Two dead already – 100 years ago

With all the emphasis that tends to be placed on men being killed in action, it is easy to forget that some died during training before they even got to the front. Two men from 11th DLI suffered that fate before the battalion went overseas in July 1915.

Private 18866 Frederick Newman from Birtley died of double pneumonia on 6 December 1914. His widow was subjected to some bureaucratic procedures after the war. She had to fill out a form dated 28 April 1920 to state that Newman had not died ‘from disease medically certified as commencing or contracted on active service’. This seems strange given that (a) she had been granted a pension of 15 shillings previously, (b) she had re-married (she was now Mrs Blacklock)and (c) Newman had died while in training at Pirbright Camp. His body was not returned to Birtley and he was buried at Brookwood, where his widow attended the funeral. The medical papers show he had suffered high temperatures, ‘dullness right base’, his breathing had been very difficult and he was given oxygen, but did not survive. Quite what the authorities sought to achieve by this late inquisition leaves one wondering – and comparing it with similar welfare bureaucracy today.

Private 16024 Thomas Kane died 13 January 1915 aged 30 and was buried in his home parish at St Mary’s Heworth. He was previously a miner and his wife Ellen Kane was 10 years older. They had married in 1910 and had no children by the time of the 1911 Census. His service records have not survived so it is not clear if they had any children subsequently (possibly at least one son in 1911) or whether Ellen received any sort of pension. Nor do we know the precise cause of death.

It would be good to know more about these two unfortunate men. Anybody out there with any knowledge?


Memories are made of this?

It is easy, and perhaps comforting to some, to gloss remembrance of family members who died in the First World War in warm colours about heroism and gallantry. Too little attention is paid to the emotional cost, as if grief and the harshness of real memories were some kind of affront against the official, ‘authorised’ version of Remembrance with a capital R. Experiences in the case of my own family history and that of several other families of former 11 DLI men who have contacted me tell a different story.

Previously I posted a transcript of the letter of Pte Charles Oddy, in which he spoke of the larks singing in No Man’s Land in the Spring of 1917 and how it made a nonsense of the war in which fate seemed to have plunged both sides. It was his last letter home, a final testament as it were, and one we should bear in mind during the centenary years.

There are no surviving letters from my grandfather, Sgt Thomas Bashforth, but there are family stories that have been passed down and a series of photographs, recently discovered, which tell another story.

On his last home leave, Thomas bade goodbye to his wife and children in Darlington, including three-month old Ray (my father), and set off the hundred yards or so to Bank Top Station. He fell into conversation with Mrs Ingledew, his next-door neighbour, who was working as a porter. The story as it came down is that he said he was ‘going to take his hook’ as he couldn’t stand it any longer. Mrs Ingledew persuaded him against such a drastic move, the consequences of which could have been terrible for him and his family. So he went back, to die just a few weeks later.  It may have been no more than reflective conversation, rather than a real intention, amplified in memory by what was his fate, but it reveals his state of mind.

The photographs add visual poignancy. Recently come to light, they show my grandmother with each of her children in turn, and sometimes in groups with my grandfather and other relatives, all shining with a mother’s quiet pride. The last two of the sequence show her with my father as a baby, first in a portrait for Thomas to take back to France, taken in December 1917 or January 1918, and then from later in 1918, with my Dad on her knee. Judge for yourself, but the light has gone out of my grandmother’s eyes. It was a pain that was to haunt her for decades to come[1].

05-Gran & Dad 1918

Florence and Ray Bashforth 1918

04-Gran & Dad 1917

Florence and Ray Bashforth 1917

I was reminded of this by recent correspondence with the family of Pte Edward Collins. While my father had no memory of his father, Matilda Louisa Collins was four years old when her father came home on leave and went back for the last time. She remembers him banging his head on the wall in desperation at having to go back yet again. What kind of last memory is that for a child to bear?

Edward Collins & Family circa 1910 001

Edward Collins and family c 1910 Matilda on her mother’s knee

The shock of war could haunt even its survivors for years to come. Lt Myles Cooper witnessed terrible events during the 1918 March Retreat. He survived only by the skin of his teeth and a degree of luck, but the memories bored into his soul. Struggling in the 1930s with unemployment and financial difficulties for his family, and having recently lost his daughter to illness, he shot himself. In happier times, even during the early part of the war, he had been outgoing, active in the battalion concert party.


11 DLI Concert Party 1916 Officers l to r: Lt Cooper, Capt Fillingham, Lt Pemberton

A century later and still the politicians and petty warlords thirst for the ‘hand of history’ on their shoulder as they sacrifice more young men and women, though never themselves. Rather than seeing this as some sort of personal glory, they should see it for what it really is – their complete and utter failure as politicians and human beings. Perhaps their rightful place in history is in its dustbin.


[1] See my chapter ‘Absent Fathers, Present Histories’ for how this story continued to unfold over subsequent generations [Chapter 11 in Public History and Heritage Today: People and their Pasts, ed. Paul Ashton and Hilda Kean, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke and New York, paperback edition 2012].

30 March 1918

On Saturday, 30 March, further retirement was forced and 20th Division established a new line on the Démuin – Moreuil road with 60th Brigade to the right, 59th in the centre and 61st to the left. After a quiet night, the Durhams (with 60th Brigade) were alerted that the Germans were in Moreuil Wood and shifted their formation to create a defensive line in that direction. The situation remained precarious, men being seen retiring to their left and the French pulling back on their right. Continuous attacks were held up throughout the day, but at 4 pm the thin defences of the 60th Brigade were penetrated. A cavalry attack with artillery support succesfully recovered the position.

Two DLI men were killed (Tom Evans buried at Fouqeuscourt and John Willingham buried at Hangard), while Lance Sergeant W. Johnston died of wounds at a rear dressing station and is buried at Namps-au-val.



Private 36604 James Murphy

Thanks to information from a descendant, I am pleased to add Private 36604 James Murphy into the Roll of Honour. You will find his full details under the appropriate heading, top right.

James served with 11 DLI throughout some of its worst days, but was transferred to 2 DLI, with whom he was serving when he lost his life on 21 March 1918 on the first day of the German Spring Offensive near Arras.


Updated Roll of Honour

The Roll of Honour pages for 11th DLI have been re-organised. There are now two pages, the first of which covers names beginning with letters A to L. The second page will cover letters from M to Z, and so far has reached the letter P. There are some interesting new names in this latest batch.

Richard Laurence Stapylton Pemberton was an officer from a distinguished County Durham landed family, who rose from 2nd Lieutenant to the official rank of Major and, at times, took command of the battalion. Amongst the family’s land-holdings in Durham were several pits, so Pemberton will have officered men from among his employees.

For the football inclined, George Pattullo will be a revelation. Although he only served briefly with 11th DLI, before going on to become an officer, he was a Glaswegian of Spanish extraction and played for Barcelona FC both before and after the war.