DARLINGTON’S war memorial was unveiled on November 11, 1928, when Sgt Joseph Stephenson led a bodyguard of former servicemen out of the newly-built memorial hall towards the Cenotaph, which was draped in a Union flag.

“On pulling a cord,” said the programme which explained the ceremony, “the flag for which such countless numbers of his comrades made the supreme sacrifice will flutter down.”

Sgt Stephenson had been chosen for this auspicious occasion just minutes beforehand. The names of 25 suitable ex-servicemen were put forward to the British Legion, and his name was drawn out in a ballot.

He was a perfect choice for the prestigious role.

Born in Haughton-le-Skerne in 1894, he was distantly related to George Stephenson, the famed railway engineer, and was himself a railwayman – before the war, Joseph was a railway engine cleaner, living in Bright Street.

He joined the Durham Light Infantry as soon as he turned 18 in 1912, and was called up to fight on August 5, 1914 – the day after the First World War broke out.

He arrived in France in January 1916, and fought his way through the Battle of the Somme, including the Battle of Flers-Courcelette where the British used tanks for the first time. 1917 saw him in Flanders, fighting the Third Battle of Ypres, and in early 1918, he was with 20DLI in northern Italy, pushing the Austrians back. Then it was back to France, and Armistice Day found him in Cologne.

To survive four years of the war was a major achievement, helped by an enormous dose of luck, and he returned to the railway in Darlington in 1919. He married Hannah and they lived in Eldon Street – a classic railwayman’s terrace off North Road.

During the national emergency of April 1921, Joseph, a railway policeman, responded to a call by Prime Minister David Lloyd George and returned to the DLI as a member of the Defence Force.

The mines were being returned by the Government to their private owners who tried to enforce pay cuts of up to 49 per cent on the miners. They voted to strike, and the Triple Alliance of unions – mining, railwaymen and transport workers – was expected to bring the country to a standstill.

The king declared a national emergency and Lloyd George whistled up the Defence Force to guard mines and railways against flying pickets. The Prime Minister, who had an eye for show, even installed machine guns at some pitheads.

However, hours before the strike was due to begin, the unity of the Triple Alliance broke down, and the action was called off.

Tens of thousands of former soldiers had, like Joseph, joined the Defence Force on a 90 day contract, and at the end of his time, he received a letter from Lloyd George saying how his service would be “remembered with gratitude by all sections of the community”.

It was in these desperate days of economic upheaval that Darlington, with huge ambition as we told in Memories 498, was trying to fund raise to build a hospital as a memorial to the fallen of the war. It was very difficult, and the project was really saved by the railwaymen starting to hold a week-long bi-annual carnival to collect money.

In 1928, the memorial hall, which has the names of 700 fallen men on its walls, was complete along with obelisk – it was, said The Northern Echo, “a simple but stately column of Stainton stone”, from near Staindrop.

In the heavy drizzle, 9,000 people watched Joseph and his bodyguard march to the obelisk.

“With the eyes of the large crowd upon him, he mounted the steps which form the base of the monument, grasped the cord and pulled it, whereupon the draping, a Union Jack, slide gracefully from the column and exposed it to full view,” said the Echo.

Referring to the years of delay – the hospital didn’t formally open until 1933 – the paper said: “It gives the town at long last some outward and visible symbol of its everlasting gratitude to, and remembrance of, its 700 brave sons who made the supreme sacrifice.”

Afterwards, Joseph said of his surprise moment in the spotlight: “It is a very great honour and I am deeply appreciative of it. Something seemed to tell me last night that I would get it, but I did not dare hope.”

But Joseph had known men who had not returned whose names were missing from the walls, and he wanted to get them the recognition they deserved.

After serving as a special constable during the Second World War, Joseph died in 1955 and his grandson, Paul, has researched the stories of more than 400 men from the First World War and 100 from the Second who appear to have been overlooked.

There are, we believe, moves afoot to find a way to update Darlington’s memorial and get the names included.

L With thanks to Joseph’s great-grand-daughter, Tracy Henderson, for her help