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Robert Woodcock Mason

Robert Woodcock Mason

Private Robert Woodcock Mason of the Northumberland Fusiliers 22nd (Tyneside Scottish)Bn. Service No. 21/524, died on the Somme on July 1st 1916, aged 21.

Robert was the stepson of Benjamin and Patience Mason of North Craster.

In the records there is some confusion about his name. On the Chapel war memorial it is given as R. W. Mason, but on St Peter's memorial as R. Woodcock. In the 1901 census record it is shown as R. W. Mason, but on the 1911 census as R. Woodcock. However, Battalion records and newspaper reports of his death refer to R.W. Mason and that is what we will use here.

The 1911 census shows that Robert was born in Gateshead at 62 Brussels St. He was adopted by Benjamin Mason, born in Craster North and his wife Patience, born in Rock. Benjamin and Patience had had three children, but only one had survived, their son Alexander who was four years younger than Robert, who was also killed during the war and who is remembered on the Craster memorials.

In 1911 Benjamin was a quarry worker (carting whinstone) at the Craster Quarry and Robert had followed him to the quarry, being described as a labourer (breaking stones at whinstone quarry). We have discovered no evidence that Robert was married or had a family at the time of his death.

The family grave at Spitalford shows that Robert was killed in action on July 1st 1916, however, it appears that Robert was in fact missing for quite some time. At that time the Tyneside Scottish were involved in the opening day of the Battle of the Somme.

Writing in the Alnwick and County Gazette on October 21st 1916, his former headteacher at Dunstan School wrote warmly about Robert, saying 'For months he has been missing. We can dimly realise what must be the feelings of those nearest and dearest to him. "Hope springs eternal in the human breast." We all hope that some good news will be heard of him…' Unfortunately, that was not the case. He also paid a warm tribute to Robert's character. Follow this link to the full article; Mr. E. Kinnaird, head teacher Dunstan School.

The following appeared in the Alnwick and County Gazette newspaper article on January 13th 1917:

Alnwick and County Gazette January 13th, 1917

The implication is that the family waited more than six months for news of Robert's death. Robert is remembered on the Thiepval Memorial, the monument to the 'Missing of the Somme'. It would appear that Robert's body was never found, along with the other 72,000 victims who died in the Somme sector before March 1918 and who have no known graves. Their memory is preserved on the Thiepval Memorial.

Thiepval Memorial

Robert's name carved on the Thiepval Memorial

The Battle of the Somme

The first world war started as a battle of aggression and movement. The German strategy, the Schlieffen Plan, was based on avoiding the French fortifications on the borders of Alsace Lorraine by making a fast push through Belgium and Northern France to capture Paris and then mop up the French armies from their rear. Underlying this was the German belief that they had to defeat the French quickly before the Russians could mobilise, causing them to have to fight on two fronts. The French on the other hand, with Plan XVII and under the command of General Joffre, were committed to making their own quick advance into Germany; whatever the forces facing them.

Neither strategy was successful. The French couldn't overcome the German forces defending Alsace Lorraine and were forced to retreat. The Germans did not commit sufficient forces to overcome the surprisingly stiff resistance from the small Belgium army and then the French and British forces standing in the way of Paris. Although it was a close run thing, with German forces getting within 40km of Paris. The offensive became bogged down in the trench warfare that was to characterise the Western Front until 1918; first in the Battle of the Marne and then in a series of offensives for the next three years.

The offensive on the Somme was part of a two pronged Allied strategy to attack on both the Western and Eastern fronts. However, to relieve pressure on Verdun, which was under attack from overwhelming German forces, the original plans for an attack around the river Somme were modified to let the British make the main effort. This would serve to relieve pressure on the French, as well as the Russians who had also suffered great losses. On 1 July, after a week of heavy rain, British divisions in Picardy launched an attack around the river Somme, supported by five French divisions on their right flank. The attack had been preceded by seven days of heavy artillery bombardment. The experienced French forces were successful in advancing but the British artillery cover had neither blasted away barbed wire, nor destroyed German trenches as effectively as was planned. They suffered the greatest number of casualties (killed, wounded and missing) in a single day in the history of the British army, about 57,000."

"Overall, the first day on the Somme was a failure for the Allied forces. The British had suffered 19,240 dead, 35,493 wounded, 2,152 missing and 585 prisoners for a total loss of 57,470.This meant that in one day of fighting, 20% of the entire British fighting force had been killed, ……  Haig, in his diary the next day, wrote that "...the total casualties are estimated at over 40,000 to date. This cannot be considered severe in view of the numbers engaged, and the length of front attacked."

The Northumberland Fusiliers 22nd Bn. on the Somme

The Battalion's war diary covering the first days of the offensive is remarkably brief and lacking in detail. Located in the allied trenches near Albert the Tyneside Scottish were required to attack the village of La Boiselle.

Mines, underground chambers packed with tons of explosives, were blown at 7.28. At 7.30 the artillery barrage ceased and the 22nd Bn. followed the 21st over the top and across no man's land.

It was a race between them and the speed of recovery of the German front line. The Fusiliers were slowed by their pack, the terrain and the order to walk! Senior officers were worried that there would be ill discipline if the troops were allowed to run.

The race was won by German defenders who quickly set up their machine guns and no man's land became a killing field.

The War Diary of the NF 22nd Bn. for July 1st 1916 at 7.30am mentions heavy fire coming from the German lines and the 'heavy casualties' suffered by the Bn. At 12.45 the diary talks about the strength being 7 officers and 200 other ranks, a mixture of the remnants of the 22nd and 21st – 207 out of a total of some 1300 men.

22nd Bn. casualties were - Killed 206 Wounded 333 Total 539, out of a strength of 600 to 700 men.

Commonwealth War Graves Commission - Robert Woodcock Mason

The Northumberland Fusiliers 22nd Bn. war diary, July 1st to 15th, 1916 Page 1 Page 2

Newspaper article by Mr. E. Kinnaird, head teacher Dunstan School

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