Today was the culmination of five year’s work as a new First World War memorial was unveiled in North Shields. When, in 2011, my friend the irrepressible Alan Fidler had the idea to research the lives of the 1,700 men recorded in the Tynemouth Roll of Honour we could not have guessed how far our fledgling Tynemouth World War One Commemoration Project would expand over the next five years.
For many of us involved in the project, the men on the Roll have become obsessions, almost like family members: Wallace the schoolteacher, Garnett the Cambridge Blue, Fyfe who piped the Tyneside Scottish over the top on the First Day of the Somme (read their stories here). Our brilliant team of volunteer researchers has done so much to rescue these lives from oblivion, and it has been incredibly moving to see the response from the ‘folk of Shields’ – and how proud local people have been to have one of our blue plaques on their homes.
This work – alongside an acclaimed stage production based on the life of a North Shields man shot at dawn, a popular series of talks and lectures, an award-winning BBC documentary, even a ‘Tyneside Tommy’ beer – has all helped to remind local people of the extraordinary losses suffered by their community in the Great War. Perhaps the most vivid, and moving, illustration of what that war did to Tynemouth was compiled by the brilliant Steve Young, another volunteer on the project, in the form of a map that is now displayed in shops and pubs and schools across North Tyneside. It still takes my breath away. (Steve also produced this animated version, which I narrated.)
The original First World War memorials for Tynemouth Borough were the extensions to the Jubilee Infirmary (now a North East Ambulance Service building) and the fine cenotaph on Hawkey’s Lane. Our map was, therefore, the inspiration for the new memorial unveiled today in the presence of descendants of the men whose names it records by the streets from which they left and never returned. So I was delighted to be asked to say a few words to mark the occasion, which I’ve reproduced here:
County Borough of Tynemouth 1914-1918 Unveiling of the new war memorial
It is my great privilege on behalf of the Tynemouth World War One Commemoration Project to respond to Councillor Bell’s very fine speech.
Can I begin by paying tribute to all those who have made today possible – including all our volunteers for their magnificent research, to our sponsors and supporters, to the Linskill Centre and those who constructed this garden, to Her Majesty’s Deputy Lieutenant for Tyne and Wear for being here today, and, for their unstinting support for our project, to our local MP the Rt Hon Alan Campbell, and the Mayor of North Tyneside Mrs Norma Redfearn.
But, I am sure we will all agree that today is chiefly about honouring the men from this borough who left these streets to fight for king and country and never came home.
Now we know from our colleagues in the North East War Memorial Project that over 100,000 names are recorded on war memorials in Northumberland and Durham. Therefore Tynemouth’s losses, as staggering as they are, are in one sense typical of the huge sacrifices made by North East England in the Great War.
Yet, as our research has revealed these men were more than just numbers, more than just names listed on war memorials.
They were real people, with real families; families who loved them and grieved for them for decades.
They were soldiers and airmen, sailors and merchant seamen.
They were librarians and fishermen, coalminers and schoolteachers.
They were men from Tyneside flats above the docks in North Shields, and men from the grand houses of Tynemouth village.
They were privileged young men, like the two officer sons of Sir James Knott (James and Basil) who now lie buried side by side in a British cemetery in Ypres
But they were also ordinary working men, like the dockyard labourer Robert Hogg, a Northumberland Fusilier killed in 1916, whose officer wrote home to Robert’s wife after his death to say that
“He was loved here by every one of us and was surely the coolest and most cheery man in the trenches, always chatting cheerily to those whose nerves had given way under the strain. I was near him before he died and heard him say to someone, “Keep your heart up, lad, you’ll pull through this all right; what has to be will be.” Then he was hit. “I took hold of his hands and asked if he knew me but he only murmured, “My poor wife, my poor bairns.”
He left his wife Sarah and their six children in Chirton West View in North Shields.
This is the calibre of the men that Tynemouth lost, and lost in their hundreds on the Somme and at Passchendaele, at Gallipoli and Palestine, in the South Atlantic and in the North Sea.
But we shouldn’t forget that in the main they were volunteers, who went willingly; keen to do their bit and defend their country, and not let their marras down.
It was men like this from North East England, in the trenches, on the high seas, in the mines and in the shipyards and the factories that won the war for Britain in 1918.
Indeed, in that year of victory a North Shields printer republished these lines from Sir Henry Newbolt, first written to commemorate the role of Lord Collingwood and his fellow North Country sailors at Trafalgar a century earlier
When England sets her banner forth, and bids her armour shine
She’ll not forget the famous North, the lads of Moor and Tyne.
And when the loving cup’s in hand, and honour leads the cry,
She knows not old Northumberland will pass her memory by.
We’re proud to say that even after 100 years our community has not passed the memory of these men by, and, on behalf of the TWW1 project, I’d like to express our gratitude to you all for being here today to be part of this generation’s tribute to the men of Tynemouth who fell in the Great War.