Council historians dig deep to discover the life and death of Private Ditchburn (From The Northern Echo)
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Council historians dig deep to discover the life and death of Private Ditchburn
HISTORIANS have unearthed the last letter home of a County Durham soldier who was one of the first on the frontline in the First World War.
Staff at Durham County Council’s records office have also pieced together a history of Private Joseph William Ditchburn, including detailed descriptions of his tattoos and a list of misdemeanours he committed while in service.
His is one of the many stories the council historians are researching in preparation for the 100th anniversary of the start of the conflict next year.
Principal archivist Gill Parkes said: “By using different sources we have found a lot of information about Pt Ditchburn, much more than we might normally find.”
Pt Dithcburn, a pitman from Tow Law, joined the sixth battalion of the Durham Light Infantry in May 1911 as part of the Territorial Army.
In August that year he switched to the second battalion of the DLI to become a fulltime soldier, probably because the pay and food was better.
On August 6, 1914, two days after war was announced, Private Ditchburn wrote a will and letter to his mother, Margaret Moralee who lived in Crook.
He had risen to the rank of Corporal but was demoted to private upon his own request, possibly because he did not want the responsibility of leading men into battle, Ms Parkes said.
On September 19, Pt Ditchburn and his battalion were deployed to the trenches at Troyes in France, and were among the first soldiers to arrive at the battlefield.
He was shot in the abdomen after he and his comrades made an advance at Vieux Berquin at 2pm on October 13, and died the following day in a hospital in Hazebrouck aged 22.
Ms Parkes and her team have pieced together his story using various military records, his will and last letter home which have recently been released by the Courts and Probate Service.
In one of his military forms, Pt Ditchburn is described as an “intelligent, steady and reliable man” by his supervising officer, while another lists misdemeanours including speaking inappropriately to an officer, being late for parade and staying in bed until 7.20am while in detention.
Descriptions of his tattoos, which were recorded to help identify his body, have also been found, which include detailed notes on a crucifix on his right arm, a woman’s head, and a sword piercing a heart with a ribbon entwined with the words “death before dishonour”.
In the August 6 letter to his mother, Pt Ditchburn said he was sending his bike and clothes home, and said it would probably be his last correspondence to her until the end of the war.
He talked of seeing grown men faint as they bid farewell to their loved ones, before adding: “Mother dear do have courage, if I do die I will die with good in my heart and all your love from my life.”
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