Friday, 23 June 2017

An Incredible Coincidence

This week we have a story from Steve Shannon.

One day, whilst rummaging about in a music stool at his home in Bradford, David Wilson, then aged about 7 or 8 years old, found a telegram. It was from the War Office informing Constance Penrice that her husband, Second Lieutenant Gordon Penrice, had been killed in action. As David’s mother was called Constance, he asked her about this telegram and she explained that she had been married twice and that her first husband had been killed in the Great War. David later remembered that his mother had cried when she told him.

Years later, David’s mother came to live with her son in County Durham. After her death in 1986, he found a photograph of Gordon Penrice amongst her papers. In this photo, Gordon is wearing an officer’s uniform with the badges of the Durham Light Infantry (DLI).
Second Lieutenant William Gordon Penrice, 20th Battalion DLI (DCRO D/DLI 7/532/1)
D/DLI 7/532/1 Second Lieutenant William Gordon Penrice, 20th Battalion DLI
In 1993, David wrote to DLI Museum asking for help. In my reply, I was able to tell him that Second Lieutenant Gordon Penrice had been killed in action on 7 June 1917 during the Battle of Messines, whilst serving with the 20th (Wearside) Battalion DLI. Sadly, however, he had no known grave but was commemorated on the Menin Gate at Ypres. I also enclosed photocopies from a Regimental history describing 20 DLI’s role at Messines and suggested where David should go for more information, such as the National Archives, Imperial War Museum, and Commonwealth War Graves Commission. David then began his research in earnest. 

Then, David’s wife found an overlooked – and seemingly unimportant – war pensions form amongst Constance’s papers. Written in Constance’s hand across the top was “2nd Lieut. Gordon Penrice, D.L.I. Buried at Elkhof Farm, Voormezeele – S. of Ypres”. So was Gordon’s grave lost or not? Had his widow known where he had been buried? 

Soon after, I met David in the museum for the first time and we poured over original trench maps, we soon found Eikhof (not “Elkhof”) Farm near Voormezeele. We looked at the 20th Battalion’s original war diary, and discovered that Second Lieutenant Penrice had only joined the battalion on 31 May 1917. He was killed a week later on the first day of the Battle of Messines.
Drawing by Reverend JAG Birch, 5th Battalion DLI, of a map of Messines on 7 June 1917 (D/DLI 7/63/2(196))
D/DLI 7/63/2(196) Drawing by Reverend JAG Birch, 5th Battalion DLI, of a map of Messines on 7 June 1917
We then discussed the lost grave and I suggested that the grave had originally been marked in June 1917 but that the marker had been lost probably in 1918, when there had been more fighting around Eikhof Farm. 

During this meeting, I told David that George Thompson, a veteran of the 20th Battalion DLI [editor’s note: not the transport driver featured in Durham hymns], had been interviewed by the Imperial War Museum and that he still lived in Spennymoor. David ordered a copy of the tapes from the IWM and was amazed when he heard the old soldier remember what he had seen and done on 7 June 1917. 

David met George twice, first in December 1993, and again in February 1994. During these meetings, George, who died in September 1994 aged 97, explained that after the initial attack at Messines, he was with an officer and a few other soldiers, when they came across the body of a DLI officer. They buried the body in a shell hole near Eikhof Farm, removing all identification papers, and marked the grave with a rifle stuck in the ground muzzle side down.

Could this have been Gordon Penrice? George Thompson didn’t know but more research convinced David that it was. David knew that only two DLI officers had died at Messines on 7 June 1917. One had been identified and was buried in a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery. So Gordon Penrice must have had been buried at Eikhof Farm. And someone must have told his widow. 

In May 1994, their research finished, David and his wife visited the modern t’Eikenhof farm in Belgium. Somewhere nearby on 7 June 1917 Gordon Penrice had been killed in action and then buried in a shell hole.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Touching Base

This week Jo writes about some of Durham at War's supporting items you might not be so aware of.

E/HB 2/768 Photograph of Bede Territorials (8th DLI) at Scarborough Camp, [1913], most of these men are on the Bede Database
E/HB 2/768 Photograph of Bede Territorials (8th DLI) at Scarborough Camp, [1913], most of these men are on the Bede Database
When the Durham at War website was designed it was envisaged that it would broadly consist of stories about people, places, events and organisations. Attached to the stories are “supporting materials”, which might be the transcripts of documents that our volunteers have been working on, photographs, newspaper articles, books or objects. Of the 600 or so supporting materials that have now been published on the website, a handful have surprised us by not sitting easily within the definition of supporting materials that we applied at the beginning of the project: the databases.

At the time of writing we have five databases on Durham at War (or more properly; they are spreadsheets that we have turned into PDF documents). The first that was published was the “Bede College in the Great War database”.

This is the work of our colleague, David Butler, who trawled through the Bede College archives here at Durham County Record Office, in order to create a list of Bede men who served during the First World War. As well as service details, David has recorded references from the archives to each of the men that he has identified. So, it is now possible to look them up in the administrative records of the College or find mentions of them in the Bede Magazine.

When using the Bede database, please note that in order to get all of the rows of information onto the screen, we have had to reduce the size of the page. You can very easily zoom in by using the plus and minus buttons that appear in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen with Chrome or the same on the bar at the bottom of the screen with Internet Explorer.

The largest database that appears on the site is Peter Hoy’s amazing work on over 4000 service men and women for South Tyneside. His database is so extensive that we had to divide it in to chunks to get it on the website! As well as looking at the usual family history sources (1911 census, BMD indexes) and military documents (medal cards and 'Burnt Documents'), Peter has used local newspaper sources to develop profiles on the individuals he has researched:

D/DLI 7/805/73 Soldiers from 'D' Company, 14th Battalion DLI, c.1916
D/DLI 7/805/73 Soldiers from 'D' Company, 14th Battalion DLI, c.1916 
Colin Alsbury contacted us after we included the story of a man who started out with the Derbyshire Yeomanry and transferred to 14th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry. He very kindly gave us permission to use his research findings, allowing us to shine a light on another aspect of DLI history. We hadn’t realised that quite a number of men transferred from that regiment in October 1916, probably as reorganisation to bump up numbers lost during the Battle of the Somme.

Another small(ish) but perfectly formed database is that created by our own Victoria. She is particularly interested in Prisoners of War both Germans in County Durham and County Durham men in Germany and Switzerland. While researching the prisoner of war camp at Harperley, she found a list of German prisoners who died of Spanish Flu right at the end of the war, in John Ruttley’s book ‘Prisoners in the North’. She used a combination of sources, including the International Red Cross records, to build up a picture of each man:

The most recent database that we have published on the site is the work of Mavis Dixon. She collaborated with historian Cyril Pearce, who has created a national database of conscientious objectors. They shared information about men from Country Durham and the resulting database is now available to search. As well as the usual sources, Mavis undertook archival research in other repositories, most notably the Cumbria Archives Centre in Carlisle. Cumbria Archives hold the Catherine Marshall collection which reflects her involvement in the suffragette and pacifist movements.

The databases on our site are not something that we had necessarily planned for, but they allow us to include a lot of information that we might not have had the time to pursue as full stories. There are a few other databases in the pipeline that we’ll publish in due course. Watch this space!

Friday, 9 June 2017

Transcription errers

This week we have a blog post from our volunteer, Jean, who researches Canadian soldiers.
Not Middle Earth or Westeros
Not Middle Earth or Westeros
Many of you will have transcribed handwritten documents, and know how it can sometimes be impossible to decipher the handwriting. In a document it is usually possible to work out the word from the context, but trying to decipher place names is another matter completely, unless, of course you are familiar with the area.

Spare a thought for those who transcribed the 619,000 plus attestation papers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force to prepare them for digitisation, which included of course, the records of the nearly 3,000 men from County Durham who had enlisted. They couldn’t just go to a gazetteer to check on a place name because they weren’t able to decipher it let alone spell it correctly.

It was whilst looking at my list of names and places of birth for our men who joined the CEF that made me consider these problems ... I hadn’t for a start realised that there were so many ways to write Hartlepool. There’s Martlepel , Hurtlepool, Hortiport, Hortlepool, Hartley Hill, Hartleypal, Nortlepool, Hattlepant, Martlopool and more.

In most cases you can tell straight away what the place name should be, but occasionally I have to go back to the original attestation paper to see if I have better luck than the original transcriber in deciphering the writing. Sometimes just a quick look gives the right place and I think how did they get that wrong, but that is so easy for people with local knowledge to say. Occasionally I need to go a bit further and check birth or census records, but in the end most are decipherable.
Examples from the Canadian records
Examples from the Canadian records
Some of my favourites are Leaham Herbert and Scaham Harbon for Seaham Harbour; Noughland Spring and Hootenay Spring for Houghton-le-Spring; Walton Port for Witton Park; that well known Scottish island Splluy Mora for Spennymoor; Westeonfith for West Cornforth, and how they made Daibrighton, Dedenfon and Durlinjlos out of Darlington I am not quite sure. But the two that stick out as unbelievable transcriptions are Wookson On Quebec (Stockton On Tees) and Jecce Ireland (Sunderland).

Try these ones and see if you can work out where our men were born: Loaf Hill; Camdon; Creek; Southsfield; Paocban; Hamituly; Buttley; Taw Haw; Lediefield; Onfield Place; Durshopel Codery; Sammerland and finally Southampton, and I don’t mean the port on the south coast!

Highlight the text below to reveal the answers:
Low Fell; Coundon; Crook; South Shields; Page Bank; Hamsterley; Birtley; Tow Law; Sedgefield; Annfield Plain; Burnhope Colliery; Sunderland; South Hetton.

Friday, 2 June 2017

100 years of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Commonwealth War Graves Commission exhibition at Brookwood Cemetery
Commonwealth War Graves Commission exhibition at Brookwood Cemetery
It is impossible to do a First World War project without encountering the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). I visit the website several times a week, if not day sometimes, I only have to type ‘c’ into the address bar for the site to come up. Whilst the website is an invaluable research tool, it is to say nothing of the physical work that is done in tending to the 1.7 million graves across 154 countries. 

This May has seen the CWGC marking the 100th anniversary of its establishment by Royal Charter (in 1917 it was known as the Imperial War Graves Commission). However, the groundwork actually began some years earlier when Fabian Ware, a commander of a mobile unit of the British Red Cross, began recording all the graves he and his unit could find. The CWGC website says ‘By 1915, their work was given official recognition by the War office, and incorporated into the British Army as the Graves Registration Commission (

To mark this anniversary, the CWGC have launched an exhibition at their Brookwood Cemetery called ‘For Then | For Now | For Ever’ ( It tells the story of the CWGC from its beginning right through to today, and does not shy away from controversial aspects of its work. When you think of a war cemetery, you probably picture rows of matching white headstones with regimental insignia. However, one of the items on display at the exhibition is a petition with ‘more than 8000 signatures – predominantly from mothers who had lost sons in the Great War – asking the Commission to reconsider the use of a uniform marker in favour of a cross.’ (

The exhibition was opened on 20 May by Brian Blessed OBE. In his speech, Blessed said ‘The CWGC has done an incredible job over the last 100 years and long may it continue. I would urge everyone who can to visit the exhibition, and also their local war graves, find out the stories behind the headstones and commemorate those who ‘gave their tomorrow for our today.’’ (
David Domoney’s design for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show
David Domoney’s design for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show
To mark the significant horticultural aspect of the Commission’s work (it employs 850 gardeners), they approached David Domoney to help create a garden for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, which was awarded a silver medal. You can read about the development and creation of the garden on the Commonwealth War Graves’ blog:

The exhibition at Brookwood Cemetery, near Woking, Surrey, is open 10am-4pm, seven days a week until 19 November 2017.

Friday, 26 May 2017

Gawin Wild honoured in the France

This week, John Sheen brings us a follow up piece on Gawin Wild of the Tyneside Irish. All photographs by John Sheen and his wife.
The Liberation Day Ceremony at the village war memorial
The Liberation Day Ceremony at the village war memorial
Those who follow the blog will recall that in December I told the story of Reserve Gendarme David Devigne and his efforts to honour the last resting place of CQMS Gawin Wild of the 3rd Tyneside Irish.

Just over a week ago, my wife and I travelled to the Haut Medoc, the wine growing region north west of Bordeaux, and took part in the ceremony organised by David to coincide with La FĂȘte de la Victoire.

We met at the town hall and it seemed that the whole of the village had turned out. Members of the ‘Liberty Medoc’, a group that keep alive the military traditions of the region were in attendance. Also present were members of Souvenir de Frankton, a group that commemorates Operation Frankton, more popularly known as the Cockleshell Heroes, that canoed down the Gironde into Bordeaux harbour and blew up several merchant ships.

Introductions were made and David had very thoughtfully arranged for a young lady called Charlotte, whose English was impeccable, to translate for us. The whole assembly made their way to the village cemetery where there was a short service at the war memorial to commemorate the Liberation. A trumpeter played Last Post, Reveille and in the French tradition ‘Le Attaque’ after which the village band played the French national anthem.

We then moved to the grave of Gawin Wild and his wife Mathilde. Here four wreaths of poppies were laid and the Mayor laid a huge bunch of flowers. The British national anthem was played over the speakers.
John waiting his turn to lay the wreath. David is reading the story of Gawin Wild to the assembled villagers.
John waiting his turn to lay the wreath. David is reading the story of Gawin Wild to the assembled villagers.
David looks on as John salutes after laying the wreath
David looks on as John salutes after laying the wreath
Gawin’s grave has been painted and a new stone added with a photo and a Tyneside Irish Badge with a suitable inscription.
Gawin Wild's grave, with wreaths and flowers laid
Gawin Wild's grave, with wreaths and flowers laid
As can be seen by the photos the village made a great deal of the fact Gawin Wild is buried in their village and we received an amazing welcome and they were so pleased that someone from Durham had come to take part. Afterwards there was coffee and snacks and a chance to chat (with a lot of help from Charlotte) to many of the people.
Charlotte translates between  John's wife (left) and David's mother (right)

Friday, 19 May 2017

A Very British Romance, part 14: The final chapter

Margaret brings us the last part in her tale of Connie and Angus.

Chateau of Gruyeres, taken by GGDELABAS, reused under Creative Commons license 4.0
Chateau of Gruyeres, taken by GGDELABAS, reused under Creative Commons license 4.0
Two months have passed, it is Sunday morning 20 May 1917, and Connie is still in Switzerland.

She is sitting ready for church but has time to write a few lines home.
'I sent you a postcard from Gruyere yesterday, we had a delightful picnic, it is about 1 ½ hours journey in the train up another valley. It is a beautiful place like an Italian village.'

They saw a Chateau with houses clustered all around, nuns going to church, and the famous Gruyere lace which Connie says is like Nottingham lace but she didn't buy any because it was too expensive. However, she will tell them more of these outings when she gets home.

'I must tell you my plans now. As you would see by one of my letters, I intended coming with a party of [prisoners’] wives leaving here on the 24th [May]. I was given permission by Colonel Picot to travel by the same train but of course had no claim on them, which I quite understood.

However, Mr. Nelson's Father (Mr. Nelson is the one-legged boy) came out about three weeks ago with a ‘party’ to Murren, and intends, if possible, to travel back with them on the 28th (if his papers get through in time). He came up here on Tuesday night with young Nelson (who is down in Montreux now) for our concert, and said he would be very glad to have my company on the return journey. Needless to say I jumped at it, so have written Captain Johnson at Murren to know if I may join them and am awaiting an answer.

Angus and I will leave here next Wednesday, stay one night at Montreux (to have a claw in my ring seen to), then go to Lausanne to the Consul there, then to Berne, and back to Lausanne where I expect we will pick up the wives. But as I have said before please do not get anxious about me, it is a business. Another time I could do it in much less time (if arrangements were not altered as they are every month). With luck I ought to be home about the weekend of the 2nd June.’

Connie says she has seen in The Times ‘Phil’s resignation of his Majority’. This is her brother, Philip, and Angus’ friend, an officer with 8th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry. He was actually only holding the rank of Acting Major, which ended on 10 March 1917, however, two days prior to Connie writing her letter, he had been giving the rank again.

Connie signs off her last letter from Switzerland…
‘Your bairn Connie.
Constance Kirkup.’

Connie is leaving Angus behind, but with luck he may be one of the group of British internees who come home in December 1917. This is as far as we go for now.

Editor’s epilogue:
Hornsea Promenade, 1917, with thanks to East Yorkshire Archives
A massive thank you to Margaret for writing this Very British Romance for us. Angus’ letters from after this time have now been transcribed, but are not yet online. 

He was repatriated in December 1917, and spent some time with 5th (Reserve) Battalion, at a camp in Hornsea, East Yorkshire. It seems this was a camp for officers awaiting a posting. Under the terms of his return from Switzerland, Angus could not be posted to a zone of war. In May 1918, he gets a job in London with a department helping to develop a new gas mask. With another officer, his task is to find a more efficient and comfortable mouthpiece.

Angus and Connie got married on 16 October 1918 at St George’s Church, Jesmond, Newcastle upon Tyne. A report appeared the next day in the Newcastle Journal, which included a detailed account of Connie’s outfit:

‘The bride, who was given away by her father, wore a gown of fine ivory crepe de chine, the skirt being stitched in an Arabesque design. The bodice and panels were embroidered in georgette over pink mousseline de soie, edged with ostrich feather ruching with a unique girdle of ivory beads and silk cord. The hat was of white manchon, the only trimming being a superb ostrich feather. A bouquet of white carnations and white heather and a gold pendant were the gifts of the bridegroom.’

The couple went on to have two children. Connie was living at The Mount House, Springwell, Gateshead, when she died on 25 January 1950, and Angus died less than two months later.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

International Nurses' Day

‘With all those members of the [medical] profession there has been associated a mighty army of men and women workers, the rank and file of the RAMC [Royal Army Medical Corps], nursing sisters, drivers of motor ambulances, women orderlies, cooks, scullions, organisers of this and of that to benefit the wounded, the members of the two societies – the British Red Cross Society and the Order of St John: a hundred others whom one can find no space to mention’ 
Brevet Lieutenant Colonel FS Brereton, ‘The Great War and the RAMC’, 1919 

Today is International Nurses’ Day so we are going to highlight some of the nurses and Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) men on Durham at War. 

Photograph of nurses around a table in a garden, drinking tea, possibly outside a Voluntary Aid Detachment hospital (D/DLI 13/2/264)
D/DLI 13/2/264 Photograph of nurses around a table in a garden, drinking tea, possibly outside a Voluntary Aid Detachment hospital
Isabella Shearer Walker, who grew up in Jarrow and Sunderland, was a nurse prior to the war, and went on to be the commandant of the 18th Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) hospital at Hebburn, from May 1915 to February 1919. As well as the St John’s War Badge, Isabella was presented with the Royal Red Cross by the King himself, in 1918.

Edith Rowlandson, from Coundon, enrolled as a VAD nurse, a move that took her initially to Leeds, but eventually to Canada. She worked as a nursing sister at East Leeds Military Hospital. In December 1918, a Canadian soldier, Albert Edward Coates (whose family had moved to Leeds), was admitted to the hospital. In March 1919, he and Edith married, and sailed for Canada in August of the same year.

Not all women worked in hospitals in Britain. There were many who went out to France and Flanders, and other theatres of war such as Egypt, not to mention at sea on hospital boats.

Alice Heaton, of Durham, was already working as a private nurse in Paris before the war. During the war, she volunteered to attend to the French Army sick and wounded, until her own health issues necessitated her return to England. In 1918, Alice was awarded the French medal, the Legion d’Honneur for her service.
Watercolour illustration, by Robert Mauchlen, of a nurse tending to a wounded soldier in a hospital, c.1917 (D/DLI 7/920/11(11))
D/DLI 7/920/11(11) Watercolour illustration, by Robert Mauchlen, of a nurse tending to a wounded soldier in a hospital, c.1917
In his book, ‘The Great War and the RAMC’, Brevet Lieutenant Colonel FS Brereton, lauds the nursing services as integral to the work of the RAMC, ‘This has been a women’s war as much as a man’s. Women have laboured… assiduously and have been of equal value in the hundreds of hospitals which have harboured the men wrecked by the action of the enemy.’

The nursing orderlies of the RAMC were men, some with full nursing training, others not. Joseph Norwood, of South Moor, previously served two years as a territorial soldier with 8th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry (DLI), but in October 1915, enlisted with the RAMC in Newcastle. He spent a year training in England before sailing to Greece in October 1916 as part of the Salonika Expeditionary Force. Unfortunately, his year and a half long service comes to a sad end. In May 1918, Joseph appears to have made a suicide attempt, and the following month was reported as dangerously ill with pneumonia and malaria. He died two days later on 13 June 1918.

William Robert Chapman, born in Easington Lane, also had service with both the RAMC and the DLI. At the outbreak of war, he was a theological student in Manchester, but enlisted with the RAMC in Sheffield in September 1916, training to be a theatre nurse. He was sent to 3rd Stationary Hospital at Rouen, France, and was there when the Battle of the Somme began, around 75 miles east. William himself was evacuated to Britain in August 1916, suffering from trench fever, but returned to the front to work in field ambulances on the Somme. He was invited to apply to become an infantry officer, and in May 1917, was commissioned to 15 DLI, with who he served for the remainder of the war, also winning the Military Medal.
William is of special note as the Imperial War Museum conducted an oral history interview with him in 1983, and this can be listened to on their website:

You can read about other aspects of nursing on an earlier blog post

Scarlet Finders is an excellent resource for nursing in the First World War

Friday, 5 May 2017

Behind the scenes

Andy Robertshaw (
Andy Robertshaw (
On Friday 28 April, Staindrop History Group hosted their first event at Scarth Hall, a talk by Andy Robertshaw on his role as military adviser on the film War Horse, followed by a showing of the film. 

Andy’s talk was a most interesting, funny, and revealing insight into film making (I’m the kind of person who watches the ‘making of’ DVD extras). He also explained how, even with a military adviser, a film may not be accurate (artistic licence, filming constraints, audience expectation). 

Durham at War took a display along to the event. Long term followers of the project will know that we have our own war horse story, that of George Thompson of Sunderland. He worked with horses as a transport driver with 7th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry (DLI), throughout the war. After it, he wrote up his experiences for his then two year old daughter, Gracie, who later deposited the memoir in the DLI Collection. Last year, it was used as a source for The Soldier’s Hymn, written by Carol Ann Duffy with music by Jessica Curry, for Durham Hymns. You can read a full transcript of the memoir on Durham at War:
Corporal George Thompson, centre back, and fellow DLI Pioneers on the Marne, France, July 1918 (D/DLI 7/700/31)
D/DLI 7/700/31 Corporal George Thompson, centre back, and fellow DLI Pioneers on the Marne, France, July 1918
Also at the event were the Royal Dragoon Guards Museum, up from York with a variety of weapons on display (they seemed to manoeuvre the long lance/spear through the doors with more ease than I managed our display boards). Bowes Museum were talking to people about their project ‘To Serve King and Country’ and an upcoming talk ‘Home Comforts: The Role of the Red Cross Auxiliary Hospitals’.

Staindrop History Group had their research into local First World War soldiers on display. The group however is not just interested in the First World War, but the social history of Staindrop; etymology of street names; architecture and ageing of the village, the impact of the Industrial Revolution and Railway on Staindrop to name a few areas! You can find out more about the group who organised this wonderful evening, and other upcoming events on their website at:

Friday, 28 April 2017

Arras: The battle resumed

This week we bring you an article that featured in the Stanley News about the ongoing Battle of Arras, which took place in April and May 1917.
British military band playing in a town square in Arras, 30 April 1917, © IWM (Q 6407), Non-Commercial Licence
Thursday, 26 April, 1917

The battle of Arras has been resumed, and the correspondents agree that the fighting is of a harder and more desperate character than any which has preceded it. Only those actually engaged are able to appreciate the significance of this, for all the fighting has long since reached a point where it becomes almost impossible for the pen of the most gifted writer to do anything more than convey a faint impression to the most attentive reader of what is actually taking place. On this occasion there can, of course, be no question of a surprise. Our intentions were disclosed by our first successful attack, and during the time taken in bringing up our heavy guns and the accomplishment of the stupendous task which the launching of an offensive now involves, the Germans have brought up their reserves, strengthened their artillery, and excercised to the full their ingenuity in the construction of defensive works, in which, as usual, the machine-gun forms a most important part. It is safe to say that the British troops, in the battles which are now proceeding, are meeting the enemy at the pinnacle of his strength, and, what is more, are beating him. 

There have been no spectacular victories such as that of the capture of Vimy Ridge, but the enemy has been driven back, and the reports from Headquarters show that the positions captured are maintained, despite the most desperate counter-attacks. When the great German retreat was in progress we were assured by Berlin that one object was to change the character of the fighting. British troops, the world was informed, had been trained for trench warfare only, in open fighting they would stand no chance against the enemy. But it is significant that the Germans have done nothing to avail themselves of the opportunities which have since been presented of putting their boast to the test. When driven from the dugouts, caves and concrete trenches, their only concern has been to get as quacking as possible to the next line of entrenchment.
18 pounder gun of the Royal Field Artillery in action. Near Arras, 29 April 1917, © IWM (Q 5811), Non-Commercial Licence
Berlin now attempts to dismiss the whole of the Anglo-French offensive as a matter of not the slightest importance. A characteristic message was that which declared that “in the Arras battle the renewed British attacks were without any success” and then added that in the sector between Berry au Bac and Auberive the Germans between the 16th and 19th April have captured 30 officers, 1,472 men, and 93 machine guns, conveying the implication that the prisoners had been taken since the attack has been renewed, whereas the figures represent the stage army which did duty on the occasion of the beginning of the British offensive. In fact, the military critics are having a bad time in Germany just at the present. The Franco-British Armies have, in their recent offensives, taken some 35,000 prisoners, 350 guns, and considerable quantities of war material. 

The Germans are not told of these losses, and they are assured that while their troops have been forced to “withdraw” from positions which were previously declared to be impregnable, it has been done for a purpose, and there are occasions when it is an advantage to yield. All of which may be perfectly true, but has little bearing on the real situation. The fall of St. Quentin is foreshadowed in a semi-official message from Berlin, which states that the entire population was transported to places in the rear. In the other districts the same authority states that the male and female population between the ages of 15 and 60 was deported. Mothers with children under 15 were allowed to remain. It is evident from this that it was not any concern for the lives of the inhabitants which prompted this deportation, which can be justified by no military expediency. No parallel for such inhuman conduct is to be found in modern history of warfare outside of that taking place between the most depraved of savage tribes. 

Describing a recent visit to the liberated regions in Northern France, Mr. Penfield, late Ambassador of the United States in Vienna, declared that he could not believe, despite all the descriptions that he had read, that a people claiming to be civilised could have descended to such a degree of barbarism. But surely the people who make war on hospital ships are capable of any iniquity. And, after all, what is to be seen in Northern France, horrible as it is, is as nothing compared with the lot of the unfortunate people in the power of the Huns, or the anguish of the “mothers with children under 15” who have been torn asunder from every other member of the family. Truly the world has an account to settle with a nation which thus deliberately and callously makes war upon old men, women, and children.

Friday, 21 April 2017

A Good Reputation Endures Forever

Members of the Chinese Labour Corps, WJ Hawkings Collection, courtesy of John de Lucy
Members of the Chinese Labour Corps, WJ Hawkings Collection, courtesy of John de Lucy
The Oriental Museum at Durham University recently unveiled a new exhibition, 'A Good Reputation Endures Forever: The Chinese Labour Corps on the Western Front'. It comprises a series of photographs from the WJ Hawkings Collection (courtesy of John de Lucy) of the Corps in France, and tells their little-known story. 

I only came across the Chinese Labour Corps for the first time last year, whilst cataloguing the letters of Hubert Morant. In a letter to his wife, dated 8 April 1918, he mentions a friend who is in charge of a ‘Labour Group which consists of about 10 companies of 500 each, most of them Chinese and all sorts of other.’ This piqued my interest and I discovered the Chinese Labour Corps, but was unable to find a Durham connection for our project.
Extract from a letter by Hubert Morant, 8 April 1918 (D/DLI 7/1230/113)
D/DLI 7/1230/113 Extract from a letter by Hubert Morant, 8 April 1918
I was most interested when I saw a listing for the then upcoming exhibition on The photographs are remarkable and are put into context by information panels in both English and Chinese. They are supported by a small selection of objects including trench art made by the Chinese men. These mostly take the form of brass shell casings with the tops hammered out and the sides beautifully etched with dragons and other traditional imagery. 
Lieutenant Leadbitter Smith, 4th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, at a camp at Whitley Bay, 1904 (D/DLI 7/602/16(223))
D/DLI 7/602/16(223) Lieutenant Leadbitter Smith, 4th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, at a camp at Whitley Bay, 1904
I was able to chat with Dr Craig Barclay, head of the Oriental Museum, and he told me that in their research, they had found an officer from Durham who had was involved with the Chinese Labour Corps. Supplied with the name of Nicholas Leadbitter, I got to work researching him. 

This got off to a surprisingly quick and easy start as my initial search of the Record Office catalogue came up with some photographs and basic information. Nicholas Augustine Graham Leadbitter (sometimes Leadbitter-Smith) had been an officer in 4th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry in the early 1900s, serving with them in South Africa in 1902. During the First World War, he was seconded to the general staff then transferred in 1917 to the Chinese Labour Corps. In 1920 he was awarded the Order of the Striped Tiger (4th Class). You can find out more about Nicholas Leadbitter on Durham at War:

The information about the Chinese Labour Corps has been mostly sourced from two sites.  The first is the Ensuring We Remember campaign, who were involved in the exhibition

The second is Pad Kumlertsakul’s blog post for The National Archives, using records held there More in depth information, including about the political repercussions for China, can be found on both those pages.

'A Good Reputation Endures Forever: The Chinese Labour Corps on the Western Front' is on at the Oriental Museum, Elvet Hill, Durham, until 24 September 1917

A video report of the exhibition appears on the Forces Network:

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Easter in the war

D/DLI 7/913/320 Italian Easter postcard sent by Private Fred Lucas to his son
D/DLI 7/913/320 Italian Easter postcard sent by Private Fred Lucas to his son
This week we have two different Easter experiences.  

Firstly, we have a letter from a letter written by Cuthbert Headlam to his wife. Headlam worked as a clerk at the House of Lords before and after the war, with a desire to go into politics himself. He was the member of parliament for Barnard Castle 1924-1929, and 1931-1935. He also served on Durham County Council 1931-39. During the war, he was a General Staff Officer, rising to become a Lieutenant Colonel.

This extract is from a letter dated 19 April 1916 (D/He 149/9):

It is difficult to realize that tomorrow is Good Friday – we were at Stansted last year weren't we? What a happy time we had there and what lucky people we were to have it! 

You see I am in rather a Christian mood today which I know will please you – but, darling, I must confess that I have not been to church all through Lent and have denied myself nothing that I could get! I look upon being separated from you and leading la vie militaire as quite enough penance for one lonely man – besides, you seem to be doing enough church for two ordinary people!

D/DLI 7/63/2(199) Map of the Arras and Vimy area drawn by Reverend Birch
D/DLI 7/63/2(199) Map of the Arras and Vimy area drawn by Reverend Birch
Secondly we have the memoir of Private David Brown who served with 10th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, and later 15th Battalion. Prior to the war he worked as a shop assistant and enlisted at the end of 1915. He was discharged shortly before the end of the war, as no longer physically fit for war service.

This extract is from April 1917, and the beginning of the Battle of Arras:

My first turn came on the Easter Monday morning in the great fight of Vimy Ridge in which the Bosche was driven out of his great Hindenburg Line. We had been working for a few nights digging the assembly trenches in front of the first line bringing us nearer to Fritz. We were taken to these on the Sunday night. It started raining and kept on all night. Everyone soaked to the skin and trenches flooded with water. We were timed to go over at 7.23 am. But about 5.30am we could hear the barrage commence 30 miles away. Just one long rumble which came nearer and nearer, until our turn came. Some shells I can tell you. Just like clouds in front with the explosions. Everyone all nerves until you get over, then it all seems to leave you. All you think about is to get at the Huns. 

In about half an hour our battalion had taken three lines of trenches. Then we were all hard at work consolidating the line, making fire steps, so that we could be ready if the enemy should counter attack. We thought we would have been relieved that night after doing our bit, but such was not the case. The Battalion which had to go ahead of us had not taken their objective. “The Somersets” were nearly wiped out. So we were kept standing to all night and next morning we received orders that we were to advance with the rest of the Brigade to clear out the enemy. 

There was to be no barrage this time. It looked like being a surprise stunt, we managed to get right up to the wire defences. But could not get through owing to the awfully heavy machine gun fire. So every man had to get down anywhere he could in shell holes for shelter and wait our opportunity. But luck was with us, it started snowing very hard, completely stopping Fritz from seeing us. Then the fun started, every man was upcutting the wire, and it wasn’t very long before we were through. We put the wind up old Fritz when [we] got near him. I think we were all like a lot of mad men shouting and yelling. We cleared them out of their dugouts with the good old Mills bombs. We did not give any chances. We took over 400 prisoners. We were relieved almost at once by another Brigade after taken all objectives.

Friday, 7 April 2017

What did you do in the war, Dada?

This week, Jo tells us of a surprising connection.
Banner poster for the current run of Tom Stoppard's Travesties
Banner poster for the current run of Tom Stoppard's Travesties

The reader of a play whose principal characters include Lenin, James Joyce and Tristan Tzara may not realize that the figure of Henry Carr is likewise taken from history. But this is so.

This is how Tom Stoppard introduces the text of his play, Travesties, which was first performed in London in 1974. The play came to the attention of Durham at War when a member of the public, who preferred to remain anonymous, submitted an update to the site pointing out that the lead character was one of the Canadian soldiers we have on our website.

A historical training instils a healthy scepticism and, to be honest, I thought that Tom Stoppard writing a play about a man from Sunderland seemed unlikely. I thought that the man on our website might have had the same name but it couldn’t actually be based on him, could it? A little digging on the internet proved me wrong.

Henry Wilfred Carr, born in Houghton-le-Spring, was the “hero” of Stoppard’s play which has been staged twice by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and is currently running in the West End, (at the time of writing, Tom Hollander, who plays Carr, is awaiting to find out whether he will win an Olivier award for his portrayal). In the introduction to Travesties, Stoppard explains that he used some of the actual events of Carr’s life as a basis for the play and that after it first ran, Carr’s wife contacted him and filled in some of the rest of Henry’s story.
Poster producing to encourage recruitment,Imperial War Museum, Non-commercial Licence, © IWM (Art.IWM PST 0311)
Poster producing to encourage recruitment,Imperial War Museum, Non-commercial Licence, © IWM (Art.IWM PST 0311) 
It seems that Henry was in Switzerland during the First World War because he was injured during the Second Battle of Ypres whilst serving with the 13th Battalion of Royal Highland Regiment of Canada, he was then taken as a prisoner of war. Firstly he was interned in Germany and then transferred to Switzerland for treatment (see also Angus Leybourne and Very British Romance). While there, he worked in a minor role for the British Consul who was approached by James Joyce’s theatre company to try and find actors to fill the cast of a production of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”. Apparently Carr was tall, handsome, and had a little experience of acting and so was cast as Algernon. 

The story goes that Carr threw himself into the part, to the extent that he bought trousers especially for the role, and was something of a popular success, but that he didn’t get on with Joyce. At the end of the run, Carr felt that his expenses were handed to him in a rather high-handed manner, complaining that it felt like Joyce had been doling out a tip. The pair fell out so much that the matter ended up in court; Carr claimed financial recompense for the trousers, and Joyce alleged that Carr had sold tickets and pocketed the proceeds. Ultimately, Joyce got his revenge by creating a bit-part character named Carr in his masterwork Ulysses. Joyce’s Carr is a drunken foul-mouthed private soldier who attacks Stephen Dedalus, who is often interpreted as being Joyce’s literary alter-ego.

So, Stoppard’s play was the second work of art to immortalise Henry Wilfred Carr. In Travesties, Henry Carr is an old man reminiscing about the staging of Wilde’s play. As well as James Joyce, Stoppard throws in the “characters” of Lenin and Tristan Tzara, a Dadaist poet. Although all three historical personages were in Zurich during the First World War, they were not present in the city at the same time. The bending of historical reality is something of a theme of the play; as the action unfolds it becomes obvious that Carr’s memory is unreliable.

You can read more about Henry Wilfred Carr here on Durham at War: 

Friday, 31 March 2017

Like a thunderclap

This week, Jo gives us a rundown of some anniversaries taking place in 2017.
Arras Town Hall, May 1917, © IWM (Q 2047), IWM Non-Commercial Licence
Arras Town Hall, May 1917, © IWM (Q 2047), IWM Non-Commercial Licence 
At the end of last year the Durham at War team sat down to think about what we would focus on for 2017. After a year of big anniversaries such as the Somme and the Battle of Jutland, it seemed as if this year might be a little quieter. Not so! The Battles of Arras and Passchendaele are on our list and volunteers have already been working away at adding pages to the website of DLI men who are commemorated on the Arras Memorial. The Battle of Arras was also where Michael Heaviside won his Victoria Cross, and plans are afoot to mark the centenary of his homecoming parade in Stanley and Craghead. More details to follow… 

As well as the conflict on the battlefield, we thought that on the local level food shortages which then led to rationing in 1918 would probably be an interesting area to research. We have uncovered a number of newspaper articles and Brancepeth History and Archives Group have kindly lent us the display that they created for their exhibition at Brancepeth Castle.

One of the international events that we flagged for attention was the Russian Revolution. To be honest, it seemed like a big ask to find anything directly related to the Russian Revolution in County Durham. We thought it likely that there would be a few newspaper reports (which we have found) but we were surprised and delighted to find a first-hand account of the Russian Revolution in our archival collections!
Military personnel and civilians reading news-sheets issued by the Duma after the Tsar's abdication, © IWM (Q 69405), IWM Non-Commercial Licence
Military personnel and civilians reading news-sheets issued by the Duma after the Tsar's abdication, © IWM (Q 69405), IWM Non-Commercial Licence
Amongst the papers of Cuthbert Headlam (former MP for Barnard Castle) we found a letter and travel diary from Cuthbert's cousin, John Headlam. The travel diary (DCRO D/He 299) details John's impressions of being in Russia during the March Revolution, literally at the time of his writing. We can tell this because he starts out by describing Russian customs and colour; just the sort of thing you might expect from a tourist travelogue, including the best way to eat Blinis (filled with whipped cream, caviar, optional smoked salmon and ladled with melted butter, washed down with vodka).

Part of the way through, Headlam's tone suddenly changes:
I have been very careful to avoid any reference at all to political events in anything I have written. As an official visitor, received alike by the Emperor and the leaders of the different parties, and with no political functions, it seemed to me only right to avoid any expression of opinion, and especially anything that might compromise those Russians who had given me their views on the state of affairs and the probable trend of events. Now that is over, one can speak freely.

Although touring the eastern front during the takeover of power by the Provisional Government, John Headlam returned to Petrograd (Saint Petersburg) soon after the Revolution and abdication of the Tsar, all of which he discusses in the first part of his travel diary. 

One saw, too, amid all the glitter of the streets, the long queues of people waiting patiently in the bitter cold for the opening of the baker’s shops. Hunger is the handmaid to Revolution, and it was whispered to us that the Guard Cavalry Division had been ordered to Petrograd from the Front, and it had refused to come, the officers openly declaring that they would not act against the people. When an Emperor cannot count on the allegiance of the officers of his own guard, the end is likely to be near…And then one day, like a thunderclap came the news of the dissolution.

In the second part he talks about conditions in the capital and the funeral procession of those killed in the revolt, an event which much impressed him with its dignity. 

There were many bands with the processions, generally playing Chopin’s “Funeral March”, and in the intervals there was a great deal of the beautiful Russian singing, sometimes the women, sometimes the men – revolutionary songs and the regular funeral hymns. There was no disorder anywhere, no straggling or least sign of horseplay either in the procession or in the crowds looking on, though the whole population were in the streets.

Event page on the Russian Revolution:
Travel diary of Sir John Headlam:
Durham Chronicle report on February Revolution:
Shields Daily News Report on February Revolution:

Imperial War Museum collection:
Imperial War Museum photographs of the March Revolution taken by Sir John Headlam:
National Portrait Gallery, photographic portrait of Sir John Headlam:

Friday, 24 March 2017

A Very British Romance, part 13: It would make Birtley open her eyes

More from Connie's time in Switzerland, written by Margaret.
Stamps from one of Connie's postcards home, The Leybourne Famil
Stamps from one of Connie's postcards home, The Leybourne Family
Connie is still in Switzerland, writing to her mother on 14 March she notes, 'letters come from home, much quicker than mine do to you.' Connie is sending more photographs but she is not happy with the quality of the last batch. She blames the developing, and has found another chemist, 'which promises better' and is cheaper. 'One of the negatives was an attempt at a "time" exposure and was the very deuce'.

'Great news! Phil [one of Connie’s brothers] a major, I must just have missed his name as I look at every Times Gazette, either for his or Angus's name.' Angus never received the mining books [Connie’s other brother] Ernest sent, he only received a copy of the Coal Mines Act.

That Sunday had been a strange new experience. They had to have their meals upstairs in their salon, and had to ask various officers in to relieve the pressure in the public salon, while downstairs in the dining room, the partition was taken down, a wonderful stage erected, and chairs and forms of all descriptions brought. It is a kind of Annual village fete. 'We went down to the concert in the evening which was quite good acting, but the atmosphere!!' They went off to bed before the end about midnight, but evidently the fun was only just beginning.

The chairs and long trestle tables where the villagers had been fed were cleared away, 'and then they commenced dancing or jigging, and this went until 5 o’clock the next morning. The servants all looked rather washed out the next morning with our breakfast.' The fete is usually a three day affair, but Madame Haldi, the proprietor, said as she had internees she could only let them have the chalet for one night, 'and quite enough I should imagine', thinks Connie.

A postscript is added to this letter:
'Mrs Leybourne wants me to say they cannot do without me now which of course is tommy rot.'

Connie and her mother’s letters cross in the post, on the 17th, Connie receives a letter written on 12 March, a few days before she wrote her last. 'My dearest Mother, your letter of the 12th arrived tonight, I got a bit of a shock when I saw Dad's writing on the envelope, and more when I read the contents.' Her mother had a fall while in Newcastle and Connie is worried. She rushed straight up to the telegraph office to wire Ernest, and this letter she is sending express and must be off by 7:00pm that night. 'Please send me an answer by express also, as you know how anxious I am. When will Mrs Middleton be available? Why not get her as soon as ever she is at liberty, to help in any way. I am so glad the maids are going on well, and also that Minnie was with you when you fell… Write and say if you want me to come home at once and I'll start to make enquiries and preparations.'

Connie is anxious to get her letter sent off; her closing lines fill a whole page, but she has important news, 'We have just heard yesterday that there is every likelihood of a number of the prisoners being sent home, but nothing definite is known yet.'

Three days later on 20 March, Connie is writing again to her mother, she has not yet received a reply to the wire she has sent to Ernest; she is not fretting because she knows it takes five or six days for a telegram to come from England. She asks if they are getting all her letters, she has written twice a week since going out.

Meanwhile, in preparation, Connie has written a cheque out for her hotel bill, which she has asked Madame Haldi to give her weekly; she doesn't like it when it gets big. It generally comes to between 60 and 70 francs per week, 'which is very reasonable'. She has written another cheque for £10.00 because she has 'a horror of running short'. Endeavouring to keep accounts, Connie is putting them down every night, 'but they don't always square which is strange for me isn't it?'

It is snowing a blizzard now but on Saturday she and Angus had a tete-a-tete tea on the veranda, and she was able to sit there until after 5 o'clock, quite warm.
Postcard of a lady in a blue Pierrot costume, The Graphics Fairy
Postcard of a lady in a blue Pierrot costume, The Graphics Fairy

The concert being put on by Connie and her crowd is to be held on 22nd March, Connie writes an excited, detailed account of the final dress rehearsal:

‘The costumes are Pierrot, white with blue sateen spots all over, black net ruffles and the men black skullcap affairs on their heads. Muriel and I wear white skirts to our knees, with very bouncy petticoats, plenty of them, which I have borrowed from Mrs Reynolds, Captain Reynolds’ wife. A white lawn blouse borrowed from Muriel and various other unmentionable articles also borrowed. We also have large ruffles and blue tulle round our head, black shoes and stockings. The stage has a frame of black and blue, the front curtains are black with large blue queries on, all the hangings of the stage are yellow muslin, the back in strips, so that we can put our heads through anywhere. The lighting is great!

Red, green, and white, foot, side, and top lights, with a wonderful arrangement of a tank of water under the stage to damp the lights down, so that we are able to gradually blend red into green or white. Angus has done all the electricity part, we haven't been able to get a word out of him for the past fortnight, now that it is all right, and the red lights really go on when the red switch is turned etc. he isn't quite so absent minded.

We also have a spotlight it is a magic lantern belonging to one of the officers for shewing his photographs, which he is doing in the interval. The spotlight makes me blink, but when once I get used to it, it is much easier to sing, as it is impossible to see anyone. One of the officers, a lieutenant Brown [from Chicago] sits in a little box, partly under the stage and works the lights. I wish you could all see it; it would make Birtley open her eyes. I will enclose a programme after the concert. I told you did I not, that we were giving it for the interned men in Rossiniere, free. The interned men get absurdly little pay, and it is only the ones with a little private money that can afford to buy tea in an afternoon or have tripe suppers at the YMCA Hut, no tea is provided here.'

Lieutenant Colonel Picot mentions that tea is unobtainable in Switzerland. Lord Northcliffe sends out 750lb of tea a month free for the men in hospital. That’s the same as 27 gold bars, but the tea was probably more valuable to the men.

Before signing off, Connie adds:
'We heard last night all the internees in Suisse were going to be sent home, but I won't build on it. Certainly there seems a likelihood of some of them being returned, we are waiting anxiously.'

Friday, 17 March 2017

Roland Bradford: Victoria Cross Commemoration

The Victoria Cross commemorative paving stone, Witton Park memorial garden, photo by Gill Parkes
The Victoria Cross commemorative paving stone, Witton Park memorial garden, photo by Gill Parkes
Saturday 11 March 2017 saw the unveiling of the Roland Bradford Victoria Cross commemorative stone at Witton Park. The stones are part of a national initiative organised by the Department for Communities and Local Government.

You can read the story of Roland Bradford here:

On 1 October 1916, during an attack on the German trenches at Eaucourt l’Abbaye, Bradford, commanding 9th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, took control of a second battalion, 6 DLI, after its commanding officer had been wounded. He was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) for his leadership and bravery during the attack under heavy fire. 
Information panel about the Bradford VC winners, photo by Gill Parkes
Information panel about the Bradford VC winners, photo by Gill Parkes
The Roland Bradford stone was installed this spring, to coincide with the opening of Witton Park's memorial garden. The memorial garden is a tribute to two exceptional brothers, as Roland was not the only member of his family to win the VC. On 23 April 1918, his brother George, serving with the Royal Navy, was killed in action for which he was posthumously awarded the VC. Two other brothers, James and Thomas, also served in the First World War. Out of the four, only Thomas survived.
Statue in Witton Park memorial garden, by Ray Lonsdale, photo by Gill Parkes
Statue in Witton Park memorial garden, by Ray Lonsdale, photo by Gill Parkes
At 10:30am, a service was held, and Roland Bradford’s VC stone was unveiled, and wreaths were placed around it. You can see in the photograph at the top that there is a space for George’s stone to be placed alongside it in 2018. A statue by Ray Lonsdale, who created the 'Tommy' statue at Seaham, was also unveiled. It shows a soldier returning home, being greeted by a civilian; the football represents the sporting heritage of Witton Park.
Victoria Cross exhibition banners on display in St Paul's church, photo by Gill Parkes
Victoria Cross exhibition banners on display in St Paul's church, photo by Gill Parkes
In the afternoon, there was a performance of the play ‘The Fighting Bradfords’, and a showing of Wessington U3A’s film, the Wear at War. The Methodist Chapel had items from the DLI Collection, and a rolling presentation about the village during the First World War. St Paul’s church had the Victoria Cross banners for Roland and George Bradford, produced by Durham County Record Office.

The weather held up for the outdoor events, and the day was well attended and enjoyed by all.

Between now and the commemoration of George Bradford’s VC in 2018, Durham County Record Office will be helping the Witton Park community research the names on their war memorial in a project organised by Groundwork and supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. An open evening is being held at Witton Park Village Hall on Wednesday 22 March, at 6pm. For further information, contact: