A group of project volunteers have completed a six-day journey across northern France visiting more than 45 cemeteries in the Artois region.
Stretching from Arras north, through Loos Bethune and La Bassee to Armentieres, they recorded 159 Tynemouth men’s graves, or names on memorials to the missing (for those with no known resting place).
They are often hidden in odd corners of the current villages of the post-industrial area of former mining communities; where pit heaps still stand as stark reminders of a landscape which would have been so redolent of home to many of our own men lost in the severe fighting which raged in this area for almost the whole of the Great War.
These cemeteries bear a grim testimony to the huge price paid by the British and Commonwealth forces over four years.
Driving across this bleak and often featureless countryside, you are struck by the frequency of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission marker signs directing to each of the many hundreds of cemeteries in this small area of France.
However remote and inaccessible, often down lonely farm tracks, these reminders of that sacrifice are maintained in impeccable condition and everywhere in the visitor books, usually to be found in a little ‘cubby hole’ set in the entrance gates, is evidence of pilgrimages by family members and others paying respects to men long lost to the memory of their home towns across the globe.
For the project’s small group, the most poignant moment came by accident as they moved to the last grave to photograph in the vast Cite St Bonjean Cemetery in the heart of Armentieres.
This is the last resting place of Robert Henry Dunn Hogg, of 10 Chirton West View, North Shields, who was killed in action aged 40, leaving a widow and six children.
Robert is man for whom the project has been able to find a telling tribute printed in the Shields Daily News at the time of his death and which prompted it to feature his story as one of the biographical ‘dog tags’ attached to the commemorative ale – Tyneside Tommy.
A letter home from his officer to his widow is one of those which come across as a genuine sentiment and not the often formulaic words of comfort which it fell to junior officers to write home to next-of-kin.
Killed on Easter Monday morning, April 24, 1916, the newspaper reported on May1 his captain’s remarks.
‘Dear Mrs Hogg, I presume you have learned by now the very sad news of your husband, who was killed in a heavy bombardment yesterday morning, and it is with the object of conveying to you the heartfelt sympathies of the officers and men of his company that I am now writing you.
‘He was loved here by every one of us and was surely the coolest and most cheery man in the trenches. Chatting cheerily to those whose nerves had given way under the strain, I was near him at the time and heard him say to someone, “Keep your heart up, lad, you’ll pull through this all right; what has to be will be”.
‘I was moving away then, and just afterwards heard the shell burst which killed two men and wounded two officers and another man. I turned back and got Mr Hogg pulled out of the mess, and saw he was badly wounded in the back and legs. We got him on to a stretcher. I took hold of his hands and asked if he knew me but he only murmured, “Mr poor wife, my poor bairns”, and died.
‘It was all over within five minutes ... I may add that he has been taken out of the trenches and buried in a military cemetery in the town of Armentieres.’
To read Robert Hogg’s biography go to www.tynemouthworldwarone.org
Anyone with information about anyone who was killed or died as a result of the war is asked to contact the project.
The project workroom at Room B9, Linskill Community Centre, Trevor Terrace, North Shields, is open from 10am to 4pm each weekday for visitors and for anyone interested to learn more about the project or how to get involved.
The address for correspondence is c/o Essell, 29 Howard Street, North Shields NE30 1AR.