BARNARD CASTLE, England – Carved into the simple obelisk commemorating the fallen are the names of five sons of Margaret and John McDowell Smith. There’s a story behind the name that isn’t there – a sixth brother, Wilfred – and a century after World War I, a local historian has dug out the details from archives.
Wilfred Smith’s survival is a story of sacrifice amid a war that demanded so much of it from virtually every family in Britain.
Some 9 million soldiers died in the war that began in 1914 and ended in 1918, and it was common for families to lose more than one son. Brothers and friends would join Pals Brigades so they could serve together – and communities found that a single skirmish could wipe out a generation of their men.
Wilfred was the youngest son of a chimney sweep who scraped by in the slums of Barnard Castle, a market town nestled in a landscape dotted by herds of deer and turreted castles in northern England. When Wilfred was 12, there were 10 members of his family living in three rooms in Poor House Yard, according to the 1911 Census of England and Wales.
For many poor young men, joining the army was an adventure, a chance to get regular meals and pay, especially since recruiters told them the war would be over in a matter of months. A local World War I buff, John Pringle, said the boys would have been eager to leave the drudgery of the flax mill or the shoe-thread factory.
Wilfred didn’t want to go, but he did when his country called.
Robert, 22, died first, in September 1916. George Henry, 26, died less than two months later.
Frederick, 21, died in July 1917, while the eldest, 37-year-old John William Stout – who had their mother’s maiden name because she was not yet married when he was born – died in October 1917. The fifth son, Alfred, died in July 1918.
Letter to queen
What happened next was largely unknown until local historian Peter Wise searched the digitized archives of the local newspaper, the Teesdale Mercury, and found a minuscule item buried at the bottom of a long gray column.
Margaret’s grief was apparently more than the vicar’s wife, Sarah Elizabeth Bircham, could bear. Bircham, who organized care packages for troops in the trenches, wrote to Queen Mary, wife of King George V, about the deaths of Margaret’s five sons and how she had a sixth son at war.
The Teesdale Mercury reported what happened next, printing the reply of the queen’s secretary, Edward Wallington.
I am commanded by the queen to thank you for your letter of the 16th instant, and to request you to be good enough to convey to Mr. and Mrs. Smith of Bridgegate, Barnard Castle, an expression of Her Majesty’s deep sympathy with them in the sad losses they have sustained by the death of their five sons.
The Queen has caused Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s request concerning their youngest son to be forwarded for consideration of the War Office authorities.
So Wilfred went home to Barnard Castle – though little is known about exactly how that came about. He suffered the lingering respiratory effects of a mustard gas attack, and newspaper reports suggested he was temporarily blinded. But once home, he worked as a chimney sweep and a stone mason.
At the Bowes Museum, a memorial was erected to residents who fell in the Great War, including Wilfred’s brothers. His mother laid the first wreath at its dedication in 1923 – chosen by the war veterans for the honor. Wilfred was at her side.
He went on to become a devoted husband, father and grandfather who liked to laugh and took joy in simple things. His granddaughter, Amanda Nelson, recalls going to his home for lunch on weekends, where he would delight the little ones by racing snails or other bits of silliness. He lived until 1972, when he died at age 74.
Amanda Nelson made a point of seeing the Steven Spielberg film, Saving Private Ryan. The 1998 Oscar-winning film depicts the fictional account of a World War II rescue mission for a single American soldier whose brothers have been killed in the fighting.
It was as if they knew the story of us – except they are called the Ryans and not the Smiths, she said.
Although Margaret Smith once told a relative Don’t have boys. They’ll just end up being cannon fodder, Amanda Nelson stressed that Margaret believed she did the right thing by allowing her sons to serve.
She would gladly send them again to fight, Amanda Nelson said. For king and country.