My granddad, Tom Campion, served in the First World War, and was killed in 1918. I didn’t know much about him to begin with because my father died when I was 12 and at that time I didn’t ask any questions about my family. In later life I decided to research his involvement in the Great War because I was interested in that particular period of history. It took quite a time, but I do now know a whole lot about him and about what happened to ordinary soldiers during that terrible time.
I started my research using just two pieces of evidence that survived the war. The first is a large coin, known as the Death Coin or the Widow’s Penny. The second is a photograph of my grandfather.
The Widow’s Penny
If someone went missing presumed dead, which thousands of people did, their family was sent one of these. This one was sent to my grandfather’s wife and shows the name ‘Tom Campion’. INSERT CHRIS’S PIC Imagine you’ve been told by telegram that your husband is dead in the war, and you’re not going to get his body back. So the idea behind the Widow’s Penny was that you were given something physical to put in the ground, to say that you’d buried him. Some people get a sense of closure by doing this. Some people kept the Widow’s Pennies as they couldn’t bear to part with them and they became family heirlooms. That’s how I came to have this one.
The other thing that survived was this picture. It’s all worn at the side where my grandmother picked it up each day trying to make contact with the person she was never going to see again.
With these two pieces of evidence I went to the internet and simply typed in the name Tom Campion in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission site, together with WWI, France, Flanders and Belgium. This gave me the name of a regiment, the Tyneside Scottish in Northumberland, which was a bit of a surprise as my grandfather’s family lived in Nottingham! It was the correct Tom Campion, though, because it listed his parents’ names and an address in Nottingham. I found out that he was remembered with honour at the Arras Memorial in France; his name is engraved there on the memorial which commemorates almost thirty five thousand casualties, not just British but New Zealand, South African, all over the world. And I found out when he died: Thursday 21 March 1918, at the age of 29. Tom Campion dying when he was 29 confused me a bit because I know that many of those in the army were a lot younger, the average age of people going out was between 17 and 19 years of age. And why was he down as being in the Northumberland Regiment?
The next really useful thing I printed out from the site was a scroll of honour. You can obtain this for all combatants. This showed me that Tom Campion was enlisted in Nottingham, served in the Royal Engineers initially and then became part of the Tyneside Scottish, which was a division of the Northumberland Fusiliers.
My grandfather’s path through these two regiments was indicative of how the army was re-grouped and soldiers sent on to other regiments as the losses in battle mounted up. It’s quite likely that he was injured, sent back home for a time to convalesce with his wife and young son – my dad – and then called back to the front, but as part of a different regiment. I discovered that there’s a place on the French coast called Etaples l and that the authorities had established a kind of sorting depot there that was nicknamed the ‘bullring’. Anyone being sent back to the Front in the last months of the war would be sent through the ‘bullring’ and allocated to a battalion as need dictated. You can imagine the conversation when you’d turn up: “Right, what’s your number? Where’s your kit?” and then off you go with a completely different set of people, not back to your original companions at all. Hence my grandfather joined a unit that went down towards the Arras area and the trenches and he was then part of the Northumberland Fusiliers with the Tyneside Scottish, and there he was.
So my next thought was to go to the Northumberland Fusiliers Museum at Alnwick to see if they could tell me any more. They sent this document back. It’s headed the 22nd battalion Tyneside Scottish, Northumberland Fusiliers. It’s the regimental diary for that regiment and for the month of March 1918. For me this was a really exciting moment because I knew it might just indicate the circumstances of Tom Campion’s death. So every day an officer would be in a trench writing down this information. It was then sent back and typed up. So I looked up 21 March, the day that my grandfather ‘went missing’.
As I was turning the pages I felt like I’d come all the way from looking at Tom Campion’s Widow’s Penny and photograph to the very minute that started this whole thing off: a description of what happened to his unit on the day he died. This is what I began to read:
‘Enemy attacked. His barrage opened at about 5 am and was very intense. It was particularly on the support reserve lines and Bunhill Row. It consisted of H.E. (High Explosives) and gas. The initial casualties as a result of this were heavy.’
We can’t imagine what it was like with the worst possible combination: bombs going off and gas, which is another frightener. The guys were in gas masks so it must have been a horrible sensation not being able to see anything, not yet light. You’d be cold and stiff from sitting in a trench all night.
The next part described how, as the morning went on, defensive flanks formed the rifle grenade section of the reserve company and were kept forward. They obviously needed more men. The mortar section was pushed forward again and the flank was outflanked. Things were getting tense.
At 1.30 pm the enemy gained a footing in the front line of the right forward company. This was bad news because the enemy had hit everything so hard. There was a big assault and the enemy overran the lines.
By 3 pm the enemy was reported to be on the ‘Hog’s Back’. That was only just beyond our men. The companies of the 25th Northumberland Fusiliers were immediately ordered to counterattack. The enemy came again and again. The soldiers of my grandfather’s unit were isolated. They were cut off and they were killed.
There’s a list in the regimental diary. It’s divided into casualties, killed and missing. There are names written beneath each heading. If you’re a lieutenant-colonel they’ll remember your name, if you’re a second lieutenant they’ll remember your name, if you’re a lieutenant they’ll remember your name, but not if you were a private, like my grandfather. Then you’re just noted down as ‘other ranks’. There are 446 ‘other ranks’ listed as missing, 30 killed and 69 wounded. So 545 in total suffered that day. I know the trench system had literally been blown away by the high explosives so there were lots of casualties. That list was compiled by having a parade in the aftermath of the battle, taking a register of all the unit names and then noting down the absences. If the names didn’t come back within a day or so, they were recorded as ‘missing presumed dead’ and finally ‘killed in action’. That must have been the end of Tom Campion. He might not have even fired a shot, because it’s very difficult to fire a shot at a heavy explosive. Your whole world just erupts around you. That’s what I believe happened to my grandfather.
Once I knew this much of his story I knew I had to go to Arras to pay my respects. It was a way for me to complete the circle of my research. I was amazed at the number of graves of the people whose bodies they had, but more amazed at the size of the wall where the names of those who had no remains in that area were recorded. I reached up and put my finger roughly where Tom Campion was, according to the guide on the board. I wrote in the visitors’ book that I’d come and made contact with Tom Campion again. My father wasn’t able to do it. My grandmother wasn’t able to do it. But I was able to come and I’ve found you and I will remember you in the best way I can.
Since I found all this out I make sure every year on 11 November that amongst the crosses put on Pontesbury War Memorial, you’ll find a cross there for Tom Campion. For me that means I will always remember him and others will know about him as well. He wasn’t very special in that he hasn’t got a VC or a military medal or anything like that but he’s special to me. He lived through something I wouldn’t want to live through, and I wouldn’t want any of this generation to live through. And he didn’t come back. It’s worth remembering just for that because he’s an ordinary person who did an extraordinary thing.