Did artist’s war service lead him to early grave?

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The famous North Shields artist Victor Noble Rainbird was a prolific painter throughout his life, and many of his works will feature in an exhibition opening at the town’s Old Low Light Heritage Centre at Clifford’s Fort next week.

It can be seen from Friday, July 10, until early September.

Rainbird died destitute in 1936 in Sunderland, but was buried in an unmarked grave in Preston Cemetery, North Shields.

A fund is now seeking to collect funds for a more fitting memorial in place of the plain wooden marker that shows where Rainbird lies.

The exhibition of his work will feature a commentary on his war service, including a note on a famous painting from 1930 titled All Quiet on the Western Front.

Rainbird served throughout the war, including time with the Northumberland Fusiliers (NF) and Durham Light Infantry.

He ended the war in an officer cadet battalion, training to be a junior officer, but it seems that he left the Army without being commissioned.

Before the war, Rainbird was a student of Armstrong College, then Durham University’s Newcastle division, and it is suggested that he served with the University Officers’ Training Corps.

We have no definitive dates for his service before July 1916 when he was married in York while serving with the 6th Northumberland Fusiliers.

The unit then at York was the 2nd/6th battalion (Territorials) of the Fusiliers, training at Scarcroft Schools.

We know that drafts of the 2nd/6th were sent to France on July 16, shortly after the beginning of the bloody campaign on the Somme.

On July 6, 1916, the 102nd (Tyneside Scottish) Brigade of the 34th division (the 20th to 23rd battalions of the NF) had been moved temporarily to a relatively quiet sector to recover from its losses and take in reinforcements.

It seems highly probable from paintings done at the front at that time that Rainbird joined the 21st battalion then.

The 21st NF, as part of the 34th division, took part in many of the savage battles of the later campaigns at Arras, from April to June 1917, and the third Battle of Ypres, also known as the Battle of Passchendaele, from July to November, 1917.

Rainbird served alongside local Shields men who endured some of the worst conditions of the war.

The ever-present fear of sudden death and loss of comrades had effects not fully recognised at that time.

The extent to which Rainbird’s war experiences impacted upon his later life cannot be known, but his death in 1936 after a long period of problems related to alcohol and the break-up of his relationship with his wife and family are perhaps not unrelated to the mental effects of his service and exposure to the horrors of trench warfare.

The attitudes of the time and the expectation of keeping such matters bottled up probably had effects on the lives of many thousands of ex-servicemen.

The fact that it was almost universally the case that men did not discuss or describe their experiences to their family or friends did not mean that they were not affected by them, often to the end of their days.

Some would manage to survive, but others would succumb to what we now describe as post-traumatic stress disorder.

The project’s information centre in Front Street, Tynemouth, next to the library, is open at weekends over the summer. A number of small exhibitions of the project’s work and publications can be viewed and purchased.

Anyone with information about anyone killed in, or who died as a result of, the First World War is asked to contact the project. The project workroom at Linskill Community Centre, in Trevor Terrace, North Shields, is open from 10am to 4pm each weekday for visitors and for anyone wanting to learn more about the project or how to get involved.

Our address for correspondence is c/o Essell, 29 Howard Street, North Shields, NE30 1AR.