Review of “The Newcastle Commercials” by Ian S. Johnson

The Newcastle Commercials: 16th (S) Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers in the Great War
By Ian S. Johnson, edited by Nigel Cave
Published by Pen & Sword Military, September 2021
Paperback ISBN 978 1 52673 531 7
Total pages 667. No index. Main text 473pp, appendices the remainder.
Reviewed by Chris Baker
Copy kindly provided by the publisher

This is an excellent study of a battalion. It will be of great value to anyone interested in the Newcastle Commercials, the Northumberland Fusiliers, the 32nd Division or the Great War history of the northeast of England. At getting on for 700 pages it is a physically weighty piece and I am not sure whether a paperback would stand up to much rough handling for long. Having said that, it does not appear that a hardback edition is available, although it can be bought as a Kindle or ebook version.

It is clear that Ian Johnson has dedicated much research time to this work, and has plumbed the depths of national, local and regimental archives as well as accumulating many stories of individuals. Numerous men are mentioned and many appear in photographs. Aided by Pen & Sword’s stalwart Nigel Cave, it makes for very good and absorbing reading.

The book concerns a battalion raised as part of Kitchener’s New Army, originating in efforts made by the Newcastle and gateshead Chamber of Commerce to encourage local men to enlist, businesses and employers to support them, and to organise a unit. “The Necastle Commercials” does a good job in explaining how this came to pass, and the social and econimic background of the men of the area. The battalion was placed under orders of 96th Infantry Brigade of 32nd Division, along with the 15th, 16th and 19th Lancashire Fusiliers (also known as the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Salford Pals).

In common with every other similar work I have read covering the “pals” battalions who were committed, with disastrous results, on 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, much emphasis is placed on the raising and training of the battalion and its early days in France up to and including this action. No fewer than 268 pages of the 473 that make up the main text cover this period: over half of the book. Its participation in the later actions on the Somme in 1916, the pursuit to the Hindenburg Line, operations at Nieuwpoort and a terrible time at Passchendaele in late 1917 inevitably occupy much less page space. They are, nonetheless, covered well. The battalion was eventually disbanded in February 1918. I understand the imbalance, as inevitably the local flavour of the battalion and its connections with the original volunteers began to decline on 1 July and this is as much a local history as a regimental one, but as someone interested in 1917-1918 it is a characteristic I regret.

Much space is devoted to appendices: the embarkation roll of those who went to France with the battalion on 23 November 1915; the nominal roll of those present on 1 July 1916; the battalion’s roll of honour (with each man having a small biography and in many cases a photograph); identification of four pairs of brothers who died while serving with the battalion; an order of battle of 32nd Division; and a list of honours and awards made to officers and men of the battalion.

The book is profusely illustrated including some good maps. My only real gripe is the absence of an index, which for a reference work like this should really be mandatory!


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Northumberland Fusiliers

32nd Division