Songs and poems remember Sunderland’s Great War heroes

Len Gibson with a copy of the "Only Remembered" album which is being sold to raise money for ABF the Soldiers' Charity.
Len Gibson with a copy of the "Only Remembered" album which is being sold to raise money for ABF the Soldiers' Charity.
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WEARSIDE’S Great War veterans are to be remembered with songs and poems. Today we take a look.

A CD commemorating the bravery of those who served in the First World War is to be launched this week – to raise money for today’s battlefield heroes.

Only Remembered, a collection of war-themed songs and poems, has been produced for The Soldiers’ Charity (North East) on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the conflict.

“It is so important we support our veterans of all conflicts and generations,” said folk singer Vicki Guillory, who features on the CD with TV agony aunt Denise Robertson.

“The songs are all very emotional, but I hope they present a true reflection of the war. I am very proud and honoured to be a part of this great tribute.”

The launch of the CD by Northern Lights Music has been welcomed by war veterans of all generations across the North East, including former Japanese prisoner of war Len Gibson.

The retired teacher, who saw dozens of friends and comrades lose their lives to brutal beatings, starvation and untreated infections during the Second World War, said:

“The CD is very, very moving – very sad, very tragic. It is a wonderful way to remember soldiers of the First World War and help out those in need today.

“I just wish a charity like this had been around when our soldiers came back from the Great War. Many arrived home to absolutely nothing – just like some of my uncles.

“They fought all through the war, but ended up almost penniless. They used to give me a ha’penny to buy one Woodbine cigarette and a match – it was all they could afford.”

Len’s uncles – William, Fred and Jack Kirton – were the eldest of seven children born to Millfield shipyard labourer William and his wife Elizabeth in the late 19th century. Census records reveal six-year-old Fred was being treated at Sunderland Borough Sanatorium in 1901, but he was back with his family at Hopper Street by 1911.

Sadly, the youngest son – Edwin – was not so lucky. Born in 1910, and known by the nickname of Ted by his siblings, he died when still a small child.

“The older brothers all followed in their father’s footsteps to become labourers but, when war broke out, they answered the call to fight for King and Country,” said Len. “William was the eldest, at 28, when war was declared. Jack was next, at 22, while Fred was a boy of 19. I think he wanted to follow his brothers into the war.

“William served with the DLI, and at one point a shell burst, burying him alive. The other soldiers had to dig him out, which was when they realised he was wounded.

“It was decided to bring him back home, to treat his injuries, but he died from his wounds as soon as he arrived here. He is buried at Bishopwearmouth Cemetery.”

Jack, whose regiment is unknown, and “Old Contemptible” Fred fought on following Bill’s death, eventually arriving home safely – but battle-weary and much changed.

“Fred had spent time as a prisoner-of-war, eating the potato peelings of his German guards just to survive. Jack had a tough war too, but never spoke of it,” said Len.

“When they came home, they had absolutely nothing. There was very little work in the shipyards and they ended up back at the family home in Millfield, sharing a bed.

“The war changed Fred and Jack so much. They had both had jobs before going off to fight, but found it hard to keep one afterwards. Perhaps they were shell-shocked.”

Jack eventually moved in with his grandmother, but died young due to diabetes. Fred, however, went on to marry, had a daughter and moved to Plains Farm.

“Neither of them really settled after returning from the war,” said Len.

“They spent a lot of time just drifting, rather than working, and there was no real help available.

“I remember they used to spend a lot of time at Rock Top allotments, where there was a boxing ring, and Jack played a lot of quoits at the pitch near Silksworth Row.

“Perhaps if there had been a group like the Soldiers’ Charity then things may have been different. Perhaps they could have been offered help to get back on their feet.”

l The Only Remembered CD will be launched at the Sage this weekend. It will be available for

download or to buy from Monday.

LEN Gibson’s fighting war was over almost before it started – after Wearside’s 125 Anti-Tank Regiment was captured to a man during the fall of Singapore in 1942.

But the lance-bombardier’s real battle, for survival against the odds, had only just begun. Of the 600 soldiers taken prisoner by the Japanese, 197 never returned home.

Most were sent to work on the notorious Burma Railway – known as the Railway of Death. Others ended up in mines or factories. All were starved, beaten and brutalised.

“I watched so many of my friends die when they shouldn’t have. They just needed better food and proper medical help,” recalls Len, now 94, of West Herrington.

“The conditions were absolutely terrible. Of the 1,000 men who started work on one building project that I was involved in, only 300 were left after just three months.”

Len suffered years of brutality at the hands of his Japanese captors, working on both the Burma Railway and Mergui Road – hacked by hand out of jungle and rock face.

But, as his old schoolmates, friends and comrades succumbed to disease, starvation, and plain fatigue, Len battled on – keeping up camp spirits with a home-made guitar.

Indeed, no matter how bad things got – and they got very, very bad – Len and his guitar kept on going. When the war finally ended, he was extremely sick – but still alive. “The people who fought in both world wars did so for our sake. If they hadn’t, then we wouldn’t have the freedom we enjoy today,” said the retired teacher.