Band of brothers – Sarah Stoner remembers the war heroes of East Durham

WASTELAND: Thousands of men died while fighting the Battle of the Somme, above.  Below, The Maitland brothers, who all fought at the Battle of the Somme. Bottom,  George Maitland with his father and grandfather's medals.
WASTELAND: Thousands of men died while fighting the Battle of the Somme, above. Below, The Maitland brothers, who all fought at the Battle of the Somme. Bottom, George Maitland with his father and grandfather's medals.
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COUNTY Durham’s own version of Saving Private Ryan is at the centre of a exhibition marking Remembrance Day.

Six of the seven sons of Seaham miner William Maitland and his wife Mary Jane signed up to fight for King and Country in World War One. Two never returned.

BROTHERS IN ARMS: The Maitland brothers - who all fought at the Battle of the Somme.

BROTHERS IN ARMS: The Maitland brothers - who all fought at the Battle of the Somme.

A third – youngest brother Samuel – fought on the frontline during the Battle of the Somme and eventually made it home – only to die a few years later, aged just 28.

“I’m proud of them all,” said ex-miner George Maitland, grandson of one of the brothers, George – a hewer who tragically died from his war wounds in March 1917.

“My own father, who was also called George, never knew his dad – as he was only about two when he was killed in the war. I don’t think he had any memories of him.”

The seven Maitland brothers grew up in Seaham – a town born from coal – in the late Victorian era. All followed their father into mining jobs from the age of 13 or 14.

George Walker with his father and grandfather's medals.

George Walker with his father and grandfather's medals.

When the call to fight for their country came in 1914, six of the siblings stepped forward. Only David, then aged 27, didn’t sign up. Instead, he went on to become a preacher.

“The other six brothers all joined the 23rd Battalion Tyneside Scottish, part of the Northumberland Fusiliers. Four have consecutive service numbers,” said George, of Murton.

“It was a Pals battalion, where friends joined together, trained together, fought together and often died together. Sadly, that’s what happened to two of the brothers.”

All six brothers fought at the first day of the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916 – a bloody conflict which saw 629 battalion members die, including brother Thomas.

Indeed, so heavy were the brigade’s losses on that brutal first day that, on July 6, the soldiers were briefly transferred from the frontline – returning to battle on August 22.

Action followed at the Battle of Messines, Battle of Menin Road, Battle of Polygon Wood and the first and second Battles of Passchendaele for the remaining brothers.

But, in March 1917, brother George died from war wounds. Months later, his remaining siblings – William, Samuel, Richard and James – were sent off to Italy to fight.

Bloody conflict after conflict followed and, by the time the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, their division had lost 23,574 men to fighting and war injuries.

“It is hard to imagine what those soldiers went through. The courage of these men should never, ever, be forgotten. If you forget them, they died in vain,” said George.

Today memories of the brave brothers – Samuel, Thomas, George, Richard, William and James – live on through a photo taken just before they were shipped off to France.

But visitors to East Durham Heritage Centre, based at Seaham docks, will be able to find out more about the men – and other local war heroes – during a display this week.

Members of East Durham Heritage Group have put together lists of war dead, vintage news stories and archive photographs paying tribute to the heroes of both world wars Tragically, included within the memorials to those who died in the Second World War is the name George Maitland – the young boy who lost his father in the Great War.

“My father was killed just days before the end of the war,” said George, a member of the Heritage Group. “He never knew his father, due to a war, and I never knew mine.

“He was a sailor on HMS Redmill, which was torpedoed by a German U-boat just off the coast of Ireland on April 27, 1945. My dad was one of 24 sailors who died that day.

“So many people from Seaham, Murton and East Durham gave their lives during wartime – at home and abroad – and we should never let their sacrifice be forgotten.”

* East Durham Heritage Centre is open from 10am-2pm each Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Group visits can be arranged. Contact 581 8904 for details.

‘They should never be forgotten’

HUNDREDS of East Durham servicemen – and civilians – paid the ultimate price in the fight for King and Country during the world wars.

Among those to lay down their lives was Seaham’s Matthew Coyle, who was just 17 when he joined the Coldstream Guards in March 1915.

The Hall Street teenager – a miner since the age of 14 – was awarded the Victory, British and 15 Star medals after fighting at the Battles of Loos and Auber’s Ridge.

Tragically, he died of his wounds on December 1915 – leaving his miner father Dennis, mother Isabel and at least five siblings, many of them also miners, in mourning.

Another to give his life was miner George Kirby – one of 10 children from William Street – who died on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918.

George, a private with the 4th Battalion of the Princess of Wale’s Own (Yorkshire Regiment), was just 22. He was awarded the British, Victory and 15 Star medals.

A third to lose his life was Easington-born Alfred Herbert Forster, a driver with the 3rd Northumbrian Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, who was just 16 when he died. Albert, the eldest child of a grocer, grew up in relative comfort at 6 North Railway Street in Seaham with at least four sisters and a servant to help cook and clean.

By the time war was announced, however, his father George Dixon Forster had died and the family were living at 13 Marlborough Street – terraced houses dating to 1861.

It is not known what led to the death of the teenager, who was part of a territorial force, but he is recorded as having died at home in Seaham on September 9, 1915.

“Approximately 400 people from Seaham died in the wars, including more than 50 civilians, each paying the ultimate price to bring back peace,” said George Maitland.

“Our exhibition gives a voice to these people, and remembers their sacrifice. They should never, ever, be forgotten – and we must learn from the past to have a better future.”

Heartbreaking letters from the front line

THOUSANDS of men from across East Durham served in the First and Second World Wars – including Seaham miner John Scollen.

The 40-year-old left his wife Christina and seven children back home at 9 Maria Street after signing up with the 4th Battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers.

Within months of arriving in France in January 1916, however, he made the ultimate sacrifice for King and Country – killed in action at the Battle of the Somme.

“My father, Hugh, was one of John’s children. My grandfather went off to fight when Hugh was just two,” said Brian Scollen, a member of East Durham Heritage Group.

“But we still have a letter my grandfather sent home to his wife and children just a few days before the Battle of the Somme. His words are very, very moving.”

The letter, penned by John on June 27, 1916 – four days before the Somme – reads:

“My dear wife and children, it is with regret I write my last words of farewell to you. We are about to (make) a charge against these dastardly Germans.

“It is hard to part from you, but keep a good heart dear Tina and do not grieve for me, for God and his Blessed Mother will watch over you and my bonny little children.”

John’s letter goes on to ask Tina to look after his children if he dies, but he adds that he has “no cause for concern” in that matter – as she is “a good wife and mother.”

“Farewell now dear wife and children. I have not anything more to say, only I wish you all God’s Holy Grace and Blessing. Think of me in your prayers,” he concluded.

“What is especially sad is that John gives a special mention to his “last flower baby” in the letter – his youngest child James – who died a year after my grandfather was killed,” said Brian.

“Neither of my parents could remember their fathers – my mam’s father died before she was born – which is why I think it is very important to mark Remembrance Day.”