Home front life in Sunderland during WW1

ROYAL VISIT:  Sunderland lasses working at Sir James Laing's shipyard during the King's visit in 1917.
ROYAL VISIT: Sunderland lasses working at Sir James Laing's shipyard during the King's visit in 1917.
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LIFE for Wearsiders on the home front during World War One will be the focus of a talk this week. Today we find out more.

WEARSIDERS in their thousands signed up to fight for King and Country in World War One – facing bombs, bayonets and gas attacks on Europe’s battlefields.

MEDICAL HELP: Women volunteered to care for wounded soldiers at VAD Hospitals across the North East during World War One - such as this one at Seaham Hall.

MEDICAL HELP: Women volunteered to care for wounded soldiers at VAD Hospitals across the North East during World War One - such as this one at Seaham Hall.

But daily life back in Sunderland life was also perilous, with marauding U-boats, deadly Zeppelin attacks and Spanish Flu just some of the dangers faced.

It was meant to be all over by Christmas. It wasn’t. Wearsiders would play a major part both at home and abroad – with one in ten soldiers laying down their lives.

“Times were tough, but sadly very little has been written about life on the home front,” said historian Trevor Thorne, author of Sunderland & the First World War.

“This lack of information inspired me to start my own research and I will be sharing some of my findings during a talk on Saturday. It really is fascinating.”

The declaration of war made page three of the Echo on August 4, 1914 – pages one and two being given over to advertisements for clothes and shows.

But troops had already started to arrive days before the declaration was made and, by August 5, work on digging miles of seafront entrenchments was well under way.

Gun batteries were placed at Abbs Point, Cleadon Hills and Holey Rock too, while armed soldiers guarded entrance points into the town – as well as bridges.

And a list of all cars within the town was drawn up for possible war use as well, while appeals for nurses and adverts calling for army volunteers were published daily.

“The town underwent huge changes,” said Trevor. “Hundreds of soldiers set up camp here, and thousands of locals marched to war.

“Sunderland was involved in raising two battalions – the 160th Wearside Brigade and 20th Service Battalion – feeding, clothing and training those who joined.

“The losses were grievous – one soldier in every ten – but the courage of our men was supreme. The 160th won 157 medals for gallantry, and the 20th 163.”

More than 25,000 Wearsiders fought in the ‘war to end all wars’ and, as they marched off to battle, so their jobs were taken by women.

Indeed, the appearance of women as tram clippies even caused outrage at first – with some conductresses suffering abuse, or even being spat at, for “taking a man’s job”.

“Sunderland’s shipyards had been busy at the outbreak of war and, when hundreds of workmen left to fight in 1914, the situation soon reached crisis point,” said Trevor.

“Indeed, with shipping losses enormous from the very start of the war, those working in the yards faced 12-hour shifts. Eventually, men were returned from war to help out.

“More than 750,000 tons of merchant vessels were produced and Sir James Marr, of Thompsons and Laings, received a Baronetcy in recognition of this great effort.”

Dozens of merchant and admiralty vessels were lost to enemy attacks off the coast of Sunderland throughout the war and, in August 1916, the town was threatened as well.

Plans were drawn up by the German High Sea Fleet to bombard the town, in the hope of drawing the British Fleet, into battle, but Operation Sunderland eventually failed.

“It could have seen Sunderland decimated,” said Trevor. “But conflicting intelligence eventually led the German fleet to return home without major action.”

Plans by the German High Command to bomb Britain using Zeppelins put the town in the firing line too – with at least two spying missions carried out over Wearside.

And, on April 1, 1916, a Zeppelin bombing raid left 22 dead and 128 injured in the Wheatsheaf area – including several children and Special Constable T.S. Dale.

“One Zeppelin is rumoured to have been brought down over the town,” said Trevor, a chartered accountant and partner at Sunderland firm TTR Barnes.

“But this probably refers to L34, which was brought down a few miles south in 1916. The burning wreckage was visible all along the North East coast that night.”

The Zeppelin raid on Monkwearmouth spurred the Government into opening Usworth Airfield in October 1916, in the hope of defending Wearside from the skies.

Other home front changes included taxing dog ownership, compulsory rationing and the creation of war hospitals such as Bede Tower, The Royalty and Herrington Hall.

Sadly, just as the end of the war was in sight, the Spanish Flu epidemic also hit Wearside – leading to a backlog of hundreds of unburied bodies.

“The people of Sunderland suffered through terrible times during the war, both on the home and battle fronts – and I believe it is a story which should be told,” said Trevor.

“I’ll be looking at a whole range of topics during my talk, from U-boats to war work, recruitment and hospitals – all subjects close to the hearts of Wearsiders back then.

“Thousands of Wearsiders lost their lives during the conflict, both at home and abroad, and the effect of World War One would be felt for a very long time.”

•Trevor’s talk on Sunderland in the Great War is this Saturday at 2pm at Sunderland Museum. Admission £1. All welcome.