A Sturdy Race of Men - 149th Brigade

A Sturdy Race of Men - 149th Brigade

Alan Isaac Grint
ARRSE Rating
4.5 Mushroom Heads
I requested this book to review as, after visiting Ypres and some of the nearby cemeteries for the centenary commemorations of the Armistice, I seem to have "rediscovered" WW1 and I was not disappointed with it. In fact I could hardly put it down, much to the chagrin of the Stumpette.

The book follows the Northumberland Fusiliers from their inception in 1674 as the Fifth Regiment of Foot to becoming a fusilier unit (Fifth (Northumberland Fusiliers) Regiment of Foot) in 1836 to becoming the county regiment of Northumberland in 1881 and subsequently those battalions formed from the Northumberland Rifle Volunteer Corps which became the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Volunteer Battalions forming the nucleus of the Territorial Force in 1908.

The first chapter covers the formation of the unit and some of the men who served in the Territorial Force in the early days with the annual camps through to the forming of service companies for service in South Africa and the Boer War and up to the beginning of hostilities in 1914, with the formation of the Fourth Battalion, and their arriving at the front at Ypres in April 1915.

Because of this, I felt that I "knew" the men and could almost feel the fear and pain of their losses in their first action at the battle of St. Julien during the Second Ypres campaign. This took place on 25th April 1915, a mere 5 days after arriving in the area without any real opportunity to reconnoitre the ground or familiarise themselves with the sector and they suffered 178 killed over two days from the four battalions, as well as the Brigade Commander, Brig. J. F. Riddell.

The following month, the four battalions were designated 149 Northumberland Brigade, part of 50 (Northumbrian) Division.

The other chapters of the book follow the four battalions over the next few years to 1918, and they had a fair busy time of it. The chapters take the reader through their time in the Ypres salient before moving to the Armentieres sector, back to the Ypres sector, the Somme, Arras, the Houthulst Forest during the Second Battle of Passchendaele, North of Ypres, back to the Somme for the German "Michael" Offensive, the German advance during Operation Georgette in Flanders before coming under French command in the Reims sector where they were virtually wiped out to little more than cadre strength and ceased to exist as a fighting unit.

Because of the first chapter, the feeling of being alongside the men continues through the book, helped by the number of biographies of officers killed and also the stories of bravery and the awarding of medals for gallantry to the OR's as well as pictures, which would have appeared in the local newspapers, of those soldiers killed, and one cannot help but feel the sorrow of the men losing their friends.

There is also a chapter dedicated to the junior battalion (1/7th) being separated from the parent regiment in 1918 and becoming the Divisional Pioneer Battalion for a different Division from their own, and their actions in this role through to the end of hostilities.

One of the most emotional chapters to read is the one named "Aftermath" which, as the title suggests, deals with the aftermath of the war and its effects on the men and the families of those who lost their lives. There are painful stories of families who lost several brothers, sometimes in the same action or elsewhere and there is a rather moving poem written by a comrade of two brothers (Pte's Wilfred and Thomas Wake from Bamburgh) the day after they were killed by the same shell in their first action at St.Julien in 1915. It also describes the establishing of the dozens of memorials to those killed all across Northumberland and the towns and villages they came from.

The most poignant part was the appendix's which gave the names of those who were killed in action; 23 pages and over 4000 names made very sombre reading and left me very thoughtful of the sacrifices made, not just by these four battalions, but of that generation as a whole.

This was an excellent book to read, provoking several thoughtful moments, helped in no small measure by my recent trip to Ypres and some of the ground the men of the Northumberland Fusiliers fought over. As a unit history it is quite comprehensive as a large part is sourced from the unit war diaries as well as letters to their families of the men doing the fighting and photographs from both official and private collections. There are a number of sketch maps to illustrate the dispositions of the units in the various sectors they fought in. I found the book to be a piece of work which resonates personally with the author, Alan Grint, due to his being a Northumbrian, born and brought up in Ashington, North East of Newcastle upon Tyne. As such it is one of almost reverence to these men being among his community forebears.

An excellent book, well worth 4.5 Mr. Mushroom Heads.


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