Family tragedy during military crisis
March 1918 was the second most fateful month in the war for the families of North Tyneside as the German assault fell on the British and Dominion troops holding a section of the Western Front in France and Belgium.
In the thinly defended area from Arras down to the Somme and Aisne areas, where the French line began, the Fifth Army of General Sir Hubert Gough was vulnerable to the onslaught launched at dawn on March 21.
While troops in some sectors held on, others crumbled in the face of gas and shelling. Germany began what was to be her last throw of the dice using the thousands of reinforcements brought to the Western Front from the east after the conclusion of a peace with the newly established Bolshevik government in Russia.
More than 76,000 British and Dominion troops were killed, wounded, missing or taken prisoner on the first day of the attack – exceeding even the enormity of casualties and losses of the first day on the Somme.
Wars, however, are fought by soldiers, not statisticians, and their families bear the cost of the tragedy.
William Dominic Talbot, of King Street, North Shields, was a soldier in the Rifle Corps who had been discharged in May, 1915 as unfit for service after volunteering earlier in the year. However, he was recalled after the introduction of conscription in 1916. He had married Mary Bonner in 1914 and they had a daughter Amy, born late in 1915.
Mary was one of hundreds of local women who had to bear the anxiety of a husband serving, but also knowing two of her brothers were ‘doing their bit’.
Alexander and Matthew Bonner had both enlisted at the beginning of the war. Alexander had gone to France early with the 6th Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers seeing action at Ypres in April 1915, but by October 1917 he was serving with the 25th Battalion – Tyneside Irish brigade in the Fusiliers.
Severely wounded, he died at a Base hospital on October 19 near Wimereux, and is buried there.
Having lost one brother, Mary would be struck by the hammer blow of Matthew being killed on March 21, 1918, and her husband being reported missing on the same day. She would not learn until early November, only days before the Armistice would be announced, that he had died on March 23 of gas poisoning, having been taken prisoner.
In the chaos of the early fighting in the Spring offensive he had been buried and his death perhaps only disclosed to advancing British forces in the final weeks of the war by a simple cross over his grave. His body now rests in St Souplet British Military cemetery.
We can only try to imagine the effect of such cumulative loss in a family.
This is highlighted in the project database on the ‘Personal details’ page, in the ‘Family connection to Roll of Honour’ field where numerous men have mention of brothers, fathers and cousins who are also featured on the database – www.northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk
New volunteers are welcome to join the project. The commitment of time is entirely at your discretion. To find out more contact [email protected] or call into the workroom at Linskill.
The project workroom (Room B9) at Linskill Community Centre, North Shields, is open from 10am to 4pm each weekday for enquiries and for anyone to bring information about relatives lost in the war. The Memorial Garden is open for public visits during the opening hours of the centre; 8am to 5pm daily.