Almost a century after his death on the First World war battlefields of France, Private George Wood’s life was rescued from obscurity yesterday.
A two-tonne marble memorial, bearing his name and those of more than 20 of his comrades from the same locality in Gateshead, was rededicated in a prime position overlooking the Tyne in the grounds of St Mary’s Heritage Centre in the town.
The memorial was uncovered eight years ago in a corner of a Gateshead Council depot where it had lain for decades.
After a public appeal in The Journal for information, it was eventually identified as a memorial from the former Park Terrace Presbyterian Church in Gateshead, which was demolished in 1964 to make way for the St Cuthbert’s Village development, which is itself now demolished. How it found its way into the council depot remains a mystery.
When soldiers of the Royal Engineers – whose 72 Regiment received the Freedom of the Borough of Gateshead in 2011 – found out that George Wood was one of their number, they volunteered to create a memorial garden at the St Mary’s Centre, with the stone as centrepiece.
On Saturday, apprentices from 103 (Tyne Electrical Engineers) Field Squadron Royal Engineers built the garden, using 28 wooden sleepers salvaged from the road deck of the 1849 High Level Bridge over the Tyne, which re-opened in 2008 after a £43m restoration.
Among those at yesterday’s rededication ceremony were council leader Mick Henry, Mayor Jack Graham, Lt Col John Roose from the Royal Engineers. Anthea Lang, chairman of the St Mary’s Heritage Group volunteers and Peter York from Whickham in Gateshead, a relative of one of the men on the memorial.
Anthea Lang’s research revealed that George Wood lived in Alston Terrace in Bensham, Gateshead, and was working in 1911 as a marine fitter.
In August 1915, he enlisted in Newcastle in the Royal Engineers.
He was killed in action, aged 26, near Armentieres in France in September 1915.
“George Wood was an ordinary man from a street in Gateshead. We don’t even have a photograph of him,” said memorial project co-ordinator Ednie Wilson.
“But he is everyman. He symbolises every mother’s son, everybody’s brother.
“He was one of the thousands who signed up in the days of the outbreak of the war in what we know was glorious summer sunshine.
“We can only thank whoever had the presence of mind not to demolish the memorial stone along with the church in 1964.”
The memorial project has been backed by a grant of £9,600 from the Heritage Lottery Fund through its First World War Then and Now programme.
The story of George Wood is also the focus of a pack for schools to teach pupils the skills of historical research.
The re-erection of the war memorial also forms one part of a major Gateshead Council project backed by HLF funding to digitise its extensive First World War archive to make it available online.
Linda Green, Gateshead Council Cabinet member for culture, said: “I doubt we will ever get to the bottom of the puzzle as to how this memorial stone came to be lying on its back in a council depot, but it’s a great achievement to be able to put it back on public view in time for this important anniversary.”