Col. William Ritsons CMG

Lt. Col. William Ritson

The Early Years
William Henry Ritson was born on the 21st Oct 1867 to Annie and Utrick Alexandra Ritson and was one of five children.

As a young man he was sent to his father’s home town of Cambridge to a boarding school called Leys School before going on to Cambridge University.

Joining The Army
By 1885 he was back at home in the North East and joined the 3rd (Volunteer) Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers. The volunteer battalion’s were the forerunners of today’s territorial army and William’s battalion was based at Fenham barracks in Newcastle although their HQ was at Alnwick.

Two years after joining, on the 18th Feb 1887, he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant.

As he was part of a volunteer battalion he was living at home and working in the family business of coal mining, at this time the Ritson family owned three mines in the Durham area. They had plans to expand and so he went abroad and became a student at Germany’s leading Academy for Mining Sciences in Clausthal, Germany.

He arrived on the 29th May 1889 and spent just short of three months at the mining academy, which is just one “semester” (term) at a German university, returning to England on the 20th August.

His Military Career
Almost a year to the day after returning, on the 15th of Aug 1890, he was promoted to Captain within the battalion at the age of 21.

He continued working hard at both careers and on the 1st of Aug 1899 he was promoted again to become a Major.

In 1908 a reorganisation of the British army’s reserve forces was carried out which meant the 3rd (Volunteer) Battalion became part of the new the Territorial Force. The “Volunteer Battalion” designation was discarded, and territorial battalions were numbered to follow on after the existing regular army and special reserve battalion numbers, meaning the 3rd (Volunteer) Battalion became the 6th (City) Battalion (Territorial Force), Northumberland Fusiliers. On the 4th of June of that year Major Ritson was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and appointed as the first Commanding Officer of the newly formed 6th Battalion.

On the 11th of Jan 1910 Lt Col Ritson was awarded the Volunteer Officers Decoration, a medal awarded after a minimum of 20 years service for “long and meritorious services of officers of proved capacity in Our Volunteer Force”. It was presented on the 28th of Feb 1910 by the Brigade Commander, Colonel Sturges.

A year and a half later, on the 19th of Sep 1911, Lt Col Ritson was decorated again when he was one of six people in his battalion chosen to receive a medal marking the coronation of King George V.

On the 18th of Sep 1912 resigned his commission and handed over command of the 6th battalion, bringing to an end just over 25 years of service with the volunteer forces.

Raising the Commercials
On the 6th of August 1914, two days after the outbreak of World War One, a small group of business men met in Milburn House in Newcastle to discuss the situation, Lt Col Ritson was one of those men. They formed the Citizens Training League which eventually gave rise to a number of local battalions.

The league began to train local men with Lt Col William Ritson taking the role of the commandant however it was not enough to satisfy the locals. On the 2nd of September 1914 the Newcastle and Gateshead Chamber of Commerce sent a telegram to the war office asking for permission to recruit.

No authority was received but that didn’t stop the men of the Citizens Training League volunteering. On the 6th of September 1914 Lt Col Ritson was able to tell 250 men who had accepted enlistment in the 9th (Service) battalion, forming the Quayside company, that they were to go to Bovington Camp in Dorset to comment training.

On the 8th of September 1914 the war office accepted the offer made by the Chamber of Commerce and recruiting began for the 16th (Service) (Newcastle Commercials) Battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers. By the 16th of September, 8 days after starting to recruit, the battalion had all the men they needed, in those days an average battalion was about 1000 strong.

It was a local battalion known as a pals battalion because men joined together in local recruiting drives, with the promise that they would be able to serve alongside their friends, neighbours and work colleagues, rather than being allocated to regular Army regiments.

Training The New Battalion

The battalion started it’s training in the grounds of the Royal Grammer School in Newcastle with the 35 year old William at it’s head. This lasted for this lasted for just over two months until a training camp was prepared for them on the Duke of Northumberland’s land in Alnwick in December 1914.

At the start of World War One it was quite normal for battalions to carry out 6 months or more of training as they not only had to train the men to be soldiers but also the battalion had to be trained to work with other battalions.

They were in Alnwick until March 1915 before moving to Plessey for a time. By July they were in Catterick and then finally in August they moved to Codford Camp on Salisbury Plain.

Active Service
By the end of November 1915 the battalion finally finished their training and moved to France, arriving in Boulogne on the 22nd of November. It took over a week to march from the port to there eventual destination of Meaulte and Dernancourt which is where they entered the trenches for the first time on the 1st of December 1915.

As well as the hardship of life in the trenches the now 49 year old William had to contend with sickness as well. According to the battalion war diary on the 17th of January 1916 he missed a visit by the Duke of Northumberland as he was laid up with a bad throat. It must have been a bit more than that however as the morning after the visit he was evacuated to hospital in Warloy. On his discharge from hospital he was sent to the south of France to recuperate, eventually rejoining his men 6 weeks later on the 22nd of March.

He obviously wasn’t a well man however as just 6 weeks later, whilst the battalion was on a rest period behind the lines, he collapsed during a tactical scheme (a sort of training exercise) on the 9th of May and once again sent to the hospital at Warloy.

On the 3rd of June 1916 William, now back in the trenches, was made a Companion to the Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George (CMG) for services rendered in connection with military operations in the field. This award is part of the same honours system as knighthoods, OBE’s and MBE’s.

Ten days later on the 13th of June 1916 William was mentioned in dispatches by General Sir Douglas Haig for gallant and distinguished conduct in the field. An MID is the lowest form of recognition that was announced in the London Gazette and lists those men who had been nominated as worthy of a special mention.

On the 1st of July 1916 the battalion was back in action and took part in a major battle which started at 7.30am. By the end of the day they had been reduced to just 8 officers and 279 other ranks, they stayed in continuous action until they were eventually relieved on the night of the 14th of July. The battle went on without them and eventually became known as the battle of the Somme.

The battalion was moved behind the lines and into billets for a period of rest. They moved around a number of times but for the remainder of the month were employed on training and providing work parties to the division.

Leaving The Trenches
On the 31st of July 1916 Lt Col Ritson appears on the list of wounded men. There is no explanation given in the battalion war diary or the battalion magazine however William’s Grandson has said that at some point he was bitten on the nose, right through his nostril, by a rat. Bearing in mind what else rat’s would have been living on it is easy to see how this could severely wounded him.

He relinquished his command just 6 days later on the 6th of August 1916. The historical records for the battalion describe the reaction when he announced to his men that he was leaving for home, it says:

“He had raised the 16th, and had commanded it from birth. The thought of his leaving distressed us all. We knew he had been ill for some time but had hoped his stay in the north would have helped in his recovery. It was not to be. He left us on the 6th of August. The men disobeyed orders for the first time, determined to show their affection for the first time for the Chief who had cared for them for so long. As the Colonel left headquarters they paraded the street singing “Auld Lang Syne”. As a final send off they gave three hearty cheers, north countrymen to a north country man”.

On leaving the forces, his discharge address is listed as being Springwell hall, Durham which is now called St Leonard’s Roman Catholic School and is in the middle of Durham.

Volunteer Regiments
When he got home he didn’t just sit back and forget about the war. On the 20th of January 1917 he is mentioned in the Journal newspaper as trying to get volunteers for the Newcastle Volunteer Training Corps then six months later, on the 25th of July 1917, he is mentioned in the London Gazette as being appointed as the Group Commandant of the Durham Volunteer Regiment, a sort of home guard regiment of the time. He continued in that role until the 23rd of October 1917.

Following his discharge from the forces, Lt Col Ritson also continued his pre-war work for the family company, UA Ritson and Sons. His father, Utrick Alexander Ritson was the chairman, while brothers JR Ritson and William Henry Ritson were listed as directors. As well as the collieries in Durham they now owned Preston Colliery in North Shields, employing just under 1300 people.

The Scouts
He also began to get involved in the Scout Movement. Lieutenant General Baden Powell had been a regular visitor to William’s battalion between early 1908 and 1910 delivering lectures on reconnaissance and scouting. Baden Powell was a guest at battalion dinner nights and visited weekend training camps and as commanding officer William would have hosted him. As the Scout Movement had just started it’s fairly safe to assume it would have been a topic of conversation.

According to Claire Woodforde who works in the archives at the Scout Headquarters in Gilwell, William was appointed as the Scout Divisional Commissioner for the North Western Mid Durham District, which Durham Scouts say covered Durham City and Chester-Le-Street from late 1917. Durham County Scouts say he continued in that role until Durham County split up into Districts in 1919. Cuthbert Vaux (of Vaux breweries) was appointed as their County Commissioner and William became the District Commissioner for Durham City District.

Col Ritson’s involvement with our group began when he loaned the 1st Chirton Scouts Preston colliery’s ambulance hut to use as a headquarters as the building they were in, the Chirton chapel, was no longer suitable.

In 1917, as a way of saying thank you, the group’s title was changed to Preston Colliery (Col. Ritson’s Own). In 1923 when the colliery began to close down he stepped in again and the Scouts were given the building outright.

Back in Durham when Cuthbert Vaux died in 1927, as well as being the District Commissioner, William became the Acting County Commissioner, a post he held for two years.

He must have still had connections with his old battalion as on the 26th November 1930 he was gazetted as Honorary Colonel of the 6th (Newcastle) Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers, his old pre-war battalion.

In 1931 he became the first chairman of the newly formed Durham county scouts finance committee. He was still in people’s minds in Tynemouth though and in a letter dated the 6th of January 1933 to the secretary of the Boy Scouts Association, Tynemouth District secretary asked for permission to change our Group’s name to the 3rd Tynemouth (Ritson’s Own). In the letter he is described as an active commissioner in County Durham.

He continued as the chairman of Durham’s county finance committee until he moved out of the city in 1934 at the age of 67. When he left he was presented the Silver Acorn in the St. Georges Day awards and Durham believe he was the first ever person in the County to be awarded it. They also think he met his friend Lord Baden-Powell again during a visit around the same time.He eventually passed away on the 12th of April 1942, aged 75 from a heart condition.