More than 25,000 Wearside men stepped up to fight for King and Country in the ‘war to end all wars’ – a conflict the like of which had never been witnessed in Britain before.
The First World War was supposed to be ‘over by Christmas’. It wasn’t. As the patriotic men of Sunderland faced years of bombs, bayonets and gas attacks in battle, so the losses were grievous.
One in every ten would never see their home town again, while others suffered life-changing injuries. Every district, every street and almost every family knew the pain of war.
“It is a century since the guns of the First World War fell silent on November 11, 1918 – a date now known as Armistice Day,” said Julie Elliott, MP for Sunderland Central.
“The sacrifice of those who lost their lives should never be forgotten. Many of my family, as well as their friends, colleagues and neighbours, fought in the war. All should be remembered.”
Julie’s great-grandfather, William John Ryall, was one of the oldest of Sunderland’s men to step up to fight – re-joining the Royal Navy in his 50s to serve at Scarpa Flow in the Orkneys.
William, the son of farm labourer, initially joined the Navy in the 1870s – before his 16th birthday – serving as a First Class Boy on HMS Royal Adelaide before climbing the ranks to chief petty officer.
The father-of-ten was posted to at least 20 ships during his first naval stint, including HMS Victory – Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar. By the time of retirement in 1902 he was an instructor.
Living on a pension, however, appears to have bored William – for he moved his family from the Isle of Wight to Campbell Terrace, Fulwell, in around 1904, after securing prestigious new job.
“At around this time North Eastern Marine Engineering Company built a new power station on land leased from the River Wear Commissioners down at the South Dock,” said Julie.
“There was always talk in the family about William getting a good job at the docks, and I believe he may have worked as a switchboard operator there, tasked with the control of the electricity.
“The electricity was so powerful that it could instantly kill any person who encountered it. It was therefore a job of great responsibility to take control of the switchboard.”
William returned to the navy, however, once the First World War was declared. A three-month spell back on HMS Victory saw him brush up his skills, before a posting to submarine repair ship Cyclops II followed.
He spent most of the war, however, aboard HMT Cairo – a trawler fitted as a minesweeper. For four years he patrolled the coast of Scotland, helping to protect the British Grand Fleet at Scarpa Flow.
“I am very proud of my great-grandfather for getting back into uniform and fighting in the First World War. He didn’t have to, he was a Navy pensioner by then, but he was determined to do his bit,” said Julie.
“The protection of Scarpa Flow was difficult, yet vital. Britain’s Grand Fleet needed a safe base, and men like William tried their best to provide that – despite attacks from enemy U-boats and ships.”
William eventually made it home safely in 1919, returning to loving wife Laura and his power station job. The couple’s eldest son, George Andrew Ryall, was sadly not so lucky.
George, who worked as a tram conductor for Sunderland Corporation, married Fulwell girl Isabella Wake in 1908 and the pair, with son John and daughter Ethel, lived at Westcott Terrace, Roker.
Details of George’s war service have been lost over time but, by 1917, he was serving as a private in B Company of the 1st/9th Battalion of Durham Light Infantry – alongside many other Wearsiders.
The final days before George’s death saw him march through a blinding snowstorm to Agnez-les-Duisans, near Arras, before coming under heavy shelling and machine gun fire on the front line.
Despite the bitter cold and heavy fire, George and his comrades managed to advance the line by 300 yards. Tragically he paid the ultimate price for his bravery – killed in action on April 14, 1917.
Lieutenant Colonel Ernest Crouch, commander of 1/9th DLI, later told George’s family in a letter: “Ryall was a very good and smart soldier, whose loss I much regret.
“He was buried near the village of Wancourt. We erected a cross of the regimental type to the memory of our own.”
Isabella was left a widow at just 30, with two children to support. She received only £8 and sixpence from the army following George’s death, as well as a war gratuity of £10 from a “grateful nation”.
“My Great Uncle George died during the Battle of Arras – a battle in which tens of thousands were injured or killed. I still have a copy of Crouch’s letter, which I find incredibly moving,” said Julie.
George is today remembered on the Arras Memorial and was posthumously awarded the British War Medal and Victory Medal. He is also honoured on several war memorials in Sunderland.
Just one other of William Ryall’s sons – George’s younger brother Archibald Charles – was old enough to fight in the First World War. His career in the military was brief, however, due to health issues.
The apprentice plater joined the 7th Battalion Yorks Regiment in September 1914, just weeks after war broke out, and spent 190 days training in Wareham with 50th Brigade 17th (Northern) Division.
In March 1915, however, he was discharged as no longer fit for war service due to the eye condition Nystagmus. As he headed back to Sunderland, so his comrades saw action at Ypres and The Somme.
“It was not Archie’s fault that he couldn’t fight, his health just wasn’t good enough. I am just as proud of him as I am of all the other war heroes in my family and across Sunderland,” said Julie.
“On Remembrance Sunday, as thousands gather to remember Sunderland’s fallen war heroes, I will be wearing my poppy with pride. It is a mark of respect to all those who never came home.”