Book Group Meeting 21st November 2017

By Jane Wilson

Our November meeting started with some book recommendations from someone who has read the Book Group reports and he offered his own top three books relating to WW1.

First was ‘The First Day on the Somme 1st July 1916’ by Martin Middlebrook, a compelling read about the one day of the Somme Battles that stand out in most peoples’ minds. Secondly, ‘Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front 1914 – 1918’ by Richard Holmes, a comprehensive look at how the British Army operated during WW1. Lastly, ‘A History of the Great War in 100 Moments’, edited by Richard Askwith, originally in series form in the Independent and Independent on Sunday newspapers, covering many WW1 topics.

The Book Group members also looked at two books from a Museum volunteer who helps with German translation work. Both look at the war from the German perspective, the first book being ‘Images of War; The Germans in Flanders 1915 – 1916’ by David Bilton, accounts of German action accompanied by rare photographs from wartime archives. The second book is ’Uniforms of the German Soldiers’ by Alejandro M de Quesada, and traces the evolution of German military uniforms from 1870 to the present day, illustrated with hundreds of detailed photographs. These books are available to read in the Museum’s Reading Room to anyone wanting to visit.

The next book recommendation from the group was ‘The Final Whistle’ by Stephen Cooper, which followed the WW1 activities of fifteen members of the Rosslyn Park Rugby Club in London. An interesting read for either rugby or history fans, the author traces their passion and skill for rugby, as well as their bravery and dedication as they serve in theatres of war as varied as Mesopotamia, Italy and Turkey.

The front cover and title of the next book, ‘The Englishman’s Daughter’, initially made some of the group think it was to be a fiction selection, until we read the subtitle on Ben McIntyre’s book and realised this was a true story of ‘love and betrayal in World War 1’. Four British soldiers are trapped behind enemy lines on the Western Front and for many months are hidden by the French villagers, despite the village also billeting many German troops. The book follows the love story between a British soldier and a villager, the birth of their daughter, and then also the betrayal of the soldiers to the Germans.

Leon Wolff bases his book ‘In Flanders Fields; Passchendaele 1917’ around the 3rd Battle of Ypres, and his narrative is illustrated and expanded on with newspaper story extracts, diary entries from high ranking officers, military maps, minutes from War Cabinet meetings as well as sketches of the battlefields. The harsh conditions of this battle prompted our group into discussion over the physical and mental strength that the soldiers required to get them through war service, and whether someone such as a County Durham miner joining up to serve would have had been better prepared for the conditions around Passchendaele than a city centre office worker.

Moving on to the biography of ‘Edith Cavell’ by Diana Souhami, we learn about Cavell’s early years as the daughter of a Norfolk vicar, her career choice as a governess in Brussels, before re-training as a nurse. While following her nursing career prior to the war, Souhami also documents the developments in hospital care and nurse training. The second part of the book closely details the arrest and trial of Cavell for her part in assisting over 200 Allied soldiers to escape from German occupied Belgium. Her subsequent sentencing to death by firing squad, and how she was remembered then and now by a nation, brings the book to its conclusion.

Originally published in 1989, A J Hoover’s ‘God, Germany and Britain in the Great War; A Study in Clerical Nationalism’ contains concise chapters that highlight various aspects of the war from a religious perspective, and how both British and German clergy found justification for their own countries’ participation in the war while emphasising how the enemy country was deemed to have sinned. Material used by the author included many British and German war sermons of the time, as well as speeches, pamphlets and books produced by clergymen of both countries.

A novel from a Russian author was our next port of call, namely Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s ‘August 1914’, a book that was first read by quite a few members of our group in the early 1970’s. Historically and factually correct events, battles, troop movements and military personnel provide a background against which the author creates his fictional story set during the first month of WW1 and the Russian move into East Prussia. Each chapter introduces different characters, the story presenting their lives against the confusion of communication, management of troops and military strategy during the war.

‘One Boy’s War’, written by County Durham writer Lynn Huggins Cooper and illustrated by Ian Benfold Haywood, is a beautiful picture book with a story following sixteen-year old Sydney as he joins up to fight in WW1, swept along by the initial recruitment enthusiasm. Once at the front, the reality of war sets in and as he writes a diary and letters home to his mother, his feelings about fighting so far away from his family are brought home to the reader both in the story and the beautiful illustrations. Publisher’s notes indicate the target audience for the book is 7 – 11-year-olds, but we all felt this was a wonderful book for any age to appreciate.

A book that our group returns to again is ‘The World’s War – Forgotten Soldiers of Empire’ by David Olusoga. Each chapter of the book brings forth interesting information about people from all parts of the Empire who are prepared to fight alongside the British, as well as those nations who sided with Germany, and we talked in the meeting about a chapter covering the alliance among Germany and the Ottoman Empire.

Our final selection for November was ‘The Edinburgh Companion to the First World War and The Arts’ edited by Anne-Marie Einhaus and Katherine Isobel Baxter, who have produced an authoritative work on the influence of WW1 on the Arts, both at the time and since. They edit contributions about the artistic and literary response to WW1 from the point of view of those involved in the worlds of theatre, literature, memorials, music halls, photography, trench art, publishing, newspapers, official war films, sculpture etc. all the way through to the influence of WW1 on modern day computer games. The book comprises short chapters or essays contributed by a variety of experts in the arts, and they question the variety of responses to the war, and how those responses have changed over time.

We are looking forward to our next Book Group meeting on Tuesday 19th December, at 2.30pm, and would warmly welcome new members to our group.

Paul Nash at the Laing

Paul Nash’s paintings of the front line during the First World War are very well-known but now there’s an opportunity to see an exhibition spanning his lifetime’s work in the north-east.

Nash (1889-1946) served briefly in Belgium in 1917 as part of the Artists’ Rifles.  The sketches he made during this period resulted in him being appointed as an official War Artist.  Nash was primarily a landscape artist interested in how to align the tradition of British landscape painting with the new artistic modes coming from Europe.  On his return to the trenches, he produced images of a landscape destroyed by war – mud, blasted trees, desolation, human beings diminished by the destruction around them.  Many of these paintings are familiar from books, television programmes and online ( but the original paintings have an impact way beyond the illustrations we have become used to seeing. 

The exhibition follows Nash’s career through the inter-war years and into his second stint as an official War Artist during the Second World War.  His wartime experiences in the trenches probably coloured the rest of his life and work – his letters to his wife reveal his fury and horror at what he experienced during WWI. 

The Laing Gallery in Newcastle is showing an exhibition of work by Paul Nash until 14th January 2018 – see for opening times and charges. 

‘My amazing Dad’

By Judith Phillips

That’s how Suzanne Davies began her email – I couldn’t resist that.  So here’s the story of William Tarran…

William Tarran was born on 27th June, 1898 in Butterknowle.  He served in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry regiment where he was awarded the Military Medal on 24th September 1917.  The regimental war diary misspells his surname as Tarren, which can make it difficult to find the right records.  Suzanne says her father didn’t talk about his war experiences, a comment we’ve heard many times during this project.  She thinks he was wounded in October 1917 and invalided to England but returned to Etaples in France in March 1918 and joined KOYLI B Company.  She doesn’t know when he was captured but he was a prisoner-of-war at Limburg.  When he was released he came back to Butterknowle and worked later at Hurworth, where he met and married his wife, Ellen.  Later he worked in Barnard Castle, Startforth and Catterick, where he and Ellen both died in 1975.  Their three children are still alive, aged 92, 82 and 70.

Using Ancestry – we have it at the Bowes Museum for the First World War project – I found out that, in 1901, William was living with his parents, Robert and Kate Tarran, in Pinfold Lane, Butterknowle where Robert was a postman.  Ten years later, the family were living with Robert’s father – another William, who was a sub-postmaster – still in Butterknowle.  I haven’t been able to find William’s papers for joining up – they were probably among the thousands destroyed by enemy bombing during the Second World War.

William’s children had also been in contact with Keith Richardson as Butterknowle is within his area of interest.  Keith’s book ‘Evenwood Remembers’ is a fantastic source for information about Evenwood people involved in the war, as is the website From William’s children we have several images relating to his war service and a newspaper photograph of him celebrating his golden wedding anniversary.

Working on this project has made me realise that it’s the survivors – the men and women who came back – are often most difficult to identify and research.  If you know of anyone in your family or community with a Teesdale connection who was involved in any way with the First World War, we’d love to hear from you.  You can email or telephone 01833 690606 ext. 208 (answerphone).

A talk in Durham by former Chaplain-General of the British Army

Chaplains and the role of religion have cropped up regularly in the WWI Book group’s meetings and our series of talks, and we have identified at least one Teesdale clergyman who served as an army chaplain during the First World War.  If you are interested in learning more about religion during the war and in its aftermath, read on…

The experience of ministering to soldiers on the front line and discovering the depth (or lack) of religious feeling among the troops affected many chaplains and fed into the Church of England’s response to the situation.  To mark the centenary of the end of the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) and the publication by Anglican army chaplains of a controversial manifesto for post-war church reform, the Venerable Stephen Robbins CB, Honorary Canon of Salisbury Cathedral and a former Chaplain-General of the British Army, asks whether the Church can learn from the recent pastoral experience of army chaplains.  His lecture, ‘Centenary Reflections on The Church in the Furnace: Can the Church of England learn from the British Army?’, will be given on Wednesday 15th November 2017 at 6.30 p.m. in Prior’s hall, Palace Green, Durham (drinks will be served from 6.15 p.m.). 

There is no charge for the event, but please email by Friday 10th November to let them know you will attend.

Centenary of a Teesdale victim of Passchendaele

By Judith Phillips

In a previous newsletter, I asked for information about Teesdale men involved in the fighting at the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele).  There will have been many Teesdale men who fought in that battle, and many who died, including two of the Smith brothers of Barnard Castle, as described in Colin Young’s account in a previous newsletter of a trip to commemorate them and others.  In response to my request, I was reminded by a relative of another Teesdale man with Cockfield and Staindrop connections.  Here’s the outline story of Gordon Priestley who died almost exactly a hundred years ago.

Gordon was the son of Emmanual and Mary Ann Priestley of Fell Houses, Cockfield.  Gordon joined the Durham Light Infantry and served in the 1st/6th Battalion with the service number 250165.  When he died on 26th October 1917, aged 24, he had advanced to the rank of sergeant.  He is commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing at Zonnebeke in West Flanders, Belgium. 

That’s the brief outline of his life, military service and death from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website  But we can find out a little more.

The 1901 census returns list the Priestley family living in Wackerfield.  As well as Gordon (then aged 8), there were his older brothers George, Fred and Andrew – all miners, as was their father Emmanuel.  By 1911 the census returns list the family at Fell Houses, Cockfield.  Gordon, aged 18, was a colliery putter working underground.  None of his older brothers was living with the family but there was a younger brother and two sisters.  Interestingly, Gordon’s birthplace changes from Wackerfield in the 1901 census to Sun Cottages, Staindrop in the 1911 census.

Gordon isn’t recorded in Rachel Wood’s very informative work on the men recorded on Cockfield School Roll of Honour, so he probably went to the Church of England School. 

Church magazines are frequently a valuable source of information about individuals, as well as local war effort activities.  Cockfield was covered by the Staindrop Anglican parish magazine, and Gordon Priestley is mentioned twice during the war.  Described as one of the ‘veterans returning to the front,’ Sergeant Gordon Priestley is mentioned in a short report of a Cockfield “send off” on 16th August 1917.  ‘A number of soldiers on “last leave” [before going to the Front] …… were entertained to supper by the kindness of a number of friends. ……After [the toasts] a Social Evening was thoroughly enjoyed by our soldiers and friends.’  The evening ended with everyone invited to join in singing ‘Will ye no’ come back again’.  That strikes me now as sad and ironic as many of the soldiers there, veterans and soldiers fresh from the Training Camps, wouldn’t come back again.

The parish magazine published in January 1918 reports that Gordon was missing, presumed dead.  ‘Information has been received that he met his death in a gallant endeavour to attack a German Sniper who was picking off our men.  Sergeant Priestley had already won distinction for his splendid courage and energy.’  His body was never found, which is why his name is recorded on the Memorial to the Missing.  His name also appears on the Cockfield Village Green Cross.

I checked Ancestry for Gordon’s military service.  I found a medal card, recording the Victory medal, which also gave two service numbers – 2197 and 250165.  I didn’t find his service papers, so they were probably among the thousands destroyed during the London blitz in the Second World War.

If you look up Gordon Priestley on the project Roll of Honour at, you will see images of his photograph and two embroidered cards Gordon sent back to his family.  One of the cards is addressed to his brother, wishing him a happy birthday.  His family kept the photograph and cards which eventually passed to his great-nephew who lived in Staindrop.

I am grateful to Gordon’s great-niece by marriage who has sent this information.  If you have any story, artefacts or images of Teesdale men caught up in the fighting at Passchendaele or involved in the war in any way, we would be delighted to hear from you.  You can email, post to The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle DL12 8NP, telephone 01883 69060 ext. 208 (answerphone) or leave material for me at Reception in the museum.

Gone: but not forgotten

By Judith Phillips

As we approach Armistice Day (11th November) and Remembrance Sunday (12th November this year), I am reminded that one of the main aims of ‘To Serve King and Country’ – The Bowes Museum’s Commemoration Project is to ensure we don’t forget how the war affected Teesdale.   We want to include in the project’s Roll of Honour all the men and women from Teesdale who served in the armed forces or as nurses or in war industries such as munitions.  Through the family and community historians and volunteers with the project, who have so generously given their time and knowledge, there are over 2000 entries on the online Roll of Honour ( and there is a backlog of names and information to be added. 

So often when we think of the First World War, we think of the Western Front with its trenches and mud.  But there were other theatres of war – in Africa, the Balkans, Italy, Palestine, Mesopotamia and at sea.  We know of some Teesdale men in each of these areas but we’re sure there were more.  Do you know of a family member or someone from your village who served in any of these areas? 

There are still many Teesdale people who were involved in the war that we don’t know about.  So many who came back did not talk about their experiences; so many families found it impossible to overcome their sorrow at the death of a family member that they didn’t talk about them to the younger generations.  So there are still people to be identified, vague stories to be investigated, casual references in letters or church magazines and in newspapers to be followed up.

Just a few weeks ago, for example, I noticed in the Teesdale Mercury a Centenary Memoriam notice for Private Cecil William Sedgewick from Cockfield who served in the Durham Light Infantry; he was killed in action on 4th October 1917.  The photograph shows a young man of 20 who, as the dedication says, is ‘Gone: but not forgotten by the family he never knew’.  His name is included in the project’s Roll of Honour (under Sedgwick as it appears on Cockfield War Memorial) but we didn’t know his date of death or his age and we don’t have a photograph.  I’d love to know if his family have any further information about him that could be included on the Roll of Honour. 

If you have any information you think would help us or if you’d like to know about volunteering with the project, please get in touch by emailing or telephoning 01833 690606 ext. 209 (answerphone).