During September 1916 small battles were fought over specific localised areas at terrific cost to both sides … the Somme campaign was now late into it’s third month.
Gains had been made but in some places this could only be measured in yards.
The actions by the British Army at Flers-Courcelette, Pozieres and Thiepval were designed to wrest control of the heights of the dominating Thiepval Spur from the German defenders, who were dug in deep in the Somme clay in cavernous bunkers and fortifications.
The Germans fought tenaciously but on September 26, the army took Thiepval, a failed objective of the 36th Ulster Division on July 1.
The defenders had held out stubbornly in the shattered village and chateau but now, having sustained continual bombardment from artillery of all calibres, had fallen to the British.
The Northumbria World War One project has been building an accessible database of casualties from North Tyneside and includes over a dozen men from the area killed on that day around the Thiepval Spur.
Private Christopher James Ross was from Beech Grove in Wallsend where he lived with his parents. He attended the Buddle Infants, Junior and Senior mixed School in the town and, by the outbreak of war in August 1914 he is working as an apprentice plater in the shipyard where his dad also works. He enlists early on in the 8th battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers and, after initial training, is sent to the hell that was Gallipoli in July 1915. He survives that madness and by the time summer 1916 comes we find him on the Somme as part of the 11th Northern Division attempting to regain the high ground around German strongpoints at Thiepval.
Private Ross is killed in action at the age of 20 and, like over 70,000 other Allied combatants on the Somme, has no known grave. His mother and father paid for a lectern, with an eagle motif, to be built in his memory at St Luke’s Church in Wallsend. After the war his parents receive his decorations, the 1914-1915 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal.
Another 20-year-old apprentice plater in the shipyard killed that day was William Edgar Toy also of the 8th battalion. More than likely they knew of each other, although William hailed from North Shields.
The Shields Daily News of October 26 reported his death the previous month. Photographs of the time show him to be a very young looking 20-year-old. His brother Edwin will die on the Somme some six months later.
Private James Wardle Leathem came from Holywell village and worked in the pits, right at the coalface as a hewer. He dies of his wounds and is on the plaque at St Mary’s, Holywell, and on the Roll of Honour for Backworth. From the UK Army Registers of Soldiers Effects, 1901-1929, we find the amount authorized to be paid to his widow Elizabeth is £3 plus a War Gratuity of £6 10. She, unlike thousands of war widows, never re-marries.
The Jutland and Somme exhibitions are currently on display at the White Swan Centre, Killingworth, and the John Willie Sams Centre in Dudley until September 30.
You can check out the website www.northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk or send me an email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information or if you would like to get involved in the project or have any information on casualties.
You can also call into our office at B9 in the Linskill Centre, Linskill Terrace, North Shields.