EARLY in April 1915, rumours were rife that all four of the Territorial Battalions of the Northumberland Fusiliers were about to be despatched to France.

Sure enough, the 4th Battalion – Hexham’s own – along with the 5th, 6th and 7th Battalions were withdrawn from the defence duties they had been fulfilling the length of the North-East coast and given their marching orders.

Looking back at the pictures of embarkation day, Tuesday, April 20, 1915, the poignancy, the knowledge those men and the families waving them off knew not of the nightmare that was about to engulf them.

Much of Tynedale, it seems, turned out to clap, cheer and walk with ‘their’ men, the 4th Battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers, from their gathering point in front of what is now the Queen’s Hall, then Hexham Town Hall.

The men marched proudly, the crowds streamed with them, along Beaumont Street, down Battle Hill and Priestpopple, and then left down Loosing Hill to Hexham Railway Station.

There, two trains were waiting for the soldiers, ready to rush them to Folkstone and on to boats charged with crossing the Channel to Boulogne.

Alan Grint sets the scene well in his latest book, A Sturdy Race of Men: ‘The boats were jam-packed, each carrying over 1,000 soldiers.

‘Many of the families of those who traversed the Channel that night knew nothing of where their men had gone – not until they began to receive notices of their deaths or that they had been wounded in battle.’

Soon after they landed in France, the four battalions were ‘rebranded’ as the 149th (Northumberland) Brigade and it is this, the story of 149 Brigade during the First World War, that Alan tells us.

It is a book that has been five years in the making and the painstaking nature of his research is evident in the exhaustive detail. Seemingly every move, development and engagement by 149 is recorded.

As such, it will endure, I am sure, as an accurate and therefore reliable resource for many a historian to come.

Alan makes it clear just how frighteningly fast our Territorial troops were fast-tracked to the front line. Within three or four days of leaving their home towns they were in Ypres.

On May 29, 1915, the Hexham Courant printed the following extract from an article in The Times; a glowing tribute to the steadfast men of Northumberland:

‘The hardest task, perhaps, fell to the men of North England. The others, for the most part, had been some time in the field and had been broken in gradually to war. But these had arrived from home only a short time before.

‘The Northumberland men were employed in an attack on St Julien on the 26th (May). There was no time to reconnoitre the position; they got into wire and were faced with terrific shelling.

‘Consider what is meant by the fight of these Northern Territorials. Men only lately out from home, most of whom had never before seen a shot fired in battle, were flung suddenly into the most nerve-racking kind of engagement.

‘They had to face some of the worst artillery bombardments of the war and the new devilry of poison gas. There was no time for adequate staff preparation, the whole a wild rush, a crowding up of every available man to fill the gap and reinforce the thin lines.

‘They were led by officers who a year ago had been architects and solicitors and business men. The result was a soldier’s battle like Albuera (the bloodiest battle of the Peninsula War, fought in 1811) where we escaped the annihilation which by all rules was our due, by the sheer dogged fighting quality of our men and their leaders.’

Ypres, the Somme, Arras and Flanders, 149 Brigade fought on every bloody battlefield on the Western Front. And the men fell.

One of the many strengths of Alan’s book is the face he puts on the human cost – the soldiers’ letters home speak for themselves; the potted biographies and faded photographs are lasting epitaphs.

Second Lieutenant Charles Gordon Sharp was the youngest son of Robert and Mary Sharp, of Riding Mill. At the onset of hostilities, he was working in the Belgian Congo, but returned home to enlist.

He was posted to France on September 15, 1915 to join the 4th Battalion at Ypres. Charles died, aged 30, as a result of the wounds he received during a heavy artillery bombardment not long after he arrived in France.

He is buried near where he fell, in Vlamertinghe Military Cemetery in Belgium.

Captain Henry Hogarth Bell was born in Hexham, the eldest son of Major George Henry Hogarth and Katharine Daubeney (formerly Bell).

He was a member of the family that owned the Henry Bell and Sons wool merchants in Hexham, who also built the bandstand for the town.

On leaving school in 1913, Henry obtained a commission in the Northumberland Fusiliers (Territorial Force) and went to France with the 4th Battalion that first day in April, 1915.

He was wounded twice in action and mentioned in dispatches by General French, before being killed on 15 September 1916. He was 20.

He is buried in Caterpillar Valley Cemetery in Longueval, France.

Lieutenant James Hope-Wallace was the eldest son of John and Mary Hope-Wallace. In 1900, he succeeded his father as owner of what was then the vast Featherstone Estate, complete with castle, near Haltwhistle.

He was married to Ursula Mary Addlington in 1905 and they had two daughters.

He joined the 4th Battalion just after the outbreak of war, but wasn’t sent to France until June 1916. Weeks before he was killed, he returned to the UK to attend the memorial service for his brother officer and friend, Clive Montagu Joicey.

James died from wounds caused by a bursting shell on September 15, 1917, aged 45. He is buried in Hibers Trench Cemetery in Wancourt, France.

Nearly 4,000 men from the four, front-line Territorial Battalions of the Northumberland Fusiliers were killed between 1915 and 1918.

In October 1919, Lord Allendale, chairman of the Northumberland Territorial Forces Association, unveiled the commemorative arch on Beaumont Street that stands in their honour. Two bronze plaques record the names of the men from our towns and villages who died.

The memorial was conceived and paid for by J.T. Robb, owner of the then Hexham department store, in grateful thanks for the safe return of all three of his sons from war.