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: