Story of Sunderland’s own War Horse heroes

WAR HORSE: George Thompson pictured on his war horse.
WAR HORSE: George Thompson pictured on his war horse.
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AS the musical War Horse plays to packed audiences at the Empire, we today take a look at two of Sunderland’s own War Horse heroes.

WEARSIDE soldier David Norman Owens was shot at, shelled and gassed as he fought for King and Country during the First World War.

BROTHERS IN ARMS: Members of the Royal Engineers - where David Owens was a member during the First World War.

BROTHERS IN ARMS: Members of the Royal Engineers - where David Owens was a member during the First World War.

But as comrades fell around him on Europe’s battlefields, the former driver had one trusty companion to lean on – his war horse.

“David saw action at some of the bloodiest battles of the conflict, including Loos, Scarpe and Ypres,” said local historian Margaret Thynne.

“As a mounted infantryman, he would have been on the front line, risking his life – and that of his horse – on an almost daily basis.

“That horse was his lifeline – a ways of means of both fighting and fleeing from trouble.”

David, youngest son of sailor David Owens and his wife Frances, was born in Sunderland in August 1894 and attended Chester Road School.

After completing his education, he moved to Red House Farm near Pity Me, where the 1911 census shows him working as a farm labourer.

“Perhaps that’s where he learned to ride a horse,” said Margaret. “His farm work gave him the experience he needed to join a mounted regiment.”

As young David toiled the land, so the storm clouds of conflict were gathering over Europe. Just three years later, Britain was at war.

“David was back home, living with his parents at 17 High Barnes Terrace, when he signed up to fight in 1915,” said Margaret.

“He enlisted in the Royal Engineers as a member of the mounted 73rd Field Company, serving as a driver for the corps – a very risky role.”

David was sent to Aldershot for training in February 1915, before being shipped off to France in August as part of the British Expeditionary Force.

His company fought with the 15th (Scottish) Division while serving overseas – first seeing action at The Battle of Loos in September 1915.

“This battle was the largest British offensive mounted on the Western Front in 1915,” said Margaret, who is researching local Great War soldiers.

“It was the first time the British used poison gas, and the first mass engagement of Kitchener’s New Army units – such as the one David served in.”

Members of the 73rd Field Company were deployed on the front line as infantrymen but, despite improved fighting methods and weapons, casualties were high.

Indeed, by the time the attack ended, the death toll exceeded any previous battle. Britain lost 385 officers and 7,861 enlisted men in the two-month fight.

Action at Hulluch in the spring of 1916 followed, where David’s unit came under a German gas attack, and he was injured in defensive fighting in June.

“Records show he ended up in hospital. I’m not sure how he was wounded, but he was shipped back to the UK to recuperate until March 1917,” said Margaret.

As David recovered from his injuries, so his unit saw action at the battles of Pozieres, Flers-Courcelette and Le Transloy – all phases of the Somme.

And within days of re-joining his company in France, David took part in The First Battle of Scarpe on April 9, 1917 – attacking German troops near Arras.

Action at the Second Battle of Scarpe followed on April 23, but he was injured yet again in July during the opening attack at the Third Battle of Ypres.

“This time David only spent a few days in hospital, rejoining his unit in August. Days later, the men took part in the Battle of Langemarck,” said Margaret.

Further battles followed in 1918, including Bapaume in March and Arras in August. It was on June 7, 1918, however, that David was awarded the Military Medal.

“He was awarded this prestigious honour for conspicuous gallantry, devotion to duty and splendid horsemanship under heavy shell fire,” said Margaret.

“But his war was not yet over. He took part in several more battles before peace was declared.”

David was finally demobbed in early 1919, returning home to his family and putting in a claim for a war pension after losing his teeth in battle.

His claim was denied.

“David’s older brother Edgar did get a war pension, though, after serving with the Army Ordnance Corps from 1915 to 1917,” said Margaret,

“Records show that Edgar was discharged as ‘no longer physically fit’ after developing neurasthenia – a type of nervous exhaustion common during the Great War.”

Despite the problems with his teeth, David went on to live a long life, marrying in the 1920s and having a daughter. He died, aged 87, in 1982.

“What David and his horse did for this country should never be forgotten,” said Margaret.

•Margaret will give a talk about the Soldiers of The First World War on September 12 at 1.30pm at Sunderland City Library.

Vaux worker saved his steed from death in the Somme

FORMER Vaux Brewery labourer George Thompson had just one thing to rely on during the horrors of war – his horse.

So, when told to shoot the animal when it fell sick, he defied the order – secretly nursing it back to health instead.

“It is an incredible story,” said local historian Trevor Thorne, who researched the tale for a book last year.

Dozens of war horses were rounded up from across Sunderland, many provided by Vaux, before being shipped to France.

George, from Crow Street, was supplied with his horse by a local man, who claimed it was quiet, caring and a good worker.

But, initially, it proved difficult to manage – kicking, biting and running away – as George later revealed in a diary.

“Nearly every time I took him for a drink, I used to get into trouble,” wrote the war hero. “I was soon fed up with him.”

George and his horse – whose name is unknown – were sent to France in early 1915 to transport goods to the front lines.

But harness use and wet weather took their toll and, during the Battle of the Somme, many horses developed skin diseases.

“An officer came up one morning and ordered 15 horses to be shot. One was the horse I brought from England,” George wrote.

“Instead of sending him away, we sent another in his place and built a stable for him – and looked after him ourselves.”

Just one month later, the horse was back on duty.

George – who won the Military Medal for saving lives under fire – went on to fight in several bloody battles with his steed.

Both he and the horse miraculously survived the war and, afterwards, George went back to Vaux as a fermenting room foreman.

He died, aged 64, in 1958.