‘He is a great loss’ – letter from the trenches

TREASURED NOTE: The letter written by Captain Steel detailing the death of Ryhope man Robert Bulmer.
TREASURED NOTE: The letter written by Captain Steel detailing the death of Ryhope man Robert Bulmer.
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A LETTER from the trenches to the family of a Wearside man killed in action during the First World War has sparked a special quest by one of his descendents.

Ryhope-born miner Robert Bulmer was shot through the head during the Battle of Passchendaele, while leading his men into action in October 1917. He was 23.

ALWAYS REMEMBERED: Susan Bailey with Dene Community Schoo pupil Tyler Allen, 16, alongside the First World War mementoes of Robert Bulmer, which have been placed on view at the school.

ALWAYS REMEMBERED: Susan Bailey with Dene Community Schoo pupil Tyler Allen, 16, alongside the First World War mementoes of Robert Bulmer, which have been placed on view at the school.

Just a few days later, Robert’s mother was informed of his death via a poignant letter from the front line, penned by Captain Rex Steel, of the Northumberland Fusiliers.

•See the original letter

Now Susan Bailey, a great-niece of Robert, is hoping to track down relatives of the captain to swap war stories, after discovering the note tucked behind a photo frame.

“My gran told me about it years ago, but it wasn’t until last year that we started to look through old photos. We found the note quite by chance,” said Susan, of Peterlee.

“Captain Steel explains how Robert died a noble and gallant death. It is a very kind letter, although it must have been terrible for my great-great-grandma to receive it.

“But she kept it until she died, and it passed down to my grandmother Dorothy. It would be lovely to find relatives of Captain Steel, to talk about what happened back then.”

Robert, the second son of colliery horse-keeper Thomas Bulmer and his wife Elizabeth, was born at Ryhope in 1894. Just a few years later, the family moved to East Murton.

After leaving school, Robert’s older brother Ernest joined the Co-operative as a van driver, but Robert followed in his father’s footsteps to become a colliery horse-keeper.

When war was declared, however, both signed up to fight – with Ernest joining the Royal Garrison Artillery and Robert in the 24/27 Tyneside Irish battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers.

Action at some of the bloodiest conflicts of the Great War followed for Robert, including the battles of Albert, Bazentin Ridge, Pozieres Ridge, Arleux and Scarpe.

Despite being bombed, shelled and repeatedly machine-gunned, the miner fought on until the Third Battle of Ypres – perhaps better known today as the Battle of Passchendaele.

It was here, on the muddy wastelands of Belgium, that Robert would die on October 22, 1917. Almost 250,000 British soldiers were also killed or injured in the brutal battle.

“It was during the advance that your son, who was commanding his section, fell – shot through the head by a bullet – death being instantaneous,” wrote Captain Steel.

“He has been a great loss to us, as men of his stamp are none too easy to find. He was loved by his officers and men alike and, more important, respected and relied upon.

“He died a very noble and gallant death. It is not a life wasted, as we may say, I think that our enemies are beginning to go to pieces and victory is in sight.”

Robert is believed to have been buried on the battlefield, as no known grave for him exists. He is, however, still remembered on the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing in Belgium.

Tragically, just one year after Robert’s death, Ernest also passed away – after falling ill with pneumonia while posted in Alexandria. He left behind a widow and new-born twins.

“My great-great-grandma had five children altogether, three girls and two boys. Both her sons died during the First World War. I just can’t imagine that pain,” said Susan.

“But at least she had the letter, which she kept for years. It is very nice to think that an officer took the time to sit down and write something so kind to Robert’s mother.”

Susan, who works as an administrator at Dene Community School in Peterlee, has now shared the letter with pupils in the hope the family of Captain Steel can be traced.

A copy of the wartime note has been placed on permanent display at the school too, while the original is at the DLI Museum in Durham – to be preserved for the future.

“Rex Steel survived the war and received a Distinguished Service Order and Military Cross.

“I very much hope someone can help us trace his relations,” Susan added.

l If anyone has information on Rex Steel they should contact the school on 554 6000.