Wartime history of South Shields family

Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Chapman.
Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Chapman.

No wonder Peter Chapman is writing a book about his South Shields family – their story makes a truly remarkable read.

As Peter explains: “I am writing the book in the context of the changing fortunes of South Shields and Tyneside, from the birth of my great-great grandfather Robert Chapman JP, in 1811, to the death of my grandfather, Col Sir Robert Chapman, in 1963.

Major Charles Chapman, MC.

Major Charles Chapman, MC.

“I have now reached the 1930s (during which time my grandfather was mayor in 1931/32, and MP for Houghton-le-Spring, from 1931-1935).

“My great grandfather, Henry Chapman JP, lived at Seacroft in Westoe, and four of his (and wife Dora’s) children served in the First World War.”

Today, Peter, who is a member of the South Shields Local History Group, tells us about two of them.

Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Chapman, CMG, DSO, Croix de Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur

“Robert led the way with an exceptionally distinguished war record during three years on the Western Front,” says Peter.

“He marched out of South Shields in 1914 as a Major, commanding the 4th Durham (Howitzer) Battery of the Royal Field Artillery (Territorial Force), and in 1917 he was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel, in command of the 250th Brigade with its four artillery batteries.

“Each battery had around 200 men, with their gunners and their ‘hairies’ (horses) supported by drivers, wheelers, farriers, shoeing smiths and saddlers.

“Robert and his men saw it all: the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915/16, followed by the Somme until the spring of 1917.

“With the sky full of enemy and Allied balloons planes, they slogged it out with German artillery on a ghastly battlefield. They took part in numerous attacks, including at Flers-Courcelette where tanks were used for the first time.

“In October 1917, as Commanding Officer of the brigade, Robert’s batteries moved northwards to fight in the Ypres – Passchendaele sector of the Third Battle of Ypres, vividly described as ‘Fifty square miles of slime and filth from which every shell that burst threw up ghastly relics, and raised stenches too abominable to describe; and over all, and dominating all, a never-ceasing ear-shattering artillery fire and the sickly reek of the deadly mustard gas.’

“The gunners frequently had to spend nights wearing gas masks, sleeping with tubes in their mouths and wire clips on their noses.

“In November Field Marshall Haig called off the offensive, which had cost 310,000 British and Imperial lives to recapture a few miles of the Ypres salient.

“By January 1918, Robert had been awarded the prestigious DSO, CMG and the Knight’s Cross (Croix de Chevalier) of the French Legion of Honour. He faced one final challenge in the Somme battlefield – the defence of Amiens following the Germans’ huge offensive of March 1918, in which they broke through the Allied lines and advanced 20 miles. Amiens was, with great difficulty, held, but Robert was badly wounded in April and was invalided back to South Shields.

“Luckily for him, he survived, and organised the town’s Victory Parade the following year. After the Second World War he became Sir Robert Chapman. He died in 1963.

Major Charles Chapman, MC.

“Charles, an articled clerk in his father Henry’s chartered accountancy office, was not so lucky. On August 3, 1914, he left the annual Westoe Lawn Tennis Club tournament to join his elder brother Robert at the Bolingbroke Street headquarters of the 4th Durham (Howitzer) Battery, where he was a Second Lieutenant. He was promoted to captain before the end of the year, and fought alongside Robert on the Western Front for two years, in both the Second Battle of Ypres and in the Somme.

“Charles played an important role as a Forward Observation Officer, supported by signallers, equipped with telescopes, flash-spotters and voice tubes.

“They all had the extremely dangerous task of going into the front-line area with field telephones to find a location where they could observe and report the impact of their own battery’s shellfire.

“Charles’ work was excellent, and he was rewarded with the Military Cross in January 1916.”

In May he was recalled to England to be trained as a battery commander, and on his return he was posted to the 36th (Ulster) Division, where in March 1917 he was promoted to Major and Commanding Officer of ‘D’ (Howitzer) Battery of 173 Brigade, Royal Field Artillery.

“In May, his brigade was involved in the famous Battle of Messines in which coal-miners had dug tunnels to lay 21 mines containing 400 tons of explosives. The explosions killed some 10,000 German defenders, and the battle was won.

After a spell of home leave, Charles returned to fight with the 36th (Ulster) Division in the Third Battle of Ypres. Tragically for him, his luck ran out and a shell explosion on his battery in August 1917, during the Battle of Langemarck, caused him life-threatening wounds.

“He was transferred by ambulance train to a Canadian Casualty Clearing Station at Rémy Farm near Poperinghe, where he died two days later.

“He was much loved by his men. A very touching letter was written to his parents, and published in the Shields Gazette in September 1917, by ‘The Old Boys who are left’ – men from Charles’ original 4th (Durham) Howitzer Battery in South Shields.

The letter was signed by 16 NCOs, 13 Gunners and 13 Drivers. It said that Charles ‘was admired by all ranks for his fearlessness in action, and with him the boys would go anywhere. We will always remember him with regret as a real Englishman and fine officer who died for his country’.”

Tomorrow Peter details the war efforts of Henry and Dora’s two other children and son-in-law.