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Wearside Military Units

Wearside Responds
In January 1915 the War Office contacted the Mayor of Sunderland, Alderman Stansfield Richardson J.P, enquiring as to whether it would be ‘possible to raise an Artillery or Engineering Unit in the district, for service over seas’. The Mayor responded saying that a decision had been taken to raise a ‘Gun Brigade’ numbering just under 800 men. This ‘Gun Brigade’ would become the 160th (Wearside) Brigade, Royal Field Artillery.

160th (Wearside) Brigade, Royal Field Artillery (RFA)

The recruitment of men into the 160th (Wearside) Brigade began on the 1st March 1915. This process was overseen by a Recruiting Committee under the chairmanship of Mr. William Milburn Esq.

The overwhelming majority of the new recruits, including the officers, hailed from Sunderland, Wearside and the surrounding districts including Whitburn, Seaham and Gateshead. These men came from all walks of life, “from the privileged well educated families of rich industrialists, to the poorest labourers that worked in the mines and shipyards.”

William Milburn M.B.E.,  F.R.I.B.A.,  J.P. (1859 - 1935)
Known as the father of the 160th (Wearside) Brigade, William Millburn was a prominent Sunderland businessman. Trained as an architect, in 1897, he would form one of the largest architectural companies in the North East, responsible for the design and construction of the Sunderland Empire Theatre, the Borough Police Station, Court Buildings and the layout of High Barnes Estate.

Milburn “never lost any of his initial enthusiasm or forethought for the welfare of the men; generous, kindly, sincere, broadminded, and sympathetic.”

The Royal Field Artillery
At the time of the First World War the Royal Regiment of Artillery was composed of three elements:

  • The Royal Horse Artillery
  • The Royal Field Artillery
  • The Royal Garrison Artillery

The Royal Field Artillery (RFA) was the most numerous arm of the artillery, and it was heavily dependent on horses for the transportation of its medium calibre guns and howitzers. The RFA was organised into Brigades, for example, the 160th (Wearside) Brigade. In the case of the 160th Bde, this was further divided up into four batteries (A, B, C, D).

Although the rallying point for all artillery regiments was always the gun, it was the horse that was the backbone of the artillery.

Film for the 160th - On Monday 2 March 2015 a blue plaque was unveiled at Houghton Hall to commemorate the 160th (Wearside) RFA Brigade as this building was used as the recruiting office for new recruits in 1915. The Mayor of Sunderland Councillor Stuart Porthouse and several ward councillors attended as did relatives of the brave men who served in the Brigade. Here is a short film about the event:


The Horse at War
The First World War was a war of massive technological innovation. Tanks, aircraft and poison gas were used in battle for the first time. Yet despite the great advances in technology and the industrial scale on which the war was fought, the armies on both sides were still hugely dependent on horsepower.

More than one million horses and mules were deployed by the British Army during the conflict. Indeed the demand for horses was so great that Britain ran out of horses and had to import 1000 a week from North America.

The Role of Horses
Horses were essential to the logistical and combat operations of the war.

The British Army in November 1918, Horses and Mules*

Supply horses – 220, 187
Supply mules – 219, 509
Riding horses – 111, 171
Gun horses – 87, 557
Cavalry – 75, 342

*Source: Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire During The Great War, 1914-1920

The horses in the 160th (Wearside) Brigade were classed as gun horses, responsible for the transportation of medium calibre guns and howitzers.

As an integral part of a WWI Field Artillery Brigade the horses held a special place in the hearts and minds of many of the men, especially the drivers, who would on many occasions form close relationships with their charges.

Horses were essential to the day to day operations on the Western Front and the British Army invested enormous resources in maintaining horses ready for war. The gun horses of the 160th Brigade would have required at least 30Ib of fodder a day to keep them functional for operations, in some cases they appear to have been better fed than the men themselves.

Driver Henry Carney (‘A’ Battery) originally of Monkwearmouth, recalled how he and his friends “found themselves so starved at the front, they resorted to eating grass from the hedgerows to fill their bellies.”

Driver Carney also remembered that “he owed his very life to a horse that took a bullet intended for him and that he lay trapped under the dying animal as the enemy snipers continued to shoot at him.”

Key Dates in the History of the 160th Wearside Brigade

Summary Dates

  • March to April 1915 – Recruitment of the 160th Brigade on Wearside
  • April 1915 to January 1916 – Training of Brigade at bases throughout Britain
  • January 1916 – Brigade moves to France
  • February 1916 – Brigade moves to the battlefront
  • July 1916 – Brigade takes part in the Battle of the Somme
  • April 1917 – Brigade takes part in the Battles of Arras
  • Oct to Nov 1917 – Brigade takes part in the Battle of Passchendaele
  • March 1918 – Brigade takes part in the “The Offensive in Picardy”

Although not deployed to the Western Front until January 1916, the Wearside Brigade would see action in many of the most infamous battles of World War One, including the Somme, Arras, Passchendaele and the great battle of the 21st March 1918, during which the 160 Bde would play a not insignificant part that day in halting the German advance to the channel ports.


Related Pages

click here to view the recruitment poster


20th DLI Durham Light Infantry recruitment poster

click here to view Our Boy recruitment poster



20th Service Battalion Wearside - Durham Light Infantry

20th DLI Durham Light InfantryIn June 1915 the War Office once again approached the Durham County Recruiting Committee and asked if another battalion could be raised.  The Mayor of Sunderland, Alderman Stansfield Richardson JP and his committee met to consider the proposal and agreed that the work of raising the battalion could be undertaken.  On 20 June 1915 the 20th (Service) Battalion The Durham Light Infantry came into being.  Command was given to Major K J W Leather. 

Recruitment commenced in Sunderland and by August 1915 over 100 had joined up.  Most of the recruits came form the town and districts such as Daddry Shield and Rookhope in Weardale, Darlington, Consett and Newcastle upon Tyne.

20 RGA Royal Garrison Artillery On Monday 23 August they moved into billets in St John’s Wesleyan School and began their Initial training at the nearby Ashbrooke Cricket Ground, sport played a major part in the training of the battalion. .  The strength of the battalion increased daily and while men who had been selected to be NCO's were on courses of instruction,  the remainder took part in football and cross country running to improve fitness.

Further training took place in Enslydale, Barnard Castle and Aldershot before the men embarked for France in May 1916.

The battalion won tremendous praise for their turnout and marching from many quarters, not least His Majesty King George V, who remarked to Lord Finch ‘What Battalion is this? To which Lord French replied, ‘Durham Light Infantry; about 50% miners.' The King then said’ they are wonderfully steady.’

Throughout the war these men were in demand as they were often miners or shipyard workers and used to heavy work, digging trenches.  These skills often meant the meant were transferred to mining operation units.

The records service for the battalion shows that the DLI fought in every major battle of the Great War at the Battle of the Somme, Ypres, Passchendaele, the Italian front at Piave, German Spring Offensive, Gommecourt and returned to Ypres near the Kemmel area.

In December 1918, following the end of hostilities the Battalion, as part of a recognised army, moved to Cologne on the Rhine as part of the German occupation. Many of the original soldiers were allowed to return home and so the war ended for 20thDurham LI , but not the soldiering for very soon they became part of the British Army of the Rhine.

On 27 February 1920 the final soldiers returned to Sunderland, where a service was held at St Michael's and All Angels, (Sunderland Minster) where the Colours were laid up and a plaque on the wall reads the following: This colour of the 20th (Wearside) Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry was entrusted to the Rector and Wardens of Bishopwearmouth Parish church on Friday 27th February 1920, for safe keeping of all time.’

They then marched to the Palentine Hotel where they were entertained by the Mayor, Alderman Sir Arthur Ritson KCBE JOP, before being disbanded.


Related and useful links for this page

National Archives - Sunderland Echo story -



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