Sunday, 10 November 2013

Remembrance Sunday

Today is Remembrance Sunday in the UK and in the Commonwealth. On this day, I like to spend a little while thinking about members of my family who died in the wars of the 20th Century. Today, I'd like to remember my 1st cousin twice removed Nicholas Surtees.

Nicholas Surtees was the son of Nicholas and Catherine (nee Harkes) Surtees. He was born in South Hylton, County Durham, England in September 1890. His father worked in a shipyard as a caulker. By 1911, Nicholas had joined his father as a ship caulker.

The Great War

After the Great War began, Nicholas Surtees was probably conscripted under the Military Service Act, sometime after March 1916.

In June, Nicholas married Eliza Priscilla Thaxter. Their son, also called Nicholas, was born the following August. At this time, the family was living in a row house at 9 Rosalie Terrace, Hendon, a suburb of Sunderland.

Nicholas was called up and initially trained with the Northumberland Fusiliers with the Service Number 5/40387. However, he was sent to France in November 1917 as a Private in the 2nd Battalion, King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry with the Service Number 35815. At some point Nicholas was moved on to the 9th (Service) Battalion and then, in the summer of 1918, to the 1st Battalion.

From 15 July 1918 Nicholas' battalion was attached to151st Brigade, 50th (Northumbrian) Division. This division was being reconstituted after the battles of the spring and summer. It took the field in October and took part in the final advance in Picardy.

German resistance was falling away. Unprecedented numbers of prisoners were taken in the Battle of the Selle, and a new attack was quickly prepared. The French First Army and the British First, Third, and Fourth Armies were tasked with advancing from south of the Condé Canal along a thirty-mile front towards Maubeuge-Mons, threatening Namur. Together with the American forces breaking out of the forests of Argonne, this would, if successful, disrupt the German efforts to reform a shortened defensive line along the Meuse. 

Battle of the Sambre

At dawn on November 4, 17 British and 11 French divisions headed the attack. The Tank Corps, its resources badly stretched, could provide only 37 tanks for support.

Despite heavy casualties, the battle objectives were reached on the 4th or the following day. The successful attacks resulted in a bridgehead almost fifty miles long being made, to a depth of two to three miles deep.

The 1st battalion, King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry war diary for 4 November describes the day as follows:

Bousies: 05.15. Battalion “stood to”.

07.45: marched to a point in the neighbourhood of Fontaine-au-Bois.

10.30: the battalion was ordered to pass through the 150th Infantry Brigade who had attained their objective in the Foret de Mormal. The battalion moved by the Route de Fontaine through the forest, meeting a considerable amount of opposition from enemy machine gun fire. The enemy retired in front of the battalion until dark to a post in the vicinity of Rue du Pont Routier have dug in for the night.

Nicholas Surtees was killed on this day in the same battle and on the same day as Wilfred Owen, just a week before the Armistice was signed, Nicholas's body was never found. He is commemorated on panel 8 of the Vis en Artois Memorial to the Missing.

From this point, the northern Allies advanced relentlessly, sometimes more than five miles a day, until the Armistice Line of November 11.

A War Office telegram would have advised the family that Nicholas was missing, soon after the event. 


Nicholas’ medals would have been sent to his family after the war. The next of kin would also have been sent an illuminated scroll and bronze plaque (the “death penny”) after the war.

Nicholas Surtees' remains are likely to remain to this day in the Foret de Mormal although it is possible that he lies in one of the military cemeteries in the area, marked only as an unknown soldier.

Campaign Medals

Nicholas Surtees was awarded the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.  Inscribed on his medals should be the following:


They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: 
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. 
At the going down of the sun and in the morning, 
We will remember them.

1 comment:

  1. A moment of silence for your cousin and all the others who were slaughtered in that massive display of international insanity. My thoughts on war in general, and especially WWI, can be found in two movies about The Great War: King of Hearts and Johnny Got His Gun.