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Durham County Record Office: the official archive service for County Durham and Darlington

The Last Call

658,000 British soldiers lost their lives in the war. Sometimes this was very sudden, as for Private Perry.

Photograph of Private Perry eating a cream cracker, 1915 (D/DLI 2/6/10 (317)) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
The photograph shows men of 6DLI in a trench at Potijze, Belgium, on 24 May 1915. Most of the men are keeping their heads down, although one is trying to look over the top of the trench and Private Perry is eating a cream cracker.

The men were waiting to counter attack, but the order for the attack was cancelled at midday.

Photograph of Private Perry and Sergeant Hunter’s graves, 1915 (D/DLI 2/6/10 (325)) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
The soldiers marched back towards Ypres, but Private Perry and Sergeant Hunter were hit by a shell and killed. They were buried in a grave in Potijze Wood, with a makeshift cross and snowdrops.

Perry and Hunter's bodies were later moved to the Birr Cross Roads Cemetery, near Ypres which opened in 1917, and were placed in the same grave.

When men were killed or wounded it was their commanding officer's duty to inform their relatives, although sergeants often sent a letter of condolence as well. This personal letter was then followed by the official army letter a few weeks later.

Letter announcing Private O’Donnell’s death, 26 February 1916 (D/DLI 7/929/1) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
 Private Martin O'Donnell from Sunderland was 'shot through the head ... by a sniper' on 26 February 1916 in France. In this letter, Sergeants Brammer and Halpin reassure O'Donnell's widow that:

'when we saw there was no hope of recovery, his platoon Sergeant & chums knelt & said the Rosary and De Profundas & a few acts of contrition, as we were Roman Catholics like himself' and 'enclosed you will find his rosary beads, Sacred Heart badge & two rings'.

See a full transcript of Sergeant Brammer and Halpin's letter from 26 February, 1916.

Official letter announcing Private O’Donnell’s death, 9 March 1916 (D/DLI 7/929/3) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
The contrast between this letter and the formal official letter reporting that O'Donnell's death 'occurred at a place in France' is dramatic.

See a full transcript of the official letter from 9 March, 1916.

Where men had no known grave their names were inscribed on a war memorial. O'Donnell is included on the Menin Gate near Ypres, along with over 54,000 other Commonwealth soldiers.

Photograph of the Menin Gate, Ypres, 24 June 1929 (D/DLI 2/35/2(52)) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office
Every night at 8.00pm traffic is still stopped outside the gate and the Last Post played.

The band in the photograph is the 1st Cadet Battalion The Durham Light Infantry. It was taken on 24 June 1929.

Invitation to requiem at St. Joseph’s church, Millfield, 28 November 1918 (D/DLI 7/929/6) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
As families could not attend funerals for soldiers included on memorials or buried abroad, memorial services were held in churches at home.

A requiem was held at St Joseph's, Millfield, Sunderland, on 28 November 1918 'for the Souls of all those from this Parish who have fallen during the war', including Private O'Donnell.

See a full transcript of the invitation to requiem mass.

In Memoriam card for Private Longthorn, July 1918, p.1 (D/DLI 7/353/7) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
In Memoriam card for Private Longthorn, July 1918, p.2 (D/DLI 7/353/7) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.

Some families chose to have cards printed announcing the deaths of their loved ones. Private Thomas Longthorn of Westerton died on 14 July 1918 and was buried at Nine Elms British Cemetery at Poperinge, Belgium. Many cards included patriotic poems and phrases, and some had a photograph of the soldier in his uniform.

See a full transcript of the memorial card.

Death Pennies were bronze memorial plaques given to the next of kin of servicemen and women killed in the war. Each had the soldier or servicewoman's name engraved on it. Examples can be found in the Durham Light Infantry objects collection.