Whit Monday was traditionally a great day for Sunderland Cricket and Rugby Football Club - until the storm clouds of war gathered over Europe in 1914.
Dozens of fit young players left for the battlefields of Europe over the next few months, with many giving their lives for King and Country in brutal conflicts such as Ypres.
“The club attracted hundreds of competitors and thousands of spectators to its annual Whit athletic sports day from the mid-Victorian times onwards,” said archivist Keith Gregson.
“But Whit Monday 1915 was not one of those great days. Dozens of members were away fighting and what happened on the battlefield would see the cancellation of many matches.”
Britain’s declaration of war against Germany on August 4, 1914, saw Sunderland swamped by troops – with roads, bridges, railways and the coastline all placed under armed guard.
More than 25,000 Wearsiders stepped forward to fight in the “war to end all wars” - the like of which had never been seen before. The losses were grievous - one soldier in every ten.
“One hundred years ago this week the territorial 50th Division - the North East’s own - were called into action at the Second Battle of Ypres, with disastrous consequences,” said Keith.
“The 50th was a package of some 18,000 men, drawn from all over the region, with about two-thirds in infantry and the rest in artillery, service, engineering, medical and other units.
“Among them were at least 50 Ashbrooke members, who mainly served in Sunderland’s own 7th Battalion of the DLI as infantry officers or in the Northumbrian Field Artillery.
“Although it has not been possible to trace all records, it is safe to say that at least 38 Ashbrooke men were in the 7 DLI in April 1915 and up to a dozen in the RFA.”
The 1/7 DLI, a force of around 1,000 men, landed in France on April 19. By early May the soldiers were moving towards the Ypres sector and awaiting their first taste of action.
On May 21, just weeks after the Germans first started using poison gas, companies of the battalion took charge of the front line - ‘from the railway line to Bellewarde Lake’.
But on, or around, May 24 disaster struck - as revealed by author Ray Westlake in his best-selling book British Battalions on the Western Front January to June 1915:
“The ‘A’ and ‘B’ Companies in the front line came under gas attack, heavy bombardment followed by infantry assault and were forced to withdraw to GHQ Line,” he records.
“Casualties included Captain FM Wawn and lieutenants A Rhodes and J. Meek. Second lieutenants RW Adamson and AWS Stockdale were killed.”
Sadly, Wawn, Meek, Adamson and Stockdale were all Ashbrooke members. When news of their fates reached Britain, the club immediately cancelled several matches in their honour.
“In total, around 10 Ashbrooke lads from 7/DLI lost their lives between May 24-26 at Ypres - including two neighbours from St Bede’s Terrace who died on the same day,” said Keith.
“What a dreadful shock it must have been for all their families. Several other Ashbrooke members were also badly wounded during the same period, but luckily came home.
“Many of these were serious sportsmen. Charles Pickersgill survived the war to become a national bowls champion and many of those killed played for the club’s top sports teams.”
Keith is now planning to hold an exhibition featuring the fallen heroes at Ashbrooke Sports Club this weekend - to mark the ultimate sacrifice made by the players for their King and Country.
Details on each of the ten who died at Ypres, as well as those wounded in the same actions, will be displayed - together with the club’s official Roll of Honour.
“I believe it is important to remember those who sacrificed their lives for us,” added Keith. “It is hardly surprising that the club decided to cancel their cricket games in tribute to them.”
l The exhibition at Ashbrooke Sports Club, West Lawn, Sunderland, is free to view. Anyone related to the men mentioned is invited to contact Keith on 528 4536.