Tuesday, 29 March 2016

The Tyneside Irish and the Somme part 3: Flags at the Front

The third part of John Sheen's series about the journey of the Tyneside Irish to the Battle of the Somme.

In the last blogpost we left the Tyneside Irish Brigade learning the art of trench warfare. Throughout February and into March 1916, each of the four battalions spent four days in the line at a time.  They rotated so that there were two battalions in the line, and the two out of the line spent four days in Brigade Reserve and then four days in Divisional Reserve. This was sometimes known as “rest” but it was far from resting.  Nightly carrying parties had to be found to take ammunition, duckboards, sandbags, food, water and hundreds of other items up to the men holding the front line.

Recruitment poster for the Tyneside Irish, used under the IWM Non-Commercial Licence, © IWM (Art.IWM PST 13620)
Recruitment poster for the Tyneside Irish, used under the IWM Non-Commercial Licence, © IWM (Art.IWM PST 13620) 
By the middle of March the 27th Battalion (4th Tyneside Irish), Northumberland Fusiliers, were holding the line once more. On the night of the 15/16 March, a German patrol planted a German flag in front of them. During the day, the battalion snipers shot at the pole, eventually bringing the flag down. Plans were made to try and recover it during the night, and the company commander, Captain Davey, had no shortage of volunteers to go out and capture the flag. He therefore chose the best man for the job, Lieutenant CJ Ervine, together with two men of his platoon but after an hour or so, the party returned without the flag. The enemy were too alert and waiting, and had a patrol covering the flag on one side and a machine gun covering the other. When the three Tyneside Irishmen got to within twenty-five yards of the German flag there was such an outburst of firing that they had to return to the British lines. In the early hours of St Patrick's Day, Lieutenant Ervine set out again, this time alone and for half-an-hour those in the British trenches waited, until Lieutenant Ervine's platoon sergeant went out to the wire to look for him. At 2:45pm the Germans fired a star shell and those in the trench could see the dark shape of Lieutenant Ervine making his way slowly back to the British lines having managed to recover the prize, but on the way having fallen into a ditch full of muddy water.

While Ervine dried himself, Captain Davey and another officer erected a stout pole with the German ensign nailed to it, and above the ensign the green flag with the golden harp, which had been presented to the Company prior to leaving England. As day broke the Germans started to shoot at the pole in a vain attempt to bring it down, but there it hung throughout St Patrick's Day, attracting admiring visitors to the Tyneside Irish trenches from other parts of the line. Unfortunately, shortly after this episode, Lieutenant Ervine, who hailed from Belfast, was badly wounded and succumbed to his wounds soon afterwards. He was interred in Bailleul communal cemetery.

But the fire attracted by the flag, from the German sniper's was to have tragic consequences for some of those on duty in the trenches that St Patrick's Day. Early that morning 27/26 Private William Brown and 27/663 Private John Scollen took over sentry duty at a post in the front line. At about 4:15 a.m. the pair were about to be relieved, when a shot from a German soldier hit William Brown in the
head, the round ricocheted and then hit John Scollen in the face. As William fell to the floor of the trench, John could see he was badly wounded and needed help urgently. Forgetting his own wounds John Scollen rushed down the trench to the Aid Post.  He turned out the stretcher bearers and led them back to the front line to where William Brown now lay unconscious, but still alive. The wounded man was placed on a stretcher and evacuated as quickly as possible, however, although he reached the aid post, he died before the battalion doctor Lieutenant Cosgrave could reach him.

Lieutenant EJ Blight, Northumberland Fusiliers, extracted from a group photo in the John Sheen Collection
Lieutenant EJ Blight, Northumberland Fusiliers, extracted from a group photo in the John Sheen Collection
Mrs Ada Brown, who lived at Grange Villa, County Durham, was told of her husband’s death in a letter from Captain Davey, who told her of Private Scollen's attempt to save her husband. She also received a letter from his platoon commander Lieutenant Ernest Blight, who wrote,
Dear Madam
It is with very great regret that I have to inform you that your husband lost his life on Friday March 17th at about 4:15 in the early morning. He was on sentry in his bay in a trench very close to the Germans, when a bullet struck him. His comrades took him to the dressing station as fast as possible, but the wound proved fatal. I have not been in charge of this platoon for very long, but during the short time I had your husband under my charge, I was able to see that he was a good soldier and a fearless man. He did his duty thoroughly and died bravely for a worthy cause. I hope that you will be given health and strength to bring up your family and that you will bear up as well as can be expected during this great trial.
I am yours faithfully
EJ Blight, Lieut.
Mrs Brown had another letter, from Lieutenant Ralph Pritchard. Although he was now serving as a Captain in D Company it was less than a fortnight since he had been Private Brown's platoon commander in B Company.  Lieutenant Pritchard described William Brown as "one of the most cheery men in the company". He goes on to say "No matter how hard the day's work had been [William Brown] always looked upon the bright side and if a laugh was possible Brown always gave it. Trying to ease Mrs Brown's loss he went on to write, "An officer often finds inspiration amongst his men and I am sure your husband's cheerfulness and large heartedness were a source of inspiration to me and helped me very considerably more than once. You will feel his loss keenly I know but I hope that God may give you strength to bear up in this very hard time". 
Lieutenant Ralph Pritchard, Northumberland Fusiliers, extracted from a group photo in the John Sheen Collection
Lieutenant Ralph Pritchard, Northumberland Fusiliers, extracted from a group photo in the John Sheen Collection

Thursday, 24 March 2016

100 Years of British Summer Time

This year it is 100 years since British Summer Time was introduced as a wartime emergency fuel conservation measure. It came into being on 21 May 1916 but now the clocks go forward earlier, on the last Sunday in March (it's Easter Day this year). The following is an editorial from the Durham Chronicle, published on the first Friday of British Summer Time.

Watch face

Institution of British Summertime
The Durham Chronicle
26 May 1916

The war has hitherto been an unmixed evil; but one blessing it has brought in its train. Last Sunday nothing less than a great social revolution was effected when the hands of the clock were put forward an hour. And who doubts that but for the war the boon which this change represents would have been as far off as ever? It is well said that this notable reform, like many others in the past, and we may confidently hope in the future, has been won at the point of the bayonet. But for the total eclipse of the party politician the country would have waited in vain for its emancipation from the thraldom of the clock...

We dislike startling innovations of all kinds and are apt to set their promoters down as cranks and faddists. The late Alf Willott [William Willet] was regarded with good-humoured tolerance by most people as a well-meaning individual who, while bent on saving other people’s time was wasting his own on a more or less useless scheme. But now, lo and behold, the author of Daylight Saving has been lifted from the ranks of the faddists and placed in those of the benefactors of humanity. His experience has been that of many great discoverers and inventors. It was said that they were mad, whereas it was only a case of other men being stupid. It needed something on the scale of the Armageddon to overcome the inertia, represented by the forces of reactionary political machinery, short-sighted vested interests and a mental fairness before the Summer Time Act could be placed on the Statute Book.

Summer sun

Indeed little short of a miracle has been achieved. A great hoary mountain of prejudice was removed by Parliament within the space of two short weeks. What a furore it would have caused in the days before the war! Nowadays we live in the midst of such tremendous happenings that we take, as it were, the chronological revolution in our stride. As to the benefits to be derived from the new time of day who can doubt their tangibility after the experience of the present week. Without sacrificing anything at all the whole community is now enjoying the immeasurable boon of four hundred and twenty more precious minutes of daylight every week. It has added another seven hours day to the week, and all without anybody being a penny the poorer but everybody the richer. We have taken a step further away from the darkness into the light. We have cut an hour off the languid end of the day and placed it on the energetic end when the outlook is fresh and sweet and clean both subjectively and objectively after the hours of repose. We are economising precious coal and oil, with their concomitants of fire and artificial light thus conserving our resources for other more essential purposes necessary for the successful prosecution of the war.

Altogether it is safe to say that the Summer Time Act is one of the most noteworthy and epoch-making achievements of our generation. Prophecy is a risky occupation but we may venture the opinion that Daylight Saving has come to stay. There will in all probability be no desire when the war is over to return to the old system, with all its drawbacks and waste of the golden hours of sunshine in soul-clogging slumber.

And indeed, a hundred years on, we still lose an hour in bed in March, to regain it October. Remember, the clocks go forward this weekend.

Royal Museums, Greenwich:
Debate of the Bill in Parliament:

Friday, 11 March 2016

A Very British Romance, part 2: Still fishing

On Valentine’s Day, we posted the first in volunteer Margaret Eason’s series of posts titled ‘A Very British Romance’ about Angus Leybourne and Connie Kirkup. This week, we catch up with Connie in March 1916, writing to Angus who is currently a prisoner of war in G├╝tersloh, Germany. 
National Projectile Factory, Birtley, June 1916, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums ref. 1027/271
National Projectile Factory, Birtley, June 1916, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums ref. 1027/271
On 13 March 1916, Connie writes to ‘My dear Angus’ whilst she is on duty in the hospital hut at the Birtley munitions works. She tells him that the new girl, Miss Agar - 'a bouncy girl' that she mentioned to him in her last letter - is chattering away in the background while she writes. Connie tries a spot of fishing again, 'I can just imagine how you and Phil would have made excuses to come down to tea at the Hut this week if you had been at home'. And if the 'bouncy Miss Agar' is not attraction enough, Connie goes on to tempt him by waving a girdle cake under his nose:
'we have had a girdle cake for tea, made on the oven shelf put over the top of the fire, rolled out with the Roller Towel roller. Improvisation!! I am a marvel at it.'

Mrs Leybourne, Angus’ mother, came out the other day to see them, Connie's mother brought her down to the Hut, but he may already know about it as it was a fortnight ago. '[Mrs Leybourne] was very great on the house at Alston that she has taken.' and Connie is going to spend a weekend with her there when she is settled in. 'It will be something to look forward to, glad it is a place where clothes, I mean smart ones, are unnecessary because I'm saving up until after the War.'

Now Angus is imagining his Mother and Connie having tea, let's draw the parlour curtains on that scene; he's got it in his head now. A spot of coarse fishing has its attractions.
Prisoners of war in Germany, Angus Leybourne is seated second from the right, 1915/16  (D/DLI 2/8/12(39))
D/DLI 2/8/12(39) Prisoners of war in Germany, Angus Leybourne is seated second from the right, 1915/16 
The letter goes on to tell that a returned prisoner of war has called to see them, Ainsly, 'Do you remember him? The only thing wrong with him is that one leg is 3 inches shorter than the other. I can't think why he has been sent back.'

Other bits of news she tells Angus are that:
'The 8th have been having a hot time again, but are out of it now, Phil is alright and the others that you know, I believe they had 50 casualties.
'Lieutenant Edgar of the 9th DLI has been killed. He was a barrister in Newcastle and a brilliant young fellow.'

Despite Connie thinking there doesn't seem to be any news, she goes on to say that, 'Ernest's [Connie’s older brother] battalion has been ordered to the South Coast, but not gone yet. And Eric is digging trenches on the Fell, and is going to try to get left behind, I wish he could, it wouldn't be so lonely for Elsie if he could stay at home. It is hard lines on the married men and women.'

Before signing off and wishing Angus 'Best of Good Luck' and hoping he and the others keep fit, Connie just happens to mention Captain Grey, an officer she mentioned in her last letter. In that letter of 20 February, she says she thought the Captain was coming into the hut because of the pretty nurses, and then asked her for advice about leg cramp. He is stationed nearby and looking in occasionally.  He caught her up quick the other day when she said she had been rubbing her parents for rheumatism. ‘He said, 'I thought you said you couldn't massage.' I told him I didn't believe he ever had had cramp in his leg, and he went out chuckling. Now goodnight I'm going off home, it is 6:00pm'.

Now what was Angus to make of that amusing little ditty? 

Connie has discarded the rod for a net.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Six months on the job

In October 2015, volunteer Jean Longstaff wrote about the research she had begun into local men who found their way to Canada and served with the Canadian Army. This week, Jean gives us an update on what she has found out.

I started “doing the Canadians” in August and still find it as absorbing, if not more so, as I come across more and more ordinary people from the county who led extraordinary lives.

Of the 400,000 Canadians who volunteered for service in WWI, 70% were recent immigrants from Britain and just under three thousand came from County Durham, as one Durham man wrote “at times, when duty calls, we have to set our jaws a little firmer, and remember the Great Cause for which we are enduring discomforts and hardships”. They too were volunteers, but life was perhaps a little harder for them than for us!

I’ve met men who worked at the old brewery at Castle Eden, sons of vicars, Justices of the Peace, and magistrates, schoolmasters, miners of both lead and coal, farmers, paper-makers, sons and fathers from all ranks of life, from all areas of the county. What tales they have to tell.

Memorial to soldiers who worked for the Bank of Montreal, outside the offices in Winnipeg, Canada (Wikimedia Commons - public domain)
Memorial to soldiers who worked for the Bank of Montreal, outside the offices in Winnipeg, Canada (Wikimedia Commons - public domain)
Have you ever been to Winnipeg and seen a statue of a soldier outside the offices of the Bank of Montreal? At first glance it looks like a standing version of Seaham’s “Tommy” - but that’s probably just the greatcoat and helmet. The model for that soldier was a Sunderland man, Wynn Bagnall, who rose from Gunner to Acting Major and won the Military Cross. 

For a different soldier, by sheer chance I came across an article that implied that the 18 year old Weardale man I was researching had been charged with manslaughter and was to appear before Durham Assizes. My initial thought here was “were we still transporting convicts to the colonies in the twentieth century, was that why he went to Canada?” - pause for breath and think rationally, no of course not, delve a bit deeper. Then you discover that the minute books of the Assizes for the relevant date were destroyed by a clerk during the Second World War, did he think that they would be of use to the Germans? So you start searching the Northern Echo, trying not to get waylaid by other interesting articles only to find that the judge literally gave him a slap on the wrist, said naughty boy I know you didn’t mean to kill anyone, don’t do it again and sentenced him to two weeks in prison with no hard labour! The village obviously forgave him too as he married a local girl and returned to live there after the war. 

I got stuck on another man as on his enlistment paper he had given his brother’s date of birth, so I ended up with two Josephs born in the same quarter of the same year with both births registered in Lanchester. How to unravel this? I checked other family trees on Ancestry and it looked as though quite a few others had confused the two men, then I came across a name I thought I recognised, put two and two together, and luckily made four. I got in touch with someone I had worked with in a previous life and discovered that her great uncle was the Joseph I wasn’t looking for, so I could rule out all those details and concentrate on the right one.

Embroidered postcard of Canadian and British flags, with a maple leaf (D/DLI 7/913/178)
D/DLI 7/913/178 Embroidered postcard of Canadian and British flags, with a maple leaf
There is plenty of material out there but some you have to take with a pinch of salt. I found an article about someone’s great-aunt who happened to be the wife of a man I was researching and it had gone down in family history that she was a survivor of the Titanic. She wasn’t, that is something that has been well documented and is easy to check. It’s a person’s life post war that can be most difficult, as mentioned on previous blogs, and I have decided it is better to ignore what could be “duff gen” as an old boss used to say.

I never dreamt that I would end up reading books on Canadian military history, not my usual choice of reading matter. I usually read historical Regency novels, but even they came to mind when I was looking at a census report for one boy and in the house along with the housekeeper, cook, and nanny was a “monthly nurse”, shades of Georgette Heyer. 

My knowledge of Canadian geography hasn’t improved - you could still show me a map and I wouldn’t be able to name the provinces correctly or put towns in the right place - but I can now at least spell SASKATCHEWAN.

Jean Longstaff, Durham at War volunteer