A sturdy race of men: 149 Brigade – a history of the Northumberland Fusiliers Territorial Battalions in the Great War
by Alan Isaac Grint
published by Pen & Sword Military in 2018
Hardback ISBN 978 1 52674 178 3
350 pages plus references, appendices and index. Illustrated.
Cover price £25
Reviewed by Chris Baker
Although I have no connection with Northumberland myself, I do have a soft spot for it as it is where my wife’s family originated (well, half Northumberland and half Herefordshire, which makes for an interesting combination). Specifically, the connection is with the area of Blyth, Cowpen and Ashington. Not so much now, but in 1914 an area of hard graft in the mines, shipyards and associated industries of the region. One of her great uncles was killed while serving with a battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers, but not one of the Territorial units covered in “A sturdy race of men”. James McSloy was one of many coal miners, tough and definitely sturdy men, who served with the regiment during the Great War. Without a photo it is hard to know, but if he was like his brother he was a little fellow, too. They are the sort of man that comes to my mind whenever I read of the “Fifth Fusiliers” during this period. I immediately, therefore, warmed to this book when I read that its author was also an Ashington man. So I do admit a bit of bias.
The book is a war history of the four battalions that made up 149th Infantry Brigade: the 4th to 7th Northumberland Fusiliers, headquartered respectively at Hexham, Walker, Newcastle and Alnwick but with company drill stations stretching from Gosforth up to Berwick. In other words, covering not only the industrial area of Tyneside but the rural swathe of north Northumberland. The brigade came under orders of the 50th (Northumberland) Division – and didn’t they have a war? Straight into the Second Battle of Ypres within days of landing in France; the middle and latter stages of the Somme; Arras in 1917; and in facing three successive mighty offensives by the Germans in the spring of 1918. The brigade was never the same again. It had already lost the 7th Battalion, sent to become pioneers to 42nd (East Lancashire) Division in February 1918, and the remainder was wound down to a training cadre in June 1918. By then, the brigade had sustained the loss of 40,000 dead – the equivalent of the entire original brigade. By 1917 it was already losing its strong regional flavour, as the original Territorials reduced in number and their replacements were Derby Scheme men and conscripts.
“A sturdy race of men” is a good read, human and well illustrated. It naturally draws on the war diaries and histories of the battalions and brigade, but is liberally peppered with mini biographies of officers and men who were killed or who gained distinction. There are many (I didn’t count) portrait photographs, making this a very personal story as well as one of collective military endeavour. Particularly harrowing, and not untypical of these locally raised units are the many stories of brothers and close relatives losing their lives, with families at home being hard hit by their deaths. There are also enough schematic maps to enable the reader to understand the various actions. Various contemporary and modern landscape and other photographs complete the work, although many are reproduced rather small, presumably for space saving reasons as this is a fairly heavyweight work in terms of pages. The history begins pre-war and in the mobilisation and training before going to France; it ends after the fighting on the Aisne in May 1918 and shuns discussion of the months of work as a cadre before final disbanding just before the Armistice. I was glad to see that it does cover the 7th Battalion’s time after it left to go to the West Riding Division and was also interested to read of the various memorials erected in the post war years.
Only one gripe from me and it is not the author’s fault: the many points of reference are explained in end notes rather than footnotes. It drives me mad and I really do not know why any published chooses this form of layout.
Otherwise this is an easy read and a valuable source for future reference.