At the outbreak of the First World War, George Butterworth was being described as the most promising British composer of his day.
George was born in Paddington, London in 1885 but at the age of six moved to Yorkshire when his father became first solicitor and then General Manager of the North Eastern Railway Company. George inherited his mother’s talent for music (she was a professional singer before her marriage). His parents sent him to Aysgarth Preparatory School, near Bedale where he played the organ during school services. His musical ability led to him gaining an Organ Scholarship to Eton College. He initally entered Trinity College, Oxford with the intention of studying law, but this idea was abandoned as he became increasingly interested in setting down the folk music of the British Isles.
At the outbreak of the First World War, George enlisted in the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry and was later granted a commission in the Durham Light Infantry. He was on active service for almost a year and awarded the Military Cross in 1917. The citation states that he had commanded the Company when the Captain was wounded ‘with great ability and coolness … and total disregard of personal safety’.
Less than a month later, on Saturday 5 August, he was shot through the head by a German sniper in ‘Munster Alley’. Only a day later, William Short of the 8th Battalion, Yorkshire Regiment undertook the action which led to his posthumous Victoria Cross in the same spot.
In his letter of condolence to the Butterworth family dated 13 August, his commanding officer, who had been visiting the company moments before the fatal shot, wrote that George was ‘one of those quiet, unassuming men whose path did not appear naturally to be a military one, … [but he had done his duty] … quietly and conscientiously. When the offensive came he seemed to throw off his reserve and, in those strenuous 35 days in which we were fighting off and on, he developed a power of leadership which we had not realised he possessed.’ He was in charge of a group digging a trench under German fire – this trench was subsequently called the Butterworth Trench on all the official maps – and he was ‘cheery and inspiring his tired men to secure the position which had been won earlier in the night…. Within a minute of my leaving him, he was shot.’
His body was never recovered although it is thought that it might have been interred at the nearby Pozieres Memorial Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery. George’s name is displayed on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Battles of the Somme. This memorial is near the village of Thiepval in Picardy, France, and commemorates the 72,195 missing British and South African men with no known grave.
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