A cold winter at the Front

"The winter of 1916/17 was the coldest of the war"
"The winter of 1916/17 was the coldest of the war"

Early January 1917 saw military operations by both sides on the Western Front restricted mostly to surviving the plummeting temperatures, with driving rain, sleet and snow helping to form a war-pocked landscape of freezing mudbaths, waterlogged trenches and treacherous shell-holes stretching from the North Sea to the Alps.

Families at home must have been glad to see the back of 1916. Nearly a third of all deaths of combatants from North Tyneside recorded on the Northumbria World War One Project database occurred in that year – and 1917 would prove equally grim.

The project has created a free database of combatants from the area who died as a result of the First World War. Volunteers have gathered information about more than 1,800 casualties from the old borough of Tynemouth, and a further 2,000-plus from the rest of the modern borough are being researched.

By January 1917 plans for a major offensive in the spring at Arras were well advanced and the British attempted to keep the attention of the Germans on the Somme. Field Marshal Haig ordered attacks to gain better observation of the German lines.

During one of these engagements, on January 4, 20-year-old Sapper Herbert Brown, from Seaton Burn, of the Northern Division Signal Company, was killed, the only son of John and Charlotte Isabella Brown.

Just over a week later Welsh-born Private Henry John Jones, from the 21st Tyneside Scottish battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers, died in No. 8 Casualty Clearing Station from wounds received the previous day.

Researchers discovered that he and his wife Mabel were nurses for the mentally ill at South Shields Poor Law Institution. Later he worked at the Poor Law Institution at North Shields. It is interesting to reflect what he might have thought as he watched men go mad all around him during shelling in the trenches.

By this stage in the war, few could see the end in sight. But in the middle of January an incident took place that would shorten it.

The German government sent instructions to the German Ambassador in Mexico negotiating an alliance against the United States. This was intercepted and decoded by British Intelligence, who passed it on to the US government.

Then in late February the liner RMS Laconia, built in 1911 by Swan Hunter and Wigham Richardson at Wallsend, was sunk by a German U-boat, killing 12 people, including two Americans. The Americans declared war on Germany on April 6.

If you have any information on casualties of the First World War contact www.northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk or visit our office in the Linskill Centre, North Shields.

You can also email tommy@northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk