In war coal was indeed king

Bluebell Pit, Backworth
Bluebell Pit, Backworth

Research on the casualties of the First World War from North Tyneside has concentrated on the military aspects of their lives. When and what service they joined, where they fought, and for so many, where and how they died.

The Northumbria World War One project has been researching those who laid down their lives in that terrible conflict and as part of that research has tried to build up as big a picture as possible of the life of a casualty; who their parents were, where they lived, what school they went to, where they worked. All this information has been collated into an accessible database open to the public at large.

A study of the occupations of almost 4,000 casualties so far has reflected the composition of industries in the area. Shipyards along the Tyne employed a large proportion of men before the war, memorials for the Swan Hunter and Wallsend Slipway yards poignant testaments to that fact.

The greatest number by far though was that of those working in the coal mining industry. From the banks of the Tyne to the north of the borough around Dudley, Shiremoor and Backworth – coal was indeed King.

To get a greater understanding of these men and the lives they led before they went off to war, researchers on the project took a tour of a mine, Capstone near Wakefield in the heart of Yorkshire, run as part of the National Coalmining Museum.

Researchers entered the cage and dropped more than 50ft to the coalface. The Angel of the North could fit inside the shaft eight times before the bottom was reached.

The tour revealed a number of things. Firstly, how dangerous working in that environment was, but also how highly organised working underground was. The shoring and build of the tunnel walls was not unlike that of the trenches and took great skill. As the mine expanded, many different skills were developed to exploit the vast coal reserves buried deep within the ground – skills that would become vital in the trenches.

Experienced coalminers were often recruited solely for blowing up the enemy’s trenches from below, using tactics developed in the coalmines of northern England.

Although mechanisation was advanced, pack animals and the manual sweat of the miners was essential.

The overall impression, however, was the feeling that the troglodyte worlds of the mines and the trenches were not dissimiliar. Of course, the big difference was that nobody was at risk down the pit from bullets and shells designed to kill and mutilate.

If you have any information on any casualties of the First World War from North Tyneside, contact the website or send me an email