The human stories behind the Somme casualty lists

One hundred years ago this week the most feared man in communities up and down the country was the postman. It was he who was delivering news from the authorities of a casualty to the relatives waiting anxiously back home.

Sunday, 17th July 2016, 11:41 am
Thomas Spence in his sword dancing outfit, 1906.

By this time, two weeks after the opening of the Battle of the Somme, official letters were dropping through the letterboxes of homes throughout Britain informing relatives of the fate of their loved ones serving overseas.

More than 19,000 died and 38,000 were wounded on that first day, many as they rose from their trenches.

In the North Tyneside area alone more than 500 men died during the campaign on the Somme, which was to last until late November 1916.

The Northumbria World War One project has been researching these and other casualties of the Great War from the area through the help of volunteer researchers.

These researchers estimate that there were some 5,000 deaths from the borough during the Great War of 1914-18.

From this research a free and accessible database has been built and is currently being added to.

In the last few days the project has managed to obtain copies of cards, letters and photographs from the granddaughter of one of those killed on July 1, 1916, the opening day of the momentous, and ultimately tragic, Battle of the Somme.

Thomas Spence, from Backworth, was a miner in the local colliery, married to Ann Carlisle and they had a young son, William.

Thomas was a sword dancer with a troupe who went around the area performing traditional dances, similar to those performed by morris dancers. The photograph shows him in his sword dancing outfit in 1906.

When war was declared Thomas joined up with the 20th Tyneside Scottish battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers.

He became the battalion’s drummer.

The correspondence between Thomas and Ann is very touching, coming mostly in a series of cards to each other.

Thomas never forgets to add little messages for their “little pet”, along with many kisses.

Many of Ann’s cards to her husband have lines like, “May good luck always come your way, from your loving wife”, and “to my loving Daddy with loving thoughts from your little pet”.

They are especially heartrending considering Thomas was to die shortly after.

When the postman delivered that buff-coloured envelope we can only imagine the grief that Ann must have felt.

Coming across these items takes us straight into the lives of Thomas, Ann and William, making his death at the Somme all the more tragic.

The Somme Exhibition is moving from the Old Low Light Heritage Centre in North Shields to Wallsend Library today, July 14, on its tour of North Tyneside. It will be at Wallsend until August 11 and is well worth a visit to see the effect of the battle on the area.

If you would like to get involved in the Northumbria World War One Commemoration Project, or if your have any information about casualties, call into our office at B9 in the Linskill Centre, Linskill Terrace, North Shields.

You’ll get a friendly welcome, help and advice, and even a cup of tea.

If you click onto the project’s website at you will get a clear idea of what the project is all about.

You can also send me an email to [email protected]