As the world’s media and politicians have devoted significant coverage to the beginning of the landings at the Dardanelles (Gallipoli, April 25, 1915) and fanciful imaginings of that campaign are screened at cinemas across the world, a more important action was opening on the Western Front in Belgium, where the enemy employed for the first time the horrors of gas.
After initial advances against French colonial troops, who fled in terror at the surprise deployment of the new chemical weapon, the newly-arrived 149th (Northumbrian) Brigade was thrown into action only six days after arriving on the continent.
The brigade was formed by four battalions (1st/4th to 1st/7th) of local Territorial soldiers who had joined before the war and had agreed to serve overseas; together with some new recruits who were part of the rush to enlist in the autumn of 1914.
Three battalions of the brigade were employed in a counter-attack on April 26, but owing to poor communications the action was flawed.
During the next few days, those battalions lost 2,000 men killed and wounded (about 50 per cent) including their commanding officer from Warkworth Brigadier JF Riddell; one of many of his senior rank to lose their lives leading their men in action in the course of the war.
Several men from Tynemouth were killed or wounded in the Battle of St Julien as it would come to be known. John (Jack) Cecil Allen of 6 Queen Alexandra Road West was only seventeen and a half when he lost his life in action.
One of the more unusual recruits in the 4th Battalion (recruited and based around Hexham before the war) was Sammy – the little Border Terrier who enjoyed a short military career as mascot to the Battalion, including being gassed on Whit Monday, 1915, and surviving shelling at the Somme before unfortunately being killed by ‘friendly fire’ in a training exercise behind the lines later that year.
Returned to Hexham, his bodied was preserved and eventually placed in the Fusiliers Museum at Alnwick where he can be seen today.
In a letter home, Lance Corporal Frank Elliott, of Haydon Bridge, wrote after his death: ‘Some of our chaps have gone out to look for him.
‘He was a fine little chap and was never so happy as when the battalion was out for a march,…. he always ran in front of the band.’
Another local casualty was 2nd Lieutenant Noel Edward Mather, of Highbury, Jesmond who had played rugby for Percy Park RFC and the county.
Gazetted as a 2nd Lieutenant in February, 1914, whilst studying at Durham University, he had visited North Shields in the autumn and secured a score of recruits for his battalion from men drilling in Queen Victoria School grounds with The Tynemouth Training League.
Educated at Uppingham School and destined for a career in the law and a keen cricketer at school. we have access to a record of his playing in 1906 for the school against Repton; another of the leading public schools who collectively would provide thousands of junior officers at the beginning of the war.
For details of the men from Tynemouth killed in the April fighting see www.tynemouthworldwarone.org