move” from 6th DIVISION received at 4.20pm. All necessary action taken, at 6.14pm “Troops may fall out received.” 6th DIVISION.

Appendix 2
Attached message from King of Siam to Durham Light Infantry regiment

The message is written out in the appendix:
The following message has been received by this Battalion from the King of SIAM who was an Officer in the Battalion. “As one of your comrades, I send you who are now honourably upholding the noble traditions of the Faithful Durhams in the Service of your King and Country, my very best wishes for Christmas and New Year. May your sacrifices be not in vain, and may you return home soon, full of honour, with added glory to the already glorious renown of the Regiment to which I am proud to belong.
Vajiravudh R.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Social realism and lion-tamers

The Lion Queen, Gibson & Co. Lithographers; Library if Congress, no known rights restrictions;    

‘Imagination is the only weapon in the war against reality.’
-Lewis Carroll

It's been a while since we've had a look at the books on Henry Wilkinson's prisoner of war reading list.  These are another five books of a variety of themes.

The Sea Hawk, Rafael Sabatini, published 1915, read 19 August 1918

Beginning in 1588, Sir Oliver Tressilian lives in Cornwall where he is betrothed to Rosamund Goldolphin. His brother, Lionel, kills Rosamund’s brother in a fight over a woman, but circumstances lead people to believe Oliver is the culprit, and Lionel does not correct them. Lionel then has Oliver kidnapped and he ends up a slave on a Spanish ship. When the ship is boarded by buccaneers, Oliver escapes his shackles and joins the men. He eventually makes his name as Sakr-el-Bahr, the Hawk of the Sea. A chance meeting with his original kidnapper gives Oliver the opportunity to take vengeance on his brother and try and win back Rosamund. (Summarised from Wikipedia)

The Star Dreamer, Agnes and Egerton Castle, published 1903, read 23 August 1918

The book begins with a detailed history of the house at the centre of the story, Bindon-Cheveral, in the Wiltshire countryside. The owner of the house, David Cheveral, is a recluse who spends his time watching the stars for his observatory tower. That is until the daughter of an alchemist, also living at the house, arrives and love pulls him from his solitude. (Summarised from The Spectator review)

The Weaker Vessel, EF Benson, published 1913, read 27 August 1918
Harry Whitaker has a talent for writing plays but begins to rely more and more on alcohol to make them great. The book is about the battle between a wife’s love and whisky’s inspiration.

EF [Edward Frederic] Benson wrote many novels but is most well-known for writing the Mapp and Lucia books, which were most recently adapted for television in 2014. He was also the younger brother of Arthur Christopher Benson who wrote the word’s to Land of Hope and Glory.  (Summarised from a review in the Liverpool Echo via

Simon the Jester, WJ Locke, published 1910, read 29 August 1918

Simon de Gex discovers he is ill and has 6 months to live. He disposes of his time and wealth to charity and good causes but then finds he is not going to die after all. He must once again find a life worth living. Summarised from several good reviews on Good Reads, the book’s other characters include Lola, a lion tamer and horse trainer, a Greek dwarf, and a fiancé of ‘a thousand virtues’.

The book was made into a film in 1915 and Locke had many of his works adapted for stage and screen, including Ladies in Lavender in 2004 starring Judi Dench and Charles Dance.

The Splendid Idle Forties, Gertrude Atherton, published 1902, read 2 September 1918

It is difficult to find anything specifically about this book but it is part of what is known as the author’s California Series. Atherton wrote many of her stories about the social history of her home state of California. She is also considered an early feminist. (Summarised from Wikipedia)