• Tue. Feb 27th, 2024

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Appeal for help to find First World War ‘graffiti’ soldiers

Families of Durham Light Infantry soldiers are being sought to shed light on their lives after wartime graffiti was discovered during underground battlefield excavations in Northern France.

Members of Teesdale and Weardale Search and Mountain Rescue Team (TWSMRT) have been helping to unearth long forgotten passageways from the Battle of Loos as part of the wider efforts of the Durand Group’s volunteer archaeologists, historians, surveyors and engineers, to discover more about the tunnellers of the First World War.

And deep beneath the surface, amid rusty explosives, digging equipment and remains of trench life, several pen and pencil inscriptions have been found scrawled on tunnel walls including names, service numbers and regiments of the men who fought a hidden war.

TWSMRT’s Paul Allison, who was part of the team who found the DLI graffiti, said: “The sector of the line called Copse – which is part of a 12km long front near Lens – has a multi-level network of tunnels, including listening and fighting galleries, a brigade battle headquarters and several internal and external shafts.

“The tunnels are difficult to explore as there can be poor quality air, deep water, unstable collapses and unexploded ordinance.

“I became involved in the work of the Durand Group because I seem to have an aptitude for digging through collapsed and filled sections of tunnels and, with bomb disposal experts, create safe access so that historians and archaeologists can enter a world not seen since 1918.

“The DLI probably weren’t involved in the tunnelling, but were a regiment in the line, and may have been living and working down there.

“We often find graffiti, but it is rare to find any that is identifiable to an individual, and, because it was the DLI, I took an interest and approached the Durham Record Office for help to find out more.”

Gabriel Damaszk, an archivist at Durham County Record Office – and also a TWSMRT member – was given the names and service numbers of three men, and with volunteers from the Durham at War project, intensive research was carried out to discover more.

“We were given three images of graffiti on tunnel walls and, as the Record Office holds the archives of the DLI Collection, we set out to discover what we could about these men, and their families, which would possibly lead to finding living relatives.

“Using census and parish records we were able to find out more about who the soldiers were before they enlisted.

“And our volunteers were able to establish some facts about their military service and found interesting intelligence reports from actions on the front line.

“All three were discharged due to becoming medically unfit for further service and that alone tells us something of the appalling conditions the soldiers had to serve in.

“However making sure that we were following the right people was very tricky in the post-war period, and the fact that the soldiers’ names were very common only made our task harder.

“By sharing the results of our research we hope that there are members of the public who know more and will come forward to help us complete these soldiers’ stories.”

Private Robert Richard Slater came from Ryhope, in what is now Gateshead, and later Thornley Colliery, near Kelloe in County Durham; Lance Corporal Reginald George Walker from Consett and later Chopwell; and researchers have not been able to find out much about Private J. Brown.

The three soldiers

20/857 Pte. Rrt Slater, 14 DLI

Robert Richard Slater was born in Ryhope on 7 December 1892, the second child of Robert and Dorothy.

His father was a miner then, but in the 1901 Census we found that the family had moved to Albert Street in Thornley Colliery (near Kelloe) and Robert senior had become a boot maker.

Robert junior helped with his father’s business as a carter before he enlisted in 1915 with 20 DLI. Later he was transferred to 14 DLI.

Both of these battalions were called service battalions, created mainly to support the war effort by digging and maintaining trenches.

Robert was discharged in April 1919 after obtaining a disability causing him to be unfit for service. He was awarded the Victory Medal and British Medal.

Robert married Hilda Ruddock of Ryhope in 1918. We think they had a son, also Robert Richard, born in 1920, who married Margaret Williams in 1943 and had two children, Margaret, born 1945 and Joseph, born 1947, but this requires confirmation.

The following is what we have managed to establish about Robert’s siblings:

  • William Jobson was born 1891 in Ryhope Colliery and worked as a boot repairer for his father before going to war. He married Jane Worrall in 1912, settled in Thornley and had at least three children that we know of – Elsie born 1912, William born 1915, and Jennie born 1917.
  • George, born 1894 in Ryhope Colliery and died 1896 in Thornley Colliery
  • George Tearson, born 1898 in Thornley Colliery
  • Albert, born 1901.
  • Dorothy, born 1905 – We found that she married Ernest Cunningham in 1929
  • Elizabeth Alice, born 1907 and married Arthur Edwin Morgan in 1929
  • Norman, born 1910, and died in 1915 at home


’55 L/Cpl R.G. Walker, 2 DLI

This one was particularly tricky to find, as he scribbled only the last two digits of his service number on the wall, so we had to establish first, which R.G. Walker he was as, again, it is a common name.

After comparing several records we can finally assume that R.G. Walker’s name from the wall is Pte Reginald George Walker, 27955, who enlisted in Consett on 10 November 1915, aged 19. He joined 18 DLI at first, but a few weeks later had been transferred to 2 DLI.

In 1917 he applied for an unpaid post as a Lance Corporal and was sent to a signalling course.

Walker did not serve long, as he suffered from acute appendicitis and spent months in various hospitals in France and in England due to complications that occurred during the treatment. Eventually he was transferred to the reserve in August 1918 as medically unfit for active service and completely discharged in April 1919.

He was awarded the Silver War Badge.

From the 1911 Census we know that he was born in Sacriston in 1897 to Joseph Walker, a coke yard foreman and Dorothy.

Reginald was a joinery apprentice then and had 4 other brothers:

  • John Robert, born in Sacriston in 1887, colliery joiner
  • Joseph, born in the same place in 1891, colliery blacksmith
  • Frederick, born in the same place in 1896, pit heap token boy
  • Arthur, born in Winlaton in 1905

They all lived at 5 Greenhead Terrace in Chopwell in 1911.

After the war Reginald married Dora Turnbull in 1922 in Chopwell and had a daughter, Josephine in 1925.

We know that not long afterwards, in 1927, he emigrated to Fremantle in Australia on board S.S Baradine.

On the passenger list his address is given as 9 Nelson Terrace, Chopwell and he travelled alone as a miner.

He died in Perth in 1966, but we don’t know what happened with the rest of the family, and whether they followed him to Australia or not.

9533 Pte J. Brown(e), 2 DLI

Unfortunately we do not know much about this soldier.

He enlisted in September 1914 and was discharged in March 1919 due to being medically unfit for further service.  He was awarded the Silver War Badge, Victory Medal, British War Medal and 1914 Star.

We don’t know where he lived before enlistment and what his life’s circumstances were after the war.

Anyone with information about the soldiers or their families is asked to get in touch with Durham County Record Office by calling 03000 267 619 or email record.office@durham.gov.uk.