Sunderland’s First World War heroes remembered with history project

BRAVE LINE-UP: The officers of the 160th Wearside Brigade Royal Field Artillery, pictured in 1915.
BRAVE LINE-UP: The officers of the 160th Wearside Brigade Royal Field Artillery, pictured in 1915.
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Tributes are being paid to the bravery and sacrifice of Wearsiders during the First World War. Nostalgia writer Sarah Stoner takes a look.

THE fallen heroes of Sunderland are to be remembered with a special tribute. A project investigating life for Wearsiders during the First World War – both on the Western front and at home – culminated in the opening of an exhibition at the weekend.

Pupils from Red House Academy joined forces with Beamish Museum and the DLI Museum in Durham to explore the unique stories of dozens of men who left Sunderland to go to war.

And the results of their four months of investigation and research will go on show at Bede’s Bakehouse, within St Peter’s Church at Monkwearmouth, from noon to 3.30pm on Saturday.

“It is a fascinating exhibition,” said Alex Fairlamb, manager of the Beamish – Your Country Needs You project. “The students have really immersed themselves in the work.

“Our aim was to study what individual soldiers did in battle and also take a look at their lives back at home. The work has provided a real insight into life in Sunderland during the war.”

Inspiration for the project came, in part, from the Echo – which printed dozens of stories and letters featuring local soldiers during the war – sometimes sent in by the men themselves.

Among those to hit the headlines was Henry Cowie, who was so keen to fight for King and Country that he lied to recruiting officers about his age – adding an extra couple of years.

“He was from a large family, with three brothers and three sisters, and worked as a miner before joining the DLI. After training, he was sent overseas in September 1915,” said Alex.

“Henry won promotion from Private to Acting Corporal the day before his division arrived in France. However, he was killed two weeks later during the Battle of Loos. He was just 18.”

Another soldier to feature in the paper was Frederick Jobling, who also lied about his age to sign up with the 20th Service Battalion Wearside of the DLI in 1914 – aged 17.

“He was the son of a boiler-maker and worked as a rope-maker before volunteering. He and his older brother Thomas, who worked in the shipyards, joined at the same time,” said Alex.

“But, while Frederick joined the 20th, Thomas – who was almost five inches shorter – went to the 19th Bantam. Both left for France in 1915, arriving at Le Havre three months apart.”

Research has revealed the pair were unlikely to have seen each other while in France, as they were not involved in the same conflicts, but both had difficulty adjusting to life as a soldier.

“We have discovered that Frederick was reprimanded and punished numerous times for overstaying passes, gambling and being absent from service on one occasion,” said Alex.

“Thomas was charged and punished many times for deserting. However, of the two, it was Frederick who was killed in battle in 1917, while Thomas returned home to England.”

A third soldier to be featured in the Echo, Sunderland-born James McGuire, was far more experienced – and several years older – than Henry or Frederick when he signed up.

Indeed, the married man was 35 when he joined the 2nd DLI in 1914, having previously served with the 4th DLI for ten years before working as a coal miner for a short time.

“Although he was a very experienced soldier in comparison with most of the other men heading off to fight in France, he had never advanced beyond the rank of Private,” said Alex.

“After arriving at St Nazaire, James was only involved in two major actions with the 6th Division; the Battle of Armentieres in 1914 and the Action of Hooge.

“It was during the Action of Hooge that he was killed on August 9, 1915. His body was never recovered and he is today remembered on the Ypres Menin Gate Memorial.”

Further details relating to James, Frederick, Henry and many other Wearside soldiers will be on show at the Bakehouse exhibition, together with vintage photos and newspaper cuttings.

Also included in the display will be essays and research compiled by the Red House pupils, as well as information detailing the tough times suffered by Wearsiders on the home front.

“The project certainly captured the imaginations of students. We hope it will equip them with the skills to delve further into the lives of their ancestors who fought in the war,” said Alex.

“The exhibition is the culmination of a lot of hard work, but it doesn’t stop there. We have now started working with local primary schools on the topic, and it could spread region-wide.

“It would also be wonderful if relatives of Great War soldiers could come forward and share family stories too. It would help students connect with the past if they have such local links.”

•The exhibition is running at the Bakehouse for two weeks. Opening times are: Tuesday-Friday 10.30am-2.30pm, Saturday 10.30am-3.30pm and Sunday 1-3pm. Admission free.

Two of the Wearside soldiers researched during the project

Thomas Baggot

Born in 1878, Thomas Baggot joined the 18th Battalion DLI in September 1914 and served with coastal defences before leaving to fight overseas.

“His battalion became the first of the ‘New Armies’ to be fired on by the German forces during his coastal defence time – when three German ships shelled the coast,” said Alex.

Baggot and his battalion served in Egypt, at the port of Said, from January 1916 for several weeks, before being sent to the front-line in France in March 1916.

“Although the 18th Battalion was involved in many battles, Baggot could not have been involved in more than two, the Battle of Albert and the Battle of the Ancre,” said Alex.

“That was because he was killed in July 1916, five months after arriving in France. On the day he died, the 18th was involved in heavy fighting as part of the Battle of the Somme.

“Baggot moved up in the ranks, from Private to Lance Corporal before he was killed. He was 38 when he died and, while he does not have a grave, he is noted on the Thiepval memorial.”

Joseph Ferguson

Miner’s son Joseph Little Ferguson, of 48 Southwick Road, enlisted in the 1/8th Battalion of the DLI when he was just 15 and went on to be stationed in France.

“While there, his division was involved in heavy fighting in several phases of the Second, and Third, Battles of Ypres, as well as at the Somme,” said Alex.

“The DLI suffered many casualties, including Ferguson, who died on April 11, 1918, at the age of 19. He has no grave but is recognised on the Ploegsteert Memorial in Belgium.”

Ferguson, the oldest of eight children, is believed to have lied to recruiting officers about his age in order to join up. He served with coastal defences before being shipped off to France.

Sunderland home front facts

l Daylight Saving Time was introduced in 1916

l There was a Zeppelin attack in 1916 in Monkwearmouth, with 22 killed and 100 injured

l A concrete sound mirror was built at Fulwell – as an early warning device for airships

l Women took up work in the local shipyards and Doxford Butcher’s Yard

l In 1915 the first 10 female tram conductresses were hired in Sunderland

l During a shipyard visit by the King in 1917, he found an 82-year-old man still hard at work

l Children at Redby School gave concerts at Jeffrey Hall for the soldiers

l Soldiers were stationed at Hylton Castle.

l A new airfield created at North Hylton – now the site of Nissan – called RAF Usworth

l Rationing was introduced in 1917. Wheat was hard to find and potatoes were used instead

A brief history of the Great War

THE First World War was fought across Europe, European colonies and the surrounding seas between August 1, 1914, and November 11, 1918.

“Many have called it The Great War because it was literally greater than any waged before,” said Alex. “More than 59 million troops were mobilised during the conflict.

“Sadly, over eight million died and 29 million were injured in a struggle which altered the political, economic, social and cultural nature of Europe. Ripples were felt across the world.”

More than 25,000 men from Sunderland volunteered to fight in the ‘war to end all wars’ – a conflict the like of which had never been seen before in Britain.

Indeed, such was the show of patriotism in the town that in 1915 the Mayor and Recruiting Committee raised both the 160th (Wearside) Brigade and the 20th Battalion Wearside DLI.

“By the end of 1915 the 20th DLI had over 1,000 men,” said Alex. “Of these 37 officers and 622 other ranks had lost their lives by 1918, including 111 from the Parish of St Columba.” Many other men remained behind in the town, staffing the pits and shipyards so vital in war strategy. Indeed, more than 750,000-tons of merchant vessels were produced for the Navy.

“The families that stayed at home worked hard to be strong and support their loved ones during a hard-fought campaign that sought to be ‘over by Christmas’,” said Alex.

“The people of Sunderland also proved to be extremely supportive of the men fighting overseas. Citizens contributed about £15 million in war bonds, stocks and certificates.

“Residents also built a new hospital on Hylton Road and raised money for Voluntary Aid Detachment hospitals, Christmas gifts for soldiers and the DLI Prisoner of War Fund.”

Soldier-turned-miner Walter Thompson was one of the first Wearsiders to be called up to fight when World War One was declared – and one of the first to die.

The Southwick man was killed in action just a month after arriving in Europe. Tragically, his wife, Martha, passed away soon afterwards, and his children had to be adopted.

“Walter kept a diary during his time on the front line, extracts of which appeared in the Echo after he died,” said Alex. “It gives us such an insight into what life was like during the war.”

Walter, who served with the Coldstream Guards from 1903 to 1906, was working as a stone-man at Castletown Colliery when Britain declared war on Germany on August 14, 1914.

His call-up was almost immediate. Within weeks Walter had been shipped to the Continent, where he saw action in Belgium and France before his death on September 16.

“The article about Walter is very moving,” said Alex. “Sadly, as we have discovered, his wife died just a few months after he was killed. It was said at the time she died of a broken heart.”