James Otterson (1884-1916)

James Otterson (1884 -1916)

  • Born Sunderland, Durham, England
  • Died at the Somme, France
  • Married 1902 in Sunderland to

Jessie Abernethy (1881 - 1960)

  • Born Sunderland, Durham, England
  • Died Sunderland, Durham, England
  • Six children
Somme map

 James was closest to his older brother, Robert. Both worked as laborers, both would marry sisters from the same family, and both would join up within a day of each other to fight for their country in World War I. A year and a half later in the terrible battles of the Somme in France, that decision would cost James his life. His name is among thousands etched on the stone columns of the Thiepval War Memorial in France.

"It will all be over by Christmas"

World War I was a colossal folly. Few people understood as the 1900s dawned that future wars would be unlike anything the world had experienced before. As Britain's position of supremacy in the world began to be challenged with widespread industrialization in other nations, war may have been seen as inevitable in the attitudes of the day.  But the gross miscalculations that sent millions of men to their deaths, fighting for a few miles of ground, cost Britain and its Empire, France and Germany the cream of a generation.

At the start of World War 1 in 1914, there was optimism that it would "all be over by Christmas." Across the nation, men lined up to join the armed services. A recruiting officer at one of the recruiting stations reported at the time:  "The men are a fine, well set-up, hardy lot, mostly miners and very keen…They look on it as the finest holiday they have ever had in spite of the 7½ hours hard daily work.”

But it would prove to be no holiday. The war dragged on with its appalling cost in human lives for five long years. Millions never came home. Others returned horribly maimed for life, or with their minds torn by the shocking carnage and shelling they had endured. Today, almost every town and village in Britain has a memorial erected to the memory of those who were lost. James Otterson's name is etched on a memorial in France.

IT WASN'T SURPRISING that James Otterson was  closest to his older brother, Robert, just two years his senior. The brothers had sisters either side, one older, one younger.  When the children's father died in a mining accident in 1898, both the boys worked as laborers - Robert bricklaying, and James in the shipyards.  Later they would marry sisters from the Abernethy family, and like thousands of others, both would join up together to fight for their country in World War 1 with the boundless optimism of the day. That decision would cost James his life.

The family home when James was growing up was 13 Robinson Terrace in the village of Hendon, a suburb of Sunderland a few miles south of the River Wear. The house itself was only a few hundred yards from the shore where the North Sea lapped the coast. The street still survives, although its rows of large houses, each occupied by multiple families, have long since gone, replaced entirely at the seaside end by light industry.

James and Robert must have been frequent visitors to 45 Athol Street, just over a five-minute walk from their home. That's where the Abernethy family had lived since moving from Cairo Street in the same suburb (the Cairo Street house is still beautifully preserved).  The boys' interest lay in the two teenage Abernethy girls. James' attention was centered on Jessie, the older of the two, even though at 19 she was two years his senior.

The 1901 census doesn't tell us whether Jessie was working, but by 1902 the pair were married. Two years later, Robert married the younger sister, Lizzie.

When war came in 1914, there was an air of expectation that able-bodied men should join up and fight for the Empire. On December 12, Robert Otterson joined the line of volunteers with brother-in-law Jacob Forrest, the husband of his eldest sister. They were issued sequential numbers - 18491 for Jacob and 18492 for Robert. The following day, James also joined up - his number was 18497 - and all were posted to 3rd Battalion of the Green Howards Regiment on 4 January 1915. The 1st and 2nd Battalions were regular army units. The 3rd Battalion was a training regiment raised because of the war and was sent as replacements and reinforcements to the 6th Battalion. Within a few months, the brothers would be split up, Robert going to fight in Belgium and France with the 10th, and James despatched to Gallipoli with the 6th.

By the time James sailed with his army unit for the Balkans in mid-1915, he was the father of five children, the youngest just four months old.  Like the thousands he sailed with, James could have had no inkling of what lay in store on the shores of the Gallipoli Peninsula. And though he would survive Gallipoli, he would not survive the war.

Photo: Google Maps
Photo: Google Maps
Credit: Colin Abernethy.
Credit: Colin Abernethy.

Above: The Abernethy homes at 45 Athol Road (left, red door), and 27 Cairo Street, Hendon (right).

Below: Modern aerial view of the route the Otterson brothers would have taken to walk to the Abernethy sisters in Athol Road (Google Maps).

Photo: Google Maps
Photo: Google Maps

:James Otterson in World War I:  Gallipoli

Gallipoli, 1915

On 3 July, after months of orientation and training, British troops embarked on the massive four-funnel Aquitania, a Cunard ocean liner converted to troop ship, and sailed for Lemnos, a Greek Island in the North Aegean Sea close to the Turkish coast. Lemnos was the staging ground for the coming assault on the Gallipoli Peninsula between the Aegean Sea and the Dardanelles Straits. The idea was to push through the straits and take Constantinople, which would have removed the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire from the war as German allies. The campaign was a disaster.

Only one day out, the men were ordered to “stand to boats” as a precaution when a German submarine was detected in the area. A torpedo passed close under the stern but missed its target.

On July 6 the great ship passed Gibraltar, and the next day another submarine was sighted and the men again stood to the lifeboats. On July 8 they passed Malta, but remained on board until August 6 when they disembarked to the southeast of Nibrunesi Point at a location designated as B beach.

The Gallipoli campaign was marked by shockingly poor staff work, inadequate communications, vague and uncoordinated orders and a host of other problems. Many of the original documents have been lost, and accounts of what happened, especially to individual companies, are contradictory and still controversial among historians.

The Green Howards was the unofficial name of a line infantry regiment of the British Army, frequently referred to as the Yorkshire Regiment until the 1920s.  The regiment's 6th (Service) Battalion, with which James served, landed at Suvla Bay in Gallipoli as part of the 32nd Brigade in the 11th (Northern) Division in August 1915; the battalion was evacuated to Egypt in January 1916 and then moved to France in July 1916 for service on the Western Front.

The men’s first taste of action followed almost immediately. In an attack on Lala Baba, they drove the enemy NE to Hill 10, but at a loss of 250 men, 16 of them officers. The Yorkshire Regiment lost one third of its men and all but two of its officers on the first day. The war diaries record the following timeline, but give little hint of the ferocity of the fighting, the blunders of Allied military commanders and the general confusion and chaos. For example:

  • 7 Aug Took up outpost position Hill 10
  • 8 Aug Moved forward between Hill 53 & Sulajik
  • 9 Aug Back to Hill 10 & forward again to Sulajik. Heavy rifle fire.
  • 8 Sep Officers & 491 OR (other ranks) joined from 3rd & 11th Bns.
  • 29 Sep reinforcements - 2 2nd Lts 297 OR
  • 8 Oct Violent hurricane 8 - 10 pm
  • 20 - 31 Oct Working parties daily on support & communication trenches.
  • 2 Feb 1916 Officers and 239 OR embarked for overseas
  • 3 Feb Embarked in Aliki Bay on Redbreast

These few lines barely hint at the cost in the lives of brave men in the unsuccessful Dardanelles campaign of World War 1 against the Turks. 

Sir Ian Hamilton's Mediterranean Expeditionary Force failed in its attempt to capture the Gallipoli peninsula, and a withdrawal was ordered in January 1916. The failure of the campaign damaged the reputation of Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty under whose oversight the plan had been formed. There were around 180,000 Allied casualties, and 220,000 Turkish casualties before the Allies withdrew.

Photo: Public domain
Photo: Public domain
CC BY-SA 3.0 and GNU Free Documentation License.
Photo in public domain.
Photo in public domain.
Image: Public domain
Image: Public domain

The Green Howards Regiment to which the Otterson brothers belonged had a long and distinguished history, beginning in 1688 when it was raised in the County of Somerset to serve under William of Orange in the final phase of the English civil wars. Its name, given at a time when regiments were identified with their colonel, was after Col. Charles Howard. But since another regiment also served under a Howard, they were distinguished by the green facings to their uniform - the Green Howards.

The regiment first became associated with North Riding (or sub-county) of Yorkshire in 1782 as the 19th (First Yorkshire North Riding Regiment of Foot) - a title given on their return from the American War of Independence. Not until a century later, however, was the regiment officially based in Yorkshire.

The regiment had many battle honors before the First World War, dating from 1690 and including campaigns in continental Europe, during the American War of Independence, in India and in the South African War (1899-1902).

Battle of the Somme, 1916

This is photograph Q 1332 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 1900-09) and is in the public domain.
This is photograph Q 1332 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 1900-09) and is in the public domain.
Photo: Michael Otterson
Photo: Michael Otterson
Photo: Michael Otterson
Photo: Michael Otterson

Top:  Stretcher bearers at the Battle of Thiepval Ridge, the Somme, 1916. This is photograph Q 1332 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 1900-09), and is in the public domain.

Above: The high ground on the point of the Thiepval Spur was selected as the location of the Anglo-French memorial to the "missing of the Somme" - the men who were killed and whose bodies were never recovered, during the fighting in the vicinity from 1916 to 1918. The piers of the memorial bear the names of over 72,000 British soldiers, who were killed on the Somme battlefields. James Otterson's name appears on one of the piers for Delville Wood, though that is not precisely where he died.

Below:  This World War 1 battlefield map shows the trenches leading to the Stuff Redoubt, which was the final objective of the Battle of Thiepval Ridge. The label identifying Hessian Trench, where James probably died in the British attack on September 30, is not shown on the original map and has been added.

Credit: Green Howards Regimental War Diaries (Hessian Trench label added)
Credit: Green Howards Regimental War Diaries (Hessian Trench label added)

IN RETROSPECT,  it seems the odds were always against James Otterson surviving World War I.  Posted first to the Gallipoli Peninsular, then to the Somme, he fought in two of the bloodiest battles of the war, each with their appalling cost in human lives.

Evacuated from Gallipoli with other members of the Green Howards, James Otterson arrived in the port of Alexandria, Egypt, on 7 February 1916. From the docks they marched to Ramleh Station, one of the oldest rail lines in the world, and then traveled by electric rail car to Sidi Bishr for the final march to camp.

For four months the troops remained in Egypt, and the record shows only routine training - camel loading and riding with two companies from May 1-12, musketry on the range from May 20-31, and the inevitable typhoid inoculations. But at last they vacated the camp and arrived at the southern French port of Marseilles on July 1, 1916.

The next day was a Sunday, and the troops entrained for northern France. It took two days to reach Petit Houvin, a village in the arrondissement of Arras in north-eastern France, after stops for meals at Orange, Macon, Nuits St. Favier and Montereau. From Petit Houvin where the troops detrained, they marched to billets at Ecoivres. Over the next weeks, the soldiers moved from billet to billet with periods of practice for trench assaults.

From the war diaries at the Green Howards Museum in Richmond, Yorkshire, we can get a fairly accurate picture of where James lost his life, although exactly how will never be known. In the summer of 1916, the Thiepval Ridge in the region of the Somme in France was an important strategic objective for British Empire forces and their French Allies. The Germans had constructed formidable defenses, including deep trenches and shell-proof dugouts 30 feet deep that could accommodate an entire trench garrison. The German front line sat behind sixteen rows of barbed wire, and a second line lay behind another five rows. Massive shelling alone would never be sufficient to destroy those defenses.

Detailed accounts of the various battles of the Somme from July to October, 1916, are available online from a multitude of authoritative Internet sources. The following account is significant because of the specific mention of September 30 - the date James Otterson died - and reference to the 6th Yorkshires (Green Howards) with whom he served. It is taken from a Wikipedia Encyclopedia essay, "Capture of Stuff Redoubt."

"The 32nd Brigade took over from the 34th Brigade on the right of the 11th Division, ready to take the rest of Stuff Redoubt, in concert with the West Yorkshire and Green Howard battalions in the south face and in Hessian Trench, to link with the Canadians at 6:00 p.m., with two companies of the 8th Duke of Wellington's, which had got into Zollern Trench. The Dukes were delayed by German artillery bombardments and congestion in the trenches and the attack was delayed. Later on a party in Stuff Redoubt bombed forward on the right flank, captured the north side of Stuff Redoubt and gained ground further on but this was later abandoned, when the party ran out of ammunition during German counter-attacks. The 33rd Brigade sent patrols forward towards Stuff Trench, which was found to be full of German troops. 

On 29 September, the 8th Brigade, (3rd Canadian Division) attacked at noon with the 32nd Brigade of the 11th Division on the left flank. A Stokes mortar bombardment was arranged as well as the usual creeping barrage and three companies of the 6th York and Lancaster reached Hessian Trench, most of which was captured. Touch was gained with the Canadians but a 200 yd (180 m) length of trench on the left, next to Stuff Redoubt was not captured. The troops still in the redoubt attacked the north side again and almost ejected the last of the garrison before running out of hand grenades. The survivors had to retire to the south face, where they repulsed a German counter-attack in the evening. The British attacks made it impossible for the German 8th Division to be relieved until 30 September. The 32nd Brigade had run out of fresh battalions and the 7th South Staffordshire of the 33rd Brigade was sent forward as a reinforcement.

On 30 September, the II Corps resumed its attacks, intending to expel the Germans from their positions in Hessian Trench with converging attacks by 11th Division bombers, after a preliminary bombardment. At 4:00 p.m., a 6th York and Lancaster bombing party advanced west along Hessian Trench, the 7th South Staffordshire attacked up Zollern Trench to the support line of the old German second position and the troops in the south face of Stuff Redoubt attacked again. The attacks gained ground against determined German resistance and by nightfall the division had taken its objectives, except for the north side of the redoubt. Canadian bombers assisted the capture of Hessian Trench and during the night, the 33rd Brigade and the 32nd Brigade began to be replaced by the 25th Division.

British operations concluded on 30 September, with the capture of a large portion of the Schwaben Redoubt, north of Thiepval."

This account is entirely consistent with the war diary entry below. This leads to the conclusion that James was killed in the successful British attack on Hessian Trench on the last day of the battle for Stuff Redoubt. He was one of 381 casualties.

  • 26 Sep Relieved by Sherwood Foresters & 7th S. Staffs. To Bouzincourt. 12.30pm orders received to move to Crucifix Corner. A & D Coys occupied Ribble St. CB & HQ & Lewis Gunners in dugouts S of Crucifix Corner.
  • 27 Sep Moved into support of 34th Brigade into Ration and Sulphur Trenches. C Coy moved off 12.10, other coys at 5 min intervals. Orders to attack at 3pm R 21 c 58-55 (Stuff Redoubt) to assembly trench. C & B Coys advanced on Zollern Trench.  3pm attack postponed. C& B Coys stopped in Zollern Trench. 4-6pm C & B Coys assembled and took trench 91-45. W Yorks on R failed to gain objective. 9.15pm disposition - C Coy C34 - C45, part of C Coy & W Yorks C45 - C18.
  • 28 Sep 2nd Lt W A Boot missing. Orders for attack on Stuff Redoubt at 6pm. Attack postponed but message didn't get through. Troops attacked 7.42 gained 38 & 37 but couldn't hold - lack of ammunition and bombs.
  • 29 Sep Attacked and regained N face of Stuff Redoubt but could not be held - no bombs or ammunition sent up.
  • 30 Sep Orders to occupy whole of Hessian Trench from 21.d 99 - C55. Successful. Captured ground was consolidated. Casualties 381 OR. Relieved by 10th Cheshire Regt.

There was a family story of unknown origin that told of James and his brother Robert being together on that fateful day of September 30, but the facts prove otherwise. Robert had distinguished himself just three days earlier in trench warfare near Fricourt, five miles to the south. On the day James was killed, Robert was bivouacked.

Research note

The conclusions above are based on research in the Green Howards regimental war diaries by James Otterson, great nephew of James Otterson (1884-1916) in 2018, and by Margaret Otterson Seabourne, James's great niece, in 2006.

Back in England during World War 1, countless wives had to deal with the news that their husbands had been killed at the front. The shocking loss of life in that conflict would eventually be memorialized in stone epitaphs erected in almost every British town and village. We have no record of how Jessie reacted to the sudden reality that she would now have to raise five children on her own (the couple had already lost a one-year-old, Elizabeth, three years earlier).

Jessie never remarried, though she was only 35 when her husband was killed. Some of her descendants have memories of her. Grandson  Thomas Hindmarsh Henderson recalls: "The whole family used to go to her house to celebrate her birthday with what was known as "The Boxing Day Tea." Imagine over 30 adults and children crammed into one small room. It has become a tradition with my family to come together on that same date to have "The Boxing Day Tea."

Great granddaughter Jackie Otterson Murray believes that Jessie is buried at the cemetery in the Durham County village of Heworth.  She remembers her as an old lady with dark clothing, grey hair in a bun, typical of the time. She lived in Crow Street where Jackie was born.  Jackie says Jessie "was like a mum to my mother and helped in hard times."