Stories behind First World War memorial names revealed

Tynemouth World War 1 Commemoration Project stages exhibition on First World War discoveries

Lance Corporal Frederick William Dobson VC
Lance Corporal Frederick William Dobson VC

What lingers in the background of the many projects linked to the centenary of the First World War is how the families and the communities of those who died in the conflict were able to deal with such catastrophic loss.

Widows were left to raise often large families without a breadwinner. Fathers and mothers lost cherished sons just as their young adult lives were beginning.

The spectre of loss has been a constant theme during more than three years of work by volunteers of the Tynemouth World War 1 Commemoration Project.

Last week it launched its online database of detailed research into 1,700 individuals from the old borough of Tynemouth who died as a result of the war.

From Saturday, some of their stories will be on show when the project opens its exhibition, which will run until September 20, at the Customer First Centre and library in Northumberland Square in North Shields.

And today, the project will distribute 25,000 copies of a 34-page booklet on their work and the impact of the war on the area free to every pupil in North Tyneside, having encouraged 48 individuals and businesses to sponsor a school.

From both booklet and exhibition, the stories behind the names of the 1,700 on the borough’s roll of honour have emerged.

Project co-ordinator Alan Fidler says: “It’s our hope that the stories of local residents who were lost will be passed on and remembered for many years to come.”

Those stories include that of the Wallace brothers.

“We have discovered that more than 150 of the men killed were closely related to others on the roll of honour,” says Alan.

The first of Mary Ann Wallace’s sons to die was David, killed at the Battle of the Aisne in September, 1914.

He had been a teacher at the Royal Jubilee School in North Shields and, writing to his pupils only days before his death, said he was “beginning to think he was bulletproof”.

In 1916, the eldest brother, John, lost his life at the Battle of the Somme. He lived in Grey Street in North Shields with wife Sarah and their three young children.

In 1917, a third brother, Henry, died in the Battle of Arras. He had played rugby for Percy Park RFC in North Shields, Northumberland County and England.

He had written home to a friend, saying: “ I am training for the greatest game of my life.”

Sir James Knott, who had been born in Howdon and rose from shipping clerk to owner of the Prince shipping line, lost two of his sons.

Major James Leadbitter Knott, 33, deputy managing director of the Prince Line, died in July, 1916.

His brother Henry Basil, 27, had been killed a month earlier. The family also lost Sir James’s brother, Stanley.

Sir James built the Church of St James and St Basil and in Newcastle in memory of his sons.

The first military victim from Tynemouth borough was Charles Johnson, from Nile Street in North Shields, who died on September 18, 1914, from wounds received during the Battle of the Marne. He was married to Alice in Tynemouth in 1909 and they had two children.

The youngest casualty was Ephraim Stanley Cooper, from the Wellesley training ship on the Tyne off North Shields, who was born in Monkwearmouth. He was 14 when his ship, SS Barrowmore, was sunk by the German submarine U-94 in 1918.

“A particular feature of the enormous loss suffered by the community in Tynemouth borough was the significant loss of life at sea, often among men in the merchant navy and fishing fleets,” says Alan.

Trawlers were often used as minesweepers, with 675 being sunk by enemy action during the war, with the loss of 434 men.

William Dixon was 63 and Robert Newson 61 when they lost their lives. Robert, a father of seven, was on the trawler Ranter when it and the John M Smart were attacked by German warships while fishing 10 miles off the Tyne in 1917.

The John M Smart was sunk with the loss of her crew. The badly damaged Ranter crept back to the Tyne, with three of her crew dead.

Robert’s son, also Robert, 34, was lost with the Admiralty trawler John High in 1916.

On December 1, 1918, just after the war’s end, the trawlers Ethelwulf and TW Mould from the North Shields fleet were lost when they burst into flames after two explosions.

They are believed to have struck mines. The 12 crewmen who were lost all lived within 500 yards of each other.

John Herbert Hedley, an accounts clerk born in North Shields and the son of shipyard timekeeper Ralph Hedley, served in the war in the air with the Royal Flying Corps.

He was credited with 11 victories while flying the Bristol F2b fighter and, after the war, gave lectures on is experiences, billing himself “the luckiest man alive”.

He claimed that, early in 1918 while flying as an observer, his pilot put the aircraft into a nose dive, pitching him out of his observation cockpit only to grab the tail of the plane, allowing him to clamber back on board when it pulled up.

On March 27, 1918, he and pilot Robert Kirkman were shot down and captured.

The exhibition also includes the stories of the two Victoria Cross winners from North Shields. Lance corporal Frederick William Dobson was born in Ovingham in Northumberland but he and his wife lived at Meadow Well in North Shields.

In September 1914, Lc Cpl Dobson, 27, won the VC for twice crossing open ground under heavy fire to save wounded colleagues.

He wrote to his wife: “I only took my chances, and did my duty to save my comrades.

“It was really nothing.”

James Leach won his VC on October 29, 1914 at the age of 22 while serving as a 2nd lieutenant.

After his regiment’s trench had been taken by the enemy, he led a party of 11 soldiers in a bayonet charge counter attack, killing eight of the enemy, wounding two and taking 16 prisoners.

The Tynemouth project commemorative booklet is available at £3 from North Shields library and the town’s Keel Row bookshop.

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