Research still needs to go through thousands

The grave of Private John Connor.
The grave of Private John Connor.

Tynemouth World War 1 Commemoration Project

I have recollections of my younger days in those seemingly idyllic years of the early 1960s when my dad would take my sister and I to the cemetery to tend to both sets of grandparents’ graves. Mum would be making the Sunday dinner.

For a football mad youngster who wanted to be George Best, it was mind-numbingly boring to walk around a big cemetery on a Sunday morning, the sun splitting the trees.

My sister and I knew from early on that both our grandfathers took part in the Great War, survived the Battle of the Somme and the war.

My Granda McClements wore a calliper on his leg for the rest of his life as a result of his third wound. Although neither talked much about their experiences, enough was said to leave an indelible impression on the family for succeeding generations.

Years later I would photograph all 76 First World War graves in the cemetery. My sister tends the family grave now.

These days when you take a stroll around a cemetery you’re as likely to come upon local historians as you are grieving relatives. And, since the build-up to the centennial commemorations, often someone interested in the First World War.

Many are genealogists who hit the brick wall of understanding that is the cataclysm of 1914-18.

Make no mistake here, very few families were left untouched by the war supposedly to end all wars.

A couple of weeks ago I photographed some First World War graves in Benton cemetery, as part of the Northumbria World War One project. This is a project designed to produce an accessible database of casualties from the borough, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).

Rudimentary research suggests 5,000 casualties resided within the borders of the present day borough.

Nearly 2,000 of these were researched in a previous project, centred on the old borough of Tynemouth, also supported by the HLF, whose names were on a Roll of Honour produced in the 1920s.

Sadly no Roll of Honour exists for the rest of North Tyneside, therefore the names of the dead from the war have to be garnered in other ways.

One of these is through the study of First World War graves.

There are nearly 300 in the cemeteries of the borough, distinguished by a simple white headstone of Portland stone, and with the casualty’s details precision carved, all maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

In some very small way they were the lucky ones, if where one died was any sort of criteria.

Being buried here meant they died here, mainly in the many local military hospitals specially set up for the wounded and dying. Hundreds of thousands of others died and were buried close to where they fell in battle.

Benton cemetery is particularly interesting. It contains the graves of ordinary soldiers like Private John Connor of the 24th (Tyneside Irish) Battalion who died on June 26, 1918.

His service number 24/8 is significant because the 24th battalion were the first of the four Tyneside Irish battalions to be raised and he would have been one of the first to enlist with the Tyneside Irish.

Early research suggests that he enlisted on November 2, 1914, and that he went right through to the last year of the war, only to be wounded in March 1918, brought back to England, and to die three months later.

His headstone differs from the norm and is part of a special ceremonial area within the cemetery.

Lieutenant Colonel AG Cartwright, commander of the 7th Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment is buried nearby.

Little still is known about these two men and the other combatants who succumbed and who are buried here.

The Northumbria project welcomes anyone interested in helping with research and also anyone with information about any person killed or who died as a result of the war.

A useful starting point is a tour of the highly praised Tynemouth database

The main project workroom at Room B9, Linskill Community Centre, Trevor Terrace, North Shields, is open from 10am to 4pm each weekday for visitors and wanting to get involved in the project’s research. The project’s information centre in Front Street, Tynemouth (adjacent to the library), is open at weekends during the summer. A number of small exhibitions of the Tynemouth project’s work can be viewed and publications purchased.

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

The Old Low Light Heritage Centre, at the North Shields Fish Quay is currently holding an exhibition of works by local painter Victor Noble Rainbird who served in, and was greatly affected, by the war. Two works painted at the trenches will be exhibited for one day only on Saturday the 15th. On Monday 24th August at 11am

Ian McArdle is giving a talk on Shellshock; Rainbird is suspected to have had shellshock.

(Note this talk starts at 11 am - admission £2 including Heritage Centre and Exhibition).