'Tough' North East culture theory for rush to enlist in First World War

Book on region's role in the First World War is launched by

Dr Dan Jackson at the Response war memorial at the Newcastle Civic Centre
Dr Dan Jackson at the Response war memorial at the Newcastle Civic Centre

Hard as hammers. That was a line from the recruitment poster for the Tyneside Scottish units of the Northumberland Fusiliers.

It gives a clue as to why an extraordinary number of men from the North East joined up just after the outbreak of the First World War, says Dr Dan Jackson.

By the end of 1914, 21,000 men had enlisted in Newcastle - “a staggering number,” says Dan.

During the course of the war the Northumberland Fusiliers raised more than 50 battalions - each of more than 1,000 men - which was a record for an English county regiment. The Durham Light Infantry raised 43.

A book will be launched tomorrow on the region’s efforts in the First World War, which co-author Alan Fidler describes as “a contribution well beyond the relative size of the area.”

The book has been produced by the Tynemouth World War One Commemoration Project, with one of its volunteers, Ruth Chittenden, the other co-author.

Dan Jackson, who lives in North Shields, is also involved in the project.

With a PhD in history from Northumbria University and the author of a book on Irish Home Rule, he has taken a particular interest in the First World War.

He believes that one of the main reasons for the exceptional recruitment figures from the North East was a regional mindset fashioned by centuries of turbulent frontier history.

“It has bred a masculine culture of toughness, of stamina, of relying on your mates,” he says.

It started, he feels, with the Romans creating the Hadrian’s Wall frontier and military zone, and carried on through the Dark Ages, Viking raids and centuries of warfare with Scotland.

“Probably the longest on-off border war in history,” he says.

Then came the lawlessness of the Reivers, 500 North Easterners fighting at Trafalgar, and the 19th Century warship and armaments empire of Tyneside magnate William Armstrong.

There were also the dangers of working in heavy industry and the mines, the black humour it forged and the sense of solidarity with your pals.

That all made for good soldiers and an attitude which lent itself to enlisting.

It is no coincidence that one of the finest First World War memorials in the country, in front of Newcastle Civic Centre, is called The Response.

That is also the title of the new book launched today at North Shields Customer First Centre and library, with signings by Tynemouth project co-ordinator Alan Fidler and Ruth Chittenden, a history graduate who is now taking a museum studies course at Newcastle University.

The Response memorial marks the raising of battalions - the Tyneside Commercials - for the Northumberland Fusiliers by the Newcastle and Gateshead Chamber of Commerce from August to October in 1914.

The North East was at the forefront in raising local battalions of civilian recruits in 1914.

The 16th battalion (1st Tyneside Commercials) was raised in a week in September.

The chamber began raising a second battalion, the 18th, on October 16 and the 19th battalion raising started in November.

In all, 5,500 troops were raised by the chamber of commerce.

It was part of efforts by local committees to form units from particular groups, and those with an affinity and from the same origins.

This included the Tyneside Scottish. By the end of November the makings of an entire brigade of four battalions had come forward.

The same fervour was in evidence with the Tyneside Irish, with a battalion raised by November 4. In all, four Tyneside Irish battalions were formed.

The DLI raised a bantam battalion, which allowed men of between 5ft and 5ft 3ins to serve.

Durham men also formed a Pals battalion, which became the 18th DLI.

The Tyneside Scottish and Irish were allocated some of the most difficult objectives on the murderous first day of the Battle of the Somme on July 1. 1916.

Their casualties were so great- around 8,000 men- they were withdrawn temporarily to be reformed.

The two brigades had the greatest number of men reported missing on the first day - 2,931.

The North East also played a significant part in the war at sea, through the Royal Navy, merchant navy and fishing fleets.

Trawlers often served as minesweepers, and 675 were sunk.

At the Battle of Jutland, HMS Queen Mary, which had been built at Palmers in Jarrow, went down in 90 seconds with the loss of 1,266 crew.

Among them was warrant engineer Frederick White, who had already survived the sinking in 1914 of the cruiser HMS Hogue, built on the Tyne by Vickers Armstrong.

He was described as a “young man of fine physique and attractive character (with) a great many friends in North and South Shields.”

Another Tyne ship, HMS Invincible which had been built by Armstrong Whitworth, was also lost with 1,026 men.

The Response book is £5, with publication supported by North Tyneside Council, whose chairman Tommy Mulvenna says: “ This book brings together the experience of World War One for the whole of our region. The stories and images tell of valour, bravery and endurance in the face of tremendous challenges.”

It is available in North Tyneside customer first centres and libraries, the Linksill centre and Keel Row bookshop in North Shields and online at www.tynemouthworldwarone.org


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