The South Shields man who was hidden for two years to avoid war

Trench warfare at Ypres during World War One.
Trench warfare at Ypres during World War One.

Local historian Dorothy Ramser has provided us with many remarkable stories over the years.

Here she reveals details of another – that of a young South Shields man who was hidden in his home for two years in order to avoid going to war in 1917.

Although I’m not going to name the man (who was found guilty of evading military service) or his parents (who were charged with aiding and abetting the crime), the rest of the story is told as was recorded and reported at the time of the resulting court case.

“The young man in question was charged with having unlawfully failed to present himself for military service and failing to register under the National Registration Act of 1915,” explains Dorothy.

“His parents were there to answer to charges for having unlawfully helped him to conceal himself between the June 24, 1915 and December 24, 1917. Mr Arthur Ruddock appeared for the defendants in what was described as ‘a most difficult case to deal with’.”

The hearing was told that the defendant had been concealed in the house and had never ventured out in two years, occupying a small front bedroom where the blinds were constantly drawn.

“It might be pleaded that he got in a low state of mind, and was unfit for military service,” stated Mr Ruddock.

“The imprisonment, in the shape of close confinement which this young man had undergone for the past two years, was enough to make any man despondent and bring them to a low state of mind.”

The prosecution, however, asserted that because of his age, the young man was under the Military Service Act liable for military service. By his conduct he had evaded his obligations and by being a joiner he had prevented himself from helping the war effort.

Detective Sgt Wilson stated that on November 20, he went to the family house following information received and was told by the mother that she had one boy of 13.

Dorothy said Sgt Wilson told her he had been informed that she had a son of military age, to which she replied she had only one son.

“After further inquiries he returned to the house but failed to get a response even though he could hear movement inside.

“He returned with Chief Inspector Bruce where he spoke to the father who said: ‘I have been expecting you’.

“The policeman asked where his son was and was told ‘He is in the house, in the other room” and led the two policemen into a back sitting room where they discovered the young man sitting at the fire side.

“The policeman asked how long he’d been in the house, to which the young man replied ‘I haven’t been out for two years’.

“It was evident by the musty smell that the windows had not been opened for a long time.”

Mr Ruddock told the hearing: ”From the life he had been leading, my opinion is that if it had gone on much longer he would have become insane.

“He told me he was not fit to be a soldier.”

The court went on to hear that the defendant had suffered a blow to his head in a works accident and ever since had suffered from nervous trouble and “brain affection”.

However, the doctor who had been treating him had died and was “unable to testify in his favour”.

During the hearing the young man told the court he was prepared to go into the military “if they thought he could be of any use”

The court fined him 40 shillings and handed him over to the military.

His parents were fined 50 shillings each.

As a result, the son was taken to Military Hospital, in Sunderland, where he was examined on December 29, 1917, where his height was noted as 5ft 1 and a half inches and weight 119lbs.

On December 30, he was subsequently enlisted into the 3rd Northumberland Fusiliers at East Boldon and on June 26, 1918, in Margate, to the 22nd Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers.

Weeks later he was transferred again, this time to the 298th Reserve Labour Company in Ripon.

However, by September 1918, he was deemed “mentally weak” in that he couldn’t remember anything.

The military records revealed that “the patient was admitted to hospital on September 6, owing to his being slightly mentally weak, with a report that he did not keep himself clean, and did not attend his duty at the proper time.”

Dorothy revealed that one night, he stood outside the labour offices until the police took him to a billet.

“He is quite harmless” the report continues, “ and says he has been in the Army four years although it is only nine months. He would lie in bed all day unless he was made to get up and wash and shave himself. His heart sounds normal.”

The report recommended that he be discharged as permanently unfit, and on October 3, 1918, he was given 11 shillings for 18 weeks and duly discharged.

It was also suggested that he had an attendant for his journey home.

When the Second World War broke out, the man was described as “incapacitated”, and although he lived until he was 88, his story is certainly a sad one.

But as Dorothy explains, his mental state was by no means unusual during the horrors of the First World War when many soldiers suffered mental health issues.

She concludes by saying: “If this young man had been treated for his original symptoms in 1917 perhaps he may have had the chance of a better life.

“His enlistment in the Army did not help his condition.”

Thankfully, we are now finally beginning to deal with mental health in a more enlightened and sympathetic manner.