It was a tragedy born of the Great War bloodbath – but it has been near forgotten by time.
In fact, the loss of nine men, all drowned off the North-East coastal town of Blyth, has been totally erased from the history books in the West Midlands.
Yet seven of the victims lived in or around Birmingham.
Now, a wartime museum in Blyth aims to honour the dead with a memorial service staged on August 24 – 100 years to the very day of the 1917 mass drowning.
And it has issued an appeal through the Sunday Mercury for relatives of victims of the Blyth beach tragedy to step forward.
It was a terrible accident that should be marked.
On that furnace-hot day, 600 men from the Warwickshire Regiment were tasked with marching along the coast, then to partake in a “bathing parade”.
Near exhausted and hit hard by the heat, the men entered the water at Blyth Sands, Northumberland.
Laughter soon gave way to cold panic.
The following day, The Times reported: “A large number of soldiers were in the water, and some of them got into difficulties and were carried away seawards.
“There was a heavy swell from the south, but Lieutenant Brown, Sergeant Riley, and others pluckily went to the assistance of their comrades, who were in danger of drowning.
“Lieutenant Brown and Riley were soon exhausted, and were drowned.
“Five men were rescued by their comrades, who formed a chain of hands. The bodies of six of the eight drowned men were afterwards recovered.
“Sergeant Riley had only recently returned from France after 18 months’ fighting.”
The Times got it wrong. In all, nine men died.
Colin Durward, of the Blyth Battery museum which is staging the service, has an explanation for the mass drowning.
“Coming from the Middle Shires, many of the men had never seen the sea,” he said. “Some could not even swim.”
They were totally oblivious to the dangers. The seven Birmingham men who drowned were:
* Second Lieutenant Edmund Kenneth Brown, the only one of the band buried in Blyth. That is partly because the body of the Brownhills 24-year-old was not found until weeks after the accident.
* Private Edward Beavon, just 18, who lived with his parents at 31 Havelock Road, Saltley.
* Private Thomas Fortey, aged 19, from Birmingham.
* Private Harry Blanchard Southern, aged 18, who lived with his parents in Park Road, Aston Manor.
* Lance Sergeant John Riley, aged 24, from Ladywood, a man who was only days away from getting married.
* Private Jesse Blunn, just 17, who lived with his parents in Highbury Road, Kings Heath. It was some days before his body was found.
* Private Frederick Shale, aged 19, who lived with his parents in Mint Terrace, Handsworth.
The other two Warwickshire Regiment casualties were not local. Private Edward Noy, aged 18, was born in Gulval, Penzance, while Private William Henderson, also 18, was from Weston-super-Mare.
Much of what happened on that fateful day remains shrouded in mystery, but an inquest into the deaths heard the tide was out and those who perished were swimming between the West Pier and the Link House – a stretch of water known to be dangerous at low tide.
There was no boat on the sand, so soldiers linked hands to pull struggling servicemen to safety. The nation, already struggling to come to terms with the war’s death toll, was stunned by what happened on Blyth beach, so close to home.
Under the headline “Distressing Scenes”, the Morpeth Herald of August 31, 1917, reported: “About noon on Friday, a shocking tragedy occurred at Blyth when nine soldiers lost their lives.
“Some hundreds of soldiers were bathing at a spot between the West Pier and Gloucester Lodge. There was a strong southerly wind and a heavy thrash on the sea. The tide was at a low ebb, making the spot very dangerous for bathers under such circumstances.
“There are at this spot below water deep channels cut in the sand by the currents where the water rushes with irresistible force. The soldiers had not been long in the water when two or three were seen to be in difficulties and were being washed out seawards in spite of their struggles.
“A number of soldiers rushed to the assistance of their comrades until at the fateful spot 13 men were seen struggling and evidently drowning. There was no boat on the spot at the time and the stoutest swimmer could render little aid.
“The soldiers formed a chain by joining hands and waded as far as the could into the fast ebbing tide and succeeded in saving five of their comrades, three of whom were very exhausted when brought ashore. The other eight were drowned.”
At the inquest, the battalion’s chaplain, Rev. G.J.F Verschoyle, was praised for his efforts to save Lieut Brown and Lance Sgt Riley. He managed to grab Brown, but had to let go and needed help to get back to the shore himself.
It was not, in fact, the first time that soldiers had drowned on that treacherous stretch of coastline. The inquest jury, which returned verdicts of accidental death, were reminded that three years earlier four soldiers had drowned in an area known as Seaton Sluice.
This led the coroner to urge commanding officers to seek advice from locals before allowing their men into the sea.
The Blyth News Wansbeck Telegraph explained: “His suggestion then was that as many of the men had no knowledge of the sea or sea bathing, the officers should first of all seek some local knowledge before allowing the men to enter the water. He would repeat the suggestion.
“There were many local men who were thoroughly acquainted with those dangerous undercurrents, and they could very easily advise the officers where it would be safe for the men to bathe, and where they ought not to go. That would be a very simple matter.”
In fact, commanding officer Lieut-Col F.M Chatterley had asked a 15-year-old fisherboy about the state of the sea before the “bathing parade” was formed. The lad told him the tide was at an ebb.
Lieut-Col F.M Chatterley took this to mean the sea was at its lowest and calmest.
That was far from the case. It was at its most dangerous.
One elderly fisherman said he and colleagues spotted the men getting ready to take the plunge – and remarked some would never get out alive.
His word were to be tragically prophetic.
'Never been in the sea'
The inquest uncovered the total lack of sea swimming experience among the men from the land-locked West Midlands.
Coroner Hy.T. Rutherford asked witness Private Leonard James: “And can you tell me anything about it?”
James: “I only went out about 30 yards and it took me all my time to get back.”
James: “Because of the waves. I have not been used with the sea.”
Coroner: “Ever been in the sea before?”
James: “Friday last was my first view of the sea.”
Coroner: “Can you swim?”
James: “Yes, in the baths.”
A town in mourning
The tragedy left the town of Blyth in mourning.
Six days after the deaths, the Blyth News Wansbeck Telegraph painted a graphic picture of the aftermath.
The newspaper reported: “What a melancholy contrast in scenes in five days – pictures of liveliness and sorrow.
“In Turner Street on Friday morning was to be seen swinging down the main thoroughfare the lively, joyous soldiers from a northern camp.
“How different on Tuesday evening. Hark! the mournful and solemn strains of the ‘Dead March in Saul’, impressively played by a military band.
“Who but those with hearts of stone is not impressed and moved by the strains of that solemn funeral dirge?
“The rain is falling briskly, and adding to the sorrowful picture. Most of the same soldiers of the Friday, wearing their greatcoats, move along the street with slow and measured step.
“Military waggons convey the remains of the men who were the victims of Friday’s bathing fatality – the worst in the history of our beach – and shrouded in Union Jacks.
“And then the last sad scenes at the railway station, and the dispatch of the bodies to be reverently interred by their sorrowing relatives in the Midlands, whence the gay and hopeful young men had come, and now were no more.
It was a melancholy, solemn, impressive scene.
“Among the crowd of women and men looking on the tears involuntarily welled to their eyes.
Nothing like it has been seen in our Blyth streets before. The memory of it will remain for many a long year.”
Sadly, in 2017, the memory of it is all but forgotten in Birmingham.
A spokesman for Blyth Battery said this week: “Blyth Town Council and Blyth Battery are looking for any of the relatives of the nine men who died of drowning while on service with the Royal Warwickshire Regiment on August 24, 1917.
“We are putting together a commemoration for these men on Thursday August 27, 2017. If any of the relatives would like to be involved please contact us on email@example.com or ring 01670368816.”