William George Graham was born on 16 May 1890 at 9 George Street, Willington Quay. He was the son of James William and Jane Graham (née Pye) and his birth certificate shows his father’s profession to have been an Iron Ship Plater (although he later became manager of the Kowloon Docks in Hong Kong). William was sent to school in Willington Quay and then attended Bede College in Durham 1909-1911.
His family had a military background, his father having held a commission as a Lieutenant Engineer in the Hong Kong Volunteers whilst his great-grandfather fought at the Battle of Waterloo and was twice wounded. William subsequently joined the 5th Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers, a territorial unit, rose to the rank of sergeant and was then gazetted Second Lieutenant on 8 March 1913. A reference for this commission from his commanding officer in his War Office file (WO 374/28488) states he was “in every way eligible and suitable for a commission”. When war broke he was a school teacher, employed at Stephenson School back in Willington Quay. He was also a sidesman in St Peter's, Wallsend. On 14 October 1914, while the battalion was still based in Walker, he married Annie Evelyn Briggs (of 14 Lord Street, Southport, Lancashire) at St Mary’s Church in the parish of Elland, Yorkshire.
During the first week of mobilisation Graham acted as Adjutant and subsequently as Signal Officer, and when the Battalion was ordered to the front in April 1915 he went to France 24 hours in advance as Captain in charge of his Brigade Transport. Within three or four days of landing the battalion was rushed up to the firing line to assist Canadian and Middlesex Regiment battalions. The first day at the front the 5th Battalion lost their Brigade Signal Officer and Captain Graham had to take up those duties for a few days. In similar circumstances Graham subsequently took up the duties of Adjutant for a time before re-joining his company. In the spring of 1915 he was mentioned in dispatches by Field Marshal Sir John French (London Gazette, 18 June 1915). An account by a brother officer of Graham’s actions at this time was reprinted after his death in The Bede magazine:
The first day the Regiment came seriously under fire on April 25, he set a fine example by the fearless way in which he carried out his duties under heavy shell fire, and from that day to the end wherever there was a difficult or dangerous piece of work to be done he has been to the fore.
The Bede, December 1915.
In the week before he was killed Graham himself wrote home of the welcome chance encounters he made with former fellow Bede men, the bulk of whom served in 8 Durham Light Infantry:
[O]nly last night I was returning from a reconnaissance through Ypres when Wheldon and Ewen hailed me from the roadside. You can have no idea how grand and delightful it is to meet the 'chaps' once again.
The Bede, December 1915.
Graham was shot in the head and killed in the trenches by a sniper on 24 June 1915, aged 25. He is buried in the St Quentin Cabaret Military Cemetery, France. His War Office file shows that after his death his widow received a £250 gratuity and a rate of pension of £100 p.a. from 25 June 1915. A daughter, Flora Elizabeth, was born posthumously at Elland on 10 November 1915, and she too was awarded a ‘compassionate allowance’, of £24 p.a., and a gratuity of £83 6s 8d. Graham’s name is to be found on the Bede College 1914-1918 cross, plaque, and Roll of Honour, a plaque and Book of Remembrance in the church of St Peter, Wallsend, and a plaque at Stephenson Memorial Primary School, Willington Quay. He is also listed in the National Union of Teachers War Record 1914-1919 (1920), excerpted here.