As we pass into a new year, we reach the centennial of 1916 and a momentous year in the history of what was then becoming known as the Great War.
A hundred years ago, the question on the minds of the populations of all the combatant nations was ‘how long will this war go on for?’
It had already been in progress for nearly a year and a half and had grown ever more attritional as trench warfare, with its daily drip of casualties throughout 1915, increased.
Sadly, 1916 would eclipse all previous casualty statistics, and the war itself would go on for another two years after that, each year outdoing the previous one in carnage and widespread family grief.
Recently, as part of the Northumbria World War One Commemoration Project researching casualties from North Tyneside, I’ve been looking at the Daily Illustrated Chronicle of the period, searching for names of those killed, particularly the five-month-long Battle of the Somme that raged from Saturday July 1, 1916, to late November that year.
The broadsheet newspaper’s back page up until the first week of July contained thumbnail photographs of soldiers from the North East who had been killed, wounded or were missing.
Early reports from military sources indicated a successful battle and that the Germans had been given somewhat of a bloody nose.
Within days, it became clear that this was far from the truth and that casualties on the opening day were of catastrophic proportions.
The large death toll was confirmed some days later when the authorities sent relatives news of their loved ones in the post.
Records would later show that the British suffered nearly 60,000 casualties on that warm sunny day on the Somme, the most soldiers lost in a single day in the history of the British Army.
Needless to say, those thumbnail photographs were quickly moved from the back pages to the centrespread, and the deaths columns would take up considerably more space from then on.
This week in 1916 saw the withdrawal of the last of the allies’ troops on the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey.
This was a British attempt, aided by Australian and New Zealand troops, to knock German’s ally Turkey out of the war, break the deadlock and so weaken support for Kaiser Wilhelm II’s war efforts.
The reasons for the failure of Gallipoli are too many to go into here, but it is safe to say that the constancy of the casualty rate was almost as grim as on the Western Front.
Having only been in the Dardenelles a few short months, my own grandfather copped a wound in September 1915 as he lay pinned down by raking machine-gun fire and snipers’ bullets.
Grandpa McClements was sent back to dear old Blighty, followed at the end of the year by the rest of the British Army as the government and the general staff deciding to cut their losses and so bring to an end their Gallipoli nightmare.
Worried about the retreat becoming a rout if the Turks sensed what was happening, a series of clever ruses were designed to make the Turks believe that the British were still there.
Rifles were set up in fixed positions, self-timed and manned by only a couple of soldiers to fire bullets at regular intervals. Mortars were fired in a similar fashion while the rest of the army made their escape on ships anchored just offshore. In fact, the withdrawal became the most successful episode in the whole of the campaign.
The Turks were deceived, and the army got away.
Among the dead left at Gallipoli were men from these parts such as Private Patrick Fitzharris and Lance-Corporal Frederick Oliver, of Wallsend; Lance Corporals David Stewart Willis and Nicholas Youlds, of Willington Quay; Able Seaman George Tunnah, of Dudley; and Able Seaman John Thompson, of Forest Hall.
All these men are currently being researched by volunteers at the Northumbria World War One Commemoration Project.
You can visit the www.northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk project website if you are interested in helping with research or if you have information about any person killed or who died as a result of the war.
You can contact the project through the website or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
As part of this project, the play Death at Dawn, by North Tyneside playwright Peter Mortimer, is doing the rounds in February and can be seen at the Memorial Hall in Wallsend and the Discovery Museum in Newcastle. Tickets are now on sale. Call 0191 259 2743 for details.
The main project workroom at Linskill Community Centre, in Trevor Terrace, North Shields, is open from 10am to 4pm each weekday for relatives with Great War artefacts, for visitors and for anyone wanting 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.