Tributes planned to thousands killed at war in 1916

A still from the 1916 propaganda film The Battle of the Somme.
A still from the 1916 propaganda film The Battle of the Somme.

1916, two years into the First World War and with no evidence that Germany and her allies were near to defeat or withdrawing from territory occupied in Western Europe, was the occasion for two of the most sanguine episodes of the four-year conflict.

Both were played out in France.

German forces had launched a massive assault against the French defences around the town of Verdun on February 21 and so began a battle which would last through to November and be as costly for the German attackers as their enemies.

Meanwhile on the British sector of the front, plans were in hand for the summer campaign agreed by the Allied conference at Chantilly in December 1915.

Earl Horatio Kitchener’s new armies were now in France and would form the main body of a massive assault along a 21-mile front to be launched in late summer.

However, in late spring, under pressure from the French, because they were struggling to hold their lines near Verdun, the British High Command was constrained to bring forward the date of the attack along the River Somme to early July, a month earlier than General Sir Douglas Haig had planned.

The attack, launched on July 1, 1916, resulted in the greatest loss of British and Dominion lives in a single day of action.

Suffering 57,000 casualties, including 19,240 men killed, marked a baptism of fire for the many so-called pals’ battalions formed in local communities and among workmates across the major industrial areas of the North and Midlands. Not least among those units were the two brigades of the Northumberland Fusiliers formed from the Tyneside Scottish and Tyneside Irish battalions, almost 10,000 men in total.

Their losses were so significant on that fateful day that they are among the few units to be specially commemorated by name this year during events to be held on the Somme battlefield.

To mark the five months of struggle that ensued for little gain, the Northumbria World War One Commemoraion Project will be looking to mark the losses of all of the communities of the modern borough of North Tyneside and will be preparing an exhibition of materials to tell the story of the campaign, to be shown around the borough.

We hope to have a public showing on July 1 of The Battle of the Somme, a famous film made at the time by newsreel cinematographers Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell and now remastered and given a new soundtrack by Laura Rossi.

1916 also saw the greatest naval action in history, off the coast of Denmark at Jutland, when the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet met in a confused action.

It was indecisive but none the less crucial in the Allies securing control of the North Sea, ensuring that the German surface fleet could not break out of the containment imposed upon it by the Royal Navy.

Should the German fleet have gained access to the open oceans, the threat to British lines of communication and supply could have proved fatal to our continuation of the war.

The fierce engagement over just 36 hours in total, ending on June 1, cost the Royal Navy some 6,500 sailors’ lives, and three capital ships were lost in return for much lesser casualties inflicted on the German fleet.

However, the German fleet returned to port at Wilhelmshaven and never again ventured out to attempt an escape from the blockade imposed by the Royal Navy.

The connections between the Tyne and the Battle of Jutland are many and varied.

In conjunction with the Navy reserve base at HMS Calliope in Gateshead, the project is working to create a fitting commemoration and exhibition showing how the battle touched local communities along the banks of the Tyne.

Anyone with information about any North Tynesiders killed in the war is asked to contact the project via c/o Essell, 29 Howard Street, North Shields, NE30 1AR.