Remembering Sunderland’s Great War heroes

Douglas Smith, President of the Sunderland Antiquarian Society, with  certificates presented to servicemen from Sunderland at the end of the First World War.
Douglas Smith, President of the Sunderland Antiquarian Society, with certificates presented to servicemen from Sunderland at the end of the First World War.
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An appeal to preserve memories of Wearside’s Great War heroes for the future has been launched. Today we take a look.

FRIENDS and comrades fell around him as Francis Denton faced poison gas, grenades, shells and bayonets in his fight for King and Country during the First World War.

His work as a signaller saw the former office boy sent ahead of the front line to lay vital lines of communication in no-man’s land – one of the most dangerous of battlefield tasks.

But Grangetown-born Francis managed to survive against the odds – falling victim to illness rather than wounds in 1918. Once finally home, he received a hero’s welcome.

“Francis was one of hundreds of Wearside men to be awarded a parchment certificate celebrating his wartime bravery,” said Douglas Smith, president of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

“The then mayor, William Frederick Vint, hosted a reception at the Town Hall in October 1919, when he handed out these ‘tributes of honour’ to survivors and families of the deceased.

“But, although once common, the parchments are becoming increasingly scarce. We would therefore like to appeal to people to share any tributes they have with us – originals or copies.

“We already have a handful in our archives – such as the one for Francis Denton – but would like to collect enough to hold an exhibition in memory of our Great War soldiers.”

More than 25,000 Wearsiders stepped up to fight in the “war to end all wars” – with both the 160th (Wearside) Brigade and 20th Battalion Wearside DLI raised in Sunderland in 1915.

Indeed, such was the show of local patriotism that, by the end of the year, 20th DLI had more than 1,000 men. Tragically, one in 10 of Sunderland’s soldiers would never return home.

“Although the losses were grievous, the courage of our men under fire was outstanding. The 160th won 157 medals for gallantry, while the 20th DLI collected 163,” said Douglas. “This year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War, and we believe it is important to mark the sacrifice made by local men – hence our appeal for tribute donations.

“These tributes of honour, whether originals or copies, will be treasured and preserved in the archives of the society so that the memory of these brave lads will not be forgotten.”

Among the parchments already held by Sunderland Antiquarians is one dedicated to Wallace Jobling – a tattooed labourer from Monkwearmouth, who fought with the 4th West Yorks.

The father-of-four was one of the first soldiers to arrive in France in 1914 as part of the British Expeditionary Force, but was sent home in 1916 after developing a serious abscess.

Also mentioned among the tributes are Special Constable J.S. Pickering, Labour Corps soldier George T. Scott and 3rd Battalion North Staffordshire man John Redpath Curtis.

A sixth recipient of one of the certificates – John Dryden Foster of Hedworth Street – did not live to collect his. Instead, he was killed in action at Passchendaele on October 9, 1917.

“John joined 2nd DLI and travelled to France as part of the Expeditionary Force. He had a one-year-old son, Jack, and a new-born daughter, Margaret, at the time,” said Douglas.

“After several months, he was apparently called back to work in the shipyards, where he had been a riveter. But he never made it home, and was instead transferred to the 1/6 West Yorks.

“And so it was that 28-year-old John ended up at Passchendaele – a brutal battle which saw men and horses drowning in thick mud. The operation claimed over 300,000 allied casualties.”

Francis Denton was luckier. Despite being hospitalised in Belgium, the former Pearman and Corder office boy made it back to Britain – just in time for the 1919 tribute ceremony.

He went on to work his way up to assistant secretary at Cherry Knowle Hospital and, after marrying local baker Isabella, the couple welcomed the arrival of only child Isabel.

“My father never, ever talked to me about the war – not once,” she said. “He lost some very good friends, and hated fighting, although he would always do his duty.

“It is important to remember those who fought in the Great War; not just because of the sacrifices they made, but because of the example they set. A war like that should never happen again.”

l Tributes of honour can be left at Sunderland Antiquarian Society’s office at 6 Douro Terrace on Wednesday and Saturday mornings. Originals will be returned if requested.