As we go about our daily lives in the towns and villages of North Tyneside, we occasionally come upon memorials to the dead of the First World War.
Quite often, these memorials were added to nearly 30 years later, after the Second World War, with the names of local men and women, who, like their Great War predecessors, paid the ultimate price for their courage – their lives.
These memorials, despite all the building work and cosmetic changes that have gone on around them in the intervening years, have mostly remained a constant.
With the passage of time and the passing on of the generations, the memorials became a fixture that barely commanded a second glance from passers-by.
However, with the onset of the First World War centennial commemorations, these memorials have attracted the scrutiny of a group of volunteer local historians determined to understand the sheer scale of the war, its tragedies and triumphs, and its tremendous impact on the community at large.
We are determined also to rescue these mainly young lads from their anonymity and to give them back their place in history.
Building on the success of the Tynemouth project’s creation of an accessible database for researching a roll of honour containing the names of 1,700 casualties from the old borough, work is under way to expand that database to include all the casualties of the Great War from inside the modern borough of North Tyneside.
The Northumbria World War One project is sadly not blessed with a roll of honour like the Tynemouth one of the 1920s so has to rely on evidence such as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s records, war records at the National Archives at Kew, births, deaths and marriages records, remembrance plaques in churches and places of work, war graves in cemeteries, newspaper accounts and, of course, local memorials in towns and villages.
Preliminary research indicates that a further 3,000 combatants from the area lost their lives, making a total of 5,000 for the whole of North Tyneside, a considerable number by any reckoning.
Recently, I cycled past the war memorial in West Allotment. It was a lovely evening in early July, the sun was shining brightly on the memorial, snuggled in between a couple of houses at the end of the village, and although I had last seen the memorial with the angel perched on top some years ago, I stopped, got off my bike and studied it and the names more closely.
What struck me almost immediately was the number of groups of people on the memorial with the same surname.
Among the 59 names on the memorial there are three Adamsons, two Dawsons, two MacMillens, two Thompsons and two Vallances, all brothers in arms certainly, but probably brothers in family too.
What an impact the loss of these men, all around the same age, must have had on so small a community as West Allotment and its surrounds.
As I cycled away, another thought crossed my mind. What about those who returned, who saw the memorial built, who walked past it day after day on their way to work, perhaps looking at those names that they had grown up with, went to school with, went to war with, and some days perhaps not looking at all because the memory and the pain was too great?
The Northumbria project welcomes anyone interested in helping with this research and also anyone with information about any person killed or who died as a result of the war.
For research purposes the borough has been divided into three areas – Whitley Bay, including Monkseaton, Backworth and West Allotment in the east; Wallsend, Willington Quay and Howdon near the river; and the former mining communities of Dudley, Seaton Burn and Killingworth, including Benton and Forest Hall, to the north.
The address for correspondence is c/o Essell, 29 Howard Street, North Shields NE30 1AR.
To get a sense of the research involved, a tour of the highly praised Tynemouth database www.tynemouthworldwarone.org is a perfect starting point.
All our volunteers, myself included, began initially trying to find out about one or more of their relatives who served in the Great War and were left a bit bewildered by this period of social and military history. That soon wears off as a strange fascination with this often complex subject matter develops. Discovering an important piece of the jigsaw puzzle is an intensely rewarding experience.
The main project workroom at Room B9, Linskill Community Centre, Trevor Terrace, North Shields, is open from 10am to 4pm each weekday for visitors and for anyone interested to learn more about the project or how to get involved.
The project’s information centre in Front Street, Tynemouth, adjacent to the library, is open at weekends during the summer. A number of small exhibitions of the Tynemouth project’s work can be viewed and publications purchased.