ON December 19, 1915, the 14th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry were in their trenches near Ypres, on the Somme, when the Germans unleashed phosgene gas against them – it was the first time this gas, which turns to hydrochloric acid in the lungs, had been used in the First World War.

Because their trenches were low-lying, the Durhams had to wait five hours before the poisonous atmosphere cleared.

About 1,000 British soldiers were affected by it, of whom 120 died; of the 149 DLI men affected, 22 died.

“Casualties…would have been lighter if there had not been so many defective gas masks,” said the DLI’s official war diary.

The story of the terrible incident was told in Memories 261, which mentioned that Pte George Gough, of 5, South Street, Ferryhill, was one of the 22 to die. Now, thanks to the Ferryhill History Society, we can tell that he died – or even sacrificed himself – because of a faulty gas mask.

George worked with his father at Mainsforth Colliery and volunteered as soon as war broke out in September 1914. He was 33, and was waved off from Ferryhill Station by his family to join the new DLI battalion being raised at Newcastle. The 14th was sent for training in the south, landed at Boulogne in France on September 11, 1915, and was soon pitched into trench warfare.

Near Wietje, on the outskirts of Ypres, at daybreak on December 19, 1915, the Germans released phosgene, which effectively drowns a man in his own body fluids as he fights against the hydrochloric acid.

The British, though, had developed sinister-looking gas masks, made of material impregnated with chemicals which filtered out the dangerous phosgene and chlorine before they could enter the lungs.

However, many of these helmets had holes in them.

In the trenches that Sunday before dawn, as the soldiers heard the sinister hiss of the gas being released from canisters and they felt the shells exploding around them, teenage members of the DLI began to panic as they pulled out their masks for the first time and discovered the faults.

George was 35, an old head. He is said to have calmly exchanged his fully functional helmet for a young man’s hole-ridden one, calming the panic, and hoping against hope for himself.

Sadly, he died, and is buried with most of the DLI who fell that day in Potijze cemetery. His name is on the Mainsforth Colliery war memorial.

To add tragedy to tragedy, the phosgene gas attack benefitted neither side. The Germans hoped it would engender such panic in the British lines that they’d be able to walk unhindered into Ypres. But, partly because of actions by men like George, there was no panic and the line did not break.

On the British side, the soldiers may have stood firm, but they’d also seen men like George cough and drown horribly in front of their own eyes. It increased their terror and left them petrified about what would come their way next…

A MONTH ago, Memories 257 told of the demolition of Fort Bridge, which had stood over the A1(M) since 1957, connecting Catterick Bridge with Catterick camp. It carried the A6136 and, for a few years in the 1960s, the Catterick Military Railway.

A week after that demolition, the roadbuilders upgrading the A1(M) turned their attention to Kneeton Hall Bridge near Middleton Tyas, a little to the north of Scotch Corner, and brought it down.

A new bridge was put over the motorway ensuring Kneeton Hall was still accessible to the rest of the world.

And from the top of the new bridge, the rest of the world can also get a good view of Kneeton Hall.

It is a Grade II listed building that dates from the 16th Century – a date on a doorway, notes the listed buildings schedule, says 1597.

Actually, Kneeton goes back much further than that.

The word “Kneeton” is Old English and means, quite simply, the “tun, or settlement, at the knee or bend of a road”. By either coincidence or 1,000 years of human travel, the new bridge is situated at a noticeably knee-shaped kink on the Barton to Middleton Tyas lane.

The de Kneeton family lived at Kneeton from the 12th Century, and probably had their own little chapel, dedicated to St James, next to their hall.

The hall was rebuilt in 1316 and then again in 1597 by George Frank, whose family had lived there for about 150 years – hence the date above the doorway.

By the 17th Century, the hall was the biggest property in the parish of Middleton Tyas and Moulton, but when the 18th Century began, it was in the wrong place to cash in on the copper mining boom which made Tyas populous and prosperous – it once had 20 public houses.

Kneeton’s importance declined, and in 1822, a historian described the hall as being “now reduced to a single farm house (which) appears to have been at sometime of much more importance”.

The Victorians quarried limestone near it, carrying the stone away on the Barton mineral railway. After the Second World War, the closed railway’s trackbed was converted into the A1(M) and so the hall had to be accessed from its knee-shaped kinky lane by an overbridge.

Unfotunately, that overbridge was not high enough for the tallest lorries to pass beneath, and so northbound abnormal loads were diverted at Scotch Corner along the A66, through the village of Melsonby and back onto the A1(M) at the Barton interchange, which is in the old Kneeton quarry.

In Melsonby, residents’ cars had to be moved so that the vehicles could get through, and one of the streetlamps was deliberately misaligned because it kept getting bumped.

In the 1960s and 1970s, when huge loads regularly passed through for the booming North Sea oil industry, this was quite a nuisance for the villagers – but now, thanks to the demolition of the original Kneeton Hall Bridge, Melsonby is expecting to see juggernauts no more.

MEMORIES featured Melsonby in November (Memories 256) because a DVD of village history has just been released to raise money for the 800-year-old St James’ church. We were delighted to learn that a farmhouse in the village used to be a pub apocalyptically called The End of All Things – known to villagers as “The World’s End”.

By chance, we were flicking through the Darlington & Stockton Times of exactly 150 years ago – December 30, 1865 – and spotted this little snippet: “Melsonby. On Tuesday, an inquest was held in the "All things have an end" public house, before Mr JS Walton, respecting the death of John Dickinson, a miner. Deceased had been poor of health for some time. On Monday night he was retiring to bed and just as he got undressed he fell back on to the bed and expired. Verdict "died from disease of the heart". He has left a widow and four children unprovided for. The coroner and the jury made a collection, to the amount of 15s 6d, for the widow.”

It was rather poor taste to hold an inquest into an early death in a pub called All Things Have An End, but at least Mrs Dickinson was given the equivalent of about £90 with which to bring up her four children.