Shirley Stephenson visited the museum to tell about the story and final letters of 5444 Private George Brown, 7th battalion, Yorkshire Regiment, the youngest brother of her mother in law. George was the seventh of nine children. Three of his brothers also served in France but survived. In 1915, he left his family home in Brandon, County Durham, to live with his older sister and her family on their farm in North Cowton. Here, he worked for them and was learning the trade of butchery, his sister and husband hoping to set him up, eventually, in his own business but he was called up in May 1916. He enlisted at Croft and was sent to Babworth Camp, Retford.
At the beginning of July, he writes to his sister, Mary, and her husband, Tom, asking them to apply to his commanding officer for a month’s leave in order to assist them with haytime saying, ‘……tell him I worked for you and you can’t get anyone else…. I think you will succeed as he can’t refuse.’ Unfortunately, he could because the Regiment was posted to France; three weeks later, ‘we are going to face the foe….. we poor devils with three months’ training.’
By 25th July, George and his Company were training on the French coast ‘…… it is very hot here…… very tiresome marching around in the sand all day….. we get better food than in Retford but not much of it.’ Three weeks later his letter reads, ‘…. I am not allowed to tell you where we are or where we had been but you can guess it is rough enough…. I could write a book full… we look forward to mail coming…. send Darlington paper….’ A few days later, he is thanking his sister for the cakes ‘…. as fresh as when you baked them….’ and asking for cocoa and a little bit of sugar.
In September, he is in hospital in Lymm, Cheshire and there is a break in the letters until March 1917, when George is once again in France, in the trenches, it is wet, cold and there have been snow showers. A surprising aspect of his letters is the number of times he meets other men from North Cowton whilst in France. He learns from his sisters’ correspondence of villagers who have been killed, injured or gassed. These things bring to immediacy the effect of this global conflict on a very small village. Less surprising perhaps, is the number of times food is mentioned and how appreciative he is of the parcels his sister sends ‘…. wish I had been having supper with you instead of sitting in this barn eating dog biscuits….’ (April 1st 1917). A fortnight later, he is asking for ‘…. bread or anything substantial as we get very little bread, about a week since I saw any. We are living on biscuits and bully beef.’
They have also been involved in the Battle of the Somme. ‘I shall not forget Easter Monday for a bit (9th April 1917) the roughest night I have put in. They have taken our overcoats and blankets off us so we just have to help ourselves to keep warm as we can.’ (It has been raining and snowing).
His last letter, dated 27th April 1917, reads ‘We are at rest for a day or two after a week’s hard fighting. We had a very rough time and lost a lot of our men. I think I was lucky to come through.’ This was the advance at Arras and the River Scarpe.
On 9th May George and C Company were back in trenches north of Roeux, part of an action to move the line forward that lasted until 2.30am on 15th during which they were heavily shelled, there was a shortage of water and by the night of 13th, official reports noted that the men were ‘very tired’. When they were relieved, of the 18 officers and 436 other ranks, only 5 officers and 241 OR remained and 139 of them were wounded. George was one. He died on 14th May, 1917 and is buried in St Nicholas British Cemetery. He was 21 years old.
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Otto Wedgewood was born in July 1882 at Bredgar in Kent to Rowland and Annie Wedgwood. He was a descendant of Thomas Wedgwood, the elder brother of the famous potter Josiah Wedgewood. Otto was one of six children. The 1891 census has Otto’s father’s occupation as ‘living on own means’ and was successful enough to employ two servants. The 1901 census shows Otto was living at the home of his nephew George Maxstead in Hornsea Yorkshire. Otto at the time was an Engineer Apprentice. On the 24th October 1914 Otto embarked from London to Bombay in India. His occupation on the passenger list is given as ‘Expert’ and presumably the trip was work related. It is not certain when he returned to Britain. However, it probable that he felt he had to ‘do his bit’ for the war effort and so came home. He subsequently joined the Royal Engineers. From the 4th May 1917 he served with CRE IX Corps. The London Gazette of the 4th December 1915 details Otto attaining the rank of 2nd Lieutenant. By the end of the war he was a Captain. Otto spent time in Canada in the early 1930s but by 1939 he was back in England working as a Cement Works Manager at Gravesend in Kent. In 1944 he married Stella Vincett in Chatham. Otto died on the 23rd May 1957 and was cremated five days later at Greenwich in London. He was 74 years old. Otto’s Granddaughter, Jeanette Schofield, in Richmond.
Joseph (third from left) was born around 1884 in Ainderby Steeple near Northallerton in North Yorkshire. He was the eldest of five children to Thomas and Amelia. He would eventually end up living at East Witton where he worked on the Jervaulx estate. He married Agnes Kendray and they would have three children. Joseph was a fine athlete as witnessed on Coronation Day June 22nd 1911. In the fell race to the top of Witton Fell and back Joseph came first. His exploits were published in the parish magazine. Joseph enlisted at Middleham joining the 7th Battalion Yorkshire Regiment. The Battalion embarked for France on the 13th July 1915. It was during operations in February 1917 in an area of the Somme that heavy German artillery would take a heavy toll. A shell destroyed a cellar being used to house stretcher cases killing most of the men. One of those reported missing was Private Joseph Allen. His body was never found. Joseph’s name is commemorating on the Thiepval Memorial. A service was held at East Witton Church on the 3rd March. Tragically, one month after the service, Joseph’s widow Agnes died, aged 33, leaving three young orphans.
Maureen Hunt told us about her grandfather, William Smith. William was born around 1883 in Wirksworth, Derbyshire and worked as a bath attendant at Matlock before the war. He volunteered early in the war and possibly joined the High Peak Rifles (later 6th battalion, Sherwood Foresters). He recounted to his family the horrors of war, having fought at the Battle of Ypres. Later in life he complained of chest pains as a result of having been gassed in the trenches. He was taken prisoner by the Germans on 21 March 1918, during the German Spring Offensive. He did not return to England until 1919. Gardening became a favourite pastime, helping him to cope with the mental and physical scars of war. William died in 1962 at almost 80 years of age.