A SOLDIER’S posting to Wearside in World War One ended in tragedy – after he was shot on a seaside street.
Labourer John Smith, a private in the 3rd Battalion of the York and Lancashire Regiment, arrived in Sunderland in 1914 to serve on coastal defence duties.
The 36-year-old lost his life, however, just weeks later – after apparently daring to try and leave his barracks in Featherstone Street, Roker, without permission.
“Mystery still surrounds poor old John’s death almost a century afterwards,” said local historian Norman Kirtlan, map archivist for Sunderland Antiquarian Society.
“Initial reports suggested he accidentally dropped his rifle, and the impact of it hitting the pavement caused a cartridge to explode and pass through the back of his head.
“In actual fact, he was shot by one of his own comrades. There appears to have been only the briefest of investigations, but his death was just written off as an accident.”
Hundreds of soldiers were drafted into Sunderland from late July 1914 – more than a week before war was officially declared on August 4 – to help protect the coastline.
Bridges, railways and key routes into town were placed under armed guard, defensive trenches dug along the coast and dozens of torpedo nets placed around the docks.
Among those on homefront guard duty were 600 men from 8th Battalion Durham Light Infantry, as well as soldiers from York and Lancs, the Royal Garrison Artillery and East Yorkshire Regiment.
“The sight of soldiers with fixed bayonets caused great amazement, but the majority of people quite understood the defences were only precautionary,” reported the Echo.
As Wearsiders battened down the hatches and prepared for war, so labourer John Smith became one of the first to sign up to fight for King and Country on August 10.
The Castleford-born soldier enlisted in Pontefract and, after passing his medical, he was assigned to the 3rd (Special Reserve) Battalion of the York and Lancashire.
“It appears from the few military records available that John was posted to Sunderland almost immediately,” said Norman, a former Wearside police inspector.
“His unit was part of the Tyne Garrison coastal defence squad, and he was quartered at the Coastguard’s Drill Hall in Featherstone Street along with 30-odd comrades.”
All, apparently, went well for John in his first weeks of service but, on November 11, 1914, his billet commander issued the order that no-one was to leave the barracks.
Two sentries, each armed with a rifle and ammunition, were then placed outside the building – to ensure their comrades obeyed the order and stayed indoors.
“At 1pm there was a shift change when one sentry, Private Flynn, was relieved by Private Haines. Flynn handed Haines his gun, which was loaded,” said Norman.
“But Flynn apparently didn’t tell Haines the rifle was loaded, and Haines didn’t examine it. Sadly, this would lead to tragic consequences – or so it was claimed.”
Less than two hours later, at about 2.45pm, Lance-Corporal Porter heard the sound of a rifle shot – a noise which sent him running from the hall and out onto the street.
There he found Private Smith lying on the footpath, bleeding from a wound in his neck. The soldier died before reaching nearby Monkwearmouth and Southwick Hospital.
An inquest into the fatality was held the next day, before coroner J.F. Burnicle, when it was revealed John had been shot while trying to leave the hall without permission.
Witness Edith Coulson revealed: “I was in the street when the shot was fired. I saw a soldier fall to the ground. The sentry said he hadn’t known the rifle was loaded.”
Summing up the case, Coroner Burnicle remarked there was no evidence of any grudge between Haines and Smith and that the sentry had simply been doing his duty.
A verdict of death by misadventure was duly returned, and all military records pertaining to John Smith’s death were later marked as “accidental.”
“The death may well have been accidental, but surely the soldier had to point his weapon and pull the trigger to actually hit someone,” said Norman.
“It is obvious that, for some reason, John Smith wanted to get out of his barracks for a while. Tragically, he was to pay the ultimate price for breaking the rules.”
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