Bill’s War

Erich Maria Remarque’s world-famous novel, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, begins with a short preface in which he states that his book will try to tell the story of ‘a generation of men who, although they might have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the War’.

That war, of course, was the First World War. A war which claimed the lives of millions of soldiers between 1914 and 1918. Yet, those deaths account for only 11% of the men who fought in this ‘war to end all wars’. The other 89% – the overwhelming majority – returned home from it and continued ‘living’ their lives. These are the men Remarque is referring to. Men like my Grandad, Jack Durham, and his brother-in-law, my Great Uncle Bill Crook. It’s an almost perverse fact that we remember the dead of the Great War more than those who lived through and survived its horrors, and obviously, in some respects, that’s only right. The former sacrificed their (often young) lives, after all. But they, the dead, at least have graves and/or memorials (the former still wonderfully maintained even today by the CWGC) and are commemorated, annually, on Remembrance Day.

What of the survivors? the Remarque men? Those who returned home and tried to rebuild their lives, their home towns, their countries? What of them? Surely, they can’t have been forgotten?

And surely, it’s a sweeping claim that their lives were destroyed by the war?

I mean, isn’t it?

It is, isn’t it?

Scratch the surface of any one of the numerous family history platforms available today and you’ll soon find one of your own. If you didn’t, there’d be a likelihood that you would never have been born at all. I’m an example of that. My own Grandad survived the war, albeit having been medically discharged in 1919 with neurasthenia (a condition of fatigue and stress that today could be placed under the same category as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD). If he hadn’t, I literally wouldn’t be here. But, in many ways, the war did kill him. Certainly my Grandma believed it did. He was only 57 when he finally passed away in 1954. Officially, it was lung cancer that killed him, and – as a miner and a smoker – it’d be easy to challenge my Grandma’s sincerely held belief.

But she knew.

She knew it from the very moment the man she fell in love with during the war returned to her at its end, utterly broken.

Shattered, empty, broken.

She – like countless other wives and mothers – believed that the war had destroyed the man. To my Grandma, Jack Durham was one of Remarque’s men.

An even more acute example can be found in the life of my Great Uncle William (Bill) Crook, the brother-in-law of my Grandparents (he was married to my Grandma’s sister, Mary). You see, Bill ‘survived’ the war. But Bill died – quite suddenly, in the end – at the age of 26 years and 8 months. And because he has no memorial, no CWGC grave stone (or any other, as it transpires), he’d almost been forgotten.

And yet, a more interesting, absorbing and tragic war story, I have very rarely found. It’s criminal that he or his story should ever be forgotten.

So, I’m about to tell it here, now.

Bill Crook was born on Friday 10th April 1896 in Bolton, Lancashire into almost stereotypical circumstances. I bet you’ve already got a picture in your heads. Yes, that’s the one. A dreary, smoke-filled northern industrial town; Lowryesque in every respect, and – to be fair – a picture that’s probably quite accurate for the latter days of the 19th Century. Bill was one of ten children born to the wonderfully named Major, and Hannah Crook. Feeding the stereotype further, two of their children died in infancy. Bill was the second born son. Major Crook was a coal hewer, employed in his local coal mine. Whether out of necessity, or in search of better paid employment, Major moved his family to that then, world hub of coal mining, the north-east of England, some time between 1901 and 1904. They initially found residence to the north of Newcastle, but finally settled in Felling, located to the immediate east of Gateshead, on the southern banks of the coal-blackened River Tyne.

Felling gave home to its own colliery, John Pit, which was then owned by John Bowes & Co, and Major became one of its employees. By the time he was 14, Bill had followed his dad into the colliery, gaining employment as a pony driver. This was a role usually given to boys around Bill’s age, and which entailed leading the ponies that pulled empty tubs down the mine, and pulled them back up again, fully laden with the spoils of the labouring hewers. It was, by any standards, long, laborious and dangerous work. But, it meant an extra bit of silver for the family pot and often led to more gainful employment elsewhere, either above or below the coalface. By 1914, Bill had progressed in his career to become – like his dad – one of the ‘kings of the pit’: a hewer.

It was hardly the stuff of the dreams of young men, however, and so, when Great Britain finally declared war on Germany on 4th August 1914, like many of his pals, Bill spotted an ideal opportunity to leave mining behind and seek adventure – and a change of direction – elsewhere. Mining being a reserved occupation, this was sometimes easier said than done. But for Bill, at least, the opportunity became reality when on Tuesday 10th November 1914, he walked to nearby Booth Street, and entered the drill hall of the old ‘E’ Company, 9th Durham Light Infantry (DLI), and took the King’s shilling.

John Pit, Felling Colliery (Source: Wikipedia)

The 9th DLI was a territorial battalion, originally raised in Gateshead, even then a relatively large town separated from the city of Newcastle only by that same coaly Tyne. The 9th DLI proudly sported the nickname ‘The Gateshead Gurkhas’, a nickname which had little to do with its fighting prowess, however impressive that might have been. Instead, it was given to the battalion because of the similarity in the appearance of its men to those from Nepal, who had served so faithfully in the British Army since 1816. During the late 1800s, the 9th DLI wore similar dark green uniforms and being mainly comprised of men from the shipyards and coal mines, its soldiers were similarly short and stocky in appearance.

Like all new recruits, Bill underwent basic training, possibly at Ravensworth Camp, in County Durham, but more likely to have been in either Newcastle or Boldon, both just a few miles from Felling. Upon completion, Private 3071 William Crook was formally posted to 1/9th DLI, and embarked for France 27th June 1915, eventually joining up with his new companions three days later, on 30th June. At that time, the 9th DLI was located at Kemmel, to the south-west of Ypres, but was frequently occupying front line trenches within the infamous Ypres Salient, in the area around Sanctuary Wood.

The timing of Bill’s arrival on the Western Front might, to some, seem fortuitous, given that it was sandwiched between the end of the Second Battle of Ypres and the notorious flame-thrower attacks at Hooge. Bill avoided both of these events, but was quickly introduced to the harsh realities of trench life, his very first stint in the front line being between 6th and 9th July. That passing without too much incident (despite the constant threat of another German offensive), Bill might have been forgiven for thinking that this war malarkey wasn’t as bad as he’d feared – especially as, soon afterwards, the battalion (which formed part of 151st Brigade of the 50th (Northumbrian) Division) was ordered to take up positions around the much more amenable Armentières sector.

The Ypres Salient as it was prior to 2nd Battle of Ypres, April 1915. The shaded area denotes the area of the German gas attack on 22nd April 1915.
(Source: Wikipedia)

But it’s way too easy, sitting here in 2022, in a comfortable home, with all mod cons, to write such things. It’s way too hard to try and put into words how Bill must have actually felt. Words such as ‘afraid’, ‘terrified’, ‘deeply homesick’, ‘cold’, ‘wet’ – I could go on and on – are just that: words. Nobody living truly knows or understands exactly what these men went through, even in the quietest sectors, and even the relative experiences of modern combatants can’t really compare. It’s something I always try to keep in mind whenever I’m researching, writing, or just reading about them. And it always makes me both genuinely sad and extremely grateful.

After a relatively uneventful time at Armentières, Bill returned to the Ypres Salient with the 9th DLI in December 1915. This time proved to be far more challenging.

There I go again: challenging. What I really mean is that – for me at least – it would have been an absolutely indescribable living hell, one I can barely imagine.

Bill served in the trenches around Hill 60, Sanctuary Wood, Mount Sorrell, and the Bluff. I’ve visited all of these places on many occasions (although not since I’ve fully researched Bill’s story), and although my visits have given me a clearer overview of the events that took place there, of course they have not provided me with anything like the actual experience of them. When I visit, I have a pleasant stroll around the reclaimed, beautiful landscape, read a few information boards, take in the views across to Ypres, and pay my respects at the immaculate cemeteries. When Bill was there, he faced the realistic prospect of death by rifle, machine gunfire, shells and gas every time he went up to the front lines. The losses recorded in the Battalion War Diary bear sobering testimony to this.

When we think of Ypres during the First World War, it is difficult not to picture the toad-skin landscape of devastation so synonymous with the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917. For Bill and his comrades, in December 1915, it wasn’t quite like that. But, this entry from the ‘Official History of the 50th (Northumbrian) Division’ paints a fairly bleak portrait of it, even back in late 1915:

Day by day, what had once been fair countryside was dying a slow and agonizing
death; not a humble flower grew in the hedgerow, or crouched beneath some kindly
wall, but was torn from its setting and tossed to the winds, as if to demonstrate man’s
contempt for Nature. Looking east from the ramparts of Ypres one saw a smoking country, as if numerous cauldrons were sending wreaths of smoke heavenwards, so frequent were the shell
bursts. The city, itself, was the abode of Death. No one lingered in the streets, silent
and deserted in the daylight hours save for the awful roar of bursting shells. As if they
were plague spots, such places as the Menin and Lille Gates were shunned and avoided, for the German gunners had marked them down, and ‘gate’ had long been a misnomer.
Even at this period, Ypres was horrible, ghastly.

Bill remained within the Ypres Salient right through until August 1916. The period between December 1915 and August 1916 could be described as ‘routine’. Except that this was the Ypres Salient, where ‘routine’ took on its own bespoke meaning. It was never quiet; it was always dangerous.

And so, when the 50th (Northumbrian) Division was finally ordered to France in support of the Battle of the Somme, which had begun on 1st July, who knows how Bill felt? The losses of that first fateful day would have almost certainly been known to him, so perhaps he might have been justified in thinking he was leaving the frying pan for the very heart of the fire.

If he did, then he wasn’t far wrong. On the Somme, he saw action at the battles of Flers-Courcelette and Morval, both of which saw the 9th DLI heavily engaged and which cost it dearly in terms of men killed, wounded or missing.

Then, in early November 1916, the 9th DLI took part in an attack which is now very much embedded in the regiment’s proud history. Originally planned for 26th October (whilst the 9th DLI was in fact in reserve), this attack was postponed until 5th November, owing to atrocious weather conditions which had turned the Somme battlefield into a quagmire, not dissimilar to that which would subsequently be experienced at Passchendaele, the following year. The postponements meant that the 9th DLI had by now rotated to the front line once again, and it would be Bill and his pals of the Gateshead Gurkhas, together with the 6th and 8th DLI, that would lead the attack.

The 9th DLI objectives were two German trench systems (Gird and Gird Support), which ran north-west to south-east across the (still much-used by battlefield visitors) Bapaume-Albert Roman road, just to the north of the village of Le Sars. In addition, it was ordered to seize a small quarry just to the east of that road. As the left battalion, 9th DLI would have to overcome one particularly challenging (that word again!) obstacle en route to its objectives: the Butte de Warlencourt.

This ancient burial mound formed a modest promontory, of around sixty feet, and served absolutely no strategic purpose. Tactically, however, it did at least allow its holders to view the battlefield back across the British lines towards Martinpuich and High Wood. In attempting to take the Gird and Gird Support trench systems, the 9th DLI would have to cross over the very top of it.

Map showing the attack by 151st Brigade, 50th (Northumbrian) Division at the Butte de Warlencourt, on 5th November 1916
(Source: http://www.buttedewarlencourt.com)

In horrific weather (and battle) conditions, in which rain had fallen in biblical proportions, the 9th DLI somehow managed to get across the top of the Butte de Warlencourt, sieze the quarry, and secure the left flank of Gird Trench. It was even able to set up a command post on the Bapaume-Albert Road. This is another example of where words come nowhere near to doing justice to the actuality of what was achieved. What Bill and the 9th DLI were tasked with achieving is – to me, sitting here now- incomprehensible. The fact that they actually achieved it, nothing less than mind-boggling.

Sadly though, the positions could not be held. The 8th DLI on the right of the attack suffered terribly at the hands of murderous machine gun fire on its right, whilst the 6th DLI – despite some protection on the left afforded by the progress of the 9th – fared little better. Without the support of its two sister battalions, the 9th simply couldn’t hold on and despite becoming engaged in vicious hand-to-hand fighting…

(Stop. Pause. Imagine just what that would have been like if you possibly can. Think of all those men – Bill included – who returned home to continue their lives with the actual memories of it)

…and heroically seeing off numerous German counter-attacks, it was eventually forced to fall back to its starting positions, just after midnight on the 6th November.

Although not held by the Durhams on this occasion, the fight for the Butte de Warlencourt (which according to the C.O. of the 9th DLI, Lt Col Roland Bradford VC, had become an ‘obsession’) was soon added to its battle honours, and three wooden crosses, commemorating the men of the DLI who had fallen on this ‘little Gibraltar’, were placed on the Butte within weeks of the Australians taking it over, following the Germans’ withdrawal to the Hindenburg line in early 1917. Today, these three crosses can be found in the parish churches of Chester-le-Street, Bishop Auckland and Durham Cathedral.

One of the original crosses placed on the Butte de Warlencourt now within Durham Cathedral
(Source: author)

It was an even more significant event for Private Bill Crook. During the attack, he was shot in the neck and sustained serious wounds which required him to be medically evacuated back to England on 11th November.

Shot in the neck.

Easy to write.

Virtually impossible to imagine the shock and pain experienced.

I somehow get the feeling Bill might have been inwardly quite relieved to be leaving the Western Front behind. Certainly in some respects. However he was feeling, one thing soon became apparent: his days as a Gateshead Gurkha were now at an end. Despite his wounds, however, his war most certainly wasn’t.

With the typical efficiency associated with army administration, Bill was struck from the ranks of the 9th DLI on 30th December 1916 and posted to 5th DLI. This was a home-based battalion located at Catterick, in North Yorkshire. During his time with this battalion, as a result of the wholesale re-numbering of the old territorial forces, Bill acquired a new army service number: 20338.

Being back in England had also brought him back into physical contact with his sweetheart, Mary Donald. Proof of this can be found in the fact that their first daughter, Elsie May, would be born in October, later that year.

GCSEs in Maths or Biology are not required.

On discovering Mary’s pregnancy in the spring of 1917, Bill clearly decided that urgent action was required on his part. Although Bill was himself baptised into the Church of England, Mary was a Roman Catholic, and just how her pregnancy, outside of wedlock, would have been viewed within her own church community (and family) does not need elaborating upon here. Whether or not Bill requested leave in his attempt to sort the matter out, and was refused, is not clear. What is clear, however, is that on or before 2nd April 1917, Bill Crook deserted.

Few wartime crimes attracted more disdain or greater punishment than desertion. 306 men were actually executed for it during the First World War. Fortunately for Bill, he was not one of them and, in fact, appears to have been treated very leniently.

Following his desertion, Bill married Mary, in Gateshead, on 16th April 1917. He then took some further time, which he spent with his new (pregnant) bride, and put his own affairs in order, before surrendering himself, voluntarily, to the authorities on or before 17th May. On this date, he was sentenced to 28 days detention.

Why was Bill treated so seemingly leniently?

Well, I believe there are a number of factors worthy of consideration.

Firstly, Bill had not deserted from the battlefield. He was a wounded, convalescing soldier who would have been viewed as something of a hero by many (especially around his home town of Gateshead). Secondly, he had a previously unblemished service record; not even a single, minor misdemeanour had been recorded against him. Thirdly, the bespoke circumstances of his situation might have had some bearing: he clearly felt an urgent need to make things right in his personal life and – quite possibly – was refused leave to do so legitimately. With the support of at least one senior officer and some positive character testimony from NCOs and other companions, I suspect there were ample grounds to justify the leniency seen in the sentence meted out.

What is less easy to explain, however, is the sentence of 28 days given to Bill on 1st June 1917, after he was arrested in York by civilian police, having escaped from custody and deserted for a second time, on 27th May. I can only assume that the two incidents were connected and that they were therefore viewed in the same light.

Notwithstanding this, it is fair to say that Bill was leading a somewhat charmed life at this time.

Bill managed to serve his ‘full term’ on this occasion, during which time he was posted to the 20th (Service) Battalion, DLI, commonly known as ‘The Wearsiders’. This Sunderland-based battalion was raised in 1915, and consisted of volunteers who had answered Kitchener’s call to arms at the beginning of the war. It formed part of 123rd Brigade in the 41st Division. The move from Tyne to Wear (the local rivalry existed even back then, in some quarters) is unlikely to have bothered a Lancashire lad like Bill.

Bill arrived back in France on 12th July 1917 and met his new battalion comrades for the first time at Mont des Cats, near Ypres. Preparations were well underway for a new offensive, which would become known as the Third Battle of Ypres, or – less accurately, but more infamously – ‘Passchendaele’.

On the 31st July 1917, the first day of the battle, 20th DLI were in front line trenches at Battle Wood, just to the south of Hill 60. Its primary objective for that first day was to secure a German trench line named ‘Imperfect Trench’. The trench was taken without too much difficulty, but in pursuing its second objective, the 20th DLI suffered greatly from machine-gun fire emanating from a hitherto undetected German pillbox on its right. The discovery of this and other pillboxes, left unscathed by the pre-bombardment, meant that the 20th DLI was tied up for much of the remainder of the day (successfully) clearing them out. Thereafter, the Wearsiders valiantly fended off a number of German counter-attacks, entailing ferocious hand-to-hand fighting. More horrific memories for Bill to take back home with him. The battalion had fought magnificently during that first day, but at a very high cost: 431 men killed, wounded or missing. These losses temporarily put paid to any further action for the battalion, equating to almost half of its overall strength.

Battered and bloodied, it was pulled out of the line and sent (via a series of very unwelcomed route marches) to Esquerades, 17 miles from the north French coastal town of Etaples, where it was re-equipped and had the honour of being personally inspected and thanked for its efforts by General Haig himself. On 20th September, however, the battalion – now with its newly-acquired replacements – was back in the Salient and ready to take its place in the Battle of the Menen Road.

Starting positions of 20th DLI (41st Division), 20th September 1917
(Source: ‘Durham Forces in the Field, 1914-18, vol 2’, by Wilfred Miles)

By the 20th September, the battlefields of Ypres were in the condition so synonymous with that particular battle. The record-breaking rainfall, which had begun on the very first day of the offensive, had persisted throughout, and now the trenches were no more than water-filled shell holes; the ground quite literally being a morass of liquid mud. Despite this, the 20th DLI (in the second wave of the attack) was given objectives to pass through the first objective of the attack (the red line on the map above), cross the Basseville Beek, and to take the 2nd objective (the blue line). From there, if successful, it should push on to the third objective (the green line).

Sounds simple enough.

Looks it, as well, from the map above.

But, the conditions condemned it to failure from the very outset.

Wading through the cloying mud, the Wearsiders somehow managed to reach the blue line. However, the time it took the entire brigade to join them there meant that there was insufficient daylight to push on to the green line. This attack, therefore, took place the following day, but was an unmitigated disaster. The artillery’s ‘creeping barrage’ was wholly ineffective for the conditions and Bill and his comrades were able to progress a mere 200 yards before German gunfire brought them to a halt. Unbelievably, they then had to fend off German counter-attacks, which met with a similar fate to that of the 20th DLI’s. The Germans had clearly failed to heed the old adage, (probably incorrectly) attributed to Einstein, that insanity is doing the same thing time and time again, and expecting different results. However, once again, the losses sustained by the 20th DLI had been substantial, meaning that – for good this time – its involvement in the Third Battle of Ypres was at an end.

By the end of September 1917, Bill found himself in a much quieter sector to the east of Dunkirk on the northern French coast. Here, he was employed in shoring up defences in the aftermath of the German attack on 10th July 1917 (Operation Strandfest, or ‘Beach Party’). Things appeared to be getting even better for him when, following the ‘Disaster at Caporetto’, during which Italy was very nearly knocked out of the war, the 41st Division (along with four other British divisions) was sent to Italy – a posting one 20th DLI man described as ‘a picnic (compared to) Passchendaele’.

Deployed along the banks of the River Piave, near to Nervesa, the 20th DLI saw very little action (or warm sunshine) during its stay in Italy, despite the terrible omen of losing its commanding officer to an exploding Austrian shell on its first day there. During this time, Bill was ‘promoted’ to unpaid lance corporal. Why he was unpaid is unknown, but it does perhaps suggest that he was reluctant to receive his new rank. This was not uncommon. Many privates were unhappy at the thought of having to be in charge of their old comrades, and the role of a junior NCO was one of the most dangerous of all. So, perhaps Bill was presented with a fait accompli. He must have been well thought of though, as on 22nd January 1918 he was promoted to full (paid) corporal.

The Wearsiders’ stay in Italy was cut short by the gathering storm clouds of an anticipated major German offensive back on the Western Front, and on 7th March 1918, Bill was back on the Somme.

The German spring offensive began on 21st March 1918, although the 20th DLIs first contact with the marauding German troops did not take place until the 23rd, at Vaulx-Vraucourt, where it bravely fought off repeated German attacks with deadly Lewis gunfire, before – like everywhere else in that part of the line – the unrelenting German advance forced a series of tactical withdrawals.

As the first phase of the German offensive fizzled out (it came to an end on 5th April 1918), the 41st Division was moved up to the Ypres Salient in anticipation of the second phase. When that second phase duly began (the Battle of the Lys, or Fourth Battle of Ypres, or Operation Georgette, just to use some of its names), the 20th DLI was located to the north of Ypres, at St Jean. As the German attacks focused on the south and east of the Flemish town, the Wearsiders consequently avoided the main thrust of the German assault and had a relatively quiet time of things.

The German spring offensive finally ended in abject failure at the 2nd Battle of the Marne, in July 1918. On 8th August, the British launched its Battle of Amiens offensive. It heralded the beginning of the end for Germany, and from that day until the armistice on 11th November, the Germans suffered defeat after defeat after defeat. Bill’s role in all of this – initially – was to remain in the Ypres Salient until the Germans based there – recognising the highly precarious state of their position – began to withdraw and head east. For the 20th DLI, this presented an entirely new concept: a war of pursuit.

Then, Bill won the Military Medal (MM).

On the 14th October 1918, the 20th DLI took part in an attack to secure the town of Menen. A stupendous pre-bombardment ensured that the resistance they encountered was light. However, during the advance, Lieutenant J Foster and six of Bill’s comrades were killed. With his officer down, Bill assumed command of the remaining men of his platoon and – despite encountering enemy resistance – successfully led them on to secure their objectives. The courage, initiative and leadership he displayed on that day led him to being awarded the MM. Alongside that award, just a few days later, Bill was promoted to the rank of lance sergeant.

The 20th DLI’s war of pursuit continued right up until armistice day on 11th November 1918, by which time they had reached the outskirts of Mons, at Nederbrakel.

It seemed Bill had survived the war.

He had seen almost four years of active service, with one short exception, all on the Western Front.

But, it had taken its toll.

On 29th January 1919, Bill was medically discharged from the army with a condition called ‘Disordered Action of the Heart’ or, more colloquially, ‘Soldier’s Heart’. It’s another condition that today would fall under the auspices of PTSD. The war was deemed to be the cause of Bill’s condition (its symptoms can include a racing or irregular heart beat, extreme stress and fatigue) and he and Mary were awarded a pension of 8s and 8d, and 3s and 6d respectively, up to 12th April 1920.

Notionally at least, Bill returned to Felling Colliery later that year, but he was a sick and tired man and unable to return to the physical strain of his pre-war job as a hewer (hence the disability pension).

On the 7th December 1922, Bill’s heart finally gave out, and he died. He was just 26 years and 8 months old. Three months after his death, his first and only son, William (Bill) Crook was born, deprived of the opportunity of ever meeting his dad.

Bill was buried in St Mary’s churchyard at Heworth, just down the road from Felling. He still lies there today.

Somewhere.

His grave, located against one of the outer walls which remain today, has long since been lost and buried over. Of course, had he have died just over a year earlier, he would have qualified for a CWGC burial. Whether or not Mary would have wanted one for him is a moot point. Instead, Bill was almost forgotten.

But not quite.

His grandson, my cousin, knew something about him having served in the First World War and asked me if I could find out anything about it. This blog is a small part of what I discovered.

Like I said at the beginning, we’ve all probably got a Bill somewhere in our ancestry. Many soldiers are well remembered thanks to the incredible work of organisations such as the CWGC and the Royal British Legion. Some, however, like Bill, are – if not forgotten completely -disappearing into the mists of time.

And that is something I personally find extremely sad.

That’s why – for me – its’ so important that we continue to try and remember them all. And that goes for men like Bill, and men like my own Grandad, Jack Durham.

Shells didn’t kill either of them. But, as Remarque astutely noted, the war destroyed them both.

Bill Crook, MM, c.1920
(Source: author)

My Boys

Towards the end of last year, I began transcribing the First World War Diaries of the 10th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, as part of an ambitious project, led by the Great War Group (www.greatwargroup.com), to write an official history of the 14th Division.

It is a substantial task: nine separate downloads from the National Archives, each containing hundreds of pages, spanning the battalion’s arrival in France, in May 1915, through to their eventual disbandment in early 1918. I have only just completed the final transcriptions for 1915. Alongside my main working document, I have compiled a log containing the details of every man whose name appears within the diaries, and have tried – where possible – to research each one in just a little bit more depth. It’s time consuming, often frustrating, but it’s also one of the most worthwhile, satisfying and immersive tasks I’ve ever undertaken. A true labour of love.

Having been born in a part of the old County Durham (it became part of Tyne & Wear in 1974) and proudly sharing its name, I feel a real affinity with the Durham Light Infantry. It felt an obvious choice to transcribe the war diaries of the 10th Battalion, who formed part of 14th Division during the First World War. What’s more, that sense of affinity has grown stronger – much stronger – to the point where I actually now consider them to be ‘my boys’. It is the process of transcribing the diaries that has caused this. It is thoroughly absorbing, taking me right back to the time as if it was only yesterday. Obviously, I never met any of these men (nor to my knowledge, am I related to any of them). Neither have I any personal experience of my own that would come close to comparing with theirs. But through this process, I have learned things about some of them. In some cases, I feel I’ve even grown to know them.

For example, I never knew Private John Pell Blenkinsopp (was he known as John? Could he have been Jack? Or, perhaps, ‘Pelly’ or ‘Blenky’? I don’t know), a 32 year-old former dock labourer from Sunderland – the biggest ship-building town in the world at that time. I never met his wife, Ellen, nor their children, Thomas, Nora, Ellen and Mary Jane. I can picture their little home in Trinity Place, Sunderland, however. A small, terraced house in an impoverished part of town, close to the docks where John worked. I know John seemed keen to enlist; 28th August 1914. Perhaps driven by patriotism, perhaps just to escape the mundaneness of his surroundings. I can even infer, from his military service records, that – perhaps – he had a keen sense of humour. He was once confined to barracks for three days for laughing on parade. I’ve also been fortunate enough to locate a photograph of him in which, to me at least, he looks an honest, if ever-so slightly bewildered, ordinary man.

I wasn’t there when John was shot in the head whilst in the trenches near Ypres on 17th June 1915 – less than a month after the battalion first landed in France. He died of his wounds later that day. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to have witnessed that fateful moment. To have rallied to his aid in a desperate attempt to save his life. Maybe, to some extent at least, neither could his comrades: he was, after all, the battalion’s first fatality ‘in action’ on the Western Front. I’ve thought about how Ellen might have reacted on receiving the news that her husband and the father of her 4 children had been killed. How did she cope? So many Ellens. John is buried at Packhorse Shrine CWGC. I don’t think I’ve ever visited that particular cemetery. I will do now, though. He was one of ‘my boys’.

Then there is 2nd Lieutenant Austin Hines, another Sunderland man, but with a very different background to John Blenkinsopp. He was privately educated at Ampleforth College in Yorkshire, and subsequently followed his father and his older brother in becoming a solicitor in the family firm, Hines & Sons. Austin enlisted into the Artists Rifles when war broke out but was commissioned with the Durham Light Infantry on 27th November 1915. On 6th December 1915, the 10th Durham’s war diary records him and 2nd Lieutenant Harold Daws as joining the battalion. As I read this, whilst transcribing the entry, I pictured these two new officers reporting for duty in a battalion which had already been through so much horror during the summer of that year (the 14th Division suffered terribly during the first German flamethrower attacks at Hooge, in late July / early August 1915) . I tried to imagine how they must have been feeling. Nervous? Surely. Excited? Almost certainly. Afraid? Probably. Like all of those I have encountered whilst still alive in the diary, I looked forward to perhaps reading more about their experiences. For Austin Hines, that experience wouldn’t last very long.

On 14th December 1915, the war diary reports that the 10ths were ‘very heavily shelled in the front trenches from 1.10pm to 3.45pm. Aeroplanes very active’. It goes on to report that 2nd Lieutenant Austin Hines was killed in the process.

He had been commanding a platoon in one of the front trenches when a trench mortar shell exploded at his feet. Harold Daws, in an adjoining trench, immediately went to see him, on hearing he had been hit. He found him away from the trench awaiting evacuation to a Casualty Clearing Station, conscious, but in immense pain. Both of his legs had practically been blown off and he had wounds to his arm and under his chin. Daws asked his friend if he was suffering any pain. Hines replied, “Yes, it’s terrible”, but said it so that nobody other than Daws could hear him. As he was being placed in the ambulance, a few hours later, weakened and in unimaginable pain, he said to another officer, 2nd Lieutenant H. W. Butland, “Goodbye, Butland, and keep down”. He died the following day and is buried at Lijssenthoek CWGC cemetery.

It’s probably too melodramatic to say I was ‘shocked and saddened’ to learn of his death. Yet, I genuinely did feel a profound sense of melancholy. For most of that day, I couldn’t stop thinking about him, and found myself wishing there was something I could have done. Stupid, right? In reality, of course it is, but in the context of the power of these diaries to fully immerse me in the contemporary experiences they depict, maybe not so stupid. Maybe understandable. He was, like John Blenkinsopp, one of ‘my boys’.

Already, there are many more, and presently being only at the end of transcribing the war diaries for 1915, I am looking forward to getting to know more of them even better. The vast majority of the names I have logged so far are ‘still alive’ (as far as I can ascertain). But, 1916 looms large and I’m already steeling myself for what lies ahead for ‘my boys’.  

March 2020: The Beginning of the Annus Horribilis

Following the announcement by Boris Johnson, on 18th March, that the UK would be going into a national lockdown from 20th March, I began to keep a diary. It’s not the first diary I’ve kept; as a teenager I used to keep them a la Adrian Mole. However, like most of us, I guess, I recognised that we were about to enter one of the most tumultuous periods in our recent history (and certainly in my lifetime). The diary focuses solely on the Covid-19 pandemic and its effect on aspects of all our lives, but, naturally enough, mine in particular. With 2020 now (just) consigned to history, I re-read it today. It was quite an experience for me and still had the capacity to shock me at times – especially in light of what has happened since and where we currently are today. I thought I’d share some excerpts with you from the diary’s beginnings back in March. It’ll never rival Pepys (or even Adrian Mole, for that matter), but it begins whilst I was still employed as a Year 6 teacher at a local primary school in Norfolk.

WEDNESDAY 18TH MARCH 2020

I’ve started here because this is where – for me at least – things really started to impact. At just after 5pm, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that all schools and other educational establishments in England would be closing until further notice, with effect from Friday 20th March. This followed decisions by the Northern Irish, Welsh and Scottish Assemblies to close their respective educational establishments (in Northern Ireland’s case, with immediate effect). The caveat was that ‘some’ schools would remain open in order to ‘mind’ the children of essential workers and those that are deemed ‘vulnerable’. Unfortunately, educational leaders and managers were notified at the same time as the rest of the public, and without clarification as to the definitions of ‘essential workers’ or ‘vulnerable children’. Despite only being notified at the same time as the general public that schools would be shutting down, we were not altogether surprised: we had seen a significant drop in attendance figures over the past week or so (Year 6 had dropped from 28 to 20), and we had been expecting an announcement like this sooner rather than later. One of the first decisions made by our head-teacher has been to ask that all attend an impromptu staff meeting at 8:10am tomorrow morning. Meanwhile, panic buying has increased with toilet rolls (bizarrely), tinned foods, meat and medicines taking the biggest hit.

FRIDAY 20TH MARCH 2020

A handful of children turned up for school this morning. Even less parents. Year 6 probably had the highest attendance rate at exactly 50% (14 from 28). I greeted them on the school playground at 8:30am, as usual. They were different. They seemed genuinely sad and bewildered. There was no excitement whatsoever about being ‘off’ from school indefinitely. Some had already figured that this might be their last ever day at ‘St Ed’s’. Reassuring them was more difficult than usual.

Once again, classes were merged as the planning continued. Home-packs were assembled and testing of the online platforms was carried out. There were some minor setbacks, but generally speaking, we’re in a good place with it all. This afternoon, the adults of those children not in school began to arrive to collect the home packs. It will be interesting to see what the uptake will be and how many children bother to engage with it all.

At the end of the school day, I said an emotional ‘goodbye’ to the remnants of my class. I honestly don’t know when – or if – I’ll see them back at school again. They sense this too. There were a few misty eyes to say the least.

En route home, I stopped off at the supermarket. I was shocked. No meat (some fish), no bread, no toilet roll (inevitably), and only a few bottles of – largely foreign – lagers. The store was busily training a number of new, young cashiers on the tills. It felt like there was more staff than products.

This evening, the PM introduced more, decisive measures, designed to reduce the amount of non-essential social contact by ordering the immediate closure of all pubs, bars and restaurants (save for take away establishments). Once again, an unprecedented move in unprecedented times.

SATURDAY 21ST MARCH 2020

Sporting events have been all but non-existent for a couple of weeks now, so Saturday has an altogether different feel to it.

The Government’s Daily Briefing was at 2pm today (earlier than usual), and it was the turn of George Eustice, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to lead the broadcast. He reinforced the message that people should NOT panic-buy, not least because it is leading to a situation where the essential workforce (NHS, police etc.) are unable to get any supplies of their own. It really is a ridiculous state of affairs. He said people who hoard products should be ‘ashamed of themselves’. Strong enough words, but will they have any effect?

Certainly not from what Beth and I found when we took a walk up to our local supermarket to try and get ourselves some supplies. It was 3:45pm by the time we got there and – unsurprisingly – there wasn’t a lot left. In particular, there was no fresh meat, nor some cleaning products (dishwasher tablets etc.) and many shelves were completely bare. The closure of the pubs yesterday meant that the alcohol aisle had also been emptied. We managed to cobble together a few bits, however, and overall we both felt it could have been worse.

The updated Coronavirus figures made for depressing news, however. 1,035 new reported cases in the last 24 hours (5,018 in total) and 56 new deaths (233 in total). This is by far the highest daily increase since the virus arrived in the UK. Last week, I anticipated that the death rate would exceed 100, but it has more than doubled that. The rate is most definitely now in a phase of acceleration. The images and stories coming out of Italy remain extremely depressing, and – by all accounts- the UK is about 3 weeks behind them.

Yet, it wouldn’t be right to portray a picture of everybody being depressed, panic-stricken or behaving THAT abnormally. Cars still go past our house; people are still out walking (I saw a group of young people walking along the road whilst performing on musical instruments. Maybe not the most sensible thing to do, given Government advice, but it made me smile), and social media (notably Facebook and Twitter) is awash with humorous posts. I’m even part of a Facebook Messenger group set up by my Antipodean family. Coronavirus is as real and frightening to them over in Australia and New Zealand as it is here. I also ‘FaceTimed’ my dad (which I’ve started doing more regularly than just phoning him). He was fine and seems to be quite happy in his self-isolation. They’re a particular worry though, our older generation, being one of the highest risk groups.

The whole world seems to be in the grip of this crisis now: Pakistan being the latest major country to restrict flights in and out of their country. It seems incredible to most reasonable people now that only a few weeks ago, President Trump was dismissing it all as ‘just a flu’ that would ‘vanish very soon’. But that was President Trump.

MONDAY 23RD MARCH 2020

I was up at 6:15am this morning, and have now put all of today’s teaching, tutorials and materials online for Year 6. There are 28 pupils, but so far only 13 have set up portfolios and I have grave doubts about how many of those will actually access the work, never mind complete it.

9:45pm – On the whole, the online teaching has been a great success today. I think the children have enjoyed it and it seems to have kept them occupied. I received lots of work submissions.

But all of that pales into insignificance in light of the PMs Broadcast to the nation, just over an hour ago. We are effectively now in ‘lockdown’, with the most restrictive measures ever placed on our society. He introduced a raft of restrictions, including not leaving home unless travelling to work and unable to work from home, essential shopping, and one period of exercise a day (alone or with a member of your household) – all subject to a review in 3 weeks’ time. He has closed non-essential businesses and civic events, such as baptisms and weddings. He will give the police emergency powers to break up ‘gatherings’ and to fine those who breach the new requirements. All in all, a quite draconian (but, I think, justified) set of measures.

THURSDAY 26TH MARCH 2020

At 8pm this evening, much of the country joined in a national show of support for our NHS. The #ClapTheNHS Twitter campaign was instigated by a Dutch-born British resident. It really struck a chord and tonight at 8pm, millions (including Beth and I) stood on our doorsteps and showed our respect for the work of the NHS (and all our public services). On our road, I’d estimate a +50% turnout.

An hour earlier, Beth and I went for a 45-minute stroll around the neighbourhood as part of our (permitted) daily exercise. We passed (at a safe distance) a few people, but it was otherwise eerily quiet, most people being sat on their couches watching the News on TV.

So, the sense I get is that things are really starting to ramp up now. There are new reports about plans to build temporary mortuaries and the death rate is starting to rise sharply. I fear that much darker days are now just around the corner.

FRIDAY 27TH MARCH 2020

The big news (so far) today (as far as the mainstream media is concerned, anyway) is that the PM has tested positive for Coronavirus and is suffering from ‘mild symptoms’. Shortly afterwards, it was announced that the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, has also tested positive. Later, we learned that he Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, is self-isolating due to ‘Coronavirus-type symptoms’. Almost taking a back seat in all of this is the news that 181 more people have died in the past 24 hours. The total of UK deaths currently stands at 759, with 14,579 reported cases.

SATURDAY 28TH MARCH 2020

There were 260 deaths in the UK in the past 24 hours – double yesterday’s highest-so-far daily figure. This put the overall death total past the thousand mark at 1,019 from 17,089 reported cases. The best scientific ‘guess’ is that we are still 3 weeks away from peaking and if Spain and Italy’s daily death tolls are replicated, figures of almost 1,000 deaths per day can be expected.

There is ‘hope’ (I place this in inverted commas, as I suspect it is as much to do with trying to keep the public as calm as possible as a genuine, science-based belief) that the UK can ‘cut off’ the peak. I’ve heard some suggestions that the death toll could be as low as 7,000 but getting below 20,000 would still be considered a ‘success’. There are so many other issues, however. For example, IF this current attempt at minimising social contact is effective, what will happen when the measures are lifted (as they will surely have to be as soon as possible, if only to save the economy and prevent social unrest – the latter of which is already beginning to rear its ugly head in Italy according to news reports late today)? Until a vaccine is produced (estimates vary on when this will be, with 6-18 months seeming to be the rather imprecise timeline), the virus is expected to re-emerge and continue its attack on us all. This could be potentially disastrous during the winter months when death tolls from flu alone average 17,000 per annum. I don’t want to even think about it. I’m not prone to panic in these or any other circumstances, but I am deeply concerned. I think just getting through one day at a time is sufficient for me at the present time.

MONDAY 30TH MARCH 2020

Up, showered, dressed and straight online to post today’s virtual learning for my year group. There’s been no let-up in the children’s enthusiasm for their home learning, which is very gratifying. It’s actually been much harder work posting online content than it would have been to have just taught them in the classroom. For example, I find that I’m frequently having to answer the same questions over and over, or point out the same errors. But the fact that they are engaging with it at all is amazing, really. I received over 100 separate submissions of work from the children today – a record amount. That has really pleased me.

Spain’s Foreign Minister says the upward rise in cases appears to be flattening out, which he describes as ‘hopeful’. This is in spite of 812 new deaths in the past 24 hours (7,340 in total). I hope he’s right. Globally, there has been 730,000 reported cases and almost 35,000 deaths. Another 180 people died in the UK in the past 24 hours, bringing our total of deaths to 1,408 out of 22,141 reported cases. At the Daily Briefing (which Dominic Raab led), there were some utterings of optimism, however: maybe the curve is already beginning to flatten; maybe we’re no longer on the same trajectory as Spain and Italy; maybe these ‘lockdown’ measures are beginning to have a positive effect. We can only hope that their reasons for optimism are well-founded.

TUESDAY 31ST MARCH 2020

I took a longer walk today. It was a beautiful afternoon, if a little chilly, and I passed quite a few fellow ‘exercisers’ and dog walkers. It was a joy to breathe in the fresh air and be out in the open once again – especially after spending so much time at the computer again. I completed just over 5 miles. It did my mental health (as well as my physical health) the power of good.

The updated figures for today made for some grim reading: 381 new deaths in the past 24 hours – by far the highest so far – bringing the UK death total to 1,789. There was talk at the Daily Briefing of ‘green shoots of recovery’ based on the fact that the number of new reported cases is no longer rising exponentially. However, as they are still not testing anywhere near enough people, I don’t understand how they can be so confident. Obviously, I welcome any encouraging news but I’m not wholly convinced by this. Whatever; we are still in for a long journey before we are ‘out of the woods’ – everybody agrees on that. Predictably, we are now seeing more deaths of people not in the ‘highest risk’ brackets. These include young, seemingly healthy adults and at least one child (a 13-year-old boy’s death has just been reported). It’s terribly sad (and frightening) and I can only hope that it keeps people focused on adhering to the social distancing measures we are all currently living under.

The diary continues throughout most of 2020, with April and May’s entries covering some particularly significant events, with hindsight (I ‘eased off’ during the summer months when the virus was at its least impactive). It’s been a cathartic process, as well as a worthwhile one (for me, that is). I might post further excerpts in due course.

The Trials of a London-Based Teenage Toon Fan (Part 2)

If being a ‘London-Based Teenage Toon Fan’ was challenging in respect of travelling to away fixtures in the early 1980s, then – certainly as far as distances were concerned – home fixtures were even more so. Whilst membership to the Newcastle United Supporters Club – or NUSC – (London Branch) offered day-return travel from King’s Cross to Newcastle for the (just about, once in a while) affordable sum of £9.50, having so much of my family in the north east afforded less expensive and stressful opportunities.

Still in a state of exhilaration following our trips to QPR and Bristol City, my schoolmate (and by now, my best mate) Keith and I travelled to three more away games before the end of the year. Sadly, the golden dawn which had greeted us at QPR proved to be very much a false one. First, we visited Stamford Bridge on 25th October to witness a 6-0 thrashing by Chelsea, which was covered (like every other drubbing that season) by BBCs ‘Match of the Day’. Despite the defeat, we felt quite proud of ourselves for having attended one of the more notorious of London’s grounds and having escaped unharmed.

Next, came a more genteel trip to Cambridge United, on 8th November. Cambridge is a city I have visited many, many times over the years, but this was my very first visit. Arriving at Cambridge Station (which is itself a good couple of miles from the city centre), we set off on an interminably long walk to the Abbey Stadium (I’m sure it took us well over an hour to reach it). We were ‘rewarded’ with one of Bobby Shinton’s top-scoring 7 league goals in a 2-1 defeat. The atmosphere in the Newcastle end was once again fantastic, however.

Finally, on a bitterly cold day in east London, on 29th November, we travelled to Brisbane Road for the game against – then, just plain old – Orient. It was an abysmally dull affair in which another strike from the goal-machine that was Bobby Shinton almost secured us the 2 points (that’s how long ago it was), but for a late Orient equaliser. The away games had been great, but we were both itching for our first experience of a Newcastle home match, together (my dad had taken me to St James’ Park a number of times before).

A programme from 1980-81 season

On 30th December, Keith and I travelled by coach to Newcastle to stay with my Gran in Felling. Our plan was to watch our black and white heroes play at St James’ Park against Sheffield Wednesday, in the F.A. Cup 3rd Round, on 3rd January 1981. If 1980 was a fairly bleak year, 1981 could well be forgiven for saying ‘hold my beer’. Aside from the fact that 1981 would see higher unemployment, inner city riots and Charles and Di’s wedding, St Winfred’s School Choir topped the charts on New Years’ Day. Of course, for Newcastle fans around the world, the only thing of importance at that moment in time was that cup tie.

One of my cousins’ (Gary) best friends around that time was a young lad called Chris Waddle. Like Gary, he lived in Wardley at that time and, by all accounts, the two of them were ‘thick as thieves’. On hearing that ‘Waddler’ was probably going to be starting for the Sheffield Wednesday game, Keith and I walked over to my Aunty Ol and Uncle Joe’s (Gary’s mam and dad) in Wardley and enquired of Gary whether it might be acceptable to knock on Waddler’s door and ask for an autograph. Gary (albeit a bit bemused) said he was sure Chris wouldn’t mind. So off we went, paper and pens in hands, hearts in mouths, towards Keir Hardie Avenue and Chris Waddle’s house. His mam answered the door. I introduced myself as Gary’s cousin and politely asked if Chris was in, explaining that we had travelled up from London to watch the next day’s match and had wondered if Chris would possibly sign his autograph for us. She seemed genuinely delighted and called for him. Almost immediately, he appeared in the doorway. He looked like he’d been asleep on the settee, but after I introduced myself as Gary’s cousin, was more than happy to sign the autographs for Keith and me. I asked him if he would be starting against Sheffield Wednesday and he replied ‘I hope so, aye’. That was the extent of our conversation. We thanked him (profusely), wished him good luck, turned around and almost ran the very short distance back to Aunty Ol’s. Mission accomplished.

And so, the big day arrived. We caught the bus from Felling into Newcastle. Hiding scarves? Ha! We practically hung them from the bus window. We both had our Newcastle home shirts on (still under jackets, but not concealed, and wore scarves and bobble hats. Keith’s was a brand new set that he’d been given for Christmas. We marched through the town, up to St James’ Park where, stopping only to buy our programmes, we went through the turnstiles and into the Gallowgate End. We’d done it.

Having been born and lived in Gateshead, the son of Geordie parents, I had quite a strong Geordie accent when I first started school, back in 1971. It was quickly knocked out of me, of course, the school being in London. But in the same way that – for example – a Lithuanian child arriving in Britain can quickly become fluently bilingual at an early age, I too became sort of bilingual: able to perfect both a Geordie and a Cockney accent. Today, I generally speak with a south-east (not Cockney) accent, with the hint of my Geordie roots coming through. But, after a couple of pints – or in the company of other Geordies – this quickly becomes almost full Geordie. Keith, on the other hand, being born and bred in east London only spoke Cockney – something that had been increasingly bothering him in the run up to the match. To counter this, he had even been trying to mimic the Geordie accent and listened carefully when, for example, my Uncle Joe spoke (not that that would have done him much good – I can barely understand my Uncle Joe, so thick is his accent).

With the ground by no means full, but certainly containing a healthy crowd (nearly 23,000 attended the game – a very decent attendance considering where we were at the time), the game got underway. Chris Waddle did indeed start the game, and half way through the first half, scored right in front of us in the Gallowgate End. We went wild. We cheered, pogoed, hugged strangers, all the usual things. Keith – now firmly feeling part of a Newcastle home crowd – even started shouting out in his newly-acquired accent which, he thought, must have sounded pure Geordie. Except that it didn’t.

As anyone who has ever watched an episode of Vera, or one of those 1980/90s Catherine Cookson TV adaptations, will know, generally speaking, Londoners don’t do very good Geordie accents (there are some exceptions, naturally, but not many). They tend to sound a bit Yorkshirey. Whilst being a bit cringeworthy, this isn’t usually a problem. Unless you’re stood in the Gallowgate End whilst Newcastle are playing a team from Yorkshire.

Keith’s enthusiasm was commendable, but it had begun to attract a bit of attention. I became aware of some mutterings behind me about the possibility of him being a Sheffield Wednesday fan. I monitored them. The rumblings continued with every new attempt Keith made at his version of Geordie. Suddenly, there was a push from behind, and Keith went stumbling forwards. I felt it was time to intervene. I turned to a group of older teens who were clearly the instigators and said to them (in -even if I do say it myself – impeccable Geordie) ‘Leave him alone lads, he’s one of us man’. This prompted a couple of questions as to who we were and where we were from, which were quickly explained away to their full satisfaction. That was before – inexplicably – Keith piped up again, this time in his own naturally Cockney accent, ‘Yeah, I ain’t Sheffield Wednesday, I’m from Laandan.’

It was a good couple of minutes before I saw Keith again. For a while, he was lost to me in a circle of beer-soaked winter coats and breath. I tried to get to him, but failed miserably. Eventually, he was rescued by other home fans who – quite rightly – were fairly unimpressed at the way he’d been treated. Thankfully, he wasn’t hurt, having been pushed and shoved a bit around the circle, but nothing more. Nevertheless, once liberated, I quickly ensured that we moved away to a different spot and – not that I needed to – advised Keith to keep quiet. It didn’t seem to spoil his afternoon and we were quickly in fits of laughter about the whole incident. In the second half, Waddler scored again to secure us a 2-1 victory. Keith and I were ecstatic.

We left the ground on cloud nine, secure in the belief that this year was going to be our year for the F.A. Cup. As it transpired, events at a similarly named ground in Devon would prove otherwise. As we made our way back towards the bus station, a kid ran alongside us and swiped Keith’s bobble hat from his head, before running off into the crowds.

THAT was the only black mark on Keith’s day.

The Trials of a London-Based Teenage Toon Fan

It’s never been easy being a Toon fan; that is, a fan of Newcastle United Football Club. Over 47 years supporting them has more than convinced me of that. Apart from a few glorious (but nevertheless trophy-less) years in the 1990s, and a brief mini-renaissance in the early 2000s, it has largely been a case of mid-table mediocrity and relegation battles. However, as a 14 year old Toon fan, living on the outskirts of east London in 1980, it really was a challenge – and not just due to the particularly dire football we had to endure, either.

First of all, some of you reading this might need to know (or be reminded of) what 1980 was like. The country was in its second year of Margaret Thatcher’s reign as Prime Minister, unemployment was rising at a considerable rate, and televised football could only be viewed on a Saturday night, Sunday lunchtime and, occasionally, in the middle of the week (after the main news programmes). Furthermore, these were edited highlights only. ‘Live’ televised matches were about as rare as hens’ teeth, saved only for the biggest of events: World Cup and European Championship Finals, the odd international game and, of course, the F.A. Cup Final. Even the League Cup Final was a ‘highlights only’ show and the Charity Shield was usually the first game of the season shown by ‘Match of the Day’. On the plus side of 1980, The Jam were storming the pop charts and John Lennon came out from retirement to re-start his legendary music career, which, tragically, did not see out the year.

Exhibit A: Teenage Toon Fan

Secondly, you will need to understand what being a Teenage Toon Fan in east London was like at that time. Strictly speaking, my postal address was an Essex one, but in one of those confusing administrative things, I lived within the London Borough of Havering. My secondary school contained 1600 pupils, of which only one other boy – ironically, in my year – was a Newcastle supporter (Mr Nicholls, who taught French, was also a Toon fan, but he very much liked to keep that to himself). I, however, was the only ‘Geordie’, having been born in Gateshead, and lived in ‘The Felling’. In fact, ‘Geordie’ soon became my nickname (sometimes followed by ‘Scum’, sometimes not). It wasn’t a super-tough school, by any means, but it had its fair share of ‘hard-nuts and head-cases’. The vast majority of kids, naturally enough, were fans of the big London clubs: Arsenal, Spurs, West Ham and Manchester United (sorry, couldn’t resist). Most were either sympathetic to, or confused by, my supporting Newcastle. I was happy with that.

Things took a turn for the worse in March 1980, following an incident at a Newcastle v West Ham game, when a Newcastle fan decided to offer the away fans something to keep them warm, in the form of a petrol bomb. That certainly made my Monday back at school interesting (and, I think, heralded my new ‘Scum’ suffix). A boy in the year above me – a West Ham fan – claimed to have been standing with the away fans when it happened (whether or not this was actually true, nobody seemed to know – there were certainly some doubts), and on learning that I was a Toon fan, set about hunting for me around the school in order to exact some sort of revenge. Thankfully, apart from a few verbal threats, this did not amount to anything. That boy was John Cornwell, and he would go on to play for (you’ve guessed it) Newcastle United.

Having become firm friends with the only other Toon fan in my school (Keith), we decided to start going to see our heroes in action together. Home matches were initially a pipe dream at the start of the 1980-81 season, so our first trip was all the way across to west London to see us play QPR on 13th September. After a dismal start to the season, Bill McGarry had been sacked, Joe Harvey had returned to temporarily steady the ship, and a new manager – Arthur Cox – was now in post. Keith and I, donning identical black Harrington jackets, and jeans, caught the bus to Hainault Underground Station and took the Central Line train all the way through to White City. It would have been, quite frankly, an act of suicide to have had our Newcastle shirts and scarves on display, so these were both safely concealed underneath our Harringtons (which were zipped up to the max). From White City Tube Station, we made our way to the far end of the Loftus Road ground, where the away fans were congregated.

Only once safely through the turnstiles were the Harringtons unzipped and our shirts and scarves given the chance to breathe. We found a spot behind the goal and took it all in, as hundreds of the Toon Army began to fill the stands. I will never forget that atmosphere for as long as I live. There was non-stop singing from start to finish, pushing, jostling and – when Stuart Boam headed us into an unexpected 1-0 lead – absolute mayhem. The feeling of belonging was instantaneous and as we left the ground, singing our version of ‘Jingle Bells’ (we’d won the game 2-1), I didn’t want to go home.

Sadly, we were quickly separated from the vast majority of our fellow Toon fans, most of whom were either directed back to their coaches, or who took a different route back to King’s Cross. Faces aglow, but still uber-cautious, Keith and I stuffed our scarves back inside our Harringtons and zipped them back up. We didn’t talk on the tube back home – we were both too hoarse. It had been a truly memorable day.

During the following week, Keith and I – buoyed by our experiences of the previous Saturday – wrote off to join the Newcastle United Supporters Club (London Branch). At that time, they offered same-day return travel to Newcastle’s home games, via King’s Cross, for the princely sum of £9.50. For a paper boy earning about £4 per week, that was a lot of money. However, on Saturday 11th October, we had our first ‘proper’ away trip with the NUSC, and travelled to Bristol to see our black and white heroes take on the mighty Bristol City.

It cost us £6.50 each to travel from Paddington to Temple Meads and back. We had another trip across London on the tube (same routine re: zipped up Harringtons) and met a group of fellow NUSC members on the concourse at Paddington. Numbers soon swelled to about 20, and before we knew it, we were on the train and on our way. Off came the Harringtons, out came the scarves. The first pleasant surprise was when one older fan handed us each a can of McEwans Scotch Bitter to drink. Half a can was about all it took us to start the communal singing: ‘Ya-nited! Ya-nited!’, ‘An N and an E and a Wubbleyou C’, and (because at that time we thought it was compulsory) ‘Jingle Bells, jingle bells’. I at least was half-cut by the time the train rolled into Temple Meads. Off we all got, and headed down the platform towards the main concourse, still singing and still brazenly displaying out black and white colours. I felt like one of the Mods in Quadrophenia. Keith and I followed the other 18 or so members of the NUSC – every single one of them considerably older than us – out of the station and straight to the nearest pub. This was our first unpleasant surprise. They all got allowed in; we, being 14 years old, didn’t. Suddenly, we felt very alone and very exposed.

After our initial panic-stricken freeze, we hastily re-donned the Harringtons, hid the scarves away, and walked off like the silly schoolboys we were. It was only 12:30pm, but we decided to head towards Ashton Gate. The walk seemed to take forever, and all I could think of, as we sheepishly made our way to the ground, were the lyrics to The Jam’s Strange Town. We finally reached Ashton Gate just before the turnstiles opened at 1:30pm, and we were literally the first fans to enter the ground. It was cold, drizzly and there was no roof on the away end. We’d bought programmes and a ‘Westlers’ burger (horrible, soggy things) to cheer ourselves up. Finally, at about 2:30pm, the Newcastle fans began to arrive. Not as many as had been at QPR, it seemed, but certainly far more than the shower we were collectively about to witness deserved. We sang, chanted, clapped etc, but the atmosphere wasn’t quite as it had been a few weeks earlier at Loftus Road. The match itself? I know we lost 2-0 and that they scored their second courtesy of a last minute penalty, but that’s about it. I was actually relieved when the final whistle blew.

We made our way back to Temple Meads alone, again having been separated from the coach-bound away fans and unable to recognise any of our new-found NUSC friends. Then it happened: our first confrontation with some home fans.

We’d been walking for about ten minutes when Keith suddenly said ‘Oh, shit’. I looked up to see a group of five boys, all about the same age as ourselves, crossing the road and purposefully walking directly towards us, their red and white scarves betraying their Bristol City allegiances. The ringleader, a scruffy, fair-haired boy wearing a denim jacket and jeans (a’ no no’ even back then) stopped us in our tracks, looked us up and own (with contempt, of course) and said, ‘Are you Noocarsel?’. I have, of course, since thought of a million and one witty replies I could have given in response to that question. Thankfully, none of them came to mind in the crisis of the moment. Instead, Keith and I looked at each other (possibly for reassurance, possibly to check if the other was about to ‘do a runner’) and said, jointly, ‘Erm..yeah’. Incredibly, this seemed to throw our interrogator right off his tracks, and it was his turn to look to his friends for a bit of reassurance. He turned back to us, ‘But your’e not Geordies though?’

Now, like many boys, my mam had always taught me that honesty is the best policy. Today, as a 50-something year old man, I think it often is, but certainly not always. Back then, I went with my mam’s advice and hearing Keith reply to the question with a ‘No’, jumped in with a ‘Well, I am, actually’. If our first answer had thrown our interrogator of his track, my latest one had him rolling down the embankment headlong towards the river. After a surprisingly long conflab with his cronies, he finally turned to us and said, ‘But you don’t live in Noocarsel, though?’

To this – and in truthful unison – we answered ‘No’. I think he seemed more relived than anybody, as he promptly brought our encounter to a joyful ending (for us) with ‘All right then, we’ll let you off’. With that, Keith and I put our heads down and continued on our way to Temple Meads Station, albeit at a much quicker pace.

We didn’t see any of our NUSC friends on the train back to Paddington, and had another cautious, but ultimately uneventful, trip across to east London on the Underground. It had once again – but for different reasons – been quite a day.

There were plenty of other matches we saw that season (including a couple of home games), each with its own (usually funny) story. But, I’ll leave those for another day.

A ‘moaning old gadgie’.

It’s been years since I wrote anything about Newcastle United, save for ‘tweeting’ (to the chagrin of my non-NUFC followers, no doubt). Twitter has accommodated most of what I have wanted to say in recent years: largely, short, sharp outbursts of frustration and derision. Back in the 1990s, I was a fairly regular contributor to ‘The Mag’, then one of the leading Newcastle fanzines in the pre-social media world. Compared to today, it really was a ‘golden age’ for the club and the team, and it was a pleasure to usually submit optimistic, positive articles about the club. I remember, the last article I had published was back in 2007, and was about our incoming, new owner, Mike Ashley. Following Bobby Robson’s shoddily-handled departure, I had become – for the first time – a bit disillusioned with my club, and I remember writing some criticism of Freddie Shepherd which, with the benefit of hindsight, now seems somewhat absurd in comparison with what was to come. As I saw it then, the arrival of Mike Ashley represented a genuine hope that the decline of the past couple of seasons would be reversed and that the good times would soon be back.

I’ve supported Newcastle United since I was 7 years old. Funnily enough, my dad – who never intervened in any other of my decisions in life – ‘suggested’ (irresistibly) that I – like him – should support Newcastle, after I had watched Sunderland beat Leeds in the 1973 F.A. Cup Final, and had naively (and blissfully unaware of the huge connotations for my ‘black and white daft’ family) announced that I would be supporting the red and whites. Since that fateful day, I have both adored and cursed him for his fatherly ‘guidance’. In fact, my first full season as a Newcastle supporter concluded with the 1974 F.A. Cup Final. There’d certainly been plenty of ‘highs’ along the way: the agony to ecstasy to confusion to ecstasy again of the quarter-final, versus Nottingham Forest; the semi-final victory against Burnley, on the eve of my 8th birthday; Supermac. But, those ‘highs’ were virtually demolished in one 90 minute spell of the most disappointing football I still think I have ever seen. It didn’t get much better thereafter, either.

By the 1980s, with the team firmly entrenched in the obscurity of the old Second Division, I began travelling to matches, unaccompanied by my dad, for the first time. I was living on the London/Essex border by then, and home matches were a struggle. I had joined the Newcastle United Supporters Club (London Branch) and travelled with them to a few home games, with the only other lad in my school of 1800 kids who shared my love for the Mags. It would cost us £9.50 for a day return, leaving King’s Cross at 9am, and getting back in at around 9pm. On top of that, was the cost of the entrance fee, a programme, and pie. On occasions, we would pay a flying visit to my Gran’s, in Felling, who would do us a ham and pease pudding stottie.

Mostly, however, we would travel to away matches – usually much easier for us. In those early days of the 1980s, we travelled to Bristol City, every London fixture, Cambridge, Watford, Derby, Luton, Grimsby, Shrewsbury and Barnsley to name but a few. The football we saw was usually fairly dismal, but the feeling of being part of it all was genuinely thrilling (and often hilarious). The highlight of these years was, of course, our promotion season under Kevin Keegan’s captaincy in 1984. The football certainly wasn’t ‘dismal’ by then, and even today, I count myself extremely privileged to have watched that Newcastle United team. Not for the first (or last) time, however, the opportunity to build on that success was squandered, and relegation back to the Second Division followed after only five short years. Of all the periods in my journey supporting Newcastle, that was one of the most demoralising.

Ironically, it was the revolution (and I don’t think that is too strong a term) under Sir John Hall that curtailed my opportunities to watch what was to become the most exciting Newcastle United teams I have personally ever seen. St James’ Park soon became a season-ticket sell out, and shift working and living in London denied me the chance to be a regularly attending part of it, save for the odd loan of somebody else’s season ticket, and getting to some away games. I’ve been accused on Twitter of being a ‘moaning old gadgie’ (which is fairly accurate, actually) for ‘harping on about the old days’ (i.e. the ‘Keegan Years’). Well, firstly, they don’t seem like the ‘old days’ to me (it’s an age thing, which some of you will identify with, I’m sure), and secondly, if you had been fortunate / old enough to live through those days, you’d be ‘harping on’ about them too. They were simply the best years I have ever experienced as a Newcastle supporter. But, once again, we missed the ‘opportunity boat’ and – a happy, but all too brief, renaissance under Sir Bobby Robson aside – we found ourselves on a trajectory of ‘backslide’ by the time Mike Ashley took over in 2007.

And, in many ways, that’s where my story sort of ends. You see, since then, my love for Newcastle United may not have receded, but my passion for it certainly has. Not of all of this can be blamed on Ashley, although the litany of disasters which have dogged so much of his tenure has obviously been a major factor. Football in general has become less palatable. Initially, I was a huge fan of Sky TV. I think it almost single-handedly picked the game up off of its knees in the early 1990s and – for a while – transformed it into a genuinely world class product. But today – with constantly re-scheduled fixture times (which have decimated the traditional Saturday afternoon fixture list in particular), its – perhaps unintended – consequence of creating a ‘Super 6’ stranglehold of certain clubs, and its most recent, appalling involvement in charging an extra £15 ‘Pay Per View’ on top of its already expensive subscription, has changed my view of them. Like Ashley, they’re not entirely to blame, however. Money talks, everybody knows that. It’s why Liverpool and Manchester United are currently trying to further line their excessively deep pockets with talks of European Super Leagues, and increased powers within the Premier League, to name but two.

The debacle which has been the proposed takeover of Newcastle United, has also done much to erode my joie de vivre for the game. Whatever the truth is behind it all, it has left me with a very bitter taste in my mouth – and completely disillusioned with those charged with running our national sport. There are other things as well, but listing them here would add nothing further. Suffice to say, the game has changed (and continues to change) in a way that I am not enjoying right now. Of course, I am writing this at a time of Covid-19 enforced empty stadia which seems to have resulted in some very strange and somewhat hollow performances in recent months.

However, I’m nothing if not an optimist, and firmly believe in the concept of ‘fan power’. Football has always belonged to the people, and nowhere is that more the case than at Newcastle United. I’m still sure that something resembling ‘the good times’ will one day return to St James’ Park. Of course, only those of a certain age will fully appreciate what I’m saying. It is completely understandable for younger fans in particular to believe that these days are ‘the norm’. I, on the other hand, choose to believe otherwise.

A Band of Brothers and Sisters

If you have ever visited, or otherwise been through, Arundel, in West Sussex, then I am sure you will agree what a picturesque town it is. Commanding stunning views of beautiful countryside, its magnificent 11th Century castle, located on its eastern flank, quite rightly dominates. But, to its west, on the other side of town, is another hugely impressive structure: Arundel Cathedral of Our Lady and Saint Philip Howard. This French-Gothic style Catholic cathedral was completed in 1873, and is – like the castle to its east – a landmark in the countryside of West Sussex.

Such is its aesthetic attraction, that I felt compelled to visit it immediately following my tour of the castle, in the spring of 2019. I was not disappointed: the cathedral was as splendid on the inside as it had promised to be on the outside. As is usually the case whenever I visit a church, I set off to locate any local war memorials which might be displayed within. I quickly found, on one of the great stone walls, a Roll of Honour listing the names of local men who had lost their lives in the two great conflicts of the twentieth century.

Roll of Honour in Arundel Catholic Cathedral (author’s own photograph)

One name immediately jumped out at me: Maxwell-Stuart. Not one, not two, but four men bearing that particular surname were listed on the 1914-18 Roll. I know that this is (sadly) by no means unique, but despite my having no personal connections whatsoever to the family, I nevertheless felt a strong need to find out more about them.

The Maxwell-Stuarts (or to give them their full name, the Constable-Maxwell-Stuarts) are a Scottish, Catholic family, of notable distinction. They are directly linked to Traquair House, in Peebleshire, on the Borders of Scotland and England. This was gifted to James Stewart in 1491 by his father, the Earl of Buchan. James, consequently, became the 1st Laird of Traquair. To date, there have been twenty-one ‘Lairds of Traquair’ (two of whom, including the present incumbent, have been ‘Ladies’). In the 16th and 17th Centuries, Traquair was the centre of Scottish political power, and the then Laird was an associate of Mary Queen of Scots, who is known to have visited the house in 1566. A century later, Charles ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ Stuart – an associate of the then Jacobite-supporting Laird, also named Charles Stuart – visited there in 1745 (the Laird was subsequently imprisoned in the Tower of London, following the unsuccessful Jacobite rebellion of the same year). The current Laird (Lady of Traquair) is Catherine Maxwell-Stuart, who inherited the title and the estate in 1990.

The four Maxwell-Stuart brothers listed on the Roll of Honour, were all sons of Edmund Maxwell-Stuart and The Hon. Mary Anne Maxwell-Stuart (nee Herries). In total, they had eleven children:

Mary Josephine Constable-Maxwell-Stuart, b. 06/07/1885

Francis Joseph Constable-Maxwell-Stuart, b. 17/06/1886

Florence Mary Collette Constable-Maxwell-Stuart, b. 17/06/1886

Henry Joseph Ignatius Constable-Maxwell-Stuart, b. 21/07/1887

Marcia May Gertrude Constable-Maxwell-Stuart, b. 10/10/1888

Emily Mary Josephine Constable-Maxwell-Stuart, b. 05/05/1890

Edmund Joseph Constable-Maxwell-Stuart, b. 30/10/1892

William Joseph Peter Constable-Maxwell-Stuart, b. 22/07/1895

Joseph Joachim Constable-Maxwell-Stuart, b. 22/08/1896

Alfred Joseph Constable-Maxwell-Stuart, b. 25/04/1898

Philip Joseph Constable-Maxwell-Stuart, b. 08/03/1903

There is no doubt that the Maxwell-Stuarts were a privileged family. All of the children enjoyed a first class education, and when war broke out in August 1914, were either gainfully employed or – in the case of Alfred and Philip – still in education. The family home at this time was Batworth Park, Arundel, West Sussex. Of the eleven Maxwell-Stuart children, no less than eight of them volunteered for First World War service. It is a frequently perpetuated myth that it was the working classes who contributed and suffered the most during the First World War. Similarly, many hold the belief that the lion-share of casualties were sustained by them. In comparison, their argument goes, the middle and upper classes had it far easier (an argument which, in some cases, leads directly or indirectly to both the ‘chateau generals’ and the ‘lions led by donkeys’ schools of thought).

Much research has demonstrated that – proportionately at least – this was simply not the case. John Lewis-Stempel’s work, for example, has shown that a subaltern entering the trenches would have an average life expectancy of about six weeks. Furthermore, J.M. Winter (among others) concludes that, whilst casualties amongst the working classes were certainly more numerous, the social elites (from which officers were largely recruited) suffered disproportionately heavy losses. The experience of the Maxwell-Stuarts certainly tends to support the findings in both of these pieces of work.

Of the eight Maxwell-Stuarts who served, four were to return from the war alive: Francis, Marcia, Emily and William.

Lieutenant Francis Maxwell-Stuart enlisted into the East Riding Yorkshire Yeomanry. He survived the war and went on to attain the rank of captain in the Royal Engineers, where he also fought in the Second World War. In 1942, he became the 19th Laird of Traquair, a title he held until his death, at the age of 76, in 1962. As the eldest son (and whilst still serving as an officer at the end of the First World War), he had the unenviable task of applying for the Victory and British medals, posthumously awarded to four of his brothers, on behalf of his father.

Marcia (May) Maxwell-Stuart enlisted into the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) and was attached to Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS), where she served on the Western Front between November 1915 and December 1917. She married Douglas Christopher Leng on 26 October 1920 and died in 1956, at the age of 67.

Emily Mary Maxwell-Stuart joined the British Committee, French Red Cross, where she served as a Sister between March 1915 and July 1917. She died in 1970 at the age of 80, unmarried.

2nd Lieutenant William Joseph Peter Maxwell-Stuart enlisted into the Royal Sussex Regiment (probably the 1/4th Battalion). He embarked on 8th August 1915 and served in the Gallipoli and Aegean Islands theatre. He was twice married: first to Ruth Sykes, and later to Anne Williamson. He died on 3rd October 1964, aged 69.

All four qualified for, and were awarded, Victory and British medals at the end of the war. For the four other recipients within the Maxwell-Stuart family, there would be no homecoming, however.

Prior to the war, Joseph Joachim Maxwell-Stuart (often referred to as ‘JJ’), the fifth son, had been educated at Stonyhurst College (like all of his brothers): an independent Catholic Jesuit school located in Clitheroe, Lancashire. Thereafter, he was employed by the Midland Railway Company. He was gazetted as 2nd Lieutenant on 3rd March 1915 and joined the 9th (Service) Battalion of the Duke of Wellington (West Riding Regiment). He landed in France in September 1915 and was promoted to 1st Lieutenant two months later. Within a few weeks, in December, he was wounded in action – seriously enough to require repatriation to England. However, his convalescence was evidently a short one, as he returned to his unit in January 1916 (the Battalion’s war diaries suggest that this was either the 12th or the 18th).

In February, the battalion was located at Camp J, Reninghelst, a few miles to the south-west of Ypres. At that time, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in that area was engaged in ‘enemy diversionary attacks around the Ypres Salient’ (or the ‘Actions of Spring 1916’). Specifically, Joseph’s battalion was about to move up to one of the most notoriously hideous spots on the entire Western Front: the Bluff. The Bluff was basically a mound, near St Eloi, created from a spoil heap during the digging of the Ypres-Comines canal. The front line, at that time, transected the Bluff, with the Germans (loosely) occupying its southern side, and the BEF its northern side. By any accounts, it was one of the most terrifying and dangerous parts of the Salient. In the midst of one particular bombardment, a 9th Bn officer is reported to have asked a sergeant, “Have you ever read ‘Dante’s Inferno?”, to which the sergeant replied, “Yes, but hell was never in it with this.”

The Ypres Salient, February 1916 (courtesy of http://www.longlongtrail.co.uk)

Fortunately, the 9th Battalion’s war diaries for that period have survived, and they give us a very good account of what took place in the days thereafter. On 27th February, Joseph moved up to the front line in Reserve Wood, where the 9th battalion relieved all but one company of the 12th Manchester Regiment. From the moment of their arrival at the line, they experienced a challenging time. The Officer Commanding recorded that the trench stores were ‘practically exhausted’, and that it had been very hard work bringing up much-needed ammunition as the tramway was ‘useless’, the going was ‘very bad’ and the ammunition dump was ‘a very long way away’. A couple of ‘generally speaking, quiet’ days followed, but on 2nd March, all hell was let loose.

Following on the heels of a Gordon Highlander’s bombing squad, the 9th Wellingtons moved across an area known as the Ravine and began to consolidate their line. As they were establishing bombing posts along the line across the Ravine, a German flare directly above them signalled the beginning of furious shelling by the German artillery, which battered the Wellington’s front line for the rest of the day. During their eventual relief by the 7th Dorsets, the 9th Wellingtons sustained a particularly high number of casualties (as did their relievers). In addition, the Battalion HQ, Dressing Station and all of Reserve Wood had been severely damaged. One of the fatalities of this hellish day was, Lt Joseph Joachim Maxwell-Stuart. An officer subsequently wrote of him:

“He had shown himself to be a brave and gallant officer, who by his courage and cheerfulness, endeared himself to every officer and man who served with him.” JJ is buried at Reninghelst British Military Cemetery. Within a few short weeks, a second brother would be lost to the war.

Grave of Lt Joseph Joachim Maxwell-Stuart (author’s own photograph)

Following his initial education at Stonyhurst College, the third son, Edmund (at least one document refers to him as ‘Teddy’) Joseph Maxwell-Stuart, had studied at the Royal College of Mines, in London. Answering his country’s call following the outbreak of war, he enlisted almost immediately and was gazetted as a 2nd Lieutenant, 13th (Service Battalion) East Yorkshire Regiment, on 12th December 1914. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his time in London, he was subsequently transferred to the 175th Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers, and landed in France in November 1915. At the time of his arrival, the 175th Tunnelling Company was engaged in mining operations near the infamous Hill 60, just to the south-east of Ypres. However, they also spent a brief time at Spanbroekmolen, during April.

The 175th Tunnelling Company’s war diary also survives, and on 26th April 1916, there is an entry which reads:

“Lieut Edmund Maxwell-Stuart and 1 O.R. (other rank) (attached) killed by shell-fire at Armagh Wood”.

Armagh Wood was located only a few metres to the north-west of Mount Sorrel (equally well known as Hill 62) and to the north-east of Hill 60. The entire area was the epicentre of the mine warfare which was taking place around the Salient in 1916.

Map showing location of Armagh Wood (courtesy of http://www.longlongtrail.co.uk)

A further entry on 28th April reports that:

“Lieut Maxwell-Stuart buried at 2am at military cemetery near Poperinghe”.

It is in Poperinghe New Military Cemetery where Edmund lies today. An officer wrote of him:

“(Edmund) was undoubtedly the favourite of our mess.”

Another wrote:

“All who knew him admired and loved him as a fine soldier and true gentleman; his energies were untiring and his conduct exemplary.”

Lieutenant Edmund Joseph Maxwell-Stuart (Library picture)
Grave of Lt Edmund Joseph Maxwell-Stuart (author’s own photograph)

2nd Lieutenant Henry (Harry) Joseph Ignatius Maxwell-Stuart, the second son, had been employed as a surveyor in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) when war broke out in 1914. Initially, he had enlisted into the Rhodesian Rifle Corps, but when that was disbanded, he returned to England, secured his commission, and was gazetted as a 2nd Lieutenant, 3rd Battalion Coldstream Guards, on 29th May 1916. He landed in France in October of that year. As part of the 1st Brigade, Guards Division, he saw action during the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line (14th March – 5th April 1917) and at Third Ypres, where, specifically, the 3rd Coldstreams were heavily engaged in the Battles of Pilckem, Menin Road and – fatefully for Harry – Poelcappelle.

The Battle of Poelcappelle began on 9th October 1917, five days after the most successful attack of 3rd Ypres at Broodseinde. Consequently, hopes were high (if not among the men on the ground, then certainly in the echelons of high command). The Guards Division was located on the far left of the British attacking front, near Wiedendreft, with orders to attack towards Houthoulst Forest, to the north-east of their starting positions.

Map showing the starting positions for Battle of Poelcappelle (courtesy of en.wikipedia.org)

The war diary of the 3rd Coldstream records:

“The Battn took part in the attack form the Broenbeke to Houthoulst Forest. Zero 5.20am. The Battn was the left Battalion of the Brigade and passed through 2nd Bn C/Ggs (Coldstream Guards) at the 2nd objective. Final objective was reached at 2 + 4.40, a distance of 800 yards from the 2nd objective. Battn HQ were at Egypt House. At 6.30pm, 1st Bn Irish Gds, who were on the right, withdrew to conform to a movement of troops on their right and 1 platoon was moved off from the support company to form a defensive flank.”

As part of the advance, in the appalling conditions of the churned up battlefield, pitted as it was with shell holes filled with liquid mud, Lt Harry Maxwell-Stuart was given responsibility for overseeing the construction of a railway, in order to assist in getting ammunition and armaments further forward as quickly as possible. It was during this operation that he was killed. His Commanding Officer wrote:

“He did excellent work on railway construction…the success (of that part of the advance) was in no small measure due to that gallant band of heroes who laid down their lives on that 9th day”.

The war diary subsequently states that between 9th and 10th October 1917, the 3rd Battalion casualties were 6 officers and 35 other ranks killed.

Harry is buried at Artillery Wood Military Cemetery, just a few yards from the Welsh poet, Ellis Humphrey Evans (aka Hedd Wynn) and the Irish poet, Francis E Ledwidge.

Grave of 2nd Lieutenant Henry Joseph Ignatius Maxwell-Stuart (author’s own photograph)

The 6th Maxwell-Stuart son, Alfred Joseph, was still studying at Stonyhurst College when war broke out, but was at the time a member of the Officer’s Training Corps (OTC). He was gazetted as a 2nd Lieutenant in June 1917, by which time, two of his older brothers had already been killed. He landed in France on 21st February 1918 (by which time, a third had lost his life). However, he did not enjoy the best of health, it would appear, and spent more than one period in hospital.

The 21st August 1918 saw the commencement of the Battle of Albert (the third and final battle of this name). With the German Spring Offensive having been overturned, with the Battle of Amiens (8th August) signalling ‘the black day of the German Army’, the allies were finally on the offensive again – an offensive that, this time, would prove to be unceasing and ultimately decisive.

As part of the Guards Division, the 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards were positioned near Gezaincourt, just to the south-west of Doullens. During the first morning of the attack, Alfred was slightly wounded, but continued to lead his men until he later fell, severely wounded. He was taken to Number 3 Casualty Clearing Station at Gezaincourt where, three days later on the 24th August, he died from his wounds.

THE HUNDRED DAYS OFFENSIVE, AUGUST-NOVEMBER 1918 (Q 7050) St. Leger, captured by the Guards Division on 24 August 1918. (7 September 1918). Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205238907

His C.O. wrote of Alfred:

“He showed himself absolutely fearless, and set them (his men) a magnificent example. and they would have followed him anywhere”.

Alfred is buried at Bagneux Military Cemetery.

Lieutenant Alfred Joseph Maxwell-Stuart (Library picture)
Grave of Lt Alfred Joseph Maxwell-Stuart (author’s own photograph)

As I said at the start of this blog, I hold no personal connection to the Maxwell-Stuart family (and certainly don’t share their social class), yet, somehow I now feel a genuine affinity with them. I have since visited each of the final resting places of JJ, Teddy, Harry and Alfred, and spent time at each one reflecting on the huge sacrifice made by them and others in their immediate family. There were, of course, millions of others like them, many of whom literally ‘for our tomorrows, gave their today’s’ (including members of my own family). But, the story of this particular family’s sense of duty and sacrifice has moved me like few others.

We will remember them.

Uncovering a Great War General

It’s funny how – when you’re looking for something in particular – something else, often more valuable or interesting, turns up. Such was the case for me when, together with my friend, Dave, I came upon a real ‘lost’ treasure in Snettisham churchyard.

In recent years, I have sought to put my obsession with the First World War to more practical use. As well as the usual activities – visiting the Western Front battlefields, writing blogs, conducting family and other research, and buying far more books than I’ll ever be able to read (or store!) – I volunteered (with Dave) to become a team leader on the Commonwealth War Grave Commission’s (CWGC) ‘Eyes On, Hands On’ project. This entails visiting every burial site in our area, identifying all of the CWGC owned graves within them, and reporting back on their present, physical condition. Where necessary, our ‘teams’ undertake cleaning and minor maintenance of the graves in accordance with a very precise set of instructions issued by the Commission.

So it was, in August this year, that Dave and I visited Snettisham Church, where three such burials are sited. It was during our quest to locate these graves that we stumbled upon a neglected, overgrown, but nevertheless impressive grave in a far flung corner of the churchyard. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the initials KCB etched on the side of the concrete tomb. Closer examination revealed the barely discernible name of ‘Strickland’.

 

Strickland grave

 

Now, love them or loathe them, smart phones can be extremely useful things at times like these. Within seconds I had entered these scant details into ‘Google’, which produced a number of entries for Sir (Edward) Peter Strickland KCB KBE CMG DSO. It was immediately evident that this was the resting place of somebody rather special.

Edward Peter Strickland (known as Peter) was born at Snitterfield, Warwickshire, on Tuesday 3rd August 1869. He was the third son of Major Frederick William Strickland and Frances Annie (Fannie) Pattison and was educated at Warwick School. He was commissioned into the Norfolk Regiment as a 2nd lieutenant on 10th November 1888, aged 19 years, and posted to the 2nd Battalion, where he saw active service during the Burma campaigns which were fought until 1889.

He went on to serve under Kitchener as part of the Egyptian Army, notably in the Anglo-Egyptian conquest of Sudan in 1896, and by the turn of the century had risen to brevet major, attaining the full rank in 1908 and assuming command of the Northern Nigerian Regiment.

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Peter Strickland was a lieutenant-colonel commanding the 1st Battalion Manchester Regiment, part of the Jullundur Brigade in the 3rd (Lahore) Division of the Indian Corps. The battalion landed in France in September 1914 and saw brief action during the final stages of the 1st Battle of Ypres in October, followed by a much more significant role in the Battle of Givenchy in December 1914.

Promoted to Jullundur brigade commander in January 1915, he led it through the first major British offensive of the war in March 1915 – Neuve Chapelle – followed by the 2nd Battle of Ypres in April of the same year. At the end of 1915, he was briefly given command of the 98th Brigade within 33rd Division, but it was during 1916 that he was to really rise to prominence, being given command of the 1st Division following the failure of his predecessor, Major-General Sir Arthur Holland, to capture Hulluch during the Battle of Loos in September 1915.

Strickland led the 1st Division through some of the most bitter fighting of the war, including at the Battle of the Somme (July-November 1916), Arras and Passchendaele (1917), the Battle of the Lys, the 2nd Battle of Arras, and the Battle of the Sambre (1918), before finally being appointed Commander of Western Division of the British Army of the Rhine in 1919.

He was twice wounded during his time in France and emerged with a reputation as a capable and competent commander and as one of the strictest disciplinarians in the British Army at that time. His wartime service was recognised when he was created a KCB in 1919.

On 17th July 1918, he married Barbara Cresswell (nee Ffolkes), the widow of a close friend  of his from the Norfolk Regiment, Captain Francis Joseph Cresswell, who was killed during the Battle of Mons on 24th August 1914.  Peter and Barbara had one daughter of their own and two from her previous marriage.

With the war behind him, Peter Strickland may have been forgiven for taking things a bit easier from this point onwards. However, like many of his ilk, this ability does not appear have been part of his DNA.

In November 1919, he assumed command of the 6th Division in Ireland. This division had responsibility for supporting the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) in Munster, Kilkenny and Wexford at a time when the Anglo-Irish conflict was intensifying, and with the brunt of the fighting falling upon the 6th Division. In 1920 and 1921, Strickland’s troops fought a counter-insurgency campaign that proved to be a model for future 20th Century campaigns. One innovation was the development of British ‘flying columns’, or ‘active service platoons’, to successfully conduct small unit operations against the IRA.

Whilst a passenger in a motor vehicle, travelling along King Street, Cork in September 1920, he was the subject of an assassination attempt when dissident republicans opened fire on his motorcade, injuring a chauffeur. Strickland and those with him returned fire on their attackers. Later that year, he was commissioned to investigate the ‘Cork incident’: an act of retaliation by auxiliary members of the RIC in which a substantial part of the city centre was burned down. The report was subsequently suppressed by Lloyd George’s government. Strickland’s private papers reveal his bitterness with the British Government over the conduct of the campaign in Ireland and the loss of life on all sides.

Following the declaration of martial law across four counties (which his area of command fell into) in December 1921, Strickland found himself appointed as the military governor for these areas. A state of armed insurrection having been declared to be in place, Strickland assumed responsibility – not only for military operations – but for the administration of law and order per se. In fact, the vast majority of executions of members of the IRA were carried out under his command, and as the last soldier to exercise control of a substantial area of the United Kingdom under martial law – and to impose the death penalty for rebellion against the Crown – Strickland occupies a notable place in constitutional history.

He remained in Ireland until the withdrawal of British troops in May 1922. Thereafter, he was appointed commander of the 2nd Division at Aldershot, and was subsequently promoted to lieutenant-general in 1926.

His final years of military service saw him return to Egypt as General in Overall Command (GOC) of the British forces there. He retired in 1931, although he remained as Colonel of the Royal Norfolk Regiment until 1949. He died at his home at the Old Hall, Snettisham, on 24th June 1951 at the age of 81 years.

Two months ago, I knew nothing of him; nothing of his life; nothing of his notable military service. A chance discovery in a remote part of a Norfolk churchyard was the catalyst for this blog and for the research that has gone into it. After discovering his rather decrepit grave, I contacted the local vicar who – together with the church warden – has been very supportive in assisting us to try and bring Sir Peter’s life to notice (locally, at least). Today, Dave and I have been back to tidy his grave up a bit. We felt it was the least we could do for this special man.

 

Strickland grave Oct 2019

A True Baptism of Fire: The 8th DLI at Boetleer Farm.

The phrase ‘a baptism of fire’ is one which is so over-used in modern parlance as to be have become something of a cliché. However, if there is one group of people who may be justified in laying a claim to the metaphor, it is surely the 8th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry (DLI) and those of its men who saw their initial action of the First World War, at a little-known spot to the east of Ypres, in April 1915.

The 8th Battalion formed part of the 151st Brigade, 50th (Northumbrian) Division, a Territorial Force consisting mainly of men from the coalfaces and ship yards of the North-East of England. Having volunteered for overseas deployment (Territorial units weren’t compelled to do this prior to 1916), the division received its orders to leave England, for France, on 16th April 1915 – some travelling to Le Havre and some to Boulogne that very day. By 23rd April, they had fully concentrated in the area of Steenvoorde, a few miles to the west of the French-Belgian border and a place that millions of subsequent pilgrims to the battlefields (myself included) will have by-passed since.

A day earlier, on 22nd April,  the Germans had launched their infamous gas attack along the Langemarck-Bixschoote front in what heralded the beginning of the Second Battle of Ypres. With it went any plans the 50th Division may have had for familiarisation training ahead of deployment to the front line. Instead, within hours, the G.O.C. was ordered to have all units of the Division ‘standing by’. Such was the critical nature of the situation to the east of Ypres, that the 50th Division was deprived of the honour of fighting as a single entity, but was instead split up, and its brigades allocated to Corps already in the thick of the battle. At 1600hrs on 23rd April, the 8th DLI was ordered to march to Vlamertinghe and by 8pm, the entire 151st Brigade had been placed at the disposal of V Corps, under General Plumer. There, they remained on standby, but took no part in the actual fighting until later on 24th April.

By 2300 hrs on that day, after receiving a series of orders, one countermanding the other, the 8th DLI found themselves astride the Verlorenhoek-Frezenberg road, about half way between these two villages, east of Ypres. By now, seemingly under the command of 85th Brigade (28th Division), orders were received to head for the 3rd Royal Fusiliers BHQ near Gravenstafel, where guides would lead them to some unfinished trenches dug by the hard-pressed and battle-weary Canadians who were desperately fighting to hold a line in the face of the formidable German advance. After a torturous march through the pitch dark, across dangerously disrupted ground, they were informed that the position they had been ordered to entrench was untenable and instead, at 0200 hrs on 25th April, the 8th DLI were given fresh orders to relieve the 8th Canadians in the front line north-east of Boetleer Farm, the BHQ of those Canadians being in the farm itself. They reached their new positions in an hour, just as dawn was breaking, and found the BHQ filled with Canadian wounded and all in dire need of attention, their Medical Officer having been killed. It was considered unsuitable for anything else given the constant shelling they were enduring and the severe damage they had sustained.

Today, there is officially no Boetleer Farm, but a farm and associated buildings can be found on the exact site, which is on Keerzelaarstraat (referred to in the Official History of the 50th Division as the Gravenstafel Road), approximately 500 metres north-west of the New Zealand memorial at the junction with Roselarestraat and s’Gravenstafel.

Site of northern part of Boetleer Farm today as seen from the Keerzelaarstraat
      Site of northern part of Boetleer Farm today as seen from the Keerzelaarstraat

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                Site of southern part of Boetleer Farm today as seen from the Keerzelaarstraat

I suspect that – shell holes and craters aside, together with the regrowth of natural foliage  – the environment around the farm has changed very little since 1915. It is quiet, peaceful and very rustic. The road through is a popular route for cyclists and agricultural vehicles alone. The farm rests on something of a plateau, with the ground initially, but barely discernibly, rising, and then sloping down very gently away to the south, north and east. Standing there, surveying the ground, I tried (as I always do) to picture the scene just over 104 years ago: the noise, the smell, the reverberations, the darkness, pierced only by the light of explosions and Verys; the chaos; the fear.

According to the Divisional History, when the 8th DLI arrived at Boetleer Farm , the beleaguered 8th Canadians were unable to provide them with a clear picture of the situation. Indeed, so confused was it that the Canadians were apparently unable to even pinpoint on a map where they were. Urgent reorganisation was conducted and A and D Companies were despatched to the front line trench, approximately 600-1000 yards north of the farm. There, they relieved the Canadians holding that particular line and found the area in and around the trenches filled with the bodies of dead and gassed French Colonial troops – victims of the relentless violence that had now been exploding all around them for 57 hours. From the 8th DLI, A and D Companies alone held that horribly exposed front trench, with the German front line lying ahead of them only 80 yards to the north at its closest point and encircling their position to the front. Furthermore, owing to the nature of the ground, Boetleer Farm was not visible from either of the A and D Company positions. Meanwhile, B and C Companies – together with detachments of Canadians, Suffolks and Monmouths – held lines south of the road and along the hedgerows to the east and west of the farm buildings.

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      British positions at Boetleer Farm, 25th April 1915. The front line trench –                           exposed – on the other side of the Stroonbeek.

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Looking south towards the northern-most front line held by A & D Companies from the  approximate position of German front line, 25th April 1915.

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Ground running north to south and to the immediate east of Boetleer Farm which was held by 7th and 10th Canadians and B Coy, 8th DLI on 25th April 1915.

At 0330 hrs, the shelling, which had been steady since the 8th DLI had arrived at Boetleer Farm, was now accompanied by sudden and intense rifle fire from the west. At 1100 hrs, the shell fire intensified with 45-68 High Explosive and burst shrapnel shells exploding over the neighbourhood and in the fields south of the farm, where B and C Companies were sheltering along the hedges. Casualties were severe. The farm buildings were now just a mass of ruins, but beneath them was a large cellar which had been made bomb proof with sandbags and which had been being used as a First Aid post and telephone room for communicating with the 2nd Canadian Bed HQ. All lines were now down, however, and communication was no longer possible.

At 1230 hrs, the German fire switched to the A and D Coy trenches. The Official History of the 50th Division records that Lts J N O Rogers and B H Richardson, plus three men, were ‘mortally wounded in the first salvo’. This is actually incorrect: Lt Rogers was reported as missing on 27th April, but both he and Richardson had in fact been taken prisoner of war by the Germans. Rogers was eventually repatriated on 22nd November 1918, but Richardson sadly died from his wounds in captivity on 31st May 1915 and is buried at Niederzwehren Cemetery, Kassel, Hessen in Germany. From this time onwards, A and D Company’s trenches were continually bombarded until evening, with the enemy’s trench mortars joining the assault and causing many dug outs to be blown in, with men being buried within them.

Having been in the line for 11 hours, things were really starting to warm up for the 8th DLI. At 1400 hrs, D Company scouts reported Germans massing in dead ground to the north west of the D Company line. These advanced, but at 600 yards rifle fire was opened up on them to good effect. Simultaneously, shells began to fall again on the farm buildings north and south of the road, the fire now being directed by hostile aircraft who were continually hovering over the line and dropping silver paper to enable the guns hit with precision. An attack directed against the Canadians on the left, however, was easily repulsed. Meanwhile, the Germans continued to mass to the north west of the D Company trench, unable to be observed by the Monmouths or Suffolks, or any of the troops in and around the  northern farm buildings. The left of the D Company line was extended southwards – an action which had fatal consequences for a small party of men who were decimated by an enemy machine gun firing from an unidentified location. Approximately 4000 yards to their north west, D Company observed three train loads of troops detraining.  Attempts – many of them – were made to send runners back with information for the C.O., each resulting in the runners being shot down.

Between 1500 and 1530 hrs, 3000 yards to the north, more Germans were spotted in close order, but beginning to extend and advance southwards. 8th DLI machine guns opened up on them from Boetleer Farm, emptying ‘belt after belt  into the exceptional target offered’. B Company was brought up and placed under cover east of the farm buildings and north of the road, whilst a detachment of men was sent off to some high ground, about 1200 yards on the right flank, to try and get a clearer picture of enemy numbers and their dispositions in that area. Shortly after 1530 hrs, B Company was ordered to reinforce D Company on the left of the front line trench and made it to a breastwork close by. However, shelling was so intense that they had to evacuate their position and fall back again to the line of the road. Many men were ‘gassed’ by fumes from the exploding shells and thick hedge and brushwood prevented them from seeing much of the situation on their left. By 1600 hrs, the Germans had extended east and west from the original position north, and had advanced significantly. At this point, C Company was moved up on the right of B Company.

Amidst all the stress and horror of this seemingly relentless assault, the 8th DLI’s predicament was amplified by uncertainty with regards to who held overall command of them. Contrary to their initial belief, they did not appear to be under the command of the 28th Division – the Canadian staff officers seeming to be only responsible for their own men. In light light of this, an attempt was made between 1600 and 1700 hrs to ascertain who was in overall command of 8th DLI and to point out the large gap between their right and the next troops, the superior German numbers they faced, the heavy casualties they had sustained and to press home the need for artillery support in the area. All that they were told in return was that they would be relieved ‘after dark’. The confusing picture is further exemplified by a Canadian major telling a 8th DLI Officer that the former had received orders that the 8th DLI were to retire to the south of Gravenstafel. This was completely ignored.

At 1812 hrs, an A Company captain reported that he was being heavily attacked and asked if he should retire. The message back was unequivocal: “You must hang on at all costs”. The German’s shell fire had again increased in intensity and both A and D Companies suffered further heavy losses along the road.  To add further insult to further injury, another German battery had begun to open fire on the rear of 8th DLI (from the eastern apex of the Salient), an action which caused further heavy casualties.

By 1900 hrs, the situation had become desperate. D Company – which was down to its last 50 men – was being heavily shelled and taken in flank by machine gun and rifle fire, and, finally, was forced to fall back. It retired via A Company’s trench, but got lost trying to make its way back to HQ, instead joining up with the 2nd Northumberland Fusiliers from 28th Division. Soon after, the remnants of A Company also retired, to the east. The enemy now came on in considerable strength, but  machine gun fire brought them to a standstill 300 yards short of the 8th DLI lines. “The fire discipline was excellent and well controlled,” records the Battalion Narrative.

Territorial troops from a company of Middlesex and one of Monmouths had arrived (partly by accident) about 30 minutes earlier, the former being immediately sent up to prolong the right, the Monmouths being echeloned in rear of the right flank as a reserve. As night fell, the firing gradually ceased, although occasional bursts of shells fire ensured nobody rested easy. Every now and then, a German Very light (the 8th DLI had none) would throw an eerie light over the fields and ruins of Boetleer Farm. Still unable to ascertain whose command they were under, an 8th DLI captain was again despatched to report back and to glean what information he could at about 1930 hrs. Soon after 2000 hrs, he reached the HQ of 3rd Royal Fusiliers and was able to speak to 85th Bde HQ by telephone. Having explained the situation, he was informed that relief would come at 2100 hrs and that the 8th DLI should then fall back to a line roughly on the line of the Haanebeek which they must then hold. The relief did not materialise.

The 8th DLI reorganised and put their new line into a state of defence. Fresh ammunition and water was served out and patrols sent out to touch with the Germans. A company of Monmouths was brought up near the field south of the farm, whilst two platoons were sent forward to the building north of the road. Intense digging ensued  during the night of the 25th – 26th April, under the added hazard of continual sniper fire. At 0215 hrs, orders for the 26th April were received: counter attacks by the French and British were planned against the centre of the German line south west of St Julien and up to Turco Farm. It is difficult to envisage that these orders brought much in the way of immediate comfort to the gallant 8th DLI, still desperately clinging on to their piece of advanced and dangerously exposed line.

Dawn on the 26th April brought with it a thick mist which covered the ground. The new line taken up overnight had been inspected and found to be correct. Patrols reported the Germans being 350-400 yards to the north of the 8th DLI line and also overlapping their right flank. Before it was light, Middlesex and Monmouth company commanders reported that they had received orders to rejoin their battalions. However, until such time as Territorial reinforcements had arrived, the Middlesex’ were ordered to remain, whilst only two platoons of the Monmouth’s were allowed to leave. Soon after 0400 hrs, the enemy once again was reported to be advancing. This ill-needed development was exacerbated by the discovery that the Middlesex’ and the Monmouth’s had – contrary to what the 8th DLI had been led to believe – already retired. The former were located and immediately returned to the line, but the absence of the Monmouth’s meant that the buildings on the north of the road were now undefended.

Bizarrely, the Germans came on dressed in khaki, shouting and claiming to be ‘British’ and ‘Suffolks’. The disappearance of the Monmouths had created a gap in the left of the line into which the Germans now poured, quickly gaining possession of the buildings on both sides of the road. Machine gun fire in enfilade was then opened up on the 8th DLI, whilst simultaneously, the Germans advanced against the centre of the line, turning the right flank of the Middlesex’. The situation was now hopeless and the ridge about Boetleer Farm untenable and with the farm lost, the 8th DLI and Middlesex’ fell back, confusedly at first, but with increasing controls and steadiness. Eventually, the remnants of the 8th DLI were forced to fall back in alternate sections, finally reaching a position about the line of the Haanebeek. Surprisingly, few casualties were sustained during the withdrawal, but heavy casualties were inflicted upon the advancing Germans. The much-promised reinforcements were eventually located south of the Haanebeek, to where the 8th DLI further fell back. at 0100 hrs on 27th April, the 8th DLI finally received their orders to retire to Verlorenhoek, where they duly reported at 0300hrs.

6 Officers and 140 Other Ranks came out of the battle. They were at once organised into a single company and placed in dug-outs just west of the village. In total, the Battalion – which had only left Newcastle for France 11 days previously – had lost 19 Officers and 574 Other Ranks. Their losses were such that, temporarily, they amalgamated with the 6th DLI to form one Battalion until replacements were found. But, they had more than gained a name for themselves – they had written themselves into the war’s history. General Bulfin, G.O.C. 28th Division, wrote of them

The greatest possible credit is due to the 8th Durham Light Infantry and the small detachments who, in spite of having their flanks turned and being enfiladed, remained in the northern line, beating off all attacks and inflicting heavy losses on the enemy and thereby securing the flank of the 85th Infantry Brigade“.

The names of two of the officers killed at Boetleer farm, Captain Luther Vincent Burgoyne-Johnson and Lieutenant William Marshall can be found on panel 36 at the Menin Gate, neither man having a known grave. Captain Burgoyne-Johnson, although mortally wounded in the defence at Boetleer Farm, asked for a rifle to be given to him and continued firing until he died. He was the son of the late Lieutenant-Colonel J Burgoyne-Johnson.

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                                                     Panel 36, Menin Gate, Ypres.

Lieutenant James Robson Brass, 24 years old and from Sacriston, Durham, is buried at Potijze Burial Ground Cemetery.

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The grave of Lt James Robson Brass. Note that he reportedly died between 26th and 27th April, although it is believed his actual date of death was 27th.

There are, of course, countless tales of heroism and sacrifice associated with the First World War. Few, however, could have entailed such an explosive and deadly introduction to fighting at the front as that of the 8th Battalion Durham Light Infantry. Theirs truly was a Baptism of Fire.

‘Obsession with the dead’ of the First World War.

As the sun went down on the recent First World War centenary, questions started to be asked asked about what the future holds for the commemoration of this cataclysmic event.   There appears (to me) to have been a fairly ambivalent response from many historians to the ‘official’ commemorative events of the past four years, with some going as far as to assert that these years have represented a ‘missed opportunity’ with regards to securing the First World War in the active memory of the current and future generations.

It is too soon after the centenary commemorations to objectively assess their longer-term legacy. However, it is highly unlikely that interest in the War will collapse overnight. The number of professional historians and enthusiasts currently using social media platforms, such as Twitter, alone – to post information, opinions and debate – suggests that the First World War is not a subject that will be vacating the (inter)national consciousness any time soon.

A recent blog  posted on Twitter by a Historian I follow and for whom I have the utmost respect, Peter Anderson (“The Cult of the #FWW’s 11%’ – @flanders1914) prompted some to question whether the act of commemoration was predominantly being driven by a ‘morbid obsession’ with ‘11%’ of those combatants who were killed in the war, at the expense of  to ‘the 89%’ (themselves not black and white statistics – a point very well made in a linked post by Professor Peter Doyle) who survived it and returned to post-war lives. This is indeed a very interesting point and, I am certain, not one posed by anybody intending to undermine the memory of those who did indeed make the ultimate sacrifice.

From the historians’ perspective, a desire to expand research of the war away from ‘the dead’ is applaudable and certainly there are still many aspects of the wider war which deserve further exploration. Not least, the lives of those who returned from the war. Were they – as Remarque suggests in his preface to All Quiet on the Western Front – ‘destroyed by the war’? What exactly was the War’s effect on Women’s suffrage: did it accelerate women’s voting rights (as some still believe), or did it delay it (as others believe)? How – in spite of misinterpreted claims of a ‘lost generation’ – was Britain able to successfully survive and fight a Second World War just twenty-one years later? What were the biggest changes in society and societal attitudes that can be directly attributed to the effect of the First World War?

I appreciate that there is a wealth of material already written that would at least try to answer many of these, deliberately basic, questions. However, the point made by Peter Anderson is that too much time and energy is now being given to the commemoration and remembrance of the dead at the expense of those who survived the war.

In answer to this, I would suggest that the balance is just about right. Taking the actual war as an example, the dozens of books I possess on the subject cover a vast array of aspects, from the origins of the war, to specific battles, specific regiments and divisions, uniforms, insignia, fictional accounts, gender, race, poetry, geo-political impact…the list is seemingly endless. The dead, of course, are frequently discussed – how could they not be in the context of such a dreadful event? This alone does not constitute an obsession: a better question might be to ask whether a wider obsession with death factors in our interest in the First World War per se? The answer to that would surely be one for the individual. None of this is to say, however, that there is not room for more research into individual survivors of the war as Peter Anderson suggests. There is always room for more.

Neither does the ongoing commemoration of the dead, so wonderfully represented in the work of the CWGC, both at home and across the world, equate to an obsession with  them. It should be remembered that today’s CWGC evolved from a public demand (in the United Kingdom, at least), amid an unprecedented outpouring of national grief, for something with which they could permanently remember their dead by. Hence, for example, Lutyens’ Cenotaph – originally a temporary structure in 1919 – being rebuilt as a permanent memorial in 1920, and the birth of the first ‘Battlefield Tours’ around the same time. The greatest tragedy in any war must surely be the loss of human life which accompanies it. Nobody who has ever visited one of the hundreds of ‘Silent Cities’ can surely fail to be deeply moved by them. To attempt to visit Flanders, Picardy, the Dardanelles, the Middle East etc. in the context of the First World War and not find these impeccably maintained memorials to sacrifice is unthinkable: they are the metaphorical elephants in the room.

I wholeheartedly agree with Peter Anderson that the lives of those who made a sacrifice during the First World War, returning in whatever form, to whatever circumstances, will always be a worthy subject area for research and writing. My own grandfather was one of ‘the 89%’; his brother, one of the ‘11%’. However, my own moral compass will always primarily and instinctively steer me towards commemorating those who made the ultimate sacrifice. It is their memory, above all else, that I feel a tangible sense of duty to ensure never diminishes.