Young and old, victims alike were just doing their job

J Forster.
J Forster.

THE story of ‘boy’ soldiers who lied about their age to enlist in the First World War is well documented.

The youth of certain recruits may have been difficult to detect in a time when records were not always available.

The primary evidence was and remains the birth certificate, but this would not always be required to be produced if a man was evidently of military age.

However, there were also instances where men over the age for enlistment would seek to join up to do their bit for ‘King and country’.

One North Tyneside man’s determination to serve led to a tragedy that haunted his family for decades.

Joseph Forster, of Albert Terrace, is a tragic example of the consequences which flowed from the determination to join up on the part of one man.

The maximum age for enlistment, prior to the introduction of conscription in January 1916, had kept men over 40 out of the Army.

Keen to serve, Joseph Forster, aged 44, was helped by his daughter to alter his birth certificate, taking ten years off his actual age.

Unfortunately, he was killed and his daughter had to live with the consequences of her complicity in his refusal to be denied his opportunity to serve.

Left with a large family to support, his widow was forced to work night and day with little or no support from the state.

Retired local businessman Peter Grant, who was the proprietor of Pringles Auto Centre in Church Way, brought several family mementoes to the Tynemouth World War One Commemoration Project including this photograph of his grandfather and grandmother.

Peter said his mother had to live into her Nineties with the knowledge that she had been an agent in the death of her father, aiding him in his wish to serve, by altering his birth certificate.

At the other end of the scale, the youth of some victims of the war was not the result of lies told in a rash of patriotic enthusiasm but the ever present perils of routine service in the Merchant Navy.

Recently, there has been considerable press coverage about two wartime wrecks – one from the Second World War and another from the First World War – both located at great depth in the Atlantic Ocean, and which were sunk whilst carrying valuable cargoes of precious and other metals.

A similar story surrounds the ss Astoria, sunk off Norway in October 9, 1916.

Built in Stockton on Tees in 1901, the Astoria was torpedoed en route to Archangel from New York.

An 18-year-old galley steward from North Shields, Charles Carr Cobb, of 40 Low Lights, on the Fish Quay, was lost when his ship was sunk by the submarine U46, 120 miles off the North Cape in the icy waters of the northern Atlantic.

The ship was carrying thousands of tons of vital metals to Russia. Websites which record details of the ship state the cargo, if recovered, would be valued in millions.

Charles Cobb was not even allowed the protection afforded to soldiers of being kept out of harm’s way until at least 19.

The project held its first open forum last week, when volunteers and members of the public were able to discuss with the team the progress made since January, 2011.

Dr Kath Smith, of the project ‘Remembering the Past – Resourcing the Future’, gave a short talk on the work of gathering memories and emphasised the importance of the commemoration project in collecting such valuable memories and family mementoes for the future.

The project will be including provision for the development of reminiscence gathering in its application for Heritage Lottery Funding.

Anyone interested to learn more about the opportunity to be trained and participate in this area of the project should contact us by e-mail or letter.

To find out more about the project, call into the project workroom any week-day from 10am to 4pm – Room B9 – Linskill Centre, Trevor Terrace, North Shields.

THIS week’s casualty list gives details of men who were killed or died in the month October 1916.

Arnott, Robert John, age 26, Deck Hand, RNR, HMT Rodney, died at sea, October 4, 14 Northumberland Street, husband of Thomasina.

Bain, Nichol, Royal West, Kent Regiment, KIA, 16th details needed.

Cobb, Charles Carr, age 18, Galley Boy, ss Astoria, torpedoed, 9th, 40 Low Lights, son of James and Edneyeth Ada.

Essen, Rolf van, age 28, Private, 11th Battalion NF, KIA, 8th, 40 Huddleston Street, husband of Barbara Ellen Scott.

Forster, Joseph, age 44, Private, 9th Battalion Yorkshire Regiment, KIA, 7th, 4 Albert Terrace.

Grasswell, Andrew, age 41, Private, 24th Battalion Quebec Regiment, Canadian Infantry, KIA, 1st, son of late William and Henrietta.

Hutchison, Frederick Lance Corporal, 11th NF, KIA, 9th, 36 Trinity Street.

Miller, Matthew, Private, 2nd Battalion, DLI, KIA, 15th, 30 Upper Pearson Street.

Potter, John Robert, age 20, Private, 5th Battalion NF, DOW, 10th, 16 Elsdon Terrace, son of Henry and Annie.

Spalding, Frederick George, age 21, Corporal, 1st/6th NF, DOW at home, 15th, 38 Waterloo Place, son of John, employee of Smith’s Dock Company Ltd.

Sparham, William Albert Ward, age 27, Private, 11th Battalion NF, KIA, 6th, husband of Emeline Louise Gray (formerly Sparham), 3 Brittania Bank.


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.