Tragic tale of family hero who was lost during First World War

George Smallman, Scremerston

George Smallman, Scremerston

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A few years ago I researched a great-uncle who lived in Scremerston and fought in France. His service record was probably similar to many thousands of other young men who received no awards for gallantry, who were never mentioned in dispatches but died for their country and were only remembered by their immediate family and when they too died their memories died with them leaving no record of what the young soldier had done.

My great-uncle was George Smallman, He was born in 1891, and his family settled at Scremerston in 1912. George worked as a hewer at the colliery while his father was employed at the nearby brickworks.

At the start of the war George volunteered to serve in the 7th Battalion (Territorial) Northumberland Fusiliers which was formed on August 4, 1914 at Alnwick.

After basic training the battalion was involved in the Tyne Defences and eventually stood down in April 1915.

Ironically it was after this that the Tyne was attacked on several occasions by Zeppelin raids. George landed in France with the 7th Battalion on April 21, 1915 and became part of the 149th Brigade, 50th (Northumbrian) Division just in time to take part in the second Battle of Ypres. Many men were killed in the attack on St Julien, and a large number were gassed. George survived the ordeal although it is unclear whether he was wounded.

After a rest period the battalion returned to the salient - the ‘bulge ‘ of the front line into enemy territory - where they were entrenched between Wieltje and Hooge for a further four weeks. On June 16 they supported an attack on Hooge that was known as the Second Battle of Bellewarde. After this the battalion was sent to Wulverghem and Armentieres.

Between December 19, 1915 and March 31 the following year, the battalion was entrenched about Hill 60 near Mont Sorrel, Canny Hill, and Sanctuary Wood near Zillabeeke. Hill 60 was a slight rise in the ground south west of Ypres. It had great tactical significance to the Germans who had taken the hill in May 1915. Many attempts were made to retake the hill and it was not until June 1917 that the British were successful.

Unfortunately, victory was short lived as the Germans recaptured the hill soon after.

From war diaries we know where George’s regiment was operating however we know very little of him. At that time the Berwick Advertiser regularly kept its readers informed of local men serving abroad, although sadly, in many cases, it was to announce their death. In one edition it was reported that George had been wounded sometime during May 1916.

The Northumberland Fusiliers have no further record of George serving with the regiment after that date. He was probably sent to an English hospital where he recovered before being sent to a holding depot from where he was transferred to the 7th Battalion Black Watch Regiment and given a new identification number: 241286. George saw action with his new regiment and was wounded two more times. The ‘Casualties of the Great War, 1914-18’ records that George was last wounded on December 29, 1917 while the Berwick Advertiser, dated January 4, 1918, in its District News section for Scremerston, reported: “Private George Smallman, son of Mr and Mrs Smallman of Old Hill, Scremerston, is home on leave from France. He has been wounded three times. He is with the Black Watch and formerly with the Northumberland Fusiliers. He has been in France for about two and a half years and was wounded last time in the push for Cambrai. Private Smallman has seen considerable fighting and has just come out of an English hospital.”

George may have been involved in the First Battle of Cambrai that took place between November 20-27, 1917 when tanks were used in action for the first time. It was after being wounded for the third time, and at home on leave, that George told his younger brother, Clarrie, my grandfather, that he wasn’t going back to the front as he’d seen enough and wasn’t prepared to go through it again. As a result, the military police, or the redcaps as they were known, came and arrested George at his home at Old Hill, Scremerston.

His family never saw or heard from him again. My research has found that he was taken back to his regiment and possibly court-martialed. We do not know what sentence he received, however, he was back on the front line, sometime later, to take part in the Second Battle of the Somme which commenced on March 21, 1918, where the Germans intended to capture Amiens and split the French and British armies. It is believed that George was killed during the battle for Arras possibly near Bapaume along with thousands of others. His body was never recovered although his name, incorrectly written as John Smallman, is engraved, along with the names of 30,000 other men with no known grave, on the memorial at Faubourg-d’Amiens cemetery at Arras. His name is also engraved on the War Memorial at Scremerston along with 13 others from the village who died in the Great War, seven of whom had also served with the Northumberland Fusiliers.

The Berwick Advertiser, in its May 3, 1918 issue, reported: “We regret to learn that Private George Smallman is reported missing. Private Smallman has had more than his share of unwelcome attention from Fritz and we trust that good news will be received from him soon.”

George’s death certificate did record his name correctly although it stated that he was 24 years old. The date of death was listed as being on or since March 21, 1918, and he was presumed missing.

George’s parents received the statutory commemorative scroll from the King along with a bronze medallion inscribed with George’s name which was often sarcastically described as “the King’s Penny”. George was also awarded the Victory Medal and also the British Medal but whether they were ever received by his family is unknown.

George’s story is probably similar to many thousands of young men who died in World War One, and who struggled to survive but were eventually blown away,

My grandfather, who was much younger than George, regarded him as a hero, but never talked about his brother’s exploits in France. Instead he often recalled the rare occasions when George returned home on leave from the front as he wasn’t allowed in the house until he had washed and changed his clothes in the outhouse. Both he and his uniform were always infested with lice. Unimaginable today.

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