A knock on the door and delivery during the First World War of the dreaded telegram informing families of the death of a son or husband, or a report that he was missing in action, would be the beginning of a traumatic experience for many.
They would then have to try to come to terms with their loss or the uncertainty of not knowing where a loved one was and whether he might yet be alive and taken prisoner.
In the next of our free monthly talks – to be given at 7.30pm on Tuesday, March 22, at the Low Lights Tavern, on Brewhouse Bank in North Shields – the experience of families struggling to get what is now often called closure is explored.
Examples will be given of the cold and seemingly parsimonious approach of the military authorities to the pleas of families seeking reassurance that there was no possibility of their loved ones being still alive.
When death was certain, there was also the finalisation of the men’s affairs to be concluded and the return of possessions and sums due to their estates.
Research at the National Archives at Kew into the files of a number of fallen officers, released recently for public inspection, illustrate the tragedy of some cases where mothers, wives and fathers were engaged in frustrating correspondence to get what they saw as justice, fair treatment or recognition for their loved one and the personal losses they had sustained.
My talk, entitled ‘The Army Council expresses sympathy’, those being the final words on the brief telegrams sent out, will look at some varied cases of men from the north east killed or missing without trace.
Lt Gavin Patrick Bowes-Lyon, a cousin of the late Queen Mother, who herself lost a brother and another cousin to the war, was a former student of Armstrong College in Newcastle, then part of Durham University.
Reported as missing in action near Fontaine in France in November 1917, the files at Kew show the prolonged correspondence between the Army Council and his father as his family refused to accept his death until 1919.
They pleaded over many months with the authorities to instigate a search of the area where he went missing, suggesting that he might be wandering in a dazed state with memory loss or else be in the hands of the Germans.
However, that theory was implausible as the combatant nations on all sides exchanged information regularly about men in their prisoner of war camps or hospitals.
The British authorities assured Lt Bowes-Lyon’s family that it was inconceivable that, after six months, they would not have been advised of an officer being held as a prisoner in Germany.
His, family however refused for many more months to accept this explanation and the conclusion of the authorities that he must be presumed dead, arguing that he might be in a military hospital near the front and too ill to be moved.
When finally Lt Bowes-Lyon’s death was accepted, the family had to seek a certificate from the Army to allow a reduction of liability for death duties on his estate of £13,287, the first £5,000 being exempt from tax for those killed in the war. To put that in context, the value of his estate was about £1.3m in today’s money.
Examples of the sad and sometimes mean-spirited correspondence on the part of both the Army and the deceased’s families will illustrate this little-explored aspect of the war and its consequences for those left to pick up the pieces.
Anyone with information about any North Tynesiders killed in the war is asked to contact the Northumbria World War One Project. Our address for correspondence is c/o Essell, 29 Howard Street, North Shields, NE30 1AR.