Private Webster witnessed Hartlepool attack before action on Western Front – and lived to tell the tale

Reverend David Webster with photographs and information about his late father Private Robert Webstar DLI.
Reverend David Webster with photographs and information about his late father Private Robert Webstar DLI.

TOMORROW’S Hartlepool Mail includes the first in a series of souvenir supplements to mark the upcoming centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.

The paper is also looking at how the town itself and its people were caught up in the conflict.

GAVIN LEDWITH continues our Hartlepool at War series today by learning how one local soldier survived both the devastating Bombardment of Hartlepool and the bloody Western Front.

PRIVATE Robert Webster watched aghast from his sea-front trench as shells whizzed over his head to wreak havoc on the town he loved.

The Bombardment of Hartlepool, the first attack by a foreign power on British soil for more than two centuries, had begun.

Anywhere between 108-123 people were killed as a result of the onslaught on the town on December 16, 1914, by the German Navy.

Private Robert Webster. Picture by Frank Reid

Private Robert Webster. Picture by Frank Reid

The final figure varies because many of the 200-plus people wounded never recovered from their injuries.

What is in little doubt nearly a century later is that this was and still is the most tumultuous day in the town’s history.

Robert, of Blakelock Road, West Hartlepool, witnessed the carnage while serving with the Durham Light Infantry’s (DLI) 18th Hartlepool Batallion.

He was quick to write down what he saw in his diary and his vivid memories now form part of a detailed scrapbook assembled by son David Webster.

STUCK ON TRAIN: A young Doris Webster witnessed the shelling

STUCK ON TRAIN: A young Doris Webster witnessed the shelling

The Reverend Webster, a retired Church of England vicar, who lives off Elwick Road, Hartlepool, has kindly opened the album for the Mail.

He said: “I don’t think he could believe what he was seeing. Why were they attacking little old Hartlepool?

“The war was just a few months old at the time and a lot of people still thought it would be over in time for Christmas.”

Not only did his father survive the bombardment while defending the town from the trenches.

FORTUNATE: Robert Webster survived both the Bombardment of Hartlepool and two head injuries in no man's land

FORTUNATE: Robert Webster survived both the Bombardment of Hartlepool and two head injuries in no man's land

But he would later cheat death twice in 24 hours after he was posted to the front line in Belgium.

Mr Webster’s mother was also caught up in the bombardment.

Five years younger than her future husband, Doris Brown witnessed the shelling while stuck on a train taking her to school from Hesleden to West Hartlepool.

While it would be wrong to say that Hartlepool was unprepared for the attack, what the town’s defence batteries did not know was that three German cruisers had slipped past British patrol ships in the foggy night.

With dawn rising, they fired first at the patrol ships before turning their attention to the town at around 8.10am.

Robert, then 19, later wrote what he saw from his position on the Headland’s Spion Kop: “I was ordered into trench and watch the bombardment from there.

“Trench hit by light shell Corp Scott wounded. Gasometers blazing.

“Fishing vessels at sea ran for shore. Men jumped into water then ran for it. One hurt or broke a leg.

“Sgt Heal and Corp Brewerton immediately went to his rescue.”

After 42 devastating minutes the German cruisers turned around to rejoin sister vessels which had launched similar attacks on Scarborough and Whitby.

In total at least 137 people died and nearly 600 were injured.

Robert was ordered to the Borough Hall for his batallion, known as one of Durham’s “Pals” batallions because most of the soldiers had signed up in town, to be detailed into rescue parties.

Among the fatalites was Private Theo Jones, 29, an assistant headteacher at West Hartlepool’s St Aidan’s School, who was the first British soldier to be killed on home soil in the war. Another was Etta Harris, 30, a schoolteacher at Henry Smith School, where Doris was heading. Mr Webster, 81, who is married to Pat, 80, who is also a retired priest, said: “My mother’s train stopped because West Hartlepool railway station had been hit. She would recall the shells flying over the top of the train and seeing the gasworks going up in flames.

“Eventually the train was allowed to continue its journey and she changed for the line to Hartlepool. The school was still open and by the time she got there she was told that one of her teachers had died.”

Robert, who was born in Leeming before moving to Hartlepool as a child, would meet Doris after the war while both were working as civil servants.

By that time Robert, a former pupil at Oxford Street School, in West Hartlepool, had come closer to death after transferring to the DLI’s 10th batallion.

He lost consciousness after he was wounded in the head by shrapnel in Polygon Wood, Belgium, on October 17, 1917, during the Battle of Passchendaele.

Mr Webster, who mainly worked in the Durham area before retiring to his hometown, said: “He had to crawl through dead bodies in a daze to try to find his post and then he was shot again in the head.

“He eventually made his way back and underwent a head operation in army hospital before he was evacuated to England.”

Robert’s eventful war was over although he would later become a sergeant major in the Local Defence Volunteers, more popularly known as the Home Guard, during the Second World War.

Mr Webster, a father of three daughters and two sons, was a child when the 1939-45 conflict broke out and said: “When Hartlepool was bombed during the Second World War we were evacuated to North Yorkshire.

“When we came back one of my memories is of my father taking us to Hart Quarry where there was a firing range with tins and bottled used for target practice.

“I even got to hold a Lewis gun and the firing was so bad that the safest place to be that day was on the shelf with those tins and bottles.”

Robert eventually died at the age of 85 in 1980.

While he seldom spoke of his war memories unless asked, he considered himself lucky to survive the conflict.

Mr Webster said: “Given that he was wounded twice in the head in 24 hours and the surgery available in those days, I count myself lucky to be alive as well.”