A few years ago I had to pick up a colleague up in North Broomhill, on our way to a Family History Fair in Berwick. It was on the way towards the A1 that we passed a memorial. Its importance was not known to me at the time. So, on our return journey I had to stop to see what it was about. This story is probably one which is not widely known, except to the locals who visit such a tranquil spot for a walk.
Who would have thought that when they left their billets on 17 January 1945 that 10 of them would not return from a training exercise that day. It had been raining heavily and the river at Guyzance was in flood. Orders were given as they began their river crossing, only for the strong current and fast flowing river to pull their boat across the weir and with their heavy equipment weighing them down ten soldiers all under the age of 19 were drowned.
Those lost were:-
+ L/Cpl. Mark Frederick Fredlieb of Sheffield
Pte. N. Ashton of Castleford
+ Pte. Percy Gibson Clements of West Hartlepool
Pte. E King of Todmorden
+ Pte. Kenneth Lee of Bradford
+ Pte. Alexander Leighton of Annfield Plain
Pte M M Peddelty of Evenwood
+Pte John W. Wilson of Newcastle
+ Pte Ronald Herbert B. Winteringham of York
Pte. A Yates of Ferryhill
+ indicates that the body was found at the time of the inquest.
At the inquest which was held some weeks after the accident some of the bodies still had not been recovered. The inquiry was not to attach blame or bring criminal proceedings against anyone, but to try and make training exercises safer in the future.
Second Lieutenant George Leslie Renills, told the coroner that the exercise was to teach the men on how to handle the boat and not how to cross the river in a tactical manner, they were all inexperienced men in this respect. The boats they were using were made of canvas and wood with a flat wooden floor and considered safe for this type of exercise.
From 0930 to 1000 the men were given instructions in how to handle the boats, then six men and a Non-Commissioned Officer were loaded into the first boat and began crossing the swollen River Coquet. Whilst Renills was inspecting one of the boats, he realised the first boat was drifting as the men were not paddling correctly! He went to the vicinity and told them how to paddle and climbed into the boat to help them. The river was fast, but had a very smooth surface and he had crossed much worse. When he reached the other side he noticed the second boat was going down stream. He shouted to them to get across and they seemed to be paddling correctly, but drifted sideways and got back to the original side. They drifted towards an over-hanging tree. Two of the men in the rear grabbed some of the overhanging branches. Renills shouted a warning to them about the weir. The branches some of the men were holding onto gave way and the boat began drifting towards the weir. They were all paddling, but not correctly and I shouted at them to jump. One of the soldiers began to take off his equipment. The boat then went over the weir nose first with all of the men out of the boat. I saw five of the men come to the surface and try to swim, but seemed to be pressed down by the force of the water and disappeared. Renills went downstream looking for them.
Sergeant Instructor Leslie Murray, told the Coroner Mr Hugh Percy, that he saw one of the bodies caught in the midstream and being a good swimmer dived in, but was nearly knocked out due to the force of the current. The Coroner returned a verdict – That the men were downed whilst carrying out a military exercise owning to the boat carrying them accidently going over the weir. The jury also added a rider that some lifeguard such as a safety line should be in operation for training purposes.
The MP for the area wrote an article which was published in the Morpeth Herald 18 May 1945, about the tragedy “Eighteen young men who had been in the Army just a month or two, began practicing crossing a river in a wooden structure covered with canvas and very light – and needing very special skill even under more or less normal conditions. But on the day this happened there was one of the biggest floods that there has been for many years. A short distance away from where the accident happened there was a weir. There is a bend in the river and the river in flood takes the weight of the water to the side. Underneath the weir there is an 11ft/12ft drop where there is a pool from which stones were quarried when building it. The weir is about 70 yards long and the pool 30ft to 40ft deep by 30/40ft wide and these lads having been instructed how to paddle over lost control and went over the weir and were drowned.
“There is as, I say no criminal charge and I am not asking for one. But to take young men and give them instructions on how to cross there without placing any qualified person in the boat with them to ensure that they would cross shows there has been a great dereliction of duty.”
A letter was also received from the Secretary of State for War – It is clear that the Officer responsible was guilty of an error of judgement in that he failed to appreciate what risk which was being taken in practising assault boating, with untrained men at this place with the river in flood, but it was held that neither he nor anyone else was guilty of negligence. In training an inexperienced crew it is inevitable that some risks must be taken before they can become proficient, but this risk would certainly have been lessened, as you suggested by stretching a rope across the river above the weir. This has now been done. The letter continues……
I hope that this article may encourage some more people to visit the site and enjoy its setting, but also to remember those young men.
LEST WE FORGET.