Officer and medic were among dozen fatalities

January 1916 would not appear to be particularly significant for Tynemouth when the final reckoning of the First World War was considered.

The loss of only 12 men would barely have been noticed, even in the village at the time, had it not been for the unusually diverse backgrounds of some of the men.

Victims noted in the local press included one of the many senior officers killed while in harm’s way.

Brigadier-General Hugh Gregory Fitton was a career soldier who had the patrician background of many of his senior colleagues.

Educated at Eton College, then the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, both in Berkshire, he had served across the world.

After service in Egypt and South Africa, he was for some time before the war the commandant of the Tyne Garrison at Tynemouth Castle.

While living locally he and his wife had thrown themselves into the community activity that was typical of those from an upper class background.

The Shields Daily News noted on January 24, 1916, that: “Both he and Mrs Fitton became well known and attained great popularity.

“The late General and Mrs Fitton both took a very great interest in the Priory Institute, the YMCA, the local relief funds and other movements in Tynemouth.

“The various athletic sports promoted for the troops in the district also had their hearty support.

“Both were prominent figures at the athletic meeting held at Preston Avenue, North Shields.”

At the start of the war, he was transferred to personnel duties at the War Office, then given command of a brigade.

Perhaps at his own request, he was placed at the head of the 149th Brigade, part of the 50th Northumbrian Division.

His brigade was formed by the four Territorial battalions of the Northumberland Fusiliers that had suffered so badly only six days after their arrival in Belgium on April 20, 1915.

The brigade had lost its commander, Brigadier-General James Foster Riddell, of Warkworth, as he led his men into action at the Battle of St Julien.

General Fitton had gone across to another brigade nearby to inspect and advise, and while walking along some badly-damaged trenches he fell victim to a sniper, dying two days later of his wounds.

Other casualties that month included Thomas Dickinson, a clerk in the corporation water department, of 20 Chirton West View.

He was known as the Dicker, according to the Christ Church parish magazine, which noted his popularity and enthusiasm for church and community life.

On January 12, John Wilson Gray, a Distinguished Conduct Medal holder, of Percy Avenue, Cullercoats, died of wounds, having been decorated earlier for his bravery in tending to the wounded under fire in no man’s land.

An office worker with the North Eastern Railway, he was prominent in the Oddfellows organisation and a keen volunteer with the St John Ambulance.

Much more detail about these men and other casualties in January 1916 can be found on the Northumbria World War One Commemoration Project’s database at www.northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk

Tickets are now available for new performances of Peter Mortimer’s award-winning play Death at Dawn.

Telling the story of North Shields man William Hunter, executed for desertion in 1916, the play will be staged at Wallsend Memorial Hall, in Frank Street, from Friday, February 19, to Tuesday, February 23, at 7.30pm, and at the Discovery Museum, in Blandford Square, Newcastle, from Friday, February 26, to Wednesday, March 2, also at 7.30pm, but with no Sunday performances.

Customer First centres and libraries in Wallsend, North Shields and Whitley Bay have tickets, priced £10, £8 for concessions. They can also be bought online via the project website and from the Discovery Museum and Newcastle Central Library. Call (0191) 259 2743 for details.