Northumberland and Tyneside's War by Neil R. Storey and Fiona Kay
Both Fiona and I have been captivated by and collected the stories, photographs and memorabilia of our local men and women who ‘did their bit’ since we were kids when we first heard some tales of the Great War from the veterans we knew back then. They would say with some pride that they ‘did their bit’ and would share some stories, usually tales that would bring a laugh or remember their comrades but they very rarely spoke of their own experiences in the conflict. They were men and women of a very different generation that have inspired a lifetime of research. Over the decades since, it is been proved again and again that one strand of research often leads to another and this is certainly true of Northumberland and Tyneside’s War.
When researching our previous book ‘Newcastle Battalions on the Somme’ (Tyne Bridge) for the centenary of the Battle of the Somme in 2016 we found literally hundreds more first-hand accounts written home in letters from local servicemen and women serving their country between the years 1914 and 1918. The stories we discovered had been published in local newspapers, parish magazines and Regimental journals a hundred years ago, but have not been seen in print since. The public exhibitions and special commemoration events we helped to stage brought forward descendents who shared their family memorabilia and our research at the Fusiliers Museum of Northumberland, libraries and archive collections around the county brought more letters, manuscripts and ephemera to light.
This remarkable body of first–hand material contained so many stories that were so evocative and powerful they had to be shared, not just because they contain accounts of battles, life in the trenches and significant moments in the First World War from a soldier’s point of view but because they also reflect so much of the character, courage, stoicism, modesty and humour unique to true Northern lads. From joining up and through training there was a spirit that never left them through the hell of war. The authentic ‘voice’ of the Geordie can also be found in the wealth of verse and songs they wrote. Some of these letters and verses are particularly poignant because they were written home on the eve of battle and proved to be the very last letters home for some of these men.
Our book also includes accounts from the home front such as eye-witness reports of the first Zeppelin raid on Northumberland and stories of the local war hospitals that cared for thousands of returned wounded soldiers throughout the war. The sterling work of a diverse array of local wartime organisations is also recorded, from the YMCA hostels and huts to ladies committees set up to supply comforts to the troops, hospitals, prisoners of war and the crews of minesweepers. Even the volunteers of the Elswick and Scotswood Bandage Party are not forgotten for they made and despatched 70,523 bandages to hospitals both at home and abroad between January 1916 and January 1919.
Tyneside and Northumberland’s contribution to the war effort was truly outstanding. The mines of the North East provided the coal to power battleships all over the world and the shipyards along the Tyne built many of those battleships. Thousands of men marched out from those same pits and shipyards to answer their county’s call, indeed volunteers came from all walks of life and no other British city outside London raised more battalions of soldiers for Kitchener’s Army than Newcastle. There were 19 service battalions raised for the Northumberland Fusiliers between the years 1914-15 all bar one of them was raised in Newcastle. The exception was 17th (Service) Battalion (N.E.R. Pioneers) raised by the North Eastern Railway Company in Hull but it should not be forgotten that this battalion also included many men from Tyneside and Northumberland. The Northumberland Fusiliers had a remarkable 52 battalions during the First World War, twenty-nine of which served overseas. This made them the second largest line infantry regiment in the British Army, with only the eighty-eight battalions of the London Regiment to surpass them in greater number.
Among the locally raised ‘New Army’ battalions were the ‘Newcastle Commercials,’ Tyneside Scottish and Tyneside Irish, who faced the hurricane of machine gun fire on the First Day of the Somme in 1916. No Regiment lost more men than the Northumberland Fusiliers on that fateful day. What is still more remarkable is the fact that just about every active service battalion in the British Army, every Corps, every branch of the Royal Navy (notably the Royal Naval Division) and Royal Marines could find Geordies within its ranks. Indeed numerous English, Irish and Scottish Regiments can all be found actively recruiting men from Tyneside and Northumberland during the First World War and some of them ended up with Tyneside Companies of their own.
The soldiers of the North have a long history and reputation for being good fighting men and their county regiment in 1914 was the embodiment of that spirit. The Northumberland Fusiliers finds its roots back in 1674 and was granted the seniority of the Fifth Regiment of Foot in the British Army, a seniority they were always proud of. They richly earned and upheld the Regiment’s traditions and nick-names of the ‘Fighting Fifth’ and the ‘Old and Bold.’ In 1914 Lord Kitchener himself said of them ‘I have often had occasion to thank Heaven that I had the Northumberland Fusiliers at my back. Tell them from me that I have often relied upon the Northumberland Fusiliers in the past and I know that I may need to do so in the future’ and Lieut-General Sir Brian Horrocks did not mince words in his introduction to history of the Regiment in the Famous Regiments series when he wrote of men from the Northern collieries ‘whom I have always regarded as making the finest infantry in the world.’
We hope this book will add something original to the canon of works on the county of Northumberland, Tyneside and its people both at home and fighting abroad in the First World War and that the authentic voices of the lads and lasses published herein will speak to our readers with the same resonance that they spoke to us and leave with them the same legacy - they deserve to be Remembered.
Neil R. Storey and Fiona Kay's new book Northumberland and Tyneside's War: Voice of the First World War is available for purchase now.