1916: Evenwood at War


In January many men went to Bishop Auckland to get attested under Lord Derby’s recruiting scheme.  This was a system of registration against the event of need and not of immediate call-up which had been introduced in the previous autumn.  In January 1916, a first conscription scheme had been adopted and perhaps there was a rush to attest in order to show “willing” and avoid compulsion.  Meanwhile the steady flow of three or four volunteers a month continued.  In December 1915, Thomas Gibson joined the navy, Albert Elders the army and Joseph Blenkinsopp the Black Watch.  During January, J.G. Metcalfe of the Mill joined the 6th DLI.  He was only 16 and lied about his age.  William Gray joined the Royal Army Veterinary Corps and Albert Metcalfe, the son of Co-op manager joined the 151st battalion of the Royal Field Artillery.  Jasper Lauder who had emigrated to Canada, enlisted into the Canadian Contingent.

The labour shortages were now being felt.  There were no restrictions on the enlistment of surface workers and they were called up in such large numbers that the situation became critical.  The mine owners approached the miners’ leaders to ask if women could replace surface workers who were called up.  The Durham miners strongly opposed the employment of female labour in any capacity in the mines.  The miners’ leaders suggested making good the shortage with men who had retired at 60 but were still fit.  The owners offered a guarantee that if it became necessary to employ female labour, the most up-to-date sanitary arrangements and other provisions would be made for their comfort.  It was on the land that women were to become employed in the greatest numbers.  In April a meeting was held in Ramshaw County School, addressed by Miss Rockcliffe of the Board of Trade, to stimulate interest among women in war work on the land.

Activities concerned with the welfare of soldiers and their families continued to dominate local leisure time.  Thus during the year 1915, the Evenwood working party for providing comforts for soldiers and sailors distributed 875 articles apportioned as follows: 500 to local men, 199 to Lady Anne Lambton for the DLI, 104 for Queen Mary’s Guild, 24 to Newcastle Infirmary, 32 to Dr. Campbell, the local physician serving overseas for distribution by him and 36 to Belgians interned in Holland.  Numerous letters had been received from local soldiers expressing their high appreciation for the Christmas parcels they received.  For their part Randolph Colliery lodge passed a resolution regretting the government’s refusal to pension thousands of discharged soldiers who had contracred diseases since joining up.

The vicar continued to report letters he had received.  James Edward Taylor had spent Christmas in the trenches in France.  Adolphus Morland in the Air Service at Sheerness was now a Second Class Air Motor Mechanic and had been ordered to the Gallipoli Peninsula.  However by April, he was in London engaged in the manufacture of aircraft.  The former schoolmaster R.M. Layton wrote of the wonderful sights he had seen in the Mediterranean and the curiosities of Alexandria.  He wrote next from the Serbian Front where a Bulgarian attack was expected.  By June 1916 he had been commissioned in the 9th Gloucesters and was in Salonika.

In February, a letter came from William Gray, in hospital at Sheffield after smashing a finger on his left hand as a result of an accident at a rail-head in France.  He wrote that he was very sorry he could not get into a fighting unit but he had:

“…plenty to do and any amount of risk to run among the horses.  There are hundreds of them passing through this hospital every week.  There are some viscous brutes amongst them and when they start their games, the fun is on and we have to be on the look-out for mischief.  I cannot tell you where I am stationed but the country is very beautiful around about.  The hospital is in a valley with large hills and woods around.  The hospital and camp are not finished yet and at present we are living under canvas.”

On the night of April 5/6th 1916, Evenwood suffered a Zeppelin raid.  From March there was a general apprehension of Zeppelin attack and the strictest lighting precautions were taken.  During the raid 3 bombs were dropped and the target was assumed to be the coke ovens which the Germans built.  Attendance at the school on April 6th 1916 was much affected as many of the children had spent the greater part of the night in the open air.  Only 30 were present in both departments at 9am.  The school closed for the day.  At Ramshaw the school was actually damaged and had to be closed for repairs.  48 panes of glass had been broken besides other damage.  It did not re-open until April 21st with an attendance-rate of only 50%.  The school was very cold despite the heating because many windows were unrepaired.  On May 3rd the fear of another raid kept many Evenwood children out of bed and so led to a very bad attendance the following day.  At Ramshaw on May 5th attendance was much reduced because rumours of another raid the previous midnight made many families sit up all night.  Again, on September 25th a raid on the coast caused many children to pass hours in the fields and miss school next day.  Miss Bowman of Evenwood tells that people would shelter uncomfortably in Sneckers, a local drift mine.

William Purdy of West View, serving on HMS Maidstone wrote a description of a Zepplin attack at sea:

“It was about 12.00pm at night and we were all in dreamland when all at once, a bomb dropped into the sea.  Up we jumped, some rolled out of their hammocks and ran on deck.  I ran up with just one boot on and my jumper over my arm.  We did not know what it was till we got on deck.  It was pitch dark but what a lovely sight it was.  There were about 5 big search-lights on him.  He looked like a big, golden sausage and seemed too dazzled to move.  We have about 7 or 8 guns firing at him but he was just out of reach.  He didn’t stop long and they have never been over here since.”

The news of casualties and of the dangers of war mounted.  In April John Snowdon was in hospital in Glasgow after being wounded in France.  Edgar Towers had not been heard of since the previous September when he was in the Battle of Loos.  After a year he was presumed dead.  In May, a letter was received from Private James Walton of the 14th DLI in France.  He wrote:

“I am at the base just having come out of hospital where I was very carefully treated having received a slight wound from shrapnel.  We have a lot to be thankful to our countrymen for especially for the things they make to keep out the cold.  We would be very thankful to them if they could make something to keep out the shrapnel.  But I suppose this will have to be left to the inventorsof the future.  However so far, I have come out alright.  I have just come across one of our town lads, George Featherstone, he having just come out of hospital also.  It was very jolly to talk over old times and friends.”

Albert Bainbridge, a private in the 15th DLI from Lands Bank wrote:

“I think the 15th Durhams have come out very well after what we have come through.  We have lost a good many men but we have got a good name so far.  One part of the line we were in was like home, for the first month but like hell upon earth for the next four.  We stirred the Germans up a bit and got well praised in sticking to our trenches in big bombardments.  You would think they always knew where the 15th Durhams were as they always seem to be dead nuts on us.”

Then, in June 1916, came the news of three simultaneous Evenwood deaths in the one great fleet action of the war, the North Sea naval battle of Jutland, at which at least 5 Evenwood men were present.  William Carrick of South View and Andrew Lynas of Chapel Street went down with the torpedo boat Ardent which took on a division of German battleships in the night action.  Hopelessly outgunned and having fired all her torpedoes, she had to wait “in the full glare of blinding searchlights for the shells that could not fail to hit.”  She sank bows first as her captain later recalled, of her forty or fifty men in the water “not a man…showed any fear of death”.  Of the 78 crew only 2 survived.  John William Wren of Copeland Row, was on the old armoured cruiser Black Prince which a modern historian says should never have been taken into battle against dreadnoughts.  She, like Ardent was caught in the night action which followed the main engagement.  She was trapped in the searchlights of the German battleship Thueringen and hit with 15 shells which caused her to blow up with the loss of all on board.  She was the last major ship of either side to go down in the battle.  Arthur Dunn was also in the battle on HMS Birkenhead.  He wrote, reflecting the disbelief that the British Navy should have come off worst.

“Everybody who took part in the battle feels very certain that the whole of the German losses have not been published yet and when they are, it will be a big surprise for you all.  When it began we had 4 battleships, 6 battle cruisers and 12 light cruisers which for nearly 3 hours fought the whole German fleet, we are being included.  How our ships got through, it would be hard to say for we were in the thick of it for most of the time.  We were with the Invincible which exploded just before the end.  We had a narrow escape as a great number of shells fell between us, just clear of both ships.  I don’t suppose any good news will have been heard of my 3 friends, seeing that their ships were sunk.  The only thing that we are sore about is that we did not meet them earlier in the day.  It was just beginning to turn dark when our main fleet arrived and as usual, the Germans turned tail and ran.  I shall never forget the brilliant flashes and crashing guns caused by our ships firing salvos or broadsides.  One particular scene on view was the thousands of fishes floating on the water.  They were of all kinds and sizes.  I think they must have been stunned by the turmoil in the sea caused by the falling shells.”

There was also a letter just before the battle from William Purdy of West View who was on HMS Maidstone which was in the main fleet and so played a part only in the pursuit.  Not until October 1916 did the news arrive that the body of William Carrick had been recovered off the coast of Norway and had been interred by the Norwegian Government at Farsund.

On the eve of the battle of the Somme, Fred Prudhoe gave a description of a soldiers’ equipment and of his training and gave some indication of the tension felt over the postings to the front:

“Two pairs pants, 2 pairs of boots, 3 pairs of socks, 2 tunics, 2 pairs of trousers, 1 cardigan jacket, 1 cap, 1 mess-tin, blacking brush and blacking, hair brush and comb, shaving brush, tooth brush, knife fork and spoon, needles, thread, buttons, rifle, 2 enamel plates, 1 enamel bowl, and the pack which every soldier receives.  This is a rare list and I can tell you it takes some looking after.  We are getting plenty of drill which we take in the following manner – 6am reveille, 7.30 breakfast, 8.40 Swedish drill, 10.30 squad drill, 1pm dinner, 2.10 squad drill, 5pm tea, 10pm lights out.  I can tell you we have some work but it does us good.  I am amongst some very nice fellows.  We are a merry lot and we have some fun.  Week-end leave is very difficult to get up here (Edinburgh) as the regiments take their turns each day as battalion-in-waiting and unfortunately our day is Saturday.  Every Sunday our regt. has to be prepared to fall in, at a moment’s notice, at full strength and consequently all weekend leave is stopped.  However at the end of June I hope to get my first leave which will be 6 days.  The first leave may also prove to be my last as they are absolutely pushing bayonet drill down our throats.  I have already passed out of the recruits’ course and I expect to go through my musketry and bombing courses in a week or two.  We are supposed to be perfectly fit for the front in 5 months and when we have finished all our courses, one never knows when one will be called up for the next draft.  We have sent 2 drafts to France since we came here and the only notice the poor lads got, that they were to go abroad, was in the form, “the foll. are warned for the next draft and must not leave barracks” and then a list of names.  This is not very pleasant news to find on a notice board when your name happens to be on the list and you hardly have time to write home and get an answer back before you have your hair cut short and you have the cheer of the boys remaining behind ringing in your ears as you leave the barrack gates.”

By August, Fred was also at the front.

On July 1st 1916, began the Battle of the Somme when the British Army experienced its highest losses ever on a single day.  The names of local men at the front and of casualties moved sharply upward in number.  Just before the battle, John Henry Raine was killed leaving a widow and 2 children.  Then on the first day Fred Gaskin of Toft Hill, a private in the East Yorks, was killed.  Towards the end of the month, Sidney Rutter of Shirley Terrace was reported wounded.  Alfred Adams of the Oaks was in hospital in Scotland with a wounded leg and Lieutenant Percy Brass DCM of Victoria House was suffering from a wound in the shoulder.  He had the good fortune to end up home as an out-patient of Etherley Hospital.

It was in this period that Arthur Daniel, of the Royal Artillery, wrote:

“I have been in hospital with a poisoned hand.  Unfortunately it was my right hand.  I have had a good experience of the firing line as I have been in some of the hottest parts of the front.  Aeroplane duels are frequent out here.  It is a most exciting form of combat and in 9 cases out of 10 the allies succeed in driving the enemy down.  I am still a telephonist and that is very important but dangerous work for the Germans are very careful to bombard us every day in order, if possible, to destroy our communications.”  

Joe Blenkinsopp of the Black Watch told how he lost his left hand:

“It happened July 14th – the charge took our position by means of their listening post and immediately their artillery commenced to strafe us using every kind of shell from whizzbangs to coal-boxes.  I shall never forget the horror of the situation expecting every minute to be blown into atoms.  It was absolutely the worst part.  However we came through it and when the time arrived for us to advance, the eagerness in every man told that the “Boche” could expect no mercy.  Eventually we reached their first line and the demand was for machine gunners and bombers.  Being a machine gunner and as this was the first time I had had human targets, I was naturally anxious.  It was a thrilling time and my mind was occupied with the targets in front of me that I seemed to forget about the shells flying all around.  After sending half a magazine of rounds into a bush containing a sniper, as ordered, I felt a bang against my left fore-arm.  I felt at once it had been broken, also that arteries were severed, for in a few seconds I was almost soaked in blood.  The stretcher bearers were soon on the scene and had my arm bandaged and I honestly believed that the tourniquet knot they put on my arm was the means of saving my life.  My object now was to get back to the Advanced Dressing Station but how I got clear of the countless shells the Hun was sending over to catch our reinforcements, I shall never be able to explain.  Two days later gangrene gas poisoning set in, in my arm, which necessitated its amputation.”

Fred Prudhoe, now recently arrived in France, wrote:

“We have already has 2 doses of what the trenches are like since we arrived here.  Up to the present I am pleased to say that I have escaped unscathed and during our last stay in them I was appointed a Batt. Orderly.  My duties consist of carrying messages from Headquarters to the various company officers.”

“…as you will see by the papers we are very busy now, I have seen some awful sights out here but of course we have to stick it.  We have no time for football or cricket now in the great push.  I have also seen plenty of prisoners and they were stuffed in Germany that the Battle of Jutland was a great victory for them.  If that is what they call victory, I wonder what they will call this Push after we have done with them.”    

During July, to honour the increasing number of dead, memorial services were held in the parish church on Sunday afternoon and the Wesleyan Church at night.  Both were overflowing.  In October, the first military funeral took place in Evenwood, when the remains of Robert Wilson, son of Moses Wilson and a private in the 6th Yorks, were laid to rest.  He died of wounds received at one of the battle fronts.  The service was conducted in the Wesleyan Chapel.  A memorial service was also held for Edgar Towers, a sergeant in the DLI who had been posted missing for over a year and was now officially presumed to have fallen at the Battle of Loos on September 25th 1915.  It was attended by the Evenwood Silver Band helped by West Auckland Band and the Boy Scouts.

The war made itself felt too by the visible and growing number of wounded men.  Wounded soldiers at Etherley Hospital were entertained to tea in July by the Evenwood Ladies Working Party in the Haddocks’ grounds at Ramshaw House.  They provided a tea followed by a concert and games.  They were hosts to another such occasion for the wounded in September when the entertainment and tea were organised by the Evenwood Women’s Institute.  There was music, tea and typically for the time, cigarettes in abundance.  A social problem caused by mass enlistment was acknowledged by a garden party at the end of July at the Vicarage in aid of the Waifs and Strays Society which, it was claimed was doing splendid work with children – over 1000 belonging to men serving in the colours being carefully maintained and provided for.

Tribunals in the urban and the rural districts were now having to deal with the appeals for exemption from military service being made for all manner of compassionate and economic reasons.  The tribunals, animated by the general mood of undiscriminating patriotism, were never easy to persuade.  A brief period of exemption was given to the steward of Evenwood Club.  The President of the Club had said that if he was taken another man would have to be put in and that would mean taking another man from the coal trade.  It was suggested that the steward would be willing to work in a mine.  He had 6 children and a feeble wife.  Farmers of the Evenwood district were said, by the newspaper, to have raised for themselves an unnecessary bogey.  Some of them were quite concerned as to what the military authorities might say if, having been exempted until the crops have been gathered in, they should assist other farmers with their work.  If they helped one another, they feared they would be thought to have exaggerated the needs of their own farms.  They went so far as to ask the Rural Tribunal for an opinion on the matter.  The reply was that they should go on with their work as speedily as possible and help one another.  The Chairman of the Auckland district tribunal did not think there was any objection to farmers cutting hay for other people.  The harvest weather was fine and there was an unusually large number of women assisting.  The long spell of dry weather enabled farmers to complete a hay harvest which was considerably above average.

During this period, flag-day was celebrated with some gaiety.  A procession went from Gordon Lane to the recreation field opposite Randolph Terrace where sports were held.  The Evenwood Band and Randolph Colliery Banner led the procession followed by Evenwood and Cockfield Boy Scouts, tableaux, decorated bicycles and comic costumes.  A large number of young ladies was engaged in selling flags.

The news from some Evenwood men was of uneventful or relatively quiet postings.  Robert Simpson, a sergeant on the 2nd Devons wrote from in India in July 1915 and was still there at Wellington, in September 1916.  Sam McConnell was on leave in September while serving on HMS Skipjack on mine-sweeping duty.  In the same month Lieutenant Layton of the 9th Gloucesters wrote from Salonika, where half a million allied troops were trapped in idleness:

“The heat is intense, we have had a cloudless sky here for 2 months.  Here one sees the most gorgeous skies and the sunsets are a really magnificent sight.  The aeroplanes here fly very low, the other morning one just missed the top of my tent.  I thought the pilot had come to collect it.  But it is done often and I think they fly low just to annoy us.  We are right amongst them.  About 300 yards away there are several hangars.  The Serbs are very English looking and magnificent men.  There is a small pier at the end of the harbour were we bathe.  If one goes shopping in the town, small boys carrying huge baskets pounce down upon one, eager to carry one’s purchases.  They never leave you whether you employ them or not so eventually one finishes up at the head of a group of youngsters.”

Flanders and France however still dominated the experience of most of the local men at war.  In October Private John Burney was at home on a few days leave after being in hospital at Leeds with an ankle wound.  News came in November that George Featherstone had been seriously wounded; that William Robinson of Copeland Lane had been wounded and that John Maughan a private in the DLI of 9 Clyde Terrace had died in hospital after being grievously wounded on the battle field.

Other news was of achievements, of commissions and awards.  George Eric Haddock had become a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Flying Corps.  Three men had been awarded the Military Medal; Herbert Wardle of the Pioneers, Oliver Rushford, a corporal in the Service Corps and T.H. Britton of the DLI.

At the end of this terrible year J.H. Nutter a sergeant in the RAMC wrote feelingly about scenes of war:

“Since writing last, I’ve nearly had a month up the line and have seen quite a lot.  First of all our work was very difficult.  Try and picture a village completely blotted out of existence or at least so much so that only a few bricks and beams are in sight.  Let the ground be still further shell torn and let rain fall plentifully.  In the midst, picture a wounded man on a stretcher in charge of 6 bearers and you have some slight idea of what our work up the line is like.  I’ve forgotten to mention the shells, though.  Of course they came over at all sorts of odd moments so every man has tales to tell of narrow escapes.  Occasionally we are able to get prisoners to bear a hand.  That of course is pleasing to us.  You will find that everyone who has had any experience of this front complains of the mud.  In parts, if a chap gets down in it he has to be dug out.  At present I am back at our headquarters which is a collecting station.  The wounded are passed from here to clearing stations, from thence to the base and then perhaps to Blighty.”


J.G. Metcalfe & family

J.G. Metcalfe & family

Joe Blenkinsopp in later life

Joe Blenkinsopp
in later life

Skagerrak: A German Victory Poster

A German Victory Poster



Fred Prudhoe

Fred Prudhoe

Copy of Etherley VA Hospital 1

Red House VA Hospital  Etherley

Red House VA Hospital