Where The Cherry Trees Were

Patricia Rigg

“Where the Cherry Trees Were” is the story of one church in South Shields and its community, people who lived and worked on Tyneside, in days long gone, At the heart of the story are the horrific years of the Great War and its devastating consequences.

The author, a member of the South Tyneside Remembers WWI group at South Tyneside Libraries, used the original church magazines, 1909-1918, in her research. They provide a wealth of information, from everyday church life to the St Thomas’ men and boys who fought for “God, King and Country” in the most appalling conditions.


This story about the effects of the Great War on the people of South Tyneside, echoed in every village and town throughout the United Kingdom, is a tribute to those brave souls in uniform who fought in a war, believed at the time, to end all wars.

There are no longer survivors to provide first hand memories, only photographs and film clips of the trains, packed with soldiers, waving enthusiastically and smiling from every window, totally unaware of the horrors they were to face in the trenches of France and Germany.

The stress of “going over the top” cannot be imagined. The families back home, of the fathers, brothers and sons, did not fully appreciate the danger of the conditions in which their loved ones were fighting. No one could have foreseen the carnage that lay ahead.

So many were falsely accused of cowardice and faced a firing squad as a lesson to others when there was no understanding of traumatic stress. In the National Arboretum there is a poignant statue of such a soldier, shivering and blindfolded, tied to a post, awaiting his fate when one of the squad places a greatcoat over him for some short-lived warmth.

Many survivors were scarred for life both physically and mentally.

Lessons were learned and re-learned from experience in previous conflicts regarding the medical care of the wounded. Doctors did not have the advantage of modern drugs and surgical techniques and many succumbed when now they would have survived.

This book is an important commemoration of those brave soldiers and of the grieving families left at home.

They will never be forgotten unlike the cherry trees which once flourished in the square in South Shields.

Major General John Coull CB FRCS OStJ

Message From the Bishop

The experiences of the ordinary men and women, at home and at war, tell of bravery, valour, fortitude, patriotism, duty and sacrifice.

While commemorating the fallen, “Where the Cherry Trees Were” pays tribute to one local community from so many years ago.

In the midst of the horrors of World War One, hope was often in short supply yet many did find hope in God and Christian faith.

It is for us, the people of today, to pass the message of Remembrance to future generations, so that they in turn, will ensure the Great War is embedded in our history.

May the story also encourage bravery and hope in our own lives.

The Rt Revd Paul Butler, Lord Bishop of Durham

Where the Cherry Trees Were

An image of the Church of Saint Thomas.

The Church of Saint Thomas
Parish of Westoe
South Shields
County Durham

The past is all around us,
Whoever we are,
Wherever we are.

Shadows. Shades.

This is one story from long ago,
A tale of Tyneside folk,
Cherry trees,
A church,
The Great War,

And more,
So much more.

It’s all here…

Remember the church?

Ask anyone in Shields if they remember St. Thomas’ Church.
They’ll have to be old enough, of course.
It was pulled down in the Sixties.

Some remember sitting on the church steps,
Waiting for the bus.
There was a bus-stop right outside.

Others say, “A church? In Fowler Street?”
Show a photograph and it’s a different matter,
“Well, I never! I must have walked past it loads of times.”

An image of the Church of Saint Thomas from Fowler Street.

The corner of Fowler Street and Catherine Street,
That’s where St. Thomas’ Church was,
And that’s where the cherry trees were.


Rewind time.

The Reverend John Frank Gill,
Vicar of St. Thomas’ Church.
The Reverend William Gaisford Burgis.

Hard-working, dedicated men.

The country, at peace,
The church, a community.


A new parish magazine,
‘The Open Door’,
On sale for the first time.

Image of the front page of The Open Door; newsletter of the Church of Saint Thomas.

Those magazines,
January 1909 – December 1918,
Have survived through time.

They tell a story,
The story of a church,
Its parishioners,
And more, much more,

The story of The Great War.


War was not on the horizon.
Parishioners, reading the new magazine,
Long before the cherry trees,
Had no idea,
In just a few years,
Their lives would be turned upside down.

War lay ahead. World War.

‘The Open Door’ is our open door,
Our gateway to years long gone,
To the stories of people,
Who lived and worked in the North East.

Their stories,
Their lives,

Our heritage.

Pure gold,
Voices straight from the past.

In the first magazines,
Church notices. Services.
Births. Marriages. Deaths.
Sales of Work. Fund-raising.
Parish news. Accounts. Sermons.
Outings. Talks. Sunday School.
Donations. Flowers. Visits.

It’s all there, month by month,
Year by year.

The story of one church,
Story of love, dedication, purpose,
Duty, patriotism.

We can time-travel in our own town,
Discover a world far away
From ours today.

Another time, another century.

Paint the scene,
Set the stage,
Back in time,
To a long gone age,

To a church in a town,
Town by the sea,
North East winds,
Gulls flying free,

Ships on the river,
Men of the Tyne,
Noise of the shipyard,
Dirt of the mine.

So many people played their part,
So many to remember,
Where to start?

Vicar, Curate,
Church members,
Sunday School teachers,
The Church Lads’ Brigade.

Glimpses of our past,
That should never fade.

And the church?
Where is it now?

Lost to the town,
Building pulled down,
Vanished in time.

And the folk of the church,
From years long past?
Their tales?
Their stories?
Let their memories last.

Fathers, mothers,
Husbands, wives,
Children, friends,
Far-off lives.

Can you hear, through time,
A plaintive plea?
Tell our stories,
Set our memories free.

Of course, the church was there long before the cherry trees.

A century on,
Church gone, cherry trees gone,
And the library,
So close to where the church once stood?
The library, gone.

Time moves on.

Ghosts. Shadows. Memories.

And the cherry trees?

Remember the cherry trees,
Where the church once was?
Remember the church?
No cherry trees then.

The Church of St. Thomas,
Landmark of memories.

Can you hear the Sunday-singing choir,
Voices, blowing in the breeze?
Vicars. Curates.
Listen to their words,
Drifting through the years.

Different times,
Different lives.

The Great War.

Did the cherry trees weep for the dead?
Did petals fall in inconsolable grief?

The men of the parish,
The fallen,
The wounded,
The damaged,
The lost.

St. Thomas’ Church,
Roll of Honour,
Names framed by tears to fill the Tyne.
Sadness. Sacrifice. Sorrow.

The church has gone,
The cherry trees have gone,
But, wait,
Listen to the psalms,
Sailing on the winds of time,
Voices, floating through the years.

Stop. Listen.
Can you hear the whispered words of yesterday,
The distant songs of the sea,
Sounds from another century?

Remember the cherry trees,
Where the church once was?
Remember the church?
No cherry trees, then.

And, now?
Shadows, smudged, indistinct,
Echoes of years gone by,
And the cherry trees, long gone,
Petals falling,
Invisible petals,
Falling in remembrance,
For the rest of time.


The Start of it All

The Year the World Changed

Before the outbreak of war,
Before the Call to Arms,
Patriotic fervour,
A photograph,
Taken at Mr. Warren’s Studio,
Fowler Street,
Not far from the church.

They say nothing tells a story
More than a photograph.

Photograph of the Church Lad's Brigade from the Church of Saint Thomas.

Church Lads Brigade
St Thomas’ Company, South Shields 2823

Back Row: (l-r) Pte. A. Ottiwell, Pte. L. Hunter, Pte. H. Anderson, Sgt. Drum, R. Bright, Pte. Honeyman, L-Corpl. C. Allan; Recruits, R. Fowles, A. Huggett; Pte. W Sanderson.

Second Row: (l-r) Pte. T. Peacock, L-Corpl. J. Sheffield, L-Corpl. J. Sewell, Lce-Sgt. M. Hodge, Stf-Sgt. R. Peacock, Corpl. W. Corradine, Pte. J. Sambrooks.

Third Row: (l-r) Corpl. J. Steedman, L- Corpl. E. Morris, Pte. A. Vans, Stf-Sgt. R. Fairbairn, 2nd-Lieut. W. G. Burgis, O.C. Company, Lieut-Col. F. M. Armstrong, O.C. Battalion, Coy-Sgt. Inst. A. Wilkinson, Corpl. J. Shaw, Pte J. Normandale, Pte. J. Sharpe, Pte. W. Pointing.

Fourth Row: (l-r) Pte. T. Jones, Pte. L. Farrage, Pte. R. Frame, Pte. A. Anderson, L-Corpl. J. Hindmarch, Pte J. Stableford.

This photograph marked an achievement,
A great achievement.

The Church Lads’ Brigade,
St. Thomas’ Company,
Holders of all 3 Battalion trophies,
For the very first time.

1. Drill   2. Swimming   3. Signalling


The year, the boys were determined to win,
And win they did.
This time, they weren’t pipped at the post,
By the lads from Jarrow,
Winners in past years.

This time, the prize was theirs.

The Battalion Shield.

To celebrate,
An evening of music after a special supper -
The washing-up done in almost record time!

Copies of the company photograph,
Printed on card, could be bought from any of the lads.
This photograph, one day,
For some mothers,
Treasured memories of lost sons.

Monday, August 3rd, 1914,
Bank Holiday Monday,
The last day of peace.

Tuesday, August 4th, 1914,
Declaration of War.

Two days in the summer of 1914,
More than a hundred years ago.

Britain, now, a country at war with Germany.

The mood throughout the land?
Get over there and teach the Germans a lesson,
A lesson they won’t forget.

They won’t get away with this.
We’ll show them.

All over the country,
The men and the boys,
Rushed to volunteer.
In South Shields,
It was no different.

There was a recruitment office,
Opposite the church,
On the corner of Albemarle Street and Fowler Street.

Prelude to courage, valour,

Prelude to horror, casualties,

The men and the boys of St. Thomas’ Church
Signed up for a war that would not last long.

Well, that’s what they were told.
That’s what was said.

Were they misled?

My Dearest Darling,

Home by Christmas,
That’s what they say.
Just a short time,
We’ll be away.

All over soon,
We’ve been told.
Quick adventure.
Be brave. Be bold.

Cross the Channel,
Back in a mo’.
Farewell, sweetheart,
Time to go.

Don’t worry, dearest,
I’ll be O.K.
Back in a jiffy.
Soon be the day.

Home by Christmas,
Job to be done,
Off we all go,
War to be won.

Heads held high.
Cheers. Applause.
March with pride.
We fight a just cause.

Get over there,
Join the show,
Teach them a lesson.
We have to go.

So, my darling,
Time to part.

You’re always in my heart.

The days will fly past.
Soon back from the fray.
With you at Christmas,

Well, that’s what they say.

They answered their country’s call,
The men of Tyneside,
Ordinary men,
Extraordinary men.

Joking, laughing,
They marched to war.
None of them knew
What lay in store.

Before they set out,
On their pathway to hell,
From those left behind,
A loving farewell.

The last kiss.
For now.
For ever?
No, please, no.
Don’t think about it.
Say, “Farewell,”
Don’t let him see the tears soaking your soul.

Torrents of tears,
Invisible tears.

See the love on his face,
Feel his tender embrace,
Keep smiling,
Tell yourself,
It will all be over by Christmas.

Smile as if you mean it.

Make that last kiss,
A kiss to remember.

The men were leaving the town.
Do your Duty.
Serve your Country.

At home, they had to soldier on,
Stiff upper lip and all that.
The war wasn’t going to last long.
They’d soon be back home.
Everything would be back to normal,
Wouldn’t it?

How could they know what lay ahead?
Hardships at home,
Food shortages, rationing
And more,
Much more.

No quick victory,
No ‘Over by Christmas’,
Not Christmas, 1914,
That’s for sure.

Life at home went on but everything was different.

And that was just the beginning.

The war would affect everyone.

Men from the factories, shipyards,
Banks, schools, shops, post-offices.

St. Thomas’ Church suffered with the rest of the town.
As its men enlisted, its numbers fell.

Among the first to go,
Sunday-school teachers,
Members of the choir.

And the boys of the Church Lads’ Brigade?

They answered their country’s call.
They marched to war.

Their stories?
Part of local lore.

A list of those serving their country was posted in the church,
A list that would grow ever longer.

In the church magazine,
A new feature, ‘War Notes’.

To begin with,
Postings, training-camps,
Embarkations, regiments,
Snippets of information,

And, then,
The Western Front,
Flanders, France,
Active service,

The battlefields,

And then,
The first casualties,

The names of the missing,
The wounded, the lost, the prisoners,
The names of the fallen,
Men, who would never see their loved ones again.

Grief. Sorrow.

Telegrams. Letters of sympathy.
Families in mourning,
Black clothes, black armbands.

All this, yet to come.

The men and the boys
Found themselves in places with strange names,
Unpronounceable names,

Places they didn’t know,
Places they had to go.

In a mother’s heart,
Were her fears,

Tears she must not shed?

My son, my boy,
Out there. Out where?

Flanders? France?
Might as well be the moon.

He’s somewhere, I know,
But where, where did he go?

Before war intervened,
Life seemed to stretch ahead,

And, now?

My son, my boy,
Out there. Out where?

Will he survive?
Is he alive?

Will he set my fears free?
Will he come home to me?

John Whitehead was out there,

The first of the fallen,
Whose name, one day, would be written
On St. Thomas’ Church Roll of Honour.

There were to be more,
So many more,
Men, who would lie in graves,
Far from home.

Married, with a young family,
Shipyard worker,
Sent so soon to fight.

Belgium, October 1914,
Siege of Antwerp,
Fall of a city.
John reported missing.

At home, his family waited for news.
The wait was long.

Spring, 1915,
News, finally, from the Admiralty.
The worst of news.

Taken prisoner. Shot.
Lost, for all time.

And today?

Miles from the River Tyne,
Miles from South Shields,
Far from those who loved him,
John lies in a Belgian cemetery,
In the village of Eksaarde.

Able Seaman John Whitehead
Royal Naval Division
Collingwood Battalion
October 10th, 1914

27 years old

The following month,
The second man of the parish to be lost,
Alexander Clark,
Married, with a young son,
Labourer in the shipyards of the Tyne.

In France,
Twelve days after the outbreak of war,
His war was short-lived.

August 23rd, 1914
Battle of Mons,
Alexander’s first battle.
His regiment suffered heavy losses.

November 1st, 1914,
His last battle.

Image of Alexander Clark

Driver Alexander Clark
48th Battery
Royal Field Artillery
29 years old

Two sad losses in the first months of the war.

Christmas, 1914,
And the war was not over,
Not by a long shot.

King George V and Queen Mary sent a Christmas card
To every soldier in the British Expeditionary Force.
Its message?

May God protect you and bring you home safe.

Image of Christmas Card from King George V. Message reads: With our best wishes for Christmas 1914. May God protect you and bring you home safe.


The list of names to be prayed for grew ever longer,
The number of men involved in the conflict, ever greater.

The first casualty of 1915?

Joseph Sewell,
A young boy,
Pictured in the Church Lads’ Brigade photograph,
July 1914.

November 1914,
Lance-Corporal Joseph Sewell,
Award for Good Conduct,
2 years’ service, C.L.B.

December 1914,
Joseph joined HMS Viknor,
An armed merchant cruiser.

January 13th, 1915,
The Viknor sank off the Irish coast.

No distress signals,
No survivors.
Many of the crew of 295 were local men.

Sincerest of sympathy,
For Joseph’s family.

Joseph Sewell
Assistant Steward
Mercantile Marine Reserve
HMS Viknor
10th Cruiser Squadron

Lost at sea, lost for all time.

16 years old

Over a hundred years have passed,
And still,
The word, Gallipoli, has the power to sear the soul.

Those who came home from the campaign
Often had memories too horrific to share.
Anyway, people didn’t always want to know.

One Gallipoli veteran
Told his family nothing.
One day, though, he almost did.
One day, he started to say,
“When I was at Gallipoli,”
He got no further.
His wife quickly said,
“Jim, don’t be filling the children’s heads
With stories about the war.
They don’t want to hear things like that.”

And that was that.

Gallipoli was never mentioned again.

So very far away,
The Dardanelles, Suvla Bay,
Another time, another day.

Did they know where they were going
When they sailed away?
When they left to fight for their nation,
Were they told their destination?

Gallipoli? Where’s that?
Not a clue. No idea. Don’t know.
But I do understand it’s our duty to go.

The Hellespont? I’ve heard that word.
Going there? Me? Seems absurd.
Doesn’t seem right.
Men from Shields going there to fight.

A world so far from our River Tyne,
From ship-yard, dry-dock, pit-head, mine.

Does the sun always shine across the sea?
Will the Hand of God watch over me?
Will He bring me safely home one day,
To friends and family, from far away?

From beaches, shores, landings, losses,
Sea, sand, casualties, crosses,
From mountains, valleys, cliffs, rock,
Snipers, shells, shrapnel, shock,
Flares, fire, blood-red water,
The Dardanelles, disaster, slaughter?

We had no idea what lay in store,
When off we went, to fight in war,
Off, with rifle, pack and kit,
To do our best, to do our bit.

We can truly say we played our part,
As we bury the memories deep in our heart,
Memories of men who will breathe no more,
Left forever on that distant shore,
Soldier, sailor, brother, mate,
Precious lives claimed by unstoppable Fate.


Duty. Service. Sacrifice.

Many local men
Lost their lives in the Gallipoli Campaign.

Many more from the area were wounded or taken prisoner.

John Crawford was at Gallipoli.
Good Christian, stalwart of the church,
John enlisted, November 1914.

June 4th, 1915
Missing. Dardanelles.

Prayers were said in church, for his safe return.
His family waited for news.

1915 passed by.
No news.
His family had to wait until the following year.

Able Seaman John William Crawford
Hood Battalion
Royal Naval Division

June 4th, 1915

Lost in a land far from home,
No known grave.

23 years old

Image of John Crawford.

James Hindmarsh,

Also pictured in the C.L.B. photograph of July 1914.

December 1914
James and four pals
Enlisted at the recruitment office in Fowler Street,
Opposite the church.

James, sent across the Channel,
April 21st, 1915.

His last message to the lads back home,
“Stick in at the C.L.B. as it will help you when you get out here.”

France, July 16th, 1915,
James, killed in action,
A young life lost.

In the Church Magazine,
The saddest of announcements,
Words straight from the heart,

Sincerest sympathy was offered to James’ parents,
On the loss of their only son.

Driver James Robert Victor Hindmarsh
1st/4th Durham Howitzer Battery

17 years old

Image of James Hindmarsh

Joseph Sewell, John Crawford, James Hindmarsh,
Lost, in the service of God, King and Country.

In the same year, so many more casualties,
So many more men killed, wounded, missing, taken prisoner.

More sadness for families at home,
More names, one day, to be written on the Church Roll of Honour.

The oldest of the fallen,
In the year of 1915?

Stoker John Whitehorn Bays
HMS Albatross
Royal Naval Reserve
November 27th, 1915

44 years old

Image of John Bays

The youngest?

Private Ralph Ferguson
1/West Yorkshire Regiment
June 19th, 1915

19 years old

Image of Ralph Ferguson

Private William Appleton
7/Yorkshire Regiment
November 5th, 1915

19 years old

Image of William Appleton

Christmas, 1915

The second Christmas of a war they’d all been told
Would not last long.


The first man, from the parish, to lose his life?

Albert Thompson,
Husband, father,
Barman at the Bridge Hotel, King Street,
Not far from the church.

September 1914
He answered his country’s call.

July 1915
Embarked for France.

February 14th, 1916
Killed in action

Another life sacrificed,
Another young family left to mourn.

Private Albert Victor Bradley Thompson
7 Border Regiment

28 years old

Image of Albert Thompson

Summer, 1916

In France,
The Battle of the Somme was about to begin.

Saturday, July 1st, 1916

A beautiful day in a summer long gone.
The sky was blue.
Zero hour.

Bugles. Whistles.
Over the Top.

Thousands of men advanced across No Man’s Land.

57,470 casualties.


The horrors of the Somme,
Long gone,
The men, too,
The men of the Somme,
Long gone.

But the memories?
They’re a different matter.
The memories live through the years.

Summer, 1916,
July the first,
The worst of days.

19,240 dead in one day.

Massacre. Slaughter. Carnage.

The fallen. The wounded. The missing.

The survivors.
They’d heard the screams of man and shell,
Knew too well the battle-roar,
The dreadful cost,
The price of war.

Waiting in the trenches,
Waiting, waiting,
Waiting for the whistles,
The shouted orders,
Over the Top.

Could they stop for a second?
Remember their other lives?
Families, friends, sweethearts, wives?

Bitter-sweet memories,
First kiss, last dance,
A million miles from Somewhere in France.

Courtship by postcard,
Romance by letter.
Life could be better,
But don’t tell your girl.
Let her think you’re fine.
Don’t whine.

The truth?
She will never hear the truth.

One day,
One day in Summer,
July the first, 1916.

Nineteen thousand, two hundred and forty dead,
Thomas, Charles, Benjamin, George
Nineteen thousand, two hundred and thirty-six more.

One day. One war.

Thomas Burdon,
Charles Durrant,
Benjamin Garrett,
George Armstrong,
Enlisted in their home town,
Soon after the outbreak of war.

Four men who lost their lives on the first day of the Battle of the Somme,
Men, whose names,
One day, would be written on the Church Roll of Honour.

Image of Thomas Burdon

Private Thomas Thompson Burdon
22nd Tyneside Scottish
Northumberland Fusiliers
28 years old

Image of Charles Durrant

Private Charles Thomas Durrant
25th Tyneside Irish
Northumberland Fusiliers
35 years old

Image of Benjamin Garrett

Private Benjamin Garrett
24th Tyneside Irish
Northumberland Fusiliers
26 years old

Image of George Armstrong

Private George Hewart Armstrong
2/King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry
25 years old

The first day of the Battle of the Somme,
Remembered, today, as “the blackest day in British Military history”.

Local and national newspapers published lists of the names of the casualties,
Name upon name,
List upon list.
The North East suffered heavy losses.

The folk at home were soon able to see for themselves
Just what was happening in France.
The film, ‘The Battle of the Somme’,
Released in August,
The first feature-length documentary to record war in action.

The Big Guns,
Shells, explosions,
Captured German prisoners,
Men, carrying their wounded,
Men, burying their dead.

Men, marching,
Waving, cheering.

The men in the trenches,
Smiling at the cameras,
Waiting for action.

Seen by more than 20 million people,
Many hoping to see the faces of their loved ones,
The film was one of the most successful in the history of British cinema.

Shown in picture-houses throughout the land,
The film could be seen in South Shields,
At the Pavilion, in Derby Street.

Image of the Shields Gazette Masthead
Image of Pavilion

I was there.
I couldn’t stay away.

Did my boy have a starring role?
That was never his goal.
Did he smile,
As he marched proudly by?

My son,
My boy.

I saw the film.
I did not see my son.
I had to go,
Just as he did,
And, now, I know.

The fears, once mine, no more.
In their place?


Tears for Eternity.

The Battle of the Somme raged for 141 days.
It began on a beautiful day in July.
It ended in a November snowstorm.

The line had moved forward just a few miles.
Over 1,000,000 men from all sides,
Killed, wounded, captured.

The last man in the parish to lose his life in 1916?

Private Ralph Stanley Errington
2/ Grenadier Guards
December 23rd, 1916
19 years old.

Earlier in the year,
Ralph’s brother, John,
Had lost his life at the Somme.

Private John Allen Errington
9 Cameronians
July 18th, 1916
23 years old

Peace on Earth?
Would it ever come?

One day? One day?


The year did not start well.

The war was dragging on.

Winter conditions were severe.
On the Western Front, men suffered from exposure and frostbite.
Some died from the cold.
Food and water froze.
Clothes and blankets froze.
In the trenches, life must have been one of utter misery.


The men, so far from home,
What were their thoughts?
Stay alive,
Beat the enemy,
End it all,
Go home,
Back to the lives they had before,
Before the war?

How much more lay in store?

How much more,
Dear God,
How much more?


The year the U-boats stepped up their campaign of menace.
Bad enough before,
But now?

Unrestricted submarine warfare.
Show no mercy.
Sink on sight.

Merchant ships, torpedoed without warning,
Masters, taken prisoner,
Crews left to drown.

The sea was in the soul of the men of Shields.
The town suffered heavy losses.

By Easter, German U-boats were sinking
One of every four merchant ships
Sailing out of British ports.

On one of those ships,
Bert Finch
Assistant Steward
Mercantile Marine
SS Powhatan
April 6th, 1917

15 years old

A few weeks later,
Another sad loss,
Percy Dawes,
Caretaker, St. Thomas’ Institute, Denmark Street,
Postman of the town,
Husband and father of 7 children.

Private Percival Charles Dawes
123rd Company Machine-Gun Corps
June 27th, 1917

39 years old.

His loss deeply felt by his family
And the church community.


The year of Passchendaele.
Just the word strikes at your heart.

You weren’t there.
You don’t know the half of it.
Thank your lucky stars for that.

The Third Battle of Ypres

The officers, the poets, the men,
They called it Passchendaele.
They also called it Hell.
Mostly, though, they didn’t tell.
Few words said, except to mates.
Well, they were there.
They knew.

July 31st
The first day of the battle,
The day the rain began to fall.

The summer of 1917, in Belgium,
The worst for 30 years.
The rain seemed never-ending,
Torrential rain,
Men, soaked to the skin,
Equipment, drenched,
Trenches, flooded,
Craters, water-filled.

The fields of Flanders?
Fields of mud.

Men drowned in the mud.

That’s something I’ll never forget.
It was the mud that got my mate.
Swallowed him up.
Didn’t stand a chance.
Nothing we could do.
Keep going, whatever.
Those were our orders.

Terrible way to go.
Doesn’t bear thinking about.

Hundreds of thousands of casualties
And for what?
The line advanced just 5 miles.
July 31st – November 10th

Autumn, 1917,

Another man, who’d played a prominent part
In the life of the church,
Lost his life on the Western Front.

The Battalion Commanding Officer,
St. Thomas’ Company, Church Lads’ Brigade,
The man, pictured in the C.L.B. photograph,
Presenting the Battalion Trophy to the Company,
Way back in July, 1914.

Major Forster Moore Armstrong
251st Brigade
Royal Field Artillery
Mentioned in Despatches
Killed in action

September 25th, 1917

41 years old

The last name to be remembered in 1917?

Hector MacDonald Stevenson
Mess Room Boy
Mercantile Marine
SS Hercules

December 30th, 1917

17 years old


Another year and one thing’s for sure.
We’ve seen enough to last a lifetime.

That’s what we are,

A world at peace?
Now, there’s a thought.

At the start of the year,
There seemed to be no end in sight.

1918, a year of fierce fighting,
Savage battles,
Heavy losses.

1918, the year the war would end.
Over, it would be over …
but not yet … not yet …

1918, the year the Germans launched a massive spring offensive.

The Kaiserschlacht,
The Kaiser’s Battle.

Call it what you like,
It was going to be
A Big Push.

Back home, the first terrible news of this huge attack
Must have shocked the people of Tyneside.

The serious events on the Western Front?
Operation Michael.

Opening attack? March 21st
Enemy bombardment?
The biggest the war had seen.
Initial result?
Rapid German advance,
Heavy British losses.

Holy Week
Good Friday, March 29th - Easter Sunday, March 31st

By the end of March,
The ferocious attack was beginning to falter.
The British had been pushed back but the line never broke completely.

At St. Thomas’, they must have thought their prayers had been answered……
For the moment……

There was still worry, of course, and waiting,
Waiting for news.

Good news of two members of the church had been received.

A postcard from their curate, the Reverend Burgis,
Safely through the ordeal.

Second-Lieutenant Matthew Hodge,
Unhurt and safe with his battalion,
After a very trying experience for a young soldier.

For others, the saddest of news.

Two men, lost in the early days of the fighting,
Whose names, on the Church Roll of Honour,
Would be for ever honoured.

Operation Michael
March 21st – April 5th, 1918

Private John George Tugby
1st/6th Durham Light Infantry (Territorial)
March 26th, 1918
18 years old

Sapper Thomas Edward Robson
447th Field Company Royal Engineers
March 28th, 1918
33 years old

Also involved in Operation Michael,
Lieutenant Frank Sopwith,
Awarded the Military Cross,
After a series of engagements with the enemy,
A great honour for Frank and his family.
His Commanding Officer described his actions as “simply heroic”.

Not long after his award for “bravery in the field”,
Frank was posted Missing in Action.
It was Autumn before his family received definite news of their treasured son.

Before enlisting,
Frank had been a student at Durham College of Medicine.

Lieutenant Frank Wesley Sopwith
251st Brigade Royal Field Artillery

Military Cross
Mentioned in Despatches

May 27th, 1918

21 years old

The Kaiser’s Battle began in Spring and ended in Summer.
March 21st – July 18th

The enemy’s ‘Big Push’ was over,
German hopes of victory, finished.

August 8th, 1918
The Allies broke through the German Line at Amiens,
Overwhelming the enemy and driving them back.

The Battle of Amiens
“The Black Day of the German Army”

The last St. Thomas’ man to lose his life?

Sapper Gilbert Lawrence Barnes
76th Field Company
Royal Engineers

Killed in Action

November 4th, 1918,
The last week of the war, the last month,
The last year.

27 years old

November 9th
The Kaiser abdicated.

The British Expeditionary Force advanced into the Belgian city of Mons,
Where the first shots of the war had been fired in August 1914.

November 11th, 1918
Germany and the Allies signed the Armistice.

The fighting continued right up until the last moment.
More men killed in action,
More men wounded.


Hostilities ceased.

The eleventh hour
The eleventh day
The eleventh month

Across Europe, the sound of church bells.

At home,
Ships’ sirens on the river,
Crowded streets,
People dancing, children waving flags.


Over, it was over.
Hard to take it in.

The war was over but you can’t erase memories.
Wipe out the horrors of the past?
No chance.

The men would come home,
The survivors, souls seared and scarred,
Another fight on their hands,
Another war,
A war that would haunt them all their lives.

They would never be free.

Nightmares for all time.

They had their stories all right,
Tales they didn’t really want to share.

Their families?
Maybe they didn’t want to know,
Maybe they just wanted their menfolk back.

Forget the past,
New start,
New life,
New world.

Of course, it would never work.
There was no magic switch.
They were changed men.

Memories would surface for the rest of their lives.

No, please, no.

Stop, please, stop.

For each man,
A life-sentence,
Images he wanted to forget.

Yes, the war was over, and the men were coming home,
Those who could.

Not immediately.
Many did not get back for several months.
When they did return,
They didn’t want to talk about the war.

And who could blame them?

My boy, my son,
You’ve seen your pals die.
You’re still asking why.

Witness to carnage,
Witness to war,
The bullets, the shells, the mines, the gore,
Craters, grenades, snipers, mud,
Trenches, gas, shrapnel, blood.

My soldier boy,
You’ve played your part.
We may never know
What’s in your heart.
Your war, today,
Now, far away.

My boy, my son,
You’re home to stay.

But your soldier boy,
Did he say anything?

Lucky to be alive,
That’s what he said,
So many injured,
So many dead.

The horrors of the trenches,
Long periods to wait,
Waiting for conflict,
Waiting for Fate.

Lucky to be alive,
That’s what he said,
So many missing,
So many dead.

Gassed at the Somme,
Over the Top.
One day,
The madness had to stop.

Lucky to be alive,
That’s what he said,
So many damaged,
So many dead.

Back from the war,
To his homeland, his life,
Hope for the future,
Children, a wife.

A man of the Great War,
My son, who survived,
Who will never forget
All those who died.

Our boy didn’t even say,
Lucky to be alive.
He didn’t want to tell us anything.

He’d changed.
Not surprising.

This war-weary man,
He’s still our boy,
Memories pushed into the slipways of his soul,
Memories too devastating to share.

Tell us what he’s seen?
How could he?
Tell us where he’s been?
Why should he?

We can’t ask him, poor lad.
Look at the state of him.
Just about dead on his feet.

He didn’t want to tell us.
We didn’t want to ask.
Not today, not any day, really.
Well, that’s what we told ourselves.

Of course, we wanted to know
What our boy had seen,
Where our man had been.

He didn’t say a word.
He didn’t want to tell us,
So, we didn’t ask.

A mother would find her son,
Slumped in a chair,
Looking as if he had all the cares of the world on his shoulders,
Not a man, whose war was over.

A wife would catch her husband,
Head in hands,
Lost in thought,
Miles away from home and family,
In another place,
Definitely not South Shields.

Was he remembering the horrors he’d witnessed?
Grieving for lost comrades?
Mourning the world he once knew?
Trying to blot out his memories?
Erase the past?

One thing’s for sure,
The mothers, the wives, the sweethearts,
They would never hear the truth.

Some of the St. Thomas’ men,
Several ex-C.L.B. lads amongst them,
Won special awards,
Commendations for courage and valour,
Medals for acts of gallantry,
Meritorious service,
Devotion to duty.

Distinguished Service Order
Military Cross
Distinguished Conduct Medal
Military Medal
Mentioned in Despatches

Croix de Guerre

Within the pages of ‘The Open Door’,
So many glimpses of local life,
Over 100 years ago.

The Vicar’s war.
In May 1917, at the age of 54,
The Reverend Gill offered his services as army chaplain.
The Bishop informed him he must remain at his post.
At home, his war was one of duty, prayer,
Support for the families of the parish,
Worry about the St. Thomas’ men, fighting for their country,
Anxiety about his church - its upkeep, smaller attendances –
Family grief at the death of his little son,
Arthur Fitzell, just 3 years old.

The Curate’s war,
His letters, written on active service,
Sent, from Egypt and France,
To his “dear friends” at St. Thomas’ Church.

The folk at home,
Their lives in turmoil.

The war touched everyone.

So many stories still to be told,
So much more to say ……
Another time ……
Another day ……

The memorial
In remembrance of the fallen?

A stained-glass window,
Dedicated on Thursday, June 16th,
The summer of 1921.

To perform the Ceremony of Dedication?
The Lord Bishop of Durham,
Dr. Hensley Henson,
Making his first official visit to South Shields.

After a civic reception,
The Bishop and clergy, with the Mayor and Corporation,
Walked in procession to St. Thomas’ Church.

The service was conducted by the vicar,
The Reverend S. H. Harrison.

The man who unveiled the Memorial Window?
The Reverend W. G. Burgis,
Military Cross,
Mentioned in Despatches,
Late chaplain to the forces,
Former curate of the parish,
A man loved and respected by all who knew him.

By being invited to perform the ceremony,
The Reverend Burgis could not have been paid a higher honour.

Church of St. Thomas in Westoe


Image of the order of service from the Church of Saint Thomas. Dated Thursday, June 16th, 1921.

The War Memorial Window,
For over 40 years,
Testament to sacrifice.

Sadly, the window was not a permanent memorial.
It was removed in the Sixties,
When St. Thomas’ Church was demolished.

The names of those it commemorated?
The fallen?
The men who left Shields, never to return?

Their names have survived.

97 names

Requiescant In Pace


No memorial to the St. Thomas’ men,
Who fought and died in the Great War,
No reminder of their church,
No plaques, no inscriptions.

The memories?
They’re a different matter.

The past is never far away.

Our history,
Our heritage.

The folk from distant days?
They belong to us,
Their lives, our stories.

Our duty?
Ensure those stories survive,
Keep the memories alive.

People of our past, people long gone.

Let their names live on.

Where The Cherry Trees Were?

Petals, paling,

Voices, calling,

Colours, fading,
Shapes, invading,

Flowers, dying,
Shadows, sighing,

Streets, forlorn,
Memories, reborn.

From times long gone,
The past clings on.

Petals, falling,

The Fallen, calling,

Petals, falling,

Falling in Remembrance,
For the rest of time.

The Legacy of War

The men,
Who fought in World War One,
Left behind a legacy;
Their name on a war memorial,
An experience passed down to the family,
A faded photograph in a frame.
Ordinary people,
Just like us,
Were once placed in extraordinary circumstances,
That changed them forever.
The past touches us all.
May its legacy never be forgotten.

Paul Reed
Military Historian

Final Message

If they could speak to us today,
What would they tell us?
What would they say?

So long ago, our journey to madness.

We answered, for you, our country's call.
Your debt is eternal.
We fought for you all.

Read our stories,

Keep silence, each year,
Each month of November.
We are the ghosts of your past.
Millions fell.

All we ask of you?

Remember us well.

South Tyneside Remembers

The South Tyneside Remembers group was formed in 2015 by Catrin Galt, Community Librarian Family History and Heritage, to create a website of all those people from South Tyneside who served during the Great War.

The website, southtynesideremembers.org.uk, was launched in December 2017. Almost 10,000 names have now been commemorated, making the database one of the largest of its kind for a local area.

The names tell of times long gone, times of courage, hardship and sacrifice – a story of people from the past who might just belong to you.

May they never be forgotten.


Catrin Galt

Anne Sharp

Heather Thomas

James Lattimore

Charlie Biddiscombe and Rhian Lukins of Northumbria University

South Tyneside Remembers World War One


South Tyneside History

Shields Gazette