Decimation of Tyneside Irish

A St Patrick's shamrock wreath.
A St Patrick's shamrock wreath.
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This time last year, on the eve of St Patrick’s Day, I mentioned the story of the Tyneside Irish battalions of the Northumberland Fusiliers serving on the Western Front during the First World War receiving shamrocks.

These days we associate Paddy’s Day with green wigs, stout hats and the rest of it. Then, in perhaps less secular days, being presented with the precious piece of shamrock from the ‘oul turf’ was akin to walking in the footsteps of Patrick – mind you, he is believed to come from Cumberland originally.

By March 17, 1916, all ranks of the four battalions of the Tyneside Irish Brigade, many of them second or third generation Irish, had dug themselves into the soil of Picardy and were given a shamrock, the symbol of Ireland and St Patrick.

A year later those battalions had been decimated at the Somme.

Going by official Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) records, the men designated Tyneside Irish who died in the First World War numbered more than 2,000. The records don’t reveal the thousands more who were wounded, many irretrievably, or who died in the intervening years.

The records reveal that 898 died in 1916, understandable when the Somme statistics are taken into consideration. The Tyneside Irish lost most of that total on the first day.

The 1917 total was 956, so within a year-and-a-half it is estimated that 75 per cent of the total who had joined up at the start of the war had been killed, wounded or taken prisoner.

Just days after the Somme the remnants of the Tyneside Irish battalions were rested and re-equipped. Battalions were combined, reservists were called up, new recruits came in. The original character of the battalion was eroding.

A close inspection of the Tyneside Irish service numbers reveals that a larger number of those who died in 1917, and on into 1918, were amalgamated into the battalions after the Somme. The wound on July 1, 1916, had been so grave that by 1918 the battalions were disbanded.

Remarkably, according to the official records, nobody from the four Tyneside Irish battalions died on St Patrick’s Day 1917. In fact, only one died on St Patrick’s Day throughout the entire war.

Let’s remember Private Robert Michael Burgoyne, of the 25th battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers, who was killed on March 14, 1917, at Arras. He was a labourer in Cleland’s Shipyard at Willington Quay and is buried at the Faubourg D’Amiens cemetery near Arras.

The Northumbria World War One Project, centred around North Tyneside, has identified more than 100 Tyneside Irish casualties so far on its database.

St Patrick’s Day also sees the laying of the wreath at the War Memorial in Eldon Square commemorating the Tyneside Irish who served, fought and died in the Great War. Organised by the Tyneside Irish Centre, the ceremony gets bigger every year. All are welcome.

If you have any information on any casualties of the First World War from North Tyneside contact www.northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk or call into B9 in the Linskill Centre, North Shields, open Monday to Friday, 10am to 4pm. You can also email tommy@northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk