You may have noticed that there is a Brigadier-General named on the Great War section of the Warkworth Parish Memorial.  While every village in the country has its list of names of local men who paid the ultimate sacrifice it is reasonably unusual to see such a senior Officer commemorated.  There is a popular conception that First World War British Generals were safely ensconced in their chateau while brave Tommies went over the top.  As usual the truth is more complex, and in fact more than 70 British Generals were killed and more than 300 wounded in 1914-18 on the Western Front.

Our man was Brigadier General James Foster Riddell, born in 1861, Heir to the Riddell’s of Roxburghshire.  He was commissioned as an Officer in the Northumberland Fusiliers in 1881, and served Queen Victoria defending the British Empire in campaigns in Africa between 1888 and 1902.  When The First World War broke out in August 1914 he was appointed to command the 149th Infantry Brigade, which was made up of the Territorial Battalions of the Northumberland Fusiliers, including many local men in the 7th (Alnwick) Battalion.  Initially the Brigade was tasked with guarding the North-east coast but after the regular army had suffered heavy losses in the opening battles of the war the Territorials were sent to war.  149 brigade went in mid-April 1915 and were put in reserve near Ypres.

On  April 22nd the German Army unleashed poison gas for the first time in war and terrified French troops ran away rather than be choked, leaving a significant gap in our lines and the threat of a German breakthrough and the loss of Ypres.  149 Brigade were rushed to the front in commandeered London buses and on 26th April they were ordered to counter-attack alongside the Lahore Indian Division, from the village of St Julien North of Ypres.

As the Northumberland Fusiliers pushed forward they were exposed to very heavy machine gun and artillery fire.  Although this prevented them from pushing the Germans back it helped to re-establish the line.  The cost was high, with over 2000 casualties, including many local men. Brigadier General Riddell was one, hit in the head as he conferred with his officers at the Front line.  He is buried with 11,871 British and Commonwealth soldiers at Tyne Cot CWGC Cemetery.  He was 52 years old, and he had been on the Western Front only a week.

In October 2011 I visited St Julien and the site of these momentous and tragic events and paid respects at the Northumberland Division Memorial, and the grave of Brigadier General Riddell.

  50th Northumbrian Divisions Memorial at Wieltje in the Ypres Salient

May they rest in peace.  Their sacrifice is not forgotten.


David Barras, Acklington, 11/11/11