• Andy Robson

'With Best Love to Bro from Sis Betsy'

Updated: May 11, 2021

At Your Family Historian we believe that researching family history should be about more than gathering names and dates. We aim to give you your ancestor’s stories. The following is an extract from a family history we prepared for a client. Reproduced here with their kind permission.

Elizabeth Ann ‘Betsy’ Watson was born on 16th September 1897 in Swallwell, Co. Durham. She was the daughter of a Wherryman and the third of nine children. At the outbreak of WW1 Betsy was 17 years old. Her older brother, Tommy, joined the Royal Naval Division and Betsy herself ‘did her bit’ working in a munitions factory.

Tommy and his sister Betsy were very close. When Tommy had proven shy about not having a photograph of a girlfriend to show-off to his comrades, Betsy agreed to sit for a portrait. If you look closely at the photograph you will see that she is wearing his Naval Ratings' tunic and that in the bottom corner she has written ‘with best love to Bro from Sis Betsy’.

Betsy's father, who was 46 at the time, joined the Tyneside Scottish, a ‘Pals’ unit attracting North-East men with Scottish ancestry. He became Private 20/1172 in the 20th (Service) Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers (1st Tyneside Scottish).

The Tyneside Scottish Brigade fought on the first day of the battle of the Somme on 1st July 1916 and as a whole suffered casualties of around 60% - killed, missing, captured and wounded. These were the highest losses of any Brigade on what would prove to be the bloodiest day’s fighting in the history of the British Army.

Sadly, Joseph was among those lost. Records show he was listed as Missing-in-Action and so has no known grave. These were men who had been blown up by an artillery shell or buried beneath tons of mud by the blast, left lying forgotten in No-Man’s Land, or shovelled unnamed into make-shift pits as a sanitary measure. The family must have been devasted by this loss.

In 1932 a Memorial was erected at Thiepval in Picardy to commemorate those men killed on the Somme who have no known Grave.

Thiepval Memorial
Thiepval Memorial - Picture courtesy of the Commonwealth Graves Commission

We cannot know the effect his father’s death had on him, but Tommy was to go on and have a most distinguished war record, being promoted to senior rank and twice decorated for bravery, and twice wounded.

CPO Thomas Watson DCM, MM, RND
CPO Thomas Watson DCM, MM, RND

During his last leave he confided to Betsy that he did not think he would be coming home again.

Sadly this proved to be the case. Tommy suffered gunshot wounds to his chest and abdomen during the early stages of the Ludendorff Offensive in March 1918. He was evacuated to the 3rd Canadian Stationary Hospital at Doullens but died there on 28 March, aged just 22. He was buried in the Doullens Communal Cemetery Extension No.1 (FR 62).

Tommy was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for "conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in moving the men forward under a heavy barrage, collecting many who were stuck in the mud & unable to move. When in the shell holes & during the relief under heavy fire, he was invaluable in steadying a number of men who were very shaken."

Betsy went on to marry and had a large family of her own. She never forgot her older brother though. For the rest of her life she wore a military badge he had given her as a brooch. Betsy died in 1989 aged 92.