The Northumbria World War One Project has been researching the casualties of the Great War from the area through the help of volunteer researchers, who estimate that there were nearly 5,000 combatants from the borough who died during the Great War of 1914-18.
From this research, a free and accessible database has been built and is being added to. A close examination of the tremendous amount of information on the database helps to cast a light on those times. Although it is impossible to fully discover the nuts and bolts of the life story of any casualty, the project endeavours to give as comprehensive a picture of their lives as it can.
All casualties are researched twice by dedicated volunteers, who are determined to help us remember the brave sacrifice made by all those who died, and also remember the sacrifices made by the families of those casualties.
Firstly, the obvious. The vast majority of those who died were men. Only three women have been identified as casualties, all nurses, dying of illnesses such as dysentery while working in one of the many casualty clearing stations across the fields of battle.
An overwhelming majority of men joined their local county regiment, in our case the many battalions of the Northumberland Fusiliers. Other regiments include the Durham Light Infantry and a host of Irish and Scottish regiments, who attracted lads from the area with an Irish/Scots ancestry, such as Private Richard Hope, from Whitley Bay, of the 1st Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, my grandfather’s battalion, and Private Alexander Gardiner, from Seaton Burn, of the Highland Light Infantry.
The Royal Naval Division, an infantry division set up to accommodate the overflow of naval recruits, also attracted many from the borough – men like Able Seaman James Pearson Caisley, of the Anson Battalion, a ropemaker of Willington Quay, who died at the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915.
The occupations of these men reflected what was happening in industry. Many casualties worked in the mines, producing the coal that fired the economy. Hewers and pit pony boys joined up in their droves, probably to escape the bleak outlook of their lives “doon the pit”.
The shipyards, too, had their share of workers, who left the dirt and grime of their everyday existence only to swap it for the dirt and grime of the trenches. Nineteen-year-old Private Robert Hardy, of the 1st/6th Northumberland Fusiliers, was an apprentice plater from Wallsend, working at Swan Hunter and Wigham Richardson when war broke out. He was to die of his wounds in June 1915 and is buried in Church Bank Cemetery in Wallsend.
Many of the men came from large families, often with eight, nine or ten siblings, some of whom died in infancy. The 1911 census reveals that these families often lived in two-room dwellings in conditions we can’t imagine now.
First names, too, are often quite revealing, especially those with biblical connotations, such as Gunner Ezekiel Atkins, from Burradon, of the Royal Field Artillery, who died in March 1918, and Private Elijah Perkins, of the Inniskillings, who died in a German POW camp and is buried in a Berlin cemetery. Religion played a much bigger role in society in the 1914-18 period.
Please take time to check out the website www.northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk or send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. You can also call into our office at the Linskill Centre, North Shields.