The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

World News

June 20, 2014

Before 'Saving Private Ryan,' Pvt. Smith was saved

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.

Because long before there was the fictional tale of "Saving Private Ryan," there was the real-life story of saving Pvt. Smith.

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The people of Barnard Castle have long known the story of the Smith brothers and that Wilfred, or Willie as he was known, survived.

But how that happened was largely unknown until local historian Peter Wise searched the recently digitized archives of the local newspaper, the Teesdale Mercury. In a minuscule item buried at the bottom of a long gray column came the answer: Queen Mary, wife of King George V, heard about the sacrifice of the brothers and intervened to send Willie home.

A century later, the news has stirred memories and inspired a mixture of pride and astonishment.

"To say it's been massive is probably not an understatement," said Trevor Brookes, the newspaper's editor. "Every parent can probably roughly imagine how terrible it would be to lose a son, but to lose five sons at the risk of losing a sixth — that's tragedy. I don't think any British family suffered a greater loss."

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 so-called "Pals Brigades" so they could serve together — and communities sometimes found that a single skirmish could wipe out a generation of their men.

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