Friday, 22 December 2017

Buon Natale

41st Division Christmas card, 1917 (D/DLI 7/463/2)
D/DLI 7/463/2 41st Division Christmas card, 1917
20th Battalion Durham Light Infantry were part of the 41st Division. This Christmas card was sent by Lieutenant Charles Kent to Major Francis Maughan of 2nd Battalion DLI. Charles Kent was formerly with 2 DLI but was commissioned and by Christmas of 1917 was a lieutenant with 20 DLI.

20 DLI had moved to Italy in November 1917 and found themselves in the front lines near Nervesa and the Piave River at Christmas, but luckily for them it was a quiet day.

Merry Christmas to all our readers from the Durham at War Team.

Friday, 15 December 2017

Christmas post

First World War embroidered postcard c.1915 (D/DLI 13/2/209)
D/DLI 13/2/209 First World War embroidered postcard c.1915
It’s that time of year when we rush to write our Christmas cards before the final posting date, and wonder what has happened to the parcel we were expecting to be delivered last week. In December 2016, Royal Mail handled 138 million parcels (Annual Report and Financial Statement 2016-17). On 27 December 1915, The Newcastle Daily Journal published a Press Association report on Christmas deliveries to the trenches, a massive feat of organisation at any time, but at Christmas, even more so. The following are extracts from the article:

It is scarcely necessary to dwell upon the greatly enhanced difficulty of dealing with an abnormal volume of mails amid the incessant dislocation of conditions in the field, as compared with the organised resources of permanent offices at home. Imagine that the whole of the inhabitants of Manchester suddenly spread themselves over the entire surrounding country without a word of warning, and then proceeded to carry on a sort of daily kaleidoscopic shuffling of groups, and you will have an idea of the problem which never permits the field post offices to become really dull places.

This Christmas the staff [of the Royal Engineers postal section] stands at 43 officers and 1500 men, temporarily supplemented by about 750 men.

During Christmas week the heaviest daily mail consisted of 18,500 bags of letters and parcels. By a conservative estimate the army postal authorities reckon this to have represented about three million letters and half a million parcels. There has been a good deal of grumbling at home concerning the non-delivery of letters and parcels… [but] all the mails for the troops are sorted and sealed in England, and the bags are delivered to the units to which they are addressed without the seals being touched. Therefore, it seems but reasonable to say that if a parcel or a letter goes amissing it is not during the time the postal service is responsible for it.

One of the most serious problems with which the army post office organisation has been confronted is the treatment of undeliverable correspondence that is similarly returned because an addressee has been killed or is missing or known to have been taken prisoner.

A considerable amount of correspondence is left in the hands of the field post office through insufficient and incorrect address. The assistant director confesses to regarding this as an inevitable condition, considering the character of many of the soldiers’ correspondents, and the difficulties which the civilian finds in comprehending the distinction between platoon, squads, sections, echelons and the like.
Christmas card from 21st Division (14th and 15th DLI), 1917 (D/DLI 2/15/14)
D/DLI 2/15/14 Christmas card from 21st Division (14th and 15th DLI), 1917
By dint of a steady perfection of organisation, the average time of transit between posting in London and delivering in the trenches has now been reduced to 36 hours. This of course, is under normal conditions, but many causes, over which the postal authorities have no control whatever, may occasion delay.

The army postal service views with secret consternation such delays, because they involve the dealing with a double delivery of mails without any possible expansion of the means of distribution. When it is stated that no boat in the cross-Channel service will carry more than 5000 bags of mails, and the biggest army motor lorries will only stack 90 bags, the difficulties of the task which the postal authorities have been confronted with during the past few days may be more readily realised.

Although the method of distribution by which the mails are passed on with such admirable promptitude have been already described yet in view of the latest improvements in organisation, a few words on this point may not be without interest. There are two base post offices for letters and one for parcels. The system is divided into divisional posts, and the mails are first dispatched to the field post offices by supply trains. They then go on to various railheads, at all of which permanent offices are now established. Thence the supply column of motor transport carries the bags to the different corps’ headquarters field post offices. The next stage is the refilling point or dump of the different divisional trains to which the units send for their bags. These then reach the divisional headquarters post office, where they are picked up by horse transport train and carried to the brigade headquarters. Regimental postmen then collect them and carry them to their units to be sorted.

The next stage is the delivery in the trenches. It may be added that the offices and men of the Army Postal Service are frequently under shell fire during the course of their work, and the toll of a considerable casualty list has already been exacted.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Determination and gallantry - another VC

Captain Arthur Moore Lascelles, Durham Light Infantry c.1918 (D/DLI 7/388/2)
D/DLI 7/388/2 Captain Arthur Moore Lascelles, Durham Light Infantry c.1918
Arthur Moore Lascelles was born on 12 October 1880 in Nightingale Lane, Streatham. In 1902 he emigrated to South Africa, abandoning his studies in medicine at the University of Edinburgh. He fought in South West Africa with the Cape Mounted Rifles at the beginning of the First World War. In October 1915, Lascelles returned to England with his wife and young son. He received a commission with 3rd Battalion, Durham Light Infantry (DLI), a reserve battalion, but after training was attached to 14 DLI and went to France in July 1916 and fought on the Somme. 

The battalion was part of the 18th Brigade, but on 2 December 1917, during the Battle of Cambrai, they were placed under orders of 16th Brigade, ready for an attack the next morning. The battalion’s war diary features a report on the action of 3 December 1917 at Masnieres, written by the commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel John Brenchley Rosher. 

In the early morning, 14 DLI took over trenches from the Inniskilling Fusiliers, there were three companies in the front line, two the left and one to the right, and the fourth company in support. Lascelles was now a captain and in charge of the company on the right. Around 10am, the Germans opened a very heavy barrage on all the trenches, and attacked the right company who only had a shallow trench. Shortly after requesting artillery support, the lines of communication to the brigade were severed by shelling.

10-10:30am the report says:
‘Our Right Company was driven out of its trenches, but Captain AM Lascelles with the remainder of his company (about 12 men) immediately counter-attacked and drove the enemy (about 60 strong) back, causing them severe casualties’. 

At 11:30am:
‘A very heavy barrage was opened out on all trenches, causing severe casualties. The enemy again attacked and was driven back by the Left Companies, but drove the Right Company right out, capturing Captain Lascelles…’ 
Section of map sheet 57B: Cambrai and Le Cateau, December 1917 (D/DLI 7/179/5)
D/DLI 7/179/5 Section of map sheet 57B: Cambrai and Le Cateau, December 1917
The reserve company counter-attacked the Germans and drove them out, with heavy casualties on both sides. At 12:15 and 12:45 the enemy attacked again. The battalion was ‘practically surrounded’, but made it to the reserve trench. A battalion of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, to 14 DLI’s left, had also been driven out and their line broken. The two commanding officers decided that the ‘position was untenable as there were no signs of support’. The remainder of 14 DLI, 80-100 men, evacuated to the Sunken Road where they re-organised. 

Colonel Rosher found the 88th Brigade Headquarters and reported to the General Officer Commanding. 88th Brigade had been successful in their attack, and 14 DLI carried on with the 88th Brigade, until 1:10am [4 December] when they received orders to withdraw. Of the day, Colonel Rosher reported:
‘Officers and men fought splendidly throughout the day. Had it not been for the manner in which they stood the bombardment with little cover, and the readiness with which they responded to all calls for counter-attack, the whole force north of the canal must have been captured, as the enemy forces used against us were very heavy…’

In this report, the last we hear of Arthur Lascelles is that he had been captured by the enemy. So what did happen to him? In the earlier attack, Captain Lascelles was wounded in the head. He refused to have it dressed and continued to help his unit repel the enemy. In the next attack, weakened by blood loss, he was captured by the Germans, but in the confusion of another attack, he was able to escape and re-join his battalion. For his ‘remarkable determination’ and gallantry’, Lascelles was awarded the Victoria Cross.

While recuperating from his injury, on 23 March 1918, Captain Lascelles went to Buckingham Palace and received his Victoria Cross from King George V. On 27 October 1918, he returned to France, this time joining 15 DLI. They fought their final battle on 7 November. During the fighting at Limont-Fontaine, Captain Lascelles was killed, eleven days after his return to France, and sadly, only four days before the end of the war. 
Laying of VC paving stones at Wandsworth Town Hall, with kind permission of Councillor Peter Carpenter
Laying of VC paving stones at Wandsworth Town Hall, with kind permission of Councillor Peter Carpenter
As Arthur Moore Lascelles was not from County Durham, his Victoria Cross commemorative paving stone will not be laid in this county (although his VC is in the DLI Collection). On 22 April 2017, Wandsworth Council held a ceremony for the laying of his paving stone in the Town Hall’s Garden of Remembrance, alongside those of two other VC stones. Furthermore, new council housing being built in the Balham area will bear the names of these three men. Lascelles House is due for completion in 2018.

Friday, 1 December 2017

The Youngest General

On 10 November 1917, the 186th Infantry Brigade war diary reads ‘Training continued. Brigadier General RB Bradford VC MC took over command of the 18th Infantry Brigade from Brigadier General FF Hill CB CMG DSO who retires on account of age restrictions'. Roland Bradford did not have to worry about age restrictions, as he was only 25 years old.
Roland Bradford as a captain, France, c.1915 (D/DLI 7/87/2(20))
D/DLI 7/87/2(20) Roland Bradford as a captain, France, c.1915
Ten days into his new command, on 20 November, the 186th Brigade took part in the big attack that saw the start of the Battle of Cambrai (see Zero hour was 6:20am. The war diary states ‘The whole of the objectives allotted to this brigade were captured before dusk…numerous prisoners and guns have been taken…’

The brigade continued its attack on 21 November and were relieved at 6:30pm. The next several days were spent in support. On 26 November, orders were received for the brigade to resume attack the next day. At 1am, 186th Brigade Headquarters was established in old German dugouts. Zero hour was again 6:20am. At 2:40pm, the war diary reports: ‘The brigade now holds all its objectives. Fighting has been very fierce and the brigade has suffered heavy casualties. The enemy has repeatedly attempted to counterattack, but his efforts have been frustrated by our heavy artillery fire, together with machine gun and rifle fire’. Further counter attacks that afternoon led to part of the brigade line being pushed back. Their left flank was also in a dangerous position as 187th Brigade had not achieved some of their objectives.

The Brigade was relieved by 141st Brigade on the night of 28 November. The next day was spent re-organising and re-equipping. On the morning of 30 November, the Germans mounted a large scale counterattack along most of the front line. 186th Brigade was ordered to be prepared to move at a moment’s notice. The report of this day goes on to read: ‘At about 10am, Brigadier General RB Bradford VC MC, left Brigade Headquarters dug out, which was being heavily shelled, and was not again seen alive. At about 2pm it was ascertained that General Bradford had been killed by a shell, and Lieutenant Colonel HEP Nash, 2/4th Duke of Wellington Regiment took command of the brigade’.

Roland Bradford’s body was found about 2pm, a piece of shrapnel had pierced his spine. In spite of this loss, the brigade had to continue to carry out its duties. At 3pm, they were placed at the disposal of 2nd Division, though were not involved in any action that day. On 1 December, the brigade moved into support of 5th Infantry Brigade. At 1:30pm on 3 December, Brigadier General JLG Burnett DSO of the 2nd Battalion, Gordon Highlanders, took over command of 186th Infantry Brigade.

While the brigade carried on, Roland Bradford was not forgotten. He was the youngest General in the British Army. He was a Victoria Cross winner. He was one of four brothers fighting in the war, sadly he was the second of three to be killed. He is the pride of Witton Park, and of County Durham.

On 11 March this year, the Victoria Cross commemorative paving stone for Roland Bradford was laid at a new memorial garden at Witton Park.

Max Dutton of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has made a video about Roland Bradford:

Other news:
Opening next week, the new exhibition from Durham County Council and The Trustees of the DLI, When the Bugle Calls, explores the role of the regimental band in the British Army.

This free exhibition will open in Bishop Auckland Town Hall on Wednesday 6 December 2017 before touring to other venues across the county.

Friday, 24 November 2017

Church bells rang

Steve Shannon writes about the Battle of Cambrai.
Aerial photograph of Cambrai, taken 1 October 1918 (DCRO D/DLI 13/2/246)
Aerial photograph of Cambrai, taken 1 October 1918 (DCRO D/DLI 13/2/246)
At dawn on 20 November 1917, over 1,000 British guns opened fire on a five-mile wide section of the Hindenburg Line in France. There had been no warning and the German defenders were completely taken by surprise. 

Then, ten minutes later, following a creeping barrage and covered by smoke, over 470 British tanks attacked. As the massed tanks crushed the barbed wire under their tracks and crossed the trenches, destroying German strong points, six infantry divisions followed. 

Within hours, the British divisions had advanced some five miles and taken over 8,000 prisoners, and seized many German heavy guns and machine guns. However, almost 200 of the British tanks had broken down or been destroyed. 

Across Britain, church bells rang out for the first time in years to mark a famous victory. But the German Army was not prepared to accept defeat at Cambrai. After the first few days of fighting, the German defences stiffened and the British advance ground to a halt on Bourlon Ridge, a few miles south-west of Cambrai.

Then on 30 November, after their artillery had rained high explosive and gas shells on the British positions, the Germans launched a counter-attack, forcing the British back from almost all their earlier gains and even seizing some of the old British front line. 

The fighting at Cambrai ended on 5 December 1917. In the two weeks of fighting, British casualties totalled over 44,000 killed, wounded and missing, including 6,000 prisoners, whilst the Germans lost 45,000 men, including 10,000 prisoners.

Three Durham Light Infantry battalions - the 2nd, 11th, and 14th Battalions - were in action at Cambrai. During their advance on the first day of the battle, soldiers from the 2 DLI bayonet charged and captured five German field guns. The three battalions suffered few casualties during the first few days of the fighting.
2nd Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, Captain Joseph Shea, August 1917 (DCRO DLI 2/1/267(33))
2nd Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, Captain Joseph Shea is seated on left of the second row, August 1917 (DCRO DLI 2/1/267(33))
But the German counter-attack resulted in very heavy losses, including 2 DLI’s Joseph Shea. Born in 1873, he had first joined the DLI as a Regular in 1891. As a colour sergeant, he had fought in the Boer War and been awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. Promoted to regimental sergeant major, and then quartermaster, by 1917 he was Captain Shea. During the German counter-attack at Cambrai, Captain Shea organised a defence using all available men - storemen, cooks, tailors, and shoemakers - and held on until relieved by other soldiers. During this desperate fighting, Joseph Shea was mortally wounded. He died the next day on 1 December, aged 44 years. 
Grave marker of Captain Joseph Shea, c.1918 (DCRO DLI 7/627/2)
Grave marker of Captain Joseph Shea, c.1918 (DCRO DLI 7/627/2)
The Battle of Cambrai also saw the loss of Brigadier-General Roland Bradford VC MC, possibly the most famous Durham soldier of them all, whilst another Durham soldier, Captain Arthur Lascelles, was awarded the Victoria Cross. Their stories, however, will keep to another day. 

Note: Joseph Shea’s medals are in the DLI Collection and may be seen by appointment at the University of Durham’s Palace Green Library:

Friday, 17 November 2017

Beyond Praise

Wheatley Hill History Club, Thomas Kenny VC Film
On Wednesday 8 November 2017, Wheatley Hill History Club launched their Thomas Kenny VC film, Beyond Praise, at the Gala Theatre, Durham. 

Thomas Kenny was in 13th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry. He won his Victoria Cross medal whilst still a private, for action carried out in November 1915 when he rescued Lieutenant Philip Brown, who sadly died as he was being transported to a dressing station. Kenny survived the war and joined the Home Guard in the Second World War. He died in 1948.

Beyond Praise was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and has been produced in association with Lonely Tower Film and Media. It features interviews with local historians and family members (some of whom were at the screening), plus historical re-enactment. I was actually sat next to the man who played Kenny, his grandmother was so proud of him after seeing the film. There were also tiers of cupcakes, each with its own beautifully rendered icing sugar Victoria Cross.
Victoria Cross cup cake
You can watch the film and find out more about Thomas Kenny on the Wheatley Hill History Club’s website:

You can also look on the Durham at War website and see footage of the unveiling of Thomas Kenny’s VC paving stone:

Friday, 10 November 2017

Conference 2017

Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.
-Carl Sagan

I feel like this quote is very fitting for our project. Saturday 4 November was the second Durham at War volunteers' conference, and a chance to hear about what incredible things they have discovered. All the talks were fantastic and I learnt a lot.

The day began with Councillor Ossie Johnson welcoming and thanking the volunteers. He told us how he had already had a surprise in talking to volunteer David, whose talk he would not be able to stay for. He was interested in the Royal Naval Division as some relatives had been involved, it turned out that they were same as David’s relatives! 

The talks proceeded with Gillian Kirkbride (Heritage, Museums and Collections Manager) telling  us about the upcoming DLI Collection touring exhibition, When the Bugle Calls, on music and the regiment. It opens at Bishop Auckland Town Hall in December. Next we had a short talk on the use of Lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) in First World War archaeology by myself and volunteer Dave [I’ll be doing a blog post of this in the future]. Then it was time for the all-important tea break and chance for people to chat and look around.
Poppy Rug produced by those involved in the Wessington U3A War memorials Project
Poppy Rug produced by those involved in the Wessington U3A War memorials Project
We had a range of stalls including Friends of Durham County Record Office, the North East War Memorials Project and Darlington Library. Wessington U3A were also there with a wonderful poppy rug. There were displays too, including one on Girl Guiding in the county during the war, produced by project volunteers Pat and Fiona, and our Victoria Cross pop-up banners. There were others loaned  to us by Northumbria University, on the impact of the war on higher education.
Mark Smith of the Antiques Roadshow talking about his medal collection
Mark Smith of the Antiques Roadshow talking about his medal collection
Next up was our keynote speaker. Mark Smith has appeared on the Antiques Roadshow and Who Do You Think You Are? as an expert in militaria. His talk was perfect for the day: a look at the First World War based on his medal collection. From the medals, he started learning about the people, and from the people he started learning about the action. It was also personal, as he told us about how he became a medal collector, and how he has developed his collection - his aim is to collect a medal for each day of the war. It was a fascinating insight into the war period and its study.

This talk was followed by a look at the wartime letters of Prince Riedelski by Jackie and Elaine. Riedelski was a pretender to the Polish crown, whose letters to Robert Edleston of Gainford are held at Durham County Record Office. It also discussed the status of Poland, and its people, during this time. Continuing the international theme, we had a return visit by our Canadian emissary, Jim, who told about finding a personal connection to County Durham whilst doing research for a friend.
Some of the entries into the Tank Make and Bake competition
Some of the entries into the Tank Make and Bake competition
Inspired by last year’s First World War Bake Off and Tank Banks, we decided this year, we would have a Tank Make and Bake. Delegates were invited to bring a long a tank they had made, or baked, out of anything. Voting took place over tea break and lunch time. Participation was down on last year, but not quality and the results were announced after lunch. The 'Bake' was won by the Record Office’s own Lindsey, with two impressive gingerbread tanks, winning a mug decorated with tank blueprints. The 'Make' was hotly contested between one made from corned beef and sardine tins, and one out of balloons. A late surge led to the balloon tank, made by Margaret (writer of the Very British Romance blog posts), winning the prize of a replica tank bank. 

The afternoon took us to the sea. George began this session with a talk on the Cretehawser, a concrete tug beached on the River Wear near the Queen Alexandra Bridge. This answered a long held question of several audience members who had often seen it without knowing what it was. For the last full talk of the conference, we had David talking about the Royal Naval Division [RND], and how it sat uneasily between the Admiralty and the Army. He also looked at why a significant number of men from land locked areas of the county ended up serving with the RND. 

Lastly, we had an open session where volunteers, including Amanda and Margaret, could say a few words about what they had been doing. We also had Peter Welsh of Wessington U3A tell us about their new phone app, designed by a local teenager. 

It was lovely to see everyone enjoying the conference, and next year, you could too. Conference 2018 will be open to the general public.

Hive Radio were in attendance during the Conference, and interviewed some of the speakers. These interviews will be going out on Sunday and you can listen online here:

The Durham County Council comms team made a video report of the day which can be watched below:

Friday, 3 November 2017

Getting conference ready

An excuse to post a picture of Chris Hemsworth, you probably need to have seen the first Thor film (and I highly recommend the new one)
Last year, we held a conference for our volunteers and it went so well, we're doing it again this Saturday. We are nearly done with the preparations, and a full write up will appear here next week.

Friday, 27 October 2017

The Spirit World

Spiritualism first found a receptive audience during the Victorian era, at the same time that magic shows were popular, and the gothic and supernatural featured in literature. The First World War sparked a resurgence of spiritualism. Whilst the Victorians perhaps saw it as a means of entertainment, this time, it was family trying to find out what had become of their husbands, sons, brothers, on the battlefield.

Two names are often associated with this period of spiritualism, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Sir Oliver Lodge. The former is the most well-known, having been the writer of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Conan Doyle was already interested before his son, Kingsley, died of Spanish Flu in 1918 while serving in the army. However, after this event, Conan Doyle tried contacting his son in the spirit world. Sir Oliver Lodge was a scientist working in the fields of electromagnetism and radio. However, he also undertook psychical research and spiritualism. Lodge lost his son Raymond in the First World War, and in 1916 published the book, Raymond, Life or Death. In this, he gives an account of the occasions he and his wife contacted their son, and of Raymond’s supposed accounts of the spirit world.
The Strand Magazine, July 1917, via
The Strand Magazine, July 1917, via
A controversial subject, it could come between friends (Conan Doyle and Houdini) and family. The following article is from the Newcastle Journal of 19 January 1917:

Local Divorce Case
Wife who left home to “take up spiritualism”

In the Divorce Court yesterday, Mr Justice Low granted a decree nisi to Mr George Edward Waterson, electrical engineer, of Newcastle, for divorce from Mrs Nora Waterson (formerly Miss Davidson) on the ground of misconduct with a Mr EG Castell. The suit was not defended.

Mr Waterson said they were married at a registration office in Newcastle, on 8th August 1903; they lived at Heaton, and at other places in the district, and two children were born. In 1910 Mr Waterson had to go to London to do electrical work, and they lived in Pimlico for a time, until Mrs Waterson wanted to go back to the North. Then they went to live in Prince Consort Road, Gateshead, and after being there a fortnight, Mr Waterson came home one night and found the children at the door. They said their mother had not been home all day, and on the table inside was a letter from her saying “I am going away to London to take up Spiritualism. I am too tired of housekeeping, so don’t look for me, and I will not come back”.

Thereupon Mr Waterson obtained work in London again, and spent many nights looking for her. Eventually he met her at a spiritualistic meeting, and discovered she was living with the correspondent in Stockwell Park Road, SE. She voluntarily confessed misconduct.

Friday, 20 October 2017

Doctor Constance Robertson part 2

Last week, I wrote about Doctor Constance Robertson who worked in Darlington during the First World War and after. I have been contacted by Constance's great niece who read the blog and has provided a bit more information. It is wonderful when things like this happen.

On the 1911 census, Constance was working with John Hern, also a doctor. The practice operated out of his family home, and Constance also lived there. I now know that after John retired, the house, Semmercote, was split into two, with Constance in one half, where she set up her own practice. She named her house Waleric, after the name of the house in Alnmouth where one of her brothers was born.

During the war, Constance used her medical training to care for injured family members who she took in, including her brother who had been a prisoner of war, then contracted Spanish Flu.

We hope to find out more about Constance’s brother and his war service soon.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Doctor Constance Robertson

According to Historic England, there were nearly 1000 female doctors by 1914. One of these doctors was living on Stanhope Road in Darlington. Constance Charlotte Robertson was born in Alnmouth around 1883 to William and Ann. William’s occupation on the 1901 census is given as a timber merchant, house furnisher, and auctioneer and valuer. Constance is listed as a medical student.
Advert from the UK Medical Directory 1910, via Ancestry
Advert from the UK Medical Directory 1910, via Ancestry
The Durham University Calendar for 1903-4 shows Constance as a student at the Medical College based in Newcastle. She is one of only 12 female students in a body of nearly 200. One of her peers, Aleen Cust, went on to become the first female veterinarian. For that year of her studies, her final year, Constance was able to benefit from ‘A new college building [that] has been erected on a site, an acre in extent, situated in Northumberland Road… at the cost of about £31,000. Every modern improvement has been adopted by which the Medical Education and well-being of the Students of the College may be furthered. The Electric Light has recently been installed through the whole of the College, including Lecture Theatres, Laboratories, and Dissecting Room’.

Ancestry has medical directories available to view online. The 1910 directory shows Doctor Constance Robertson living at Semmercote, [Stanhope Road], Darlington, having attained an MBBS with honours from Durham University in 1904. This qualification is a Bachelor Medicine Bachelor of Surgery. The directory also shows that she is a member of the Medico-Psychological Association, and where she has worked:
Assistant anaesthetist at the Royal Infirmary, Newcastle
Clinical assistant in Gynaecology at a hospital in Newcastle and at Northumberland County Asylum [Morpeth]
Assistant Medical Officer at Tue Brook Villa Asylum, Liverpool

The 1911 Census has her at the same address, of which John Hern is the head. His wife and daughter are also listed as is a cook and a page. Both John and Constance are listed as medical practitioners and Constance’s relationship to head looks like ‘Assist. Med.’ From the medical directories, it appears she stays in the same work over the next several years. The directories do show that she moved to a property named Waleric, also on Stanhope Road, which is where I initially found her in the 1917-18 Ward’s Directory [Hern remained at Semmercote].

There is no indication that Constance Robertson undertook any war service (John Hern was too old for service). In researching her, I have found it very difficult to find out about medical provision for civilians during the First World War. 

In the 1925 and 1929 Kelly’s Directories, Constance Robertson is listed as a physician and honorary anaesthetist to the Darlington General Hospital. On the 1939 register she is still on Stanhope Road as a medical practitioner. A Newcastle Journal article dated 21 September 1940 reported ‘As no suitable applicants had applied for the post of Assistant Medical Officer… it was decided by the [Darlington Corporation Health] Committee that Dr Girgis be asked to undertake the work at the Maternity Hospital, and that Dr Constance C Robertson be asked to carry out the work of the Maternity and Child Welfare Clinics’. This position is the last I have been able to find about Doctor Robertson until her death in 1974 in Bournemouth.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Do you suffer from optimism?

The Wipers Times play

On Wednesday 4 October, I went to see The Wipers Time at Northern Stage in Newcastle. Written by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, it tells the story of the trench newspaper through Captain Fred Roberts of the 12th Battalion (Pioneers) Sherwood Foresters. He was the real life editor of the paper after his company found a printing press in a bombed out building in Ypres. The paper, first printed in February 1916 and running for 23 issues until just after the armistice, was a satirical look at the war from the boots on the ground. In the play's programme, the writers say 'history had a very different view of the war from of the editors of The Wipers Times, who celebrated the camaraderie, absurdity, and tragedy of life in the trenches, often on the same page'.

Hislop and Newman's story of the paper was initially brought to the public on television. First aired on BBC 2 in September 2013, this version starred Ben Chaplin, Julian Rhind-Tutt, and Michael Palin.

The play is bookended by Captain Roberts trying to get a job at a newspaper after the war. The main story is told in chronological order, interspersed with skits and spoof adverts as appeared in the newspaper itself. The skits took place at the front of the stage with a cabaret style curtain dropped down behind. The adverts were enacted at the back of the stage, above the 'trench', framed by barbed wire lit with fairy lights. To modern eyes, it's not hard to spoof the adverts of the day (and of course the writers' Private Eye magazine means they themselves are not strangers to it), one was a cure for optimism, and another was for a duckboard that would spring your commanding officer away. 
Advert for Sloan's Liniment from the Durham Advertiser, 1916
Advert for Sloan's Liniment from the Durham Advertiser, 1916
Within the dialogue of the play, as much taken from the words of the men themselves, the voice of Ian Hislop also comes across, and a Lieutenant Colonel has a hint of Blackadder Goes Forth about him. But the play is in the spirit of the paper, the laughter occasionally punctuated by poignancy: the captain is gassed, a friend killed, a wife back home. The lieutenant colonel, not happy about The Wipers Times, says to his commanding officer 'The war is not funny sir', to which the general replies 'I have a feeling that may be the point'. We've all experienced a moment where if you don't laugh, you'll cry, though hopefully in less enduring circumstances than the men at the front.

Of course, it wouldn't be a piece of entertainment about the First World War if it didn't show the men 'going over the top', but 12th Battalion, as a divisional unit of the 24th Division were on the Somme during the Battle of Delville Wood. An effective moment in the play came when the men went over for a second time, to find the Germans already out of action, overcome by their own gas when the wind changed, as smoke drifted away from the stage and over the audience. 

The play certainly drew laughs from the audience, including myself and my Durham at War colleague. I felt it was good to see a different aspect of the war (the same view the Head of History at the BBC held when he commissioned the TV film), one that we on the project knew existed from the letters and diaries we have read. There is no denying by anyone that the war was a horrific, the men suffered, but they also laughed.
Captain TB Heslop of 6th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, left in a photograph taken at Kemmel, 1915 (D/DLI 2/6/10(379)), and right as drawn in The Whizz-Bang, January 1916 (D/DLI 2/6/32)
Captain TB Heslop of 6th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, left in a photograph taken at Kemmel, 1915 (D/DLI 2/6/10(379)), and right as drawn in The Whizz-Bang, January 1916 (D/DLI 2/6/32) 
The Wipers Times was not the only, nor indeed the first trench newspaper. The first issue of the Dead Horse Corner Gazette was published by the 4th Battalion of the Canadian Contingent of the British Expeditionary Force in October 1915. In fact, 6th Battalion Durham Light Infantry had their own trench newspaper The Whizz-Bang, the first issue of which came out a month before The Wipers Times. It ran from January 1916 for eight issues until November that year. The following is from the first editorial:

The Editor has put his foot down, and we, the Sub-editor, quelled by that last shout of his, “Write the ---- thing yourself,” slowly and regretfully suck our indelible pencil and wonder how to spell ‘Editorial’, even as the last recruit comes sluggishly to ‘shun’ at the bell-like tones of the sergeant-major.

It is notoriously the aim of all first editorials to answer the question “What are you there for?” which the suspicious public hurls at all who rush hot-headed into print. But it is not our intention to attempt to justify our existence, or to apologise for it. Like our namesake, here we are, without reason or warning…

The contributions which are collected here are the work of spare time, of which the dirty weather and dirtier Bosch do not give us a very large allowance, and they are thrust upon the world with no pretensions to literary merit… To all we bring greetings, and our work is done if we can but remind them that, even in the greatest of shadows, we can still, by the grace of Heaven, face the future with a smile.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Looking for Grandad

This week, Durham at War volunteer Amanda brings us a personal story.
Gilbert and Margaret, from the family collection
A couple of months ago, we inherited a large box of photographs, lots of pictures of stern looking women in their Sunday best and men in various uniforms of the First World War. Among them was one of a young couple, the man, again in uniform, looked quite like my brother-in-law, the young woman the pot-double of my daughter. The names on the back were Gilbert Hay Blanche and Margaret Yellowley Brown, my husband's grandparents from South Shields.

Family legend had it that Gilbert had served with the Durham Light Infantry (DLI) but had been invalided out before being sent to France. He had been caught in a storm while out walking with Margaret, or Madge as she was known, and had been struck by lightning. He had been knocked unconscious and when he came to, his boots were 20 feet away. He certainly walked badly for the rest of his life. But still, being almost killed by lightning had probably saved him from almost certain death on the Western Front.

A trawl through the military records on Ancestry produced no further information on Gilbert; like so many other men of the First World War, his attestation papers had been destroyed during the Second World War. And he appeared never to have been awarded either the British War Medal or the Victory Medal.

The military historian at Durham County Record Office kindly went through the DLI regimental records to look for any evidence of Gilbert receiving the Silver War Badge. Being invalided out of the army, he should have been issued with one of these badges to wear on his civvy clothes. This would show the world that he had already "done his bit"; he was not simply shirking his duty to serve King and Country. Staff at the Record Office suggested that Gilbert had possibly served with another regiment; perhaps he had been with the Northumberland Fusiliers or the Royal Engineers?
Gilbert Blanche, second from right, with other men at
Hartlepool after the bombardment (1914), from the family collection
Back to the box of photos again. This time I came across a picture of Gilbert in a formal photograph with other new recruits in the grounds of a training camp (possibly Cocken Hall) [it is – DaW team]. The men were all wearing their caps, the distinctive emblem of the DLI clearly visible on some of them. So, at least we had the right regiment.

We had previously seen family photos of the ruined buildings in Hartlepool after the bombardment in December, 1914, and had never really questioned why a Shields family would have such photos. But this time, I also found a photo, previously missed, of a group of soldiers (one looked barely 16 in a great coat four sizes too big for him!) standing in the ruins of a family home. There was Gilbert in the middle of the group, wearing what looked like a dustcoat over his uniform. With it was an old brown envelope with a thin sheet of yellowed paper inside, a telegram from Blanche in Hartlepool to Brown in Palmerston Road, South Shields, dated 17th December. The message simply said "All safe after attack."

Googling DLI and Hartlepool Bombardment brought up the Durham at War website which confirmed that the Durham Pals (18th Battalion DLI) had been garrisoned at Hartlepool at the time of the bombardment. Five soldiers had died, eleven wounded. No wonder Gilbert had wanted to send that telegram to Madge.

We have been unable to find anything else out about Gilbert's time with the DLI. Was he invalided out and, if so, why no silver badge? Or did he serve at home for the next three years? There is no-one left to ask; his generation and the following one are all gone. But at least, we now know his battalion and the significance of some of those photos. 

That old family story seems to have been true, after all.

[We have now found an article from the Yorkshire Post that confirms that Gilbert was indeed injured in a lightning strike - DaW team]

You can read more about Gilbert Blanche on the Durham at War website:

Friday, 22 September 2017

The Battle of the Menin Road Ridge

The Battle of the Menin Road Ridge, 20-25 September 1917, was the third phase of the Third Battle of Ypres, more commonly known today as Passchendaele. You can read blog posts about earlier action here:

A signals section of the 13th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, equipped with telescopes, field telephone and signalling lamps, watch the battalion's advance on Veldhoek on 20 September 1917, © IWM (Q 5971) IWM Non-commercial Licence
A new commander of the offensive, General Herbert Plumer, meant a change in tactics. Units would make short gains behind a barrage of British artillery, then consolidate their position and hold it against German counter-attacks. Air support provided observation to warn of counter-attacks. Other units would then move forward to take the next objective. The fighting was to gain ground; moving east of Ypres, pushing the Germans back. This tactic was called 'bite and hold'.

There were many battalions involved in the battle as a whole, including 12th, 13th, and 20th Battalions of the Durham Light Infantry (DLI), who took part in the first days of the battle. 12 and 13 DLI were part of 68th Brigade of 23rd Division with 10th and 11th Battalions, Northumberland Fusiliers (NF). 20 DLI was part of 123rd Brigade of 41st Division. All four battalions of this brigade were from different regiments.

The following account of these battalions' actions is taken from their official war diaries held at the National Archives.

20 September 1917
13 DLI battalion HQ moved to the Advance Brigade HQ.

5:40am Zero hour
13 DLI moved forward to Jam area trenches.
12 DLI A and B Companies moved forwards behind 10 and 11 NF and assisted in clearing a German strongpoint and snipers at Dumbarton Woods.
12 DLI C Company less the Lewis Gun Section formed up behind 13 DLI and worked as a carrying party making three journeys in total.
12 DLI D Company moved forward behind 11 NF to Jasper Drive 'encountering a strongpoint...which was successfully dealt with by a sergeant* and three men.' They dug in near Jasper Drive.

13 DLI ordered to move forward again, arriving 8:50am.

12 DLI A and B Companies dug in in front of Jasper Trench in support of 10 NF.

[no time]
12 DLI D Company ordered to reinforce 10 NF and remained dug in on the right of B Company.

13 DLI Battalion HQ established.

20 DLI received orders to 'move up to the original British front line between Shrewsbury Forest and Bodmin Copse and dig in there'.

13 DLI advanced in attack.

12 DLI C Company Lewis Gun Section moved to 13 DLI Advance HQ.

13 DLI 'German prisoners passed Battalion HQ, about 150 in all'.

13 DLI took objective and began consolidating the position.

20 DLI D Company sent to help 124th Brigade take the second objective after they were held up by machine gun fire.

20 DLI ordered to move up to the first objective line and dig in, and to be ready to help in the attack.

20 DLI received orders to push on to second objective between 122nd and 124th Brigade. Arrived in position about 3:00pm.

13 DLI repulsed a counter-attack by the Germans on the left company.

20 DLI ordered to attack the third objective on the forward slope of Tower Hamlets ridge. The orders were received 'too late' and the battalion dug in on the backwards slope. They were rejoined by D Company at about 6:00pm. The right flank of the battalion was 'in the air' as 124th Brigade had not managed to cross the stream.

12 DLI A and B Company put under orders of 9th Battalion York and Lancaster Regiment (Y&L).

21 September 1917
12 DLI D Company ordered to move back.

20 DLI received orders to attack the third objective with 10th Battalion Royal West Kent Regiment.

13 DLI dispersed another German counter-attack on the left company by Lewis gun and rifle fire. One German officer and five other ranks captured.

20 DLI attacked, the British barrage was only 'a few shells sent over at intervals and was in consequence insufficient to keep down the enemy machine guns.' 20 DLI rushed about 200 yards before being forced to dig in, but not before suffering casualties from the German machine guns.

[no time]
12 DLI C Company made two more journeys as a carrying party.

20 DLI drove back a German counter-attack over Tower Hamlets ridge by 'rifle fire and Lewis guns which inflicted heavy casualties'.
13 DLI repulsed attack by Germans on the right company 'coming up the valley from Gheluvelt' after a heavy bombardment.
Section of map from April 1917 showing trenches, Tower Hamlets, and Gheluvelt, (Map Sheet 28 NE.3 1) 'Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland' The full map can be viewed here:
20 DLI A German barrage began.

13 DLI 'After two hours heavy shelling the enemy was seen massing on the right of the the Ypres-Menin Road near Gheluvelt preparatory to attacking. The SOS signal was sent up on our right and left and the enemy was caught by our barrage before his attack could materialise'.

12 DLI A and B Companies received orders to move back but due to a counter-attack, A Company were ordered to move forward to reinforce the Y&L. B Company remained in position to protect the right flank.

20 DLI drove off another counter-attack as it was assembling with artillery, rifle, and Lewis gun fire.

12 DLI C Company Lewis Gun Section ordered to reinforce right flank.

12 DLI C Company Lewis Gun Section ordered to move back by the officer commanding 13 DLI.

12 DLI A Company 'situation became normal' and returned to Jasper Trench.

22 September 1917
13 DLI relieved by 8th Battalion King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and moved back with the exception of HQ and two platoons of B Company.

12 DLI A and B Companies ordered to move back as per the original orders of the previous night.

12 DLI A and B Companies worked as carrying parties.
12 DLI C Company moved to Holy Corn dug out.
20 DLI Enemy shelling and barrage but no counter-attacks.

12 DLI D Company moved to Lucky dugout area to relieve D Company of 11 NF and acted as a carrying party.

13 DLI HQ and the remainder of B Company were relieved.

23 September 1917
20 DLI relieved by 13th Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment, reaching camp at 8:00am.

[no time]
12 DLI A and B Companies continued carrying work.

12 DLI C Company moved up to trenches near Jasper trenches.

24 September 1917
[no time]
12 DLI A and B Companies relieved by 16th Battalion King's Royal Rifle Corps, and returned to camp.

12 DLI C Company relieved by a unit of the Queen's Regiment.

12 DLI D Company relieved by 9 Y&L.

The battle was mostly successful in that it achieved most of its targets except for taking Tower Hamlets. However, it was not without great cost to the Allied forces (British and Australian). According to the figures in the official history, 20255 British men and officers were killed, wounded, or missing between 20 and 25 September. The Australian casualties are counted at 5013.

The 12 DLI war diary doesn't provide casualty figures but the diaries of 13 and 20 DLI were:

20 September
13 DLI
Killed – 1 officer, 1 other rank
Wounded – 4 officers, 177 other ranks
Missing – 16 other ranks

20 DLI
Killed – 1 officer, 1 other rank
Wounded – 4 officers, 6 other ranks

21 September
13 DLI
Killed – 14 other ranks
Wounded – 37 other ranks
Missing – 1 other rank

20 DLI
Killed – 2 officers, 33 other ranks
Died of wounds – 1 officer
Wounded – 6 officers, 188 other ranks (one of these officers died of his wounds 25 September 1917)

22 September
13 DLI
Killed – 1 other rank
Wounded – 5 other ranks
Missing – 1 other rank

20 DLI
Killed – 6 other ranks
Wounded – 14 other ranks
Missing – 21 other ranks

Sergeant B Cruddas
Awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions. The citation reads:
'For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty at Dumbarton Wood in September 1917. An enemy strongpoint which had been overlooked in the advance was causing heavy casualties to carrying parties and supporting troops. He left the carrying party of which he was in charge, and going forward alone, located the strongpoint. He then attacked it with three men, and captured it after a very stubborn fight, putting all the garrison out of action. He showed great powers of organisation, and was a splendid example to all ranks'.

12th Battalion War Diary, The National Archives ref. WO 95/2182/1
13th Battalion War Diary, The National Archives ref. WO 95/2182/2
20th Battalion War Diary, The National Archives ref. WO 95/2639/1

Third Ypres - Passchendaele, The Day by Day Account, by Chris McCarthy

The Long, Long Trail
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
The Australian War Memorial

Friday, 15 September 2017

“All of a sudden hell let loose” The trench raid at Chérisy

This week, Steve Shannon tells us about events at Chérisy, and a new exhibition at Durham County Record Office.
First panel of the Chérisy exhibition
First panel of the Chérisy exhibition
One hundred years ago today, Durham soldiers raided a German trench in northern France. Trench raids were commonplace on the western front during the First World War, carried out to take prisoners and gather intelligence, but above all, to kill as many enemy soldiers as could be found.

Most raids took place under cover of night and involved few raiders but the raid on a German trench at Chérisy on 15 September 1917 was unique. This was not only because of the number of soldiers involved, but also because flying above the raiders was a Royal Flying Corps warplane taking the only known photographs of a trench raid in progress.

Enlarged copies of these unique - and fascinating - photographs form the centrepiece of a new exhibition, which opens in Durham County Record Office on Friday 15 September. Also on display will be copies of original maps, documents and photographs from the Durham Light Infantry’s archive, cared for by the Record Office on behalf of the Trustees of the DLI Collection, plus full explanatory labels telling the story of this unique raid.
The aerial photographs on display at Durham County Record Office
The aerial photographs on display at Durham County Record Office
This raid at Chérisy is largely forgotten today, submerged beneath the horrors of the Somme and Passchendaele but, at the time, it had an important outcome. The majority of the DLI’s raiders came from the 9th Battalion DLI, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Roland Bradford VC MC from Witton Park. For two weeks before the raid, Colonel Bradford trained his men hard until every raider knew what he had to do. This included practising attacks on a full-scale model of the target trench dug behind the lines with a farmer’s plough.

During one of these practice attacks, the raiders were watched by senior officers, including General Byng, commanding the British Third Army. Such a high-ranking audience for a raid was most unusual. Were they watching to see how Colonel Bradford commanded and trained his battalion? Was Roland Bradford, despite being only 25 years old, being tested for promotion?

The answer came after the successful conclusion of the raid. On 5 October, Roland Bradford was promoted to brigadier general and became the youngest general in the British Army. Sadly, just a few weeks later, on 30 November 1917, a German shell killed Brigadier General Bradford. He was still only 25 years old.

Exhibition location:
Along the corridor leading to Durham County Record Office at County Hall, Durham.

The exhibition can be viewed Monday to Friday between 9am and 4pm. Please note that the Record Office searchroom is closed to the public on Thursdays and Fridays.

Friday, 8 September 2017

The Merchant Navy

D/DLI 13/2/170 Embroidered postcard with Red Ensign and anchor
D/DLI 13/2/170 Embroidered postcard with Red Ensign and anchor
On 3 September, Durham County Council flew the Red Ensign above County Hall for Merchant Navy Day. This day of remembrance began in 2000 to honour those that served during the two world wars, and to celebrate those who served during peacetime, and continue to serve.

As an island nation, shipping has always been an important part of trade and transport for Britain. At the outbreak of war, more than half the food consumed in this country was carried by merchant shipping. During the war, the Merchant Navy were responsible for ‘supplying the nation and the armed forces with food, transporting raw materials for the manufacture of munitions, maintaining ordinary cargo and passenger trade, and transporting troops and materiel to theatres of war’. (

It didn’t matter that these men were civilians, they were still exposed to the same dangers as the military. The sea became rife with mines from the early days of the war, then the German U-boat campaign began. This increased each year until its most devastating period of 1917. Over 17000 Merchant Navy men lost their lives during the First World War, around 13000 of these were British, with the other 4000 being made up of a wide variety of nationalities from both within, and outside of the Commonwealth.
The Mercantile Marine Medal, with thanks to Football and the First World War, used under the Creative CommonsAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) License 
One of our Durham at War volunteers, David D, put together the story of John Alfred Roch, who was born in Sunderland in 1903. His father, who was born in Russia but became a naturalised Brit in 1909, worked as a mariner, and as a crane driver when ashore. John’s mother was the daughter of a mariner, so it is no surprise that he followed in their footsteps. 1917 saw John, aged only 14, serving as a deck boy on the SS Lady Ann. On 16 February of that year, the ship left Sunderland for Kent, laden with coal. As the SS Lady Ann passed Scarborough, she is thought to have been torpedoed by a German U-boat. Eleven of the crew, including John, lost their lives. He was awarded the Mercantile Marine Medal, and the British War Medal for his service.

John’s body was never found, but he is remembered on the Tower Hill memorial, across the road from the Tower of London. This memorial recognises the men and women of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets who died during the two world wars, and have no known grave. 

Researching merchant seamen of this period is not easy, there was no official registration, and some other records didn’t survive. What do exist are ships’ crew lists. The National Maritime Museum, with the National Archives, have digitised and indexed the lists for 1915, and these can be searched here:

Royal Museums Greenwich website has a detailed research guide available here:

Friday, 1 September 2017

A Treasured Possession

Temporary Second Lieutenant Frederick Youens (D/DLI 7/801/8)
D/DLI 7/801/8 Temporary Second Lieutenant Frederick Youens
A hundred years ago this week, on 29 August 1917, Mrs Lizzie Youens, the widow of a basket maker from High Wycombe, went to Buckingham Palace. There King George V presented her with the posthumous Victoria Cross that had been awarded to her son, Second Lieutenant Frederick Youens, who had been mortally wounded a few weeks earlier during the Third Battle of Ypres.

Born in High Wycombe in August 1893, Frederick - or Freddy as his mother called him - did well at his local National School and won a scholarship to the town’s Royal Grammar School. There he excelled in sports and gained his first military experience in the school’s Officer Training Corps.

On 5 September 1914, just a month after the outbreak of war, Freddy Youens left his teaching job and enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps. The following spring, he transferred to the East Surrey Regiment and was soon in action on the Western Front. Private Youens, however, did not forget his medical training and, during the Battle of Loos in September 1915, worked all night dressing wounds and helping the wounded to shelter, until he was seriously wounded himself.

Out of action for a year while his arm healed, Freddy was finally fit enough to re-join the East Surrey Regiment. His talents, however, were soon recognised and in January 1917, after officer training, he was commissioned as a temporary second lieutenant attached to the Durham Light Infantry. On 13 March, Second Lieutenant Youens joined the 13th (Service) Battalion DLI in Belgium.

During the Third Battle of Ypres (or Passchendaele as the battle is better known today), 13 DLI took over newly captured positions in Impartial Trench, west of Klein Zillebeke. Just after midnight on 7 July 1917, Second Lieutenant Youens led a three-man patrol into no man’s land. There they came across a group of 40 Germans and Freddy and another soldier were wounded. Safely back in the Durhams’ trenches, Freddy was having his wounds dressed, when he was told that German raiders were fast approaching. He immediately ran from the dug-out, forgetting his shirt and tunic, to rally his men. A bomb (grenade) then fell near a Lewis machine gun crew but failed to explode. Freddy fearlessly picked it up and threw it out of the trench. Shortly afterwards another bomb fell nearby. Again, Freddy picked it up to throw it away, but it exploded in his hand, mortally wounding him, and some of his men. Second Lieutenant Frederick Youens died from his wounds shortly afterwards and he was buried in Railway Dugouts Burial Ground at Zillebeke.
Grave marker for Frederick Youens, Australian War Memorial P00735.010 (public domain)
Grave marker for Frederick Youens, Australian War Memorial P00735.010 (public domain)
On 2 August 1917, the London Gazette announced the award of a posthumous Victoria Cross “for most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty” to Second Lieutenant Youens and, before the end of the month, his mother went to Buckingham Palace to receive her son’s VC. This became her most treasured possession, along with letters from the chaplain and from Freddy’s commanding officer, who described her son as “an ideal soldier - keen, efficient and brave”.

Mrs Youens died in 1958 and her treasured possession was then sold but in 1976, thanks to the generosity of the DLI Association, Freddy’s Victoria Cross was acquired and presented to the DLI Museum. Today his medal is part of the DLI Collection, held by the University of Durham at Palace Green Library, whilst Durham County Record Office preserves the letters and photographs also treasured by Freddy’s mother.

During the DLI Association’s campaign to acquire the Victoria Cross, one of Freddy’s brother officers visited the museum and was interviewed by local media about the day Freddy won his VC. Born in Scotland in 1892, Roderick Mitchell was teaching in Sunderland when the First World War began. Later, he was commissioned as an officer in 13 DLI and was awarded the Military Cross twice for his bravery during the war. In his interview, this old soldier, proudly wearing his medals, vividly remembered the German raid on his battalion’s trenches and seeing Freddy Youens pick up a German bomb, before a second exploded in his hand.

Roderick Mitchell was the last surviving eye-witness of the events in the 13th Battalion’s trenches on 7 July 1917. He died a few months after visiting the museum, in June 1977.