For King and Empire

THOMAS Vayro never talked about his experiences in the First World War.

Four treasured medals and a piece of shell casing were the only reminders of the horrors of serving his King and country in the trenches.

Decades later, his fascinated grandson John Rennison Vayro, from Hartlepool, began a journey of discovery to unearth the information granddad could not share.

CHRIS CORDNER reports on his findings.

THERE’S a roll of honour which proudly adorns the walls of a County Durham workingmen’s club.

On it, above the stirring motto “For King and Empire”, stands a list of 350 men who served their country in the Great War.

The list at Willington District Working Men’s Institute includes Thomas Vayro, a sharpshot, keen cook and pretty good with a spade too.

Grandson John Rennison Vayro, from the King Oswy area of Hartlepool, was fascinated by genealogy.

“Grandfather Thomas seldom spoke of his war experience,” said Rennison.

“But in my childhood I had seen his four treasured medals, and a shell casing he had brought home, and learned that he had served in both Belgium and France as part of B Company, Sixth Battalion, Durham Light Infantry (DLI).”

A quest for more soon began.

Thomas, it emerged, was an orphan by the time he was nine in 1893. He and his eight siblings grew up tough, in a workhouse where he “must have learned how to fight off bullies”.

By 1901, he was a 17-year-old Brancepeth Colliery miner.

Five years later, he and dozens of other pitmen had joined the Second Volunteers Battalion DLI.

Another year later, he was a husband to his first wife Anne Dunn, but she died shortly afterwards, leaving him a son Thomas Henry.

In 1913, he married Ethel Poole and had a further four sons and three daughters.

Yet family life was replaced by the First World War.

As war loomed ever closer, Thomas learned soldiering in training camps at Rothbury, Scarborough, Strensall, and in July 1914, at Conway in North Wales.

By August 1914, his regiment, the “Faithful Sixth” Battalion of the DLI, was on war alert and the long wait for action was finally over on November 14 that year.

“The Sixth left their billets, went by train to Folkestone, and sailed on the Invicta to Boulogne,” said Rennison, a father-of-three and grandfather-of-seven who hails originally from Willington in County Durham and has lived in Hartlepool for more than 40 years.

Mile after mile of marching followed, first to the killing fields of Ypres and onwards to Boesinghe where Thomas first got his taste of the “Front Line”.

What he did there is unclear. This multi-talented man, known to be a keen shot, could have been a rifleman, troop supplier, rations man.

Or even a trenches’ heavy digger thanks to his coalface skills.

As the war progressed, Thomas survived a German gas attack at Brandhoek, a freezing winter, trench foot, and quagmire conditions underfoot with only copious mugs of tea to raise morale.

But war was not all trench warfare, In a photograph taken in 1917, he was pictured at Arras relaxing.

Rennison said: “Thomas emerged from the war relatively unscathed, apart from minor wounds but in the final skirmishes in 1918, he was captured and spent time as a prisoner of war.

“After reading other articles about The Great War, describing the atrocities that took place, and realising that many thousands of soldiers were lost in France and Belgium, I now understand why my grandfather never wanted to talk about his experiences.

“Instead, he set about raising his family, and returned to work in the local collieries at Brancepeth, Oakenshaw and Sunnybrow where he continued until 1950, when aged 67 he retired having deliberately worked an extra two years to get an additional six pence on his weekly pension.”

He survived the depression and remained a Willington man until he died aged 83 in 1966.

Rennison added: “My search for information on his military life still continues.

“My own memories of my grandfather are of a thin wiry man, hard as nails through many years of working in the mines, and because of his military discipline would take no nonsense from his children and particularly his grandchildren.”

But he was a proud man who, until well in his 70s, planted vegetables in his council house garden, and “still walked to the local club for a pint of ale with his friends who worked or fought beside him”.