Uncovering the life and death of a young private

John Douglas' name on the plaque at St Luke's Church.
John Douglas' name on the plaque at St Luke's Church.

Some months ago I mentioned a family from Hertfordshire who had called into the Northumbria World War One Project offices in the Linskill Community Centre.

They enquired about their relative, John William Douglas from Wallsend, who was a casualty of the Great War. All the family knew was that he was buried in Belgium and there was a reference to him on a memorial plaque at St Luke’s Church in Wallsend. They also had birth and marriage certificates for him.

Although he is linked to the 22nd Tyneside Scottish of the Northumberland Fusiliers by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, he didn’t initially join them and was later co-opted into that battalion, as suggested by his service number.

With this scant information one of the project’s volunteers endeavoured to find out more about Private Douglas. By exploring records, such as domestic, military and newspaper accounts, the circumstances of his life as a soldier and a resident of Wallsend were revealed to build up a picture of this man’s experience of the trenches.

The 1911 census has him living in Park Road, Wallsend, with his parents and a couple of siblings. His father was a shipwright, a skilled trade, at Swan Hunter and Wigham Richardson shipyard, and John had followed in his father’s footsteps as an apprentice.

Although he is linked to the 22nd Tyneside Scottish of the Northumberland Fusiliers by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, he didn’t initially join them and was later co-opted into that battalion, as suggested by his service number.

The date of his death and location of his burial are very revealing. He died on March 26, 1918, at Mons, a place more often linked to the start of the war than the end. The date corresponds with the early days of the German Spring Offensive, the last throw of the dice by the Kaiser’s army to break the stalemate of trench warfare and win the war before their own resources were exhausted.

Part of this offensive was known as Operation Michael, launched on March 21 from the fortified Hindenburg Line. Its goal was to break through the Allied lines and advance to seize the Channel ports, which supplied the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). The offensive ran west, along the British front north of the River Somme, and was designed to separate the French and British armies.

They managed to overrun a lot of the territory won in 1916 by the Allies in the campaigns of the Somme. However, the Entente managed to halt the German advance; the Germans suffered many casualties and were unable to maintain supplies. The onslaught petered out, the Allies swiftly regaining all that lost territory, pushing the Germans back beyond their own borders. Within a few months the war was at an end.

But it came too late for 26-year-old Private John William Douglas. His battalion was overrun by the German advance and he died in captivity of gunshot wounds to the lungs.

Our researcher uncovered Belgian and German documents and it appears that he died in a former girls’ school in Mons, used by the Germans as a hospital, of complications due to his wounds. The German records suggest that Private Douglas developed pneumonia. His relatives have been informed.

John Douglas and other men from North Tyneside are being researched by the Northumbria World War One Project that has estimated some 5,000 men from the borough perished in the conflict. Over 1,800 casualties have already been researched from an earlier project and are now on a free database at www.northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk

If you would like to get involved, click on the website or email tommy@northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk