A young life cut short

BRAVE MEN: Members of No. 3 Platoon, A Company, 10th Battalion of Durham Light Infantry pictured in Aldershot 1915 just before being deployed to France.
BRAVE MEN: Members of No. 3 Platoon, A Company, 10th Battalion of Durham Light Infantry pictured in Aldershot 1915 just before being deployed to France.
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A VISIT to a memorial for missing soldiers has prompted a tribute to a Wearside war hero.

WEARSIDE labourer Patrick Roke was shot, shelled and attacked with flame-throwers within weeks of landing in France to fight for King and Country during the First World War.

Tragically, history was to repeat itself because, after he lost his mother as a boy, Patrick was to leave his three little girls without a father when he died in battle. His body is still missing.

“When poet Siegfried Sassoon wrote ‘On Passing the new Menin Gate’ in 1927, the scars of his war were still weeping,” said Michael Travers. “He was bitter and dumbfounded but above all angry.

“In his mind this impersonal memorial was an insult to his fallen comrades. These men had fought the greatest war the world had ever known and all they received was their name on a piece of stone.

“Patrick Roke is one of those names. He was my great-grandfather. My grandmother never knew him. He never got to bounce my father upon his knee. Patrick was killed, aged just 24, in action.”

Census records show Patrick, who was born in Southwick in 1891, living with his older brother Michael in 1901 as a boarder. Their Irish labourer father, also called Patrick, was a boarder too.

Nine members of the Roke family, aged from six months to 50, shared three cramped rooms at 40 Wellington Street at the turn of the century – a terraced row of run-down and crumbling houses.

Ten years later, at the time of the 1911 census, Patrick senior and junior were still without a home of their own. Instead, the men shared digs at 34 Dunning Street and worked as glass factory labourers.

The storm clouds of war were gathering over Europe by the time young Patrick finally found love and settled down to start a family. But, when the call to arms came, he stepped up to the mark.

His unit, the 10th (Service) Battalion of Durham Light Infantry, had been raised at Newcastle on August 22, 1914, as part of Kitchener’s First New Army – with Patrick becoming number 9236.

Battalion members underwent months of training at Woking, Aldershot and Witley in 1914/5, before being shipped to France on May 21, 1915. Conflict at the Action of Hooge soon followed.

“In the beginning these boys and men answered the call in a mix of excitement, bravado and duty,” said Michael, a travel writer born of Sunderland and Kiwi stock currently living in Bali, Indonesia.

“At the end, after all the carnage was over, those that survived could have only hoped their sons, grandsons and great-grandsons would never have to pick up a gun and endure the unendurable.

“I am that great-grandson, that grandson, that son and I have known no khaki. I have known nothing but peace. Maybe to that end their sacrifice was not in vain.”

The sacrifices paid by 10 DLI, part of the 43rd Brigade, 14th Division, were almost immediate. Indeed, during the Action of Hooge, Patrick’s comrades became the first victims of a new weapon.

Trouble flared during an enemy attack on the Belgian village on July 30, when German soldiers used flame-throwers for the first time. The ‘liquid fire’ helped win them ‘Hooge crater’ that day.

Patrick survived the battle, later seeing action at the Battle of Loos too. But, while his comrades would go on to fight at the Somme, Arras and Passchendaele, Patrick’s war was soon to be over.

On December 14, 1915, while 10 DLI were manning the trenches in the Wieltje area of the Ypres Salient, the area came under heavy shell fire from enemy aircraft.

One officer was killed and two lieutenants wounded, according to the battalion’s war diary. Ten lower-ranked soldiers also perished in trench mortar explosions, while 14 were injured.

Sadly, brave Corporal Roke was among those killed in action. Back home in Sunderland, his children were left fatherless days before Christmas.

“His body was never found,” said Michael. “He has no grave, no known resting place, nowhere to lay flowers. There is only his name on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing – along with 54,888 others.

“Sassoon’s indignation is easily understood in the context of the time but today, for us generations who mourn the dead, Menin Gate is a shrine to our collective pasts, a place to give silent thanks.”

Michael recently travelled to Belgium with his parents on a “pilgrimage of sorts” to visit Menin Gate, where he managed to track down Patrick’s tribute – which simply reads Roke P.

“All who fought in Flanders are now dead, comrades in arms once more. I for one am glad that there is a place to visit the dead – a place where the ghost of Patrick Roke dwells,” Michael said.

“To see his name etched in stone, and feel the reverence, makes him somehow real to me. For never having had to look down the barrel of a gun with a man in my sights, I thank you, Corporal Roke.

“My grandmother, my father and myself would have liked to have known you.”

* Do you have a war story to share? Email sarah.stoner@jpress.co.uk.