Poignant memories of two Sunderland heroes

Ashbrooke in Sunderland.
Ashbrooke in Sunderland.
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It is 100 years since two members of the Ashbrooke club in Sunderland were killed in action in the First World War.

As the anniversary of their passing approaches, archivist Keith Gregson looks back at the lives and heroism of Norman Shepherd and Arthur Ritson.

Keith Gregson.

Keith Gregson.

Second Lieutenant Norman Shepherd, of the 7th Battalion Durham Light Infantry, was quite an illustrious figure in city history.

He was a solicitor and the son of the district registrar for Sunderland.

He lived in The Avenue before moving to Ryhope Road. His was a life of high standing.

He went to attended Sunderland High School and joined the 7th DLI as did many of his club colleagues, serving as 2nd lieutenant, lieutenant and later as acting captain.

On the night of November 4, 1916 he was detailed to support an attack … and link up … with the British old front line’. He was struck by a shell which ‘killed him instantly’. He was buried nearby. He was by all accounts a brave and popular man.

Keith Gregson

In July 1915, he first went to France and was dead in just over a year.

He was killed in action at the Butte of Warlencourt - an ancient burial mound - on November 4 1916. He is buried at Bazentin-le Petit.

Keith told us more about his career and the effect he had on other men in the city.

“His brother Leslie also served in the conflict. There is an extensive contemporary on line account of his career which suggests that he was working as a solicitor from 1906 and had moved up to the role of assistant registrar. Also – in the context of this book – that he was ‘largely instrumental in inducing up to seventy of his young fellow-townsmen to enlist with him as a private in the 7th Durham Light Infantry, which they did in September 1914”.

“He was said to be studious by nature and refused a commission until he had served six months in the ranks in order to gain an idea of soldiering.”

Second Lt Shepherd gained his commission in March 1915 and, after entering the front in July, spent all his time there with the exception of two short leaves. By the time of his death the 7th DLI had become a pioneer battalion.

His fateful day came on November 4, 1916, when he was detailed to support an attack and link up with the British old front line.

But he was struck by a shell which ‘killed him instantly’. He was buried nearby.

Keith added: “He was by all accounts a brave and popular man.”

Our second Sunderland hero was another Second Lieutenant - Arthur Stewart Ritson.

Keith told us: “Arthur is not one of the club members listed in the governing board record of 225 Ashbrooke members who served but his death was recorded in the club history book which was published in the 1960s.

Just like Norman, he was from a family of prominence.

“He was born in Sunderland in 1891 and was the son of the manager of a steamship company and prominent local politician.”

Before the war, he was listed as a student and his family address was The Oaks at the time of the 1911 census. His name appears in the Ashbrooke membership book between 1907 and 1912.

Keith added: “During the war he served in the 5th DLI as a 2nd lieutenant but was seconded to the 1/6 Battalion.”

The circumstances surrounding his death were uncertain. “In November 1916, fighting was still going on in the Somme area and Arthur was posted missing on November 5 during the attack on the Butte de Warlencourt,” said Keith.

“His brother and his mother (now Lady Ritson) applied for his medals after the war and his name is recorded on the Thiepval Memorial and also on the memorial at Christ Church.

“According to one online source there is a family story which appeared in the Sunderland Daily Echo on May 20, 1935 which may throw more light onto his fate.

“His two brothers – Edward and Bernard - also fought in the war, one in the navy and one in the army. Arthur left £1500 in probate which set his death date as November 5 although the probate was not proved until 1920.”

Would you like to share stories of heroism within your own family tree? Email chris.cordner@jpress.co.uk