PRIVATE Joseph Humble joined the Army not once but twice during the First World War, but both times ill health got the better of his desire to serve his country and he was discharged back to the south Durham coalfield, where he died a month before Armistice Day.

He was only 23.

He was buried in Escomb cemetery in an unmarked grave, his family unaware that he qualified for an official headstone and probably too poor to afford their own.

But, after more than 100 years, that wrong will be righted when a proper Portland Stone headstone is unveiled on Wednesday.

The Northern Echo: Pte Joseph Humble

Joseph (above) was born in 1895 in Woodland, above Cockfield, where his father, Thomas, was a coalminer, and his mother, Sarah, was a shoemaker’s daughter from Cumberland.

He was the eldest of four children, and, as the family grew, they moved into Witton Park where in 1905, his father died. Thomas was only 49, which left Joseph, aged 10, as the eldest male.


The 1911 census, therefore, records that Joseph was a brickyard labourer – he would have had to find a job at the earliest possible age to help make ends meet.

On November 23, 1914, in Bishop Auckland, three months after the outbreak of war, he joined the Yorkshire Regiment, but he was discharged on medical grounds on June 21, 1915.

His service record says: “No teeth in upper jaw, suffers from chronic indigestion and is gradually getting thinner and less physically fit, anaemic and debilitated. He is not likely to become an efficient soldier – the fitting of dentures would not render him efficient.”

Back in Witton Park, he became a coalminer.

Yet such was the nation’s requirement for young men to fight, in 1917, he was called up and, on September 25 in Sunderland, he joined the East Yorkshire Regiment. His previous attempt to serve was noted, as was the fact that he’d been unwell since March.

What drove him to join up for a second time? Was he embarrassed that his health had stopped him when so many of his peers had gone to war? Was he desperate to do his patriotic duty? Was he getting a hard time because the public could be very unforgiving of “shirkers”: young men of military age whom they saw in the street not in uniform?

Joseph was immediately sent to Hornsea, in the East Riding, to join his regiment, but on November 9, he was admitted to Hornsea hospital suffering from bronchopneumonia, or inflammation of the lungs, which required a 26 day stay.

He wasn’t out long because on January 24, 1918, he was re-admitted, this time suffering from a dilated heart. Then he was given a TB test, and the results came back positive.

This probably wasn’t a surprise as most of the population had overcome TB without showing any symptoms. However, when it chose a victim, it went for his lungs, making him cough up blood. There was no cure and, beyond rest and nutrition, no treatment and, once a secondary infection had set in, little prospect of recovery.

Joseph’s medical report said: “Patient is in weak condition confined to bed. Tuberculosis of lungs.”

He was discharged from the army for a second time on March 7, 1918, and sent to a sanatorium, an isolated place where he couldn’t pass his infection on.

During the First World War, TB was the most common cause of medical discharge. Army conditions, with lots of men camped together in cold, cramped conditions without good food, made transmission easy, and to the army, TB was a waste of economic resources as no matter how much was invested in patients’ treatment, they were never likely to be able to fight again – the Americans had to go to the expense of sending hospital ships full of TB sufferers home to the States.

This may be the hidden meaning in Joseph’s first medical report which says that whatever treatment he is given, he will never become an “efficient” soldier.

The Northern Echo: Private Wilfred Robinson's Silver War Badge

Joseph was awarded a small pension and, on April 24, 1918, the Silver War Badge (above), a small pin given to former soldiers to be worn on their civilian clothes to show that they had done their bit and were not shirkers.

It was noted that he was awarded the medal for “tuberculosis of the lungs aggravated by military service”.

The Northern Echo: Pte Joseph Humble's name on the memorial in Witton ParkPte Joseph Humble's name on the memorial in Witton Park

Joseph was back home in Witton Park when he died on October 7, 1918.

Local historian Dale Daniel is Joseph’s great-nephew, and the family always felt he hadn’t been treated fairly. In 2021, along with Kevin Richardson and Bob Dixon, he presented a case to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission which agreed that Joseph was entitled to an official headstone.

The Northern Echo: Joseph HumbleIn place: the new headstone

It will be unveiled at 11am in Escomb cemetery on Wednesday with a little service, including representatives from Joseph’s successor regiments. All interested parties are welcome to attend.