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Emotional journey to follow grandfather’s wartime footsteps

Bill Thompson at Tyne Cot cemetery in Belgium, dedicated to many North East soldiers who died trying to protect the village.

Bill Thompson at Tyne Cot cemetery in Belgium, dedicated to many North East soldiers who died trying to protect the village.

A keen motorcyclist has made an emotional journey to follow in the footsteps of his Grandad after learning of his First World War history.

Bill Thompson has for years travelled around Europe on motorcycling holidays with his friends, ‘the bumblers’, and one year, the group visited the war graves and museums of Ypres.

After seeing the ceremony at the Menin Gate Memorial where local firemen sound the last post each evening at 8pm, Mr Thompson developed an interest in learning more about his Grandad, Private Tommy Henderson, who he knew had died in the First World War. But little did he imagine that he would one day return to the memorial and see his relative included among the listed names. Little came of his initial interest, but fate intervened when Mr Thompson came to work in Morpeth, the hometown of his mother.

One lunchtime when walking from Hedley Purvis in Coopies Lane to the town centre, he happened upon the war memorial and found his Grandad’s name.

“I was surprisingly moved by the experience,” he said.

“It was a bright, sunny day and I was just walking down to the town to get a sandwich when I thought I would have a look at the cenotaph.

“There was Grandad’s name. Obviously, I had never met him, but it did bring a lump to my throat.”

Mr Thompson, 67, decided to find out more. He knew his Grandad was in the Northumberland Fusiliers and contacted the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for information. It had records for dozens of Tommy Hendersons, but only two had served in the Fusiliers.

However, one was from Cleckheaton in West Yorkshire and the other had lived even further away.

The search had drawn a blank. Mr Thompson left matters alone for a while, but then a colleague mentioned seeing old newspapers at Woodhorn Museum and Northumberland Archives so he decided to investigate. He said: “The papers were on microfilm so I was sat there for hours going through them all, looking at the memorials, trying to find grandad, and I did. I was delighted. I now knew his Army number and the date that he had died. I went back to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission site, entered his newly-found Army number, and lo and behold, he was the one from Cleckheaton, only this bit of information was wrong. He was actually from Kirkheaton. I can only guess that he couldn’t read and write and when the clerk signing him up heard ‘Kirkheaton’ in Grandad’s Northumbrian accent, he thought he heard ‘Cleckheaton’, and that was that — his birthplace 
had moved over 100 miles 
in a trice.”

The records showed that Private 8937 Thomas Henderson, the husband of Maggie, with nine children, and of Lord Hood Yard, had been killed in action, aged 38.

He had died at the Battle for Bellewaarde on June 16, 1915, but there was no known grave and his name was carved on a panel within the Menin Gate.

Mr Thompson has since been back to Ypres to see the name for himself and has participated in the ceremony that so moved him the first time he saw it. He laid a wreath of honour in tribute to his Grandad and his comrades. He also visited the battle site.

“It is just about two miles outside of Ypres,” he said.

“It is pretty much all farmland and woodland now, but the people who farm the land still keep finding little bits of personal things from the soldiers. There was an old lady at the gate when I was there. She had pidgin English and I had a little bit of French so we had some communication and she gave me a little belt buckle that she had found that morning. Going there did bring me a little bit closer to Grandad, but when you read the names of all those who were killed, it is an horrendous thing.”

Mr Thompson is now involved with a campaign to raise £20,000 for a memorial at the battlefield. It is being designed by North East sculptor Allan Scott and will feature three figures — a Northumberland Fusilier, a Scot and a German. Books and t-shirts are available to help raise the funds, and donations are welcome. The Washington resident is also on a personal mission to find his Morpeth relatives. And he particularly wants to discover what happened to a portrait of his Grandad that hung above the fireplace in his Grandma’s house.

“I would love to find the picture. Even if I could just see it, or borrow it to get a copy, it would be great. It could be anywhere though, with Grandad having nine children,” he said.

“I would also love to find my Morpeth family. I’ve been to Ypres and the battlefield myself now, but I wonder whether any of them have been or know about it.”

Anyone who is able to help Mr Thompson with his search can email bill.thompson@hotmail.co.uk For more information about the Bellewaarde memorial, or to make a donation, visit www.bellewaarde1915.co.uk

 

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