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Saving Private Smith: real WWI story that beats Hollywood

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Published : 2014-08-04 20:52
Updated : 2014-08-04 20:52

BARNARD CASTLE, United Kingdom (AFP) ― “Saving Private Ryan” became a Hollywood classic with its heroic tale of how a World War II soldier was rescued from the front line after losing three of his brothers in action.

But the real-life story of Private Smith, brought home by royal request from the trenches of World War I following the deaths of his five brothers, puts the movie in the shade.

A simple stone memorial in the rural market town of Barnard Castle in northern England bears the names of five Smith boys: Robert, George Henry, Frederick, John William and Alfred.
The names of three brothers, Alfred, Frederick and George Smith, who served as British WWI soldiers, are pictured on a WWI memorial in Barnard Castle, near County Durham, July 11. (AFP)

Their deaths across two short years of bitter fighting on the Western Front tell of an almost unparallelled family tragedy, yet it is the survival of the youngest brother Wilfred that provides drama worthy of any blockbuster.

For Wilfred’s granddaughter Amanda Nelson, the sadness of the family’s past was only recently brought crashing into the present when she sat down and watched Stephen Spielberg’s epic movie “Saving Private Ryan.”

“As soon as I saw the film I thought ― this is just like what happened to my granddad,” said the 47-year-old care worker, who still lives in Barnard Castle.

“It should have been called ‘Saving Private Smith,’ due to the fact that he got sent back from the war, because he’d lost his five brothers.

“It was a sad film but it did make me think that it was based on our family.”

When Wilfred joined the fighting in 1917 aged 19, the Smith family was already grieving.

Robert had died in 1916 aged 21, followed soon after by 26-year old George Henry Smith at the Battle of the Somme.

Frederick died at the Battle of Ypres in 1917, the eldest brother John William also died that year and Alfred died in July 1918, just four months before the end of the war.

Leafing through 100-year-old family documents with her mother Dianne Nelson, Wilfred’s daughter, Amanda points at a haunting photograph of four of the Smith brothers posing together in uniform before heading off to fight.

“Apparently my great-grandmother would say, ‘don’t have boys because they’ll only grow up to be cannon fodder,’” Amanda told AFP.

Of the several hundred men from Barnard Castle who fought in World War I, 125 were killed.

The terrible price paid by Margaret Smith was recognized at the unveiling of the town’s war memorial in 1923, when she was chosen to lay the first wreath, with Wilfred at her side.

By then she had also lost her husband, John. “All that she had left was my granddad Wilf,” said Amanda.

The four-year conflict left 10 million dead and 20 million injured and maimed on its battlefields ― 1 million dead in Britain and her empire.

It was not uncommon for British families to lose more than one son, especially when many friends, relatives or colleagues would join the fight together as part of “pals brigades” which were recruited locally.

One day of slaughter on a battlefield in France or Belgium could decimate a community and wipe out the male line of an entire family.

Towards the end of the war, the tragic toll on the Smith family prompted the wife of the local vicar to write to Queen Mary, the wife of King George V, to plead for Wilfred to be returned home.

“The town was aware of the great sacrifice that the Smith family had made,” said Peter Wise, an amateur local historian who recently uncovered the account of the royal intervention in the archives of the local newspaper.

“Losing five sons was a lot and it was the death of the last son which was the straw which triggered off the action.”

The vicar’s wife, Mrs. Bircham, wrote to the queen and was informed that her letter had been passed onto the relevant authorities.

“Action did take place so the letter must have had an effect,” said Wise.

Wilfred was brought home alive, although he suffered for years from the respiratory effects of a mustard gas attack.

He stayed in Barnard Castle, married and worked as a chimney sweep and stone mason, before dying at the age of 74 in 1972.

Wilfred used to visit the memorial to his brothers, a tradition continued by his daughter, now 70.

“My dad never talked about the war. He didn’t like to mention anything like that,” Nelson recalled, looking at the names on the memorial of the five uncles she never met.

“He was a good dad,” she added.

“If my granddad hadn’t been sent home we wouldn’t be here,” said Amanda. “But the Smith name is still going.”

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