The suffering for families made worse by poor communication

IN today’s world of instant communication it can be difficult to understand the uncertainty for families of men serving in the First World War.

A vast army postal operation run by the Royal Engineers in conjunction with the Post Office provided a swift and efficient service for soldiers and others serving in France.

The intrusion of military censorship did not greatly impede the flow of mail but the constant movement of troops up and down the 85 miles of the British sector of the front in France and Flanders did mean mail from home was often chasing units.

At home the lack of any word from a loved one would bring only anxious waiting for the arrival of the next day’s post or the dread of the arrival of the young boy on a bicycle bearing a War Office telegram advising that a man was missing, wounded or regrettably – ‘killed in action’ or ‘died of wounds’.

The speed with which we communicate today would have been unimaginable to a generation that had no recourse to telephone, radio or the other means of instant communication we now take for granted.

Imagine then the relief of the family of Frederick J Watson, of Percy Main, who had been reported as killed in action in the Shields Daily News of November 9, 1916, but in fact had survived the last phase of the Somme campaign.

We do not know when he was able to let his family know he was well but their relief was short lived as he was to die in action at the battle of Arras on June 6, 1917.

The Tynemouth World War One commemoration Project volunteers who visited the Arras area recently took the picture of Frederick’s headstone in the Faubourg D’Amiens cemetery.

The project would like to hear from any of Frederick’s family, who may have documents or letters from the earlier inaccurate report of his death in action in 1916.

The first week of June 1917 was bad for families in North Shields when 14 men were killed or lost at sea.

Many would only have confirmation of their loss many months later and the anxious wait for information.

Only letters from other local men serving in the same unit might give hope or bring the sad confirmation that a man had been killed beyond doubt.

In the chaos of battle and the more pressing needs of the army to secure a position, recording the loss of men was a secondary consideration.

Private John McAll was lost on June 7, 1917, whilst out on patrol with an officer to reconnoitre an advance position. He was reported missing on June 25 in the Shields Daily News and then subsequently reported as having been killed in the paper published August 28.

In a letter home to his family, an officer in the battalion wrote telling of how the bodies of both McAll and his officer had been found and buried in temporary graves.

Private William Riddle was reported ‘missing in action’ shortly after June 5, 1917 but his family did not have confirmation of his death until around July 21 when it was reported in the local paper.

The family of Henry Ridley, of Rothbury Terrace, Percy Main, had to wait from June 5, 1917, until October 31 for confirmation of his death in action at the battle of Arras.

Since the publication of last week’s report on the medallion sent to the family of Peter Atkinson (aka Smith) and found in a scrap yard locally, the project has established contact with his surviving family members.

A full report on the story of Peter’s death in action on the eve of the great Somme offensive will be published later.

Anyone interested to learn about the project and how to get involved can visit the Workroom at Room B9 – Linskill Community Centre from 10am to 4pm each day Monday to Friday.

THIS week’s casualty list gives details of men from the former Borough of Tynemouth who were killed or died in June 1917.

Hepple, P, Sergeant, 21st Battalion, NF (Tyneside Scottish), KIA, 5th, Back Street, Preston Village. Recorded on the Preston Colliery memorial.

Hunter, John Scarth, age 24, Private, 22nd Battalion, NF (Tyneside Scottish), KIA, 5th, Adamson’s Buildings, Hudson Street, son of the late James and Janet. Arras Memorial.

McAll, John, James Campbell, age 21, 9th Battalion Princess Alex’s Own (East Yorks) Regiment, KIA, 7th, 44 Charlotte Street, husband of Edith May Thompson (formerly McAll). See story.

Patterson, Thomas Hepple, age 47, 2nd Engineer, ss Taplow (London), LAS, 5th, 93 Stephenson Street, son of Elizabeth Laudells Patterson, (nee Hepple) and Thomas Patterson, husband of Florence Patterson.

Phillips, William, age 30, Sergeant, ‘A’ Company, 12th Battalion DLI, KIA, 7th, 22 Coronation Street, son of George and Elizabeth Phillips, husband of Mary Stagg (formerly Phillips), of 72 Sodhouse Bank, Gateshead.

Riddle, William, Private, 21st Battalion NF (Tyneside Scottish), missing in action, 5th, 47 North Street, Milburn Place, reported as declared, KIA, Shields Daily News (SDN), July 21, 1917. Arras Memorial.

Ridley, Henry, age 30, Private, 21st Battalion NF (Tyneside Scottish), missing, 5th, 2 Morpeth Terrace, husband of Mary Lizzie (nee Miller), son of the late Henry and Mary. Declared as KIA, October 31, 1917, (SDN).

Ward, Patrick, Private, 10th Battalion NF, KIA, 2nd, 7 Walker Place, son of Michael and Mary A Ward, miner at Ritson’s Colliery, Preston.

Watson, Frederick J, age 30, Private, 22nd Battalion NF (Tyneside Scottish), KIA, 6th, 29 Berwick Terrace, Percy Main. See story.


KIA – killed in action

DOW – died of wounds

LAS – lost at sea

NF – Northumberland Fusiliers

DLI – Durham Light Infantry

RND – Royal Naval Division

RNR – Royal Naval Reserve

RFA – Royal Field Artillery

n Anyone with information on this week’s list or who wants to find out more about the project, should visit, e-mail or write to Tynemouth World War 1 Commemoration Project, c/o Essell, 29 Howard Street, North Shields, NE30 1AR.