Friday, 29 July 2016

Unknown Soldiers

Unknown Somme Soldier
Unknown Somme Soldier #28 
In summer 1916, whilst the Battle of the Somme was raging less than 10 miles away, hundreds of British soldiers, including men from the Durham Light Iinfantry, had their photographs taken by an enterprising French photographer in the village of Warloy-Baillon. 

The photographs, of which the DLI are only a fraction, were brought to the world’s attention by John Lichfield, The Independent’s correspondent in France. Taken by Alfred Dupire, the 500 or so glass plate negatives have been collected from skips and attics across the Somme region by Benrnard Gardin, Dominique Zanardi, and Joel Scribe. They can be identified by the distinctive door that features behind so many of the pictures. You can read more about this on the Independent’s website: 

But who were these DLI soldiers? Steve Shannon picks out some information from the photographs: 

In early August 1916, the 50th Division, including the 6th, 8th and 9th Battalions DLI of the 151st Brigade, was ordered south from the Ypres Salient to join the fighting on the Somme. Moving by train and route marches, 151 Brigade finally stopped in Baizieux Wood, a few miles south of Warloy-Baillon on 17 August 1916. There, despite days of rain, the three battalions began intensive training for the Somme fighting. The soldiers with special skills, such as the Lewis machine gunners and signallers, received their own special training. And it is possible that the battalions’ buglers and bandsmen, who also doubled as stretcher bearers, received their special training in the hospital complex at Warloy-Baillon. 

There are clues in the uniforms and badges being worn by each soldier that may help identify him. 

Differently shaped and coloured cloth patches were used to distinguish battalions within a division. If this soldier was part of the 151st Brigade of the 50th Division (as is suspected), then the 6th Battalion DLI wore RED diamonds; the 8th Battalion DLI wore dark BLUE diamonds; and the 9th Battalion DLI wore GREEN diamonds. As 6 DLI’s red diamonds appear black in black & white photos, this soldier was either in the 8th or 9th Battalion DLI. 

The private at the top of this post is wearing a khaki Service Dress (SD) tunic, with its closed collar; pleated top pockets; and a patch on each shoulder to prevent wear from rifle and equipment straps. On his left arm is his ‘RP’ brassard (red letters on black?), and above is a triangular cloth ‘battle patch’.
Unknown Somme Soldier #5
Unknown Somme Soldier #5
If this soldier was part of the 151st Brigade of the 50th Division (as is suspected), then the 6th Battalion DLI wore RED diamonds; the 8th Battalion DLI wore dark BLUE diamonds; and the 9th Battalion DLI wore GREEN diamonds. 

On black & white photos, 6 DLI’s RED diamonds appear almost black, so this soldier was almost certainly in the 6th Battalion DLI. And if you look at another soldier in this group, he is wearing the distinctive black buttons worn by the 6th Battalion DLI.
Unknown Somme Soldier #33
Unknown Somme Soldier #33
This private is wearing the cheaper, simplified khaki Service Dress tunic that was introduced in late 1914, when so many men were enlisting and needing uniforms. This tunic has plain un-pleated top pockets and no extra shoulder patches to prevent wear from rifle and equipment straps. 

Unusually, in this collection of Unknown Somme photos, this soldier is wearing his distinctive DLI cap badge in a so-called ‘Gor Blimey’ cap. This soft, woollen, unmilitary-looking cap, issued in 1915 to replace the stiff Service Dress cap, had flaps that could be buttoned under the chin in bad weather or fastened up (as here) when not needed.

There are over 40 men on the Durham at War website from these photographs: Unknown Somme Soldiers 

Is one of them your relative?

Friday, 22 July 2016

1 July 2016

This week we bring you an account by John Sheen of the commemoration event he attended for the Tyneside Irish Brigade on the Somme battlefield on 1 July 2016.  

Tyneside Irish Blog 1 July 1916 – 2016
The Remembrance Ceremony at La Boisselle 
07:30 Hours 1 July 2016

Exactly one hundred years ago at 07:30 hours on 1 July 1916 the 103rd (Tyneside Irish) Brigade commenced their ill-fated advance towards the German lines in the vicinity of La Boisselle near Albert in France. Although, on the right, some of the 24th and 27th Battalions reached the brigade objective of ‘The Kaisergraben’ in front of the village of Contalmaison and fought their way into the village they were too few in number. The men were either killed, possibly captured or, if they survived, they returned to join Captain Bibby and a party of men in the German front line holding the gap between the 34th and 21st Divisions.
Tyneside Irish Brigade on the Somme © IWM (Q 53)
IWM non-commercial licence © IWM (Q 53)

Tyneside Irish Brigade on the Somme © IWM (Q 50)
IWM non-commercial licence © IWM (Q 50)
These photos of the Tyneside Irish Brigade advancing at 07:30 hours on 1 July 1916 are perhaps some of the best known of the Battle of the Somme and appear in many history books with various captions. They are in fact part of a panorama and the ends of the photographs can be joined together to make one large picture.

On the left of the Brigade front the 25th Battalion barely made it across the British Front Line. Those that did were either killed or wounded by enfilade machine gun fire firing down Mash Valley.
Tyneside Irish Brigade on the Somme © IWM (Q 69)
IWM non-commercial licence © IWM (Q 50)
On the photograph of Y Sap mine crater, above, in front of La Boisselle, when enhanced on a computer you can see Tyneside Scottish and Irish dead lying in No Man’s Land.

1 July was a costly failure and homes in County Durham and Northumberland would never be the same again.  The minimum casualties for the Tyneside Irish Brigade were as follows:
24th Battalion – 634
25th Battalion – 509
26th Battalion – 489
27th Battalion – 539
Only the Tyneside Scottish Brigade suffered more casualties of all the attacking brigades that day.

You can read more about the action of 1 July 1916 on the Tyneside Irish Brigade Association website: 

So it was that on 1 July 2016, a party from Northumberland and Durham, organised by Major Graeme Heron (retired), was allowed by the French authorities to gather at the Tyneside Seat at La Boisselle to commemorate both Brigades.

Army Cadets from Northumberland badged to both the Tyneside Scottish and the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers (RRF), along with members of the 5th Battalion RRF (the successor to the Northumberland Fusiliers), Branch Standards, and members of The Old Comrades Associations of the RRF and the Tyneside Scottish were present.

Owing to the events at Thiepval and Lochnagar being attended by members of the Royal Family, the security services had closed the Somme area so special permission had to be obtained, and the party had to be in at 06:30 and out before 09:00. Timings were very tight and as the hotel was in Ostend, we were on the road by 04:00. Things went well until the buses reached Bapaume and the first check point but after some ten minutes of negotiations, the buses were allowed to proceed towards La Boisselle.

On arrival at La Boisselle the parade formed up in front of the Tyneside Seat, the memorial to the Tyneside Brigades that fought at La Boisselle one hundred years ago.  The parade was called to attention by the WO1 Regimental Sergeant Major MJ Thompson of 5RRF, and the opening address was given by Major Chester Potts (retired), Chairman of the RRF. This was followed by the Battalion Padre, Reverend JPL Whalley, who led the service.

Firstly, ‘Abide With Me’ was sung, and Psalm 23 read [The Lord is my shepherd]. A young cadet spoke the words of ‘The Fighting Fifth’, the regimental hymn, which was a moving moment. Then the Piper played ‘The Minstrel Boy’ in honour of the Tyneside Irish Brigade. It was now that I had the job, and ten minutes, of describing the battle to the assembled soldiers and old comrades. As time was running short, at a signal from Major Heron the talk was quickly wound up. A Northumbrian Piper of the Regiment then played the moving tune ‘Northumberland’.

The exhortation was given by the RSM, ‘They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old’, and then the laying of the wreaths took place. The Honorary Colonel, Lord James Percy, laid the first one, and then in two parties various contingents paid their respects laying their wreaths, followed by Members of Parliament from Newcastle and Gateshead and community representatives.

At 07:30 hours, the Bugler sounded the ‘Last Post’, and after two minutes silence, ‘Reveille’. Pipe Major Billy Anderson then struck up the lament ‘Hector the Hero’.

The assembled parade sang the ‘The Blaydon Races’ and ‘God Save the Queen’ before a final prayer and blessing by the padre. The parade was dismissed, with time for official and personal photographs.

Tyneside Seat with permission of Lieutenant Clare Lomas
The Tyneside Seat the memorial to the Tyneside Irish and Scottish Brigades at the entrance to the village of La Boisselle in France. With permission of Lieutenant Clare Lomas
The Pipers, with permission of Lieutenant Clare Lomas
The Pipers: Pipe Major Billy Anderson of Tyneside Scottish; Sergeant Don Walker, Northumbrian Piper; Cadet Sergeant Li Minjie, who played ‘The Minstrel Boy’.  With permission of Lieutenant Clare Lomas

Members of the Tyneside Irish Brigade association, with permission of Lieutenant Clare Lomas
Members of the Tyneside Irish Brigade Association who attended the parade. Left to right: Mr Ken Bell, Mr Kevin Farrell, Mr Robert Pyle, Captain Malcolm Howard (retired), Kate and Patrick Butler, and John Sheen.  With permission of Lieutenant Clare Lomas
From La Boisselle the coaches then took us to Ovillers Military Cemetery, where people paid their respects to fallen relatives or family friends of 100 years ago. Captain Malcolm Howard (retired) laid a wreath at the grave of his grandfather Lieutenant Colonel Louis M Howard, commanding 1st Tyneside Irish. Close by, Patrick Butler laid a wreath at the grave of his grandfather Sergeant Patrick Butler who had rescued Colonel Howard, and got him into the Lochnagar Crater, assisted by Corporal James Bonner. The Territorials and Army Cadets were given grave references and crosses, some also had photographs of the soldiers, and for about half an hour people moved among the graves placing crosses, particularly on the graves of unknown Tyneside Irish and Scots to let them know they were not forgotten.

Placing crosses. Photo by John Sheen
Placing crosses.  On the far left Lord James Percy speaks to Captain Malcolm Howard and Patrick Butler.  Photo by John Sheen
The grave of Private Patrick McCabe.  Photo by John Sheen
The grave of Private Patrick McCabe.  Photo by John Sheen
I was asked to visit the grave of Private Patrick McCabe by Brian Scollen, and I and a young cadet laid a cross on Brian’s behalf. Then it was time to go as we had to be out of the Somme security zone before 09:00 hours. So we were off on our way back to the hotel in Ostend where, as to be expected, the Old Comrades enjoyed a glass or two of Belgian beer.

Here I would like to thank Major Graeme Heron and the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers for giving me the privilege of speaking on such a great occasion.

Friday, 15 July 2016


Major John English, 9th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, the DLI Collection
Major John English, 9th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, the DLI Collection
The almost daily letters that Major John English of 9th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, wrote home to his wife throughout that May were deposited in Durham County Record Office. They have been transcribed by volunteers and you can read them on Durham at War

On 6 May 1915, during the Second Battle of Ypres, 9th Battalion, were a few miles back from the fighting on rest. The letter that Major English wrote this day shows an appreciation of the brief moments of peace that he was able to capture. This letter also caught the imagination of poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy who has been commissioned to write the words for a new suite of hymns for County Durham. The premiere performance of the Durham Hymns takes place on 16 July 2016 at Durham Cathedral where you will be able to hear the hymn ‘Oranges’ based on the letter below.

6 May 1915
My darling lassie,
It is 11.30am on a lovely hot morning and I am lying on a blanket in a beautiful green grass field all dotted with dandelion and a herd of cows grazing all round. I am sitting under the shade of a tree with chocolate to eat and papers to read and nothing to do. This is the strenuous life I like and if you had only been here. We are always wishing for something to drink. I never drank their water as I am suspicious about it, now, just at this moment, a man and his wife have come into the field shouting oranges. What luck and what yells of delight. I must resume after having eaten four. What fun it is trying to beat these hawkers down. He charged 1d each for them. We asked him why he was not a soldier and he produced his papers, he is exempt on account of a lamed leg. 

The men of D Company are in the next field separated by a wire fence and it is dotted with fruit trees in full bloom. They have washing hanging up everywhere and bivouacs erected and really the scene is quite a pretty and peaceful one, still we can hear the guns booming in the distance and as for aeroplanes we have ceased to take any notice of them. There was a terrific bombardment last night and it appears the Germans bombarded Poperinghe and set it on fire. They did a lot of damage I hear. I have got my bivouac valise erected in this field and intend to sleep out tonight. I did not last night as it was threatening to rain heavily, however it blew over … 

I have not much to say today my darling as we are leading such a simple life, but just to have a little chat to you. I am longing for your loving chatty letters and they seem so far between. They aren’t really, I have had four from you, but the post is most erratic. There was no post last night and none has arrived so far this morning. I do wish they would hurry up as I am longing for yours darling. I hear when we have rested we are going to a very cushy place in the line, but it is only hearsay and possibly the authorities do not know themselves where we will go ... Bye bye my darling girl. God bless and keep you safe and our son.
Your Jock.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Submarine bombardment

One of the first stories researched - from a wide variety of sources - when Durham at War was still its infancy, was that of the submarine bombardment of Seaham. Monday 11 July 2016 will be the 100th anniversary of the incident in which one woman was killed.
Shell from the submarine found by 4th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry
Shell from the submarine found by 4th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry
In the colliery village of New Seaham, 1.5 miles inland from Seaham Harbour on the north east coast, the quiet of a July evening was shattered by a German submarine attack. At around 10:30pm on 11 July 1916 a German submarine surfaced near Seaham Harbour and fired 39 shells over Seaham in the direction of New Seaham and Dawdon.

Although many of the shells landed in nearby fields, one woman, Mrs. Mary Slaughter of Hebburn, was hit by an exploding shell and severely injured as she was walking through the colliery yard with her cousin. She died in hospital the next morning.

At 14 Doctor Street the family of miner Carl Mortenson had a lucky escape. The nose of a shell demolished part of their back yard wall, drilled a hole clean through the kitchen wall, flew across the room and landed near the front door, but did not explode. None of the occupants were harmed. Mrs. Mortenson was in the kitchen at the time, and the shell missed her. The rest of the family were in bed upstairs. 

Doctor Street was the furthest street from the sea, so the submarine shell had a long way to travel. Ironically the street was originally named German Row because it had such a good view of the German Ocean (the North Sea was known as the German Ocean until the early 20th century).

Imagine the fear aroused by this surprise attack. As far as we know this was the only incident where a submarine fired shells inland along the County Durham coastline in the First World War. And the timing could not have been worse for the families who were receiving the grim news of the casualties on the Somme. Even poor Mary Slaughter had come to New Seaham because she thought it would be safer than risking the zeppelin air raids on her home town of Hebburn.

You can read more about the story on Durham at War:
An extract from the 4th Battalion war diary 

About Mary Slaughter, the woman who was killed

About Werner Fuerbringer, the u-boat commander

Newspaper reports from around the world