As Amanda Harrison looks up at the war memorial in her home town of Barnard Castle, County Durham, she points to the names of five great uncles who died in the first world war, one after another. The brothers – Robert (22), George Henry (26), Frederick (21), John William (37) and Alfred (30) – all lost their lives on the battlefields of northern France and Belgium in a period of just 22 months between September 1916 and July 1918.
Four are commemorated in cemeteries near where they fell, while Frederick is remembered on the Menin Gate in Ypres, along with 55,000 other soldiers whose bodies were never found.
To this day, Harrison cannot comprehend how the boys’ mother, Margaret Smith (her great grandmother), endured so much pain and grief. Throughout the war, Margaret and her husband, John, kept a photograph of their boys on the mantelpiece.
But in grim succession, the telegrams arrived with terrible news that another would never return.
“You know yourself when you have got kids,” Harrison says, her eyes closing. “To think that Margaret had all these boys. She lost the first boy, then six or seven weeks later she lost a second one, and then it was only a couple of months later that she lost a third, and they were just getting wiped out. And so it went on. Five of them in all, and mostly they were just kids, only in their early twenties.”
If that were all there was to the extraordinary story of the Smith family’s experiences of the first world war, it would be remarkable enough.
But Harrison, and her children and grandchildren, would not be here today to tell the tale were it not for the equally remarkable events that ensured the survival of a sixth brother, the youngest, Wilfred, her grandfather.
Four of the five Smith brothers from Barnard Castle, County Durham, who died in quick succession in the first world war.
As news of the deaths of successive brothers spread round the town, such was the outpouring of sympathy for the Smiths that some could not bear the thought that even worse might come.
One of those most deeply affected was the wife of the local vicar, a Mrs Bircham, who took it upon herself to write to Queen Mary, George V’s wife, to ask for Wilfred to be returned home to ensure at least one brother survived.
Soon after that intervention, Margaret Smith received a letter from Edward Wallington, private secretary to the queen, and this time it bore good news.
He wrote that the queen “has caused Mr and Mrs Smith’s request concerning their youngest son to be forwarded for consideration of the war authorities”.
Wilfred was duly afforded the necessary official discharge and came back to Barnard Castle to be with his mother in the early autumn of 1918.