Gassed, shot and shelled – Sunderland 49-year-old WW1 hero

WAR HERO: John Tough, right, with his wife Jenny in 1934 - during the renewal of their marriage vows.
WAR HERO: John Tough, right, with his wife Jenny in 1934 - during the renewal of their marriage vows.
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FATHER-OF-13 John Tough was shelled, shot and gassed after signing up to fight in the Great War aged 49 – but refused to stop fighting even after getting hurt.

Indeed, the Fulwell building contractor battled to return to the trenches after being discharged as unfit for service – later winning promotion for his front-line bravery.

WAR HERO: James Beattie

WAR HERO: James Beattie

It was highly unusual for a man of John’s age to sign up for battle action. In fact, he was well over the then maximum age of 41,” said local historian Margaret Thynne.

“His service included nine gruelling months in the tunnelling company of the Royal Engineers, where he was twice mine-gassed. John really was a very brave man.”

John, son of contractor James and his wife Jane, was born in 1866 and spent his early years at Elgin Street – sharing the Bishopwearmouth house with at least nine siblings.

By the time of the 1881 census the family were living at 9 Rosedale Terrace. Just three years later, John married sweetheart Jenny at St Mark’s and moved to Fulwell.

“The couple went on to have nine sons and four daughters. John worked as a public works contractor, and often carried out jobs for Sunderland Council,” said Margaret.

“At one point he stated in a newspaper article that he had employed 1,000 men during his career. He was obviously a very well respected man, as well as a very brave one.”

John, of Winifred Street in Fulwell, celebrated his 48th birthday in 1914 – and was forced to watch from the sidelines as young men aged 18 to 41 were called up to serve.

But, just a year later – as thousands of soldiers were killed on Europe’s battlefields – John seized the opportunity to sign up and fight with the Northumberland Fusiliers.

“He turned 50 shortly after joining and, after several months of training, was sent to France in 1916 with a Royal Engineers tunnelling company,” said Margaret.

“The digging of tunnels beneath enemy front-line positions, to plant mines to blow them up, was a very important – and highly dangerous – part of trench warfare.”

John, who specialised in drainage work back in Sunderland, spent nine months with the tunnelling unit – only leaving his post after being badly gassed for a second time.

The corporal was discharged from the army as unfit for service in 1917 and issued with a Silver War Badge – given to those with serious war wounds or sickness. But, despite his battlefield injuries, John remained determined to fight – and signed up for active service yet again in April 1918, joining the Royal Marine Engineers.

“He returned as a private, but was quickly promoted. By July he had become a First Class Warrant Officer – one of the highest non-commissioned ranks,” said Margaret.

“Although not the oldest, John was certainly one of the oldest to be fighting at that time.

And he was lucky enough to survive as well, returning home later that year.”

The post-war years saw John’s business flourish and, in 1925, he and Jenny moved to a new home at Beach Below, 1 Rockville, Fulwell – where they lived out their lives. In 1934, the year of their Golden Wedding, the couple renewed their vows at Gretna Green in Scotland – getting “remarried” by the last Anvil priest, Richard Rennison.

The pair also bought a property at Moffat, in Dumfries and Galloway, at around this time – and, while staying there, John was co-opted onto the local town council.

“John served as a town councillor in Moffat for three years and, during his time there, the Toughs purchased a recreation ground for the use of local people,” said Margaret.

“Today there is still a plaque bearing their names in the recreation ground, which was placed there by the council when the Toughs returned home to Sunderland.”

The couple survived Hitler’s brutal air raids on Sunderland during World War Two, but John died shortly afterwards in 1947, followed by his beloved Jenny in 1951.

The pair – who had 53 grandchildren – were buried together at Mere Knolls Cemetery in a shared grave, alongside one of their daughters and her husband.

“John Tough was tough by name and tough by nature,” said Margaret. “He didn’t have to fight, but he made sure he did – he is a son of Sunderland to be proud of.”

•Margaret will give a talk on the Soldiers of the First World War as part of the Heritage Open Days spectacular, at Sunderland Library on September 12 from 1.30pm. Admission free. All welcome.