World War One: Sunderland’s orphan army

ALWAYS REMEMBERD: The list of East End soldiers who lost their lives in the Great War. The boys of the orphanage are listed to the right.
ALWAYS REMEMBERD: The list of East End soldiers who lost their lives in the Great War. The boys of the orphanage are listed to the right.
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WEARSIDERS who sacrificed their lives for King and Country in the First World War are to be remembered at a special ceremony this weekend.

Dozens of former Sunderland Orphan Asylum residents enlisted to fight in the 1914-18 conflict, with 16-year-old James Mordey among the 21 who lost their lives.

ORPHAN ASYLUM: More than 80 boys from the orphanage fought in the Great War - and 21 lost their lives.

ORPHAN ASYLUM: More than 80 boys from the orphanage fought in the Great War - and 21 lost their lives.

Now their bravery is to be commemorated at Holy Trinity in the East End – the city’s oldest parish church – during a service on Sunday at 3.30pm to mark the centenary of the war.

“The church always had close ties with the orphanage, which took in the young sons of sailors who were killed or permanently disabled,” said local historian Sharon Vincent.

“The boys were trained to follow in the footsteps of their fathers and go to sea, but they were also expected to attend services at Holy Trinity at least twice a week too.”

Hundreds of youngsters were offered a home at Sunderland Orphan Asylum from 1861 onwards – with bed, board and a nautical education available to all in need.

Indeed, the building – which still stands on the edge of the Town Moor – rang to the sounds of fifes, drums and military drilling throughout Victorian times – and beyond.

“In 1922, Holy Trinity Church compiled a list of men from the East End who had fallen in the Great War,” said Sharon, a member of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

“It was discovered that more than 80 old boys from the orphanage had enlisted to fight and, of these, 21 former residents had sadly lost their lives in the conflict.”

Among those to pay the ultimate price was 33-year-old Private George Hagedorn, who was killed in action at the first day of the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916.

James Mordey, a 16-year-old apprentice aboard SS Goathland, also lost his life –when his ship was torpedoed by a U-boat en-route to the Gulf of Mexico on July 4, 1917.

And brothers Alfred and John Ranton died within three days of each other in 1917 – following action at the bloodbath that became known as the Battle of Passchendaele.

“John and Alfred were two of the six children born to former Sunderland seaman William Ranton and his wife Jane, of Milburn Street,” said Sharon.

“By December 1904, the children had been left orphaned after both parents died. They went to live with their grandmother, Mary, and her daughter Lavinia in Millfield.”

The six growing youngsters proved, however, too much for the elderly Mrs Ranton to cope with. Within a year, she applied to the orphanage for places for John and Alfred.

“They qualified because William had been a sailor,” said Sharon. “Alfred was 10 when he was admitted in 1905. John was eight when he arrived a few months later.

“Asylum policy allowed boys to remain until their 14th birthday, after which they would be sent out to make their own way in the world – many becoming sailors.

“But when Alfred left on July 1, 1908, he found work as a van man at Grange Laundry, while John was apprenticed to a plumber when he left on August 15, 1910.”

Following the outbreak of war in 1914, Alfred drew on his experience of working with laundry horses to enlist in the Remounts section of the Army Service Corps.

He spent the first few months of the conflict breaking in horses for the army before arriving in France with his battalion on January 25, 1915, to fight for his country.

“Meanwhile, John enlisted in the Royal Field Artillery,” said Sharon. “By 1917, he was a gunner with 121st Battery and part of the 5th Division of the British Army.

“Perhaps looking for more excitement, Alfred went on to transfer from training horses to operating a Vickers machine gun with the 205th Machine Gun Company.

“And in March 1917, by a strange twist of fate, his company was attached to the 5th Division – making him part of the same army division as his younger brother John.”

A month later, 5th Division – including the Ranton brothers – saw action at the brutal Battle of Arras in which nearly 160,000 British casualties were recorded.

From there, the brothers was sent to Passchendaele – officially known as the Third Battle of Ypres – where the mud was so thick and deep that soldiers drowned in it.

“The Belgian weather had deteriorated so much that the British commander, Sir Douglas Haig, brought the third offensive forward to October 4, 1917,” said Sharon.

“He hoped to capture the rain-soaked Gheluvelt Plateau and Broodseinde Ridge, but fighting was particularly severe and on that first day, John was killed in action.

“Just three days later, on October 7, Alfred was also killed on the same muddy battlefield – while enemy shells rained down on the exhausted men of 5th Division. The 205th Machine Gun war diary states the unit suffered heavy shelling on October 7 and two of their soldiers were killed. One of the casualties was certainly Alfred.

“Sadly, his body was never recovered and Alfred remains one of the ‘missing’ of Passchendaele. John’s final resting place is La Clytte Military Cemetery.”

It took more than a month for notification of Alfred’s death to be sent to his aunt Lavinia, and another week before details of John’s death arrived at her Millfied home.

“John’s major wrote to Lavinia and told her that ‘Gunner John Ranton was a great favourite with the company and a good soldier’,” said Sharon.

“But, although Alfred’s body was never recovered, we can be certain that his remains must still be out there somewhere – and are not far from those of his brother John.

“This is the time to remember the brothers, and those other Wearsiders who made the ultimate sacrifice during the First World War. Everyone is welcome at the service.”

l Sunday’s service will be conducted by Father Andrew Collins-Jones at 3.30pm. A Book of Remembrance will be available, as well as further information on local Great War heroes.