BOILER-MAKER William Hamilton spent just 10 days fighting on the front line in World War One before being shelled, gassed, shot and killed in 1915.
But the Durham Light Infantry soldier will forever be remembered by great-nephew Steve Potts, who accidentally stumbled across a tribute to him while in Belgium.
“My wife and I were just walking along a road in Ypres when we saw a sign saying ‘Please don’t go past this memorial to a British soldier’,” said the retired bricklayer.
“The tribute was just outside the main Menin Gate memorial and featured a stone flag. When we stopped to have a look, I realised it was in honour of my great-uncle.
“It was a total surprise, not something I’d planned at all. But, although William died way before I was born, he was someone I knew all about – through my grandmother.”
William, son of Scotsman David Hamilton and his Hartlepool wife Ellen, was born in Sunderland in around 1894 – the youngest of at least seven brothers and sisters.
His early years were spent at 35 Silver Street and 120 High Street and, after leaving school, he worked for North Eastern Railway – securing a job as a boiler-maker.
“William joined the DLI on March 13, 1912, three days after turning 18,” said Steve, of Barnes. “He then served on the home front until war broke out two years later.
“He was part of the DLI’s 1st/7th battalion and fought at the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915 – where poison gas was released by the Germans for the first time.
“The violence of the attack forced an Allied withdrawal, and shortened the line of defence too. Sadly, my uncle was blown to pieces in the fighting on April 29, 1915.”
William, part of the British Expeditionary Force, trained for months in England before leaving Folkestone for Boulogne on April 18, 1915 – arriving a day later.
His battalion then travelled to the battlefields of Ypres where, as part of B Squadron, William fought – and died – at the Battle of St Julien. He was just 21 at the time.
“Apparently, a group of men were in a trench and William was the last to get out. A German shell then came over and blew all of the men to hell,” said Steve.
“His war records show that he was killed in action and later buried in a field at the right of the road at Zonnebeke. Sadly, I don’t imagine there was much to bury.”
William’s meagre personal effects were sent home to his parents back in Sunderland, and he was posthumously awarded the 14-15 Star, British and Victory medals.
He was never, however, forgotten by his family – and his older sister Mary Jane kept a photo of William on the mantelpiece of her home in Queen’s Crescent for years.
“I was a kid when I used to go an see her during World War Two, and one day I asked who the man in the picture was – as I’d never met him before,” recalls Steve.
“She told me it was her brother William, who had been killed in the Great War. Every time I saw the photo after that it reminded me of all the bombings on the town.
“My grandmother loved, and missed, her brother a great deal. She always said he was a quiet sort of fellow, and a smashing bloke. I’m so please we found his memorial.”
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Family man Patrick died just two weeks after landing in France
PATRICK McCarthy was one of the first Wearsiders to fight in World War One – and one of the first to die.
The labourer, one of at least 10 children born to James and Cecilia McCarthy, grew up in Durham Street and joined the army almost to the day he turned 18 in 1901.
Three years later, he left to serve as a reserve but, as the storm clouds of war gathered over Europe, he signed up again in 1913 – despite being married with three children.
Patrick, a private with the Duke of Wellington (West Riding) Regiment, was shipped to France on August 10, 1914, with the British Expeditionary Force.
He then fought at the Battle of Mons – the first major British action of the war – in an attempt to hold the line of the Mons-Conde Canal against the German 1st Army.
Tragically, just two weeks after landing in France, Patrick was killed in action on August 24. His wife, Ellen, was left to bring up their children at 42 Burleigh Street.
l Thomas Wilken Cairns is believed to have been the first Sunderland man killed during World War One – while fighting at the Battle of Mons on August 23, 1914.
His wartime records, however, appear to have been destroyed during a bombing raid in World War Two. Are you related? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.