Friday, 16 December 2016

An amazing turn up

This week, we have another post from John Sheen.

Having written several books on the Northumberland Fusiliers and the Durham Light Infantry, almost every week I get one or two requests for information about men who served in the units I have written about. I always try to reply and, if needed, do a little bit of research for the enquiry. However, in quite a few cases once the reply is sent, I never hear again from the person requesting the information, not even a thank you.

Recently though, I have had a real treat, and in some ways an eye opener. Many will be familiar with the story of the execution of the three members of 19th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry (Bantams), in 1917 (for those who aren’t, you can read their stories here:
Lance Corporal John McDonald, 19th Battalion Durham Light Infantry, photograph kindly provided by his family
Lance Corporal John McDonald, 19th Battalion Durham Light Infantry, photograph kindly provided by his family
I received a letter via my publishers from a couple who bought my book, ‘Durham Pals: 18th, 19th, and 22nd (Service) Battalions of the Durham Light Infantry’, as they were very interested in Lance Corporal John McDonald, one of three ‘shot at dawn’. This couple had a received a request from their cousin in Australia whose maiden name was McDonald and grew up in Hartley’s Buildings, Sunderland, to do some family research. Her daughter was coming to the UK and would be visiting Sunderland to see if she could find the buildings.

The couple did so, and they discovered that the John McDonald who was ‘shot at dawn’, was their cousin’s father, and the visiting daughter’s grandfather. The information came as a shock as ‘no one in the family in Australia knew anything about this and hardly anything about the family in general.’ They go on to say that ‘a very poignant fact in this story, as you will maybe have realised … John McDonald’s daughter is still alive at the age of 102 and lives in Fremantle, Western Australia.’ Luckily, they found this information before the end of John’s granddaughter’s visit, and they were able to take a trip to France to visit his grave. 

I have been able to tell the family that the three Bantams are commemorated still in County Durham and in particular on the Durham at War website. I received this email in reply, ‘Thank you very much for the information on John McDonald. The family in Australia are more than pleased with the outcome so far. We shall keep trying to find out more about him, mainly for his 102 year old daughter in Australia. No one in the Family in Australia can hardly remember his name being mentioned since they emigrated in 1928. Perhaps this is understandable. It is very nice to know that the three men ‘shot at dawn’ are still remembered in Durham.’  The family in Australia were able to find a photograph of John and emailed a copy for inclusion on Durham at War. 

At about the same time, I received another request, this time from David, an active reservist with the Gendarmerie in France who is researching Commonwealth soldiers who fought in the First and Second World Wars. Six years ago, he found some First World War medals being sold by a dealer and started researching the recipient. This was Company Quarter Master Sergeant (CQMS) Gawin Wild of 26th Battalion (Tyneside Irish), Northumberland Fusiliers, he features in my collection of Tyneside Irish photographs and is one of the soldiers researched on Durham at War. 
The medals of CQMS Gawin Wild, photograph kindly provided by David Devigne
The medals of CQMS Gawin Wild, photograph kindly provided by David Devigne
David, and his colleague Al, have supplied further information on Gawin, including that he went on to work for the diplomatic corps. He was made vice Consul in Bordeaux in the early part of the Second World War, once Paris had fallen to the Nazi’s in 1940, the French government moved to Bordeaux, thus increasing the importance of this role. In 1942, he was posted to Algiers in the same role. In 1919, Gawin had married a French girl, and they retired back to France in 1952. Gawin died in 1957 and is buried in Saint Seurin de Cadourne. David’s email read:

‘I wish that this man be honoured by the UK’s civil and military authorities in this Centenary of WW1. Gawin Wild was at first a miner, deserving soldier and member of the UK’s diplomatic corps and he rest in a place where he is not honoured as he should be. 

There are no plaques over his grave site describing his service to the Land of Hope and Glory.  There is no mention of that proud and hard fighting regiment he fought with in WW1 and its 52 Battalions of the Northumberland Fusiliers.

I am in contact with the Mayor where he and his wife rest in peace, and their resting place has not been flowered for years. I also explained to the Mayor who he was and the Mayor now understands the significance and the honour that his town has of having such a great man buried here.’

We have exchanged many emails and the Regimental Headquarters of the Fusiliers are now involved, it is hoped that something may be done to remember CQMS Wild. Al’s last reply included the following:

''From miner and soldier to Vice Consul' what a story, what a life lived with gusto. Be also aware that the secretary of the mayor said ... "if the Mayor had known that such a gentleman and soldier was buried here he would have had a ceremony over his grave every November 11."'

So the work of remembering the men of County Durham does not slow down, indeed it appears to get faster by the day.

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