Two very different deaths showed horrific extent of World War One

The Victory Peace Procession which took place in Sunderland on July 19, 1919, to mark the end of the Great War.

The Victory Peace Procession which took place in Sunderland on July 19, 1919, to mark the end of the Great War.

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Two Wearside men were among the first to lose their lives in World War One – but their deaths could not have been more different.

Former blacksmith Thomas Wilken Cairns, 37, was killed in action on the first day of the Battle of Mons on August 23, 1914 - the first major action of the British Expeditionary Force in the conflict.

The Victory Peace Procession which took place in Sunderland on July 19, 1919, to mark the end of the Great War.

The Victory Peace Procession which took place in Sunderland on July 19, 1919, to mark the end of the Great War.

Ex-dock labourer Joseph Lewins, 36, perished just a few days later, on August 31, after being posted to East Sussex with the Royal Garrison Artillery. An inquest found he had committed suicide by cutting his own throat.

“Both men signed up to fight for King and Country, and both tragically lost their lives. That their deaths were so different shows just how diverse the effects of war can be,” said Bill Hawkins, of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

Personal details relating to Thomas Cairns - thought to be the first Sunderland man to die in battle during the Great War - are scarce, as his service records are believed to have been destroyed during bombing raids in the Second World War.

However, it is believed he was born to lamplighter John Cairns and his wife Mary in around 1877. In 1881 the family were living at 7 Hope Street in Bishopwearmouth, but by 1901 they had settled in Milburn Street.

More than 25,000 Sunderland men signed up to fight in the ‘war to end all wars’ - a conflict the like of which had never been seen before. A third were killed or wounded, while one in ten were never to see Sunderland again - like Thomas and Joseph.

Bill Hawkins, local historian and member of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

“Thomas tackled a variety of jobs over the years, from being a blacksmith labourer in the shipyards to a clerk. By 1911 he was still living with his parents, who were now at 34 Lumley Street,” said Bill.

“He first enlisted with the Northumberland Fusiliers in 1903, and it seems likely he was a reservist when Britain went to war on August 5 - as he arrived in France just a few days later.”

Thomas’s unit, the 1st Battalion, was training in Portsmouth at the outbreak of war. All soldiers were immediately recalled and then posted overseas - landing at Le Havre on August 14.

Serving with the 9th Brigade, 3rd Division, of the British Expeditionary Force, the men of 1st Battalion saw action at the bloodiest of wartime battles - from Mons to Ypres, Albert and Cambrai.

The Victory Peace Procession which took place in Sunderland on July 19, 1919, to mark the end of the Great War.

The Victory Peace Procession which took place in Sunderland on July 19, 1919, to mark the end of the Great War.

But Thomas’s service ended almost before it had begun, after he fell on the first day of fighting at Mons. His official death date is August 23, although he may have died from wounds a day later.

“Mons saw the British Army attempt to hold the line of the Mons-Conde Canal against the German 1st Army. Although the Allies fought well, Germany had a much greater number of troops,” said Bill.

“It has been estimated that just over 1,600 British men died during the Battle of Mons, and Thomas is listed as one of 277 officers and men to die on the first day. He survived just ten days in France.

“Sadly, his final resting place is unknown, but he is commemorated on the La Ferte-sous-Jouarre Memorial in France. He was also posthumously awarded the Victory, British and 14 Star medals, as well as a clasp to show he had served under fire.”

The Victory Peace Procession which took place in Sunderland on July 19, 1919, to mark the end of the Great War.

The Victory Peace Procession which took place in Sunderland on July 19, 1919, to mark the end of the Great War.

Just three days after Thomas’s death Wearside dock labourer Joseph Lewins - a veteran of the Second Boer War - enlisted as a gunner with the Royal Garrison Artillery on August 26.

But his posting to Newhaven, where he was engaged in transport work, ended in tragedy on August 31 - after Joseph was found lying by the side of a road with his throat cut. He died the same day.

An inquest into his death was held in Sussex on September 1, when Joseph’s wife Rosa told the hearing: “He was always a steady man, but was wounded in the South African War. Since then he has suffered very much with pains in the head. When the pains were bad, he scarcely knew what he was doing. But I can see no reason why my husband has done such a thing.”

A verdict of suicide while of unsound mind was, however, recorded and Joseph, of 50 Hendon Street, was laid to rest in Sussex. He left Rosa and a 15-year-old son, also called Joseph.

“More than 25,000 Sunderland men signed up to fight in the ‘war to end all wars’ - a conflict the like of which had never been seen before,” said Bill.

“A third were killed or wounded, while one in ten were never to see Sunderland again - like Thomas and Joseph. Their sacrifices should never be forgotten.”

•Sunderland Antiquarian Society is at 6 Douro Terrace. The archive is open to the public each Wednesday and Saturday mornings for historical research.

Remembering the Home Front

A host of free events and activities are to be held at Sunderland Museum this summer to mark the 101st anniversary of the Great War.

Included in the commemorations is a George Mailing Trail around the museum - paying tribute to Wearside’s only winner of the Victoria Cross during World War One.

Also being held:

•August 7: Zeppelin Attack - 11am-12.30pm and 1.30-3pm. Make model Zeppelins to remember the people lost in a Zeppelin raid on Sunderland in the Great War.

•August 17: Touching the Past: First World War - 1-3pm. Explore real objects from the Great War including trench periscopes, postcards and Princess Mary tins.

•August 14: Tank Banks - 11am-12.30pm and 1.30pm-3pm. Drop-in sessions to make money boxes in remembrance of the Tank Bank saving scheme to fun the war effort.

•August 21: Red, White and Blue Day - 11am-12.30pm and 1.30-3pm. A drop-in day for “all things patriotic” - including medal making, marching and much more.

•For more information, contact on 561 2323.