A commemorative visit

Did you see the article in the Teesdale Mercury (30th August 2017) about a commemorative visit to First World War cemeteries and memorials in northern France and Belgium?  Colin Young, Mike Jones and Mike Bell combined commemorating some of their relatives with visiting the graves and memorials of four of the five Smith brothers of Barnard Castle.  You can read about the Smith brothers in their entries on the project’s Roll of Honour (www.thebowesmuseumww1.org.uk) and they have featured in stories in June 2015 and September 2016 that you can also find on the project website.

If you’ve made a commemorative trip or have information or a story about Teesdale people in the war, please get in touch – we’d love to hear from you. (Email: libraryandarchives@thebowesmuseum.org.uk, tel: 01833 690606 ext. 208 answerphone)

Here’s Colin’s full account of their trip.

Barnard Castle’s Band of Brothers

By Colin Young

We’d planned the trip for some time. Mike Jones of Barnard Castle, Mike Bell of Eggleston, and myself, Colin Young of Darlington, intended to spend 5 days in Belgium and France in April 2017, visiting the Battle of Waterloo site of 1815 and the Somme and Passchendaele battlefields of WW1.

The original plan was to spend a day at Waterloo just south of Brussels, 2 days at Arras (The Somme) in Northern France and 2 days at Ypres (Passchendaele) in Belgium. During the trip, we were going to visit the grave of my great Uncle George who is buried at Ypres, and see the inscription of a relative (John Archibald McIver) of Mike Jones’s wife who is remembered on the Menin Gate at Ypres. His body was never found.

We had all heard the story of the 6 Smith brothers from Barnard Castle. Frederick 21, Robert 22, George Henry 26, Alfred 32 and John William 37 who were all tragically killed in WW1. The sixth brother Wilfred was brought back after an intervention by the townsfolk of Barnard Castle and Queen Mary, a real-life Saving Private Ryan story. It seemed an ideal opportunity, if possible, to combine our planned trip with a visit to see the graves of any of the Smith brothers who might be in the area we were visiting.

We had no idea where the 5 Smith brothers had fought, were killed, were buried or commemorated, so we contacted Judith Phillips at The Bowes Museum.  Judith has been heading a project to document and remember the sacrifices made by the men and woman of Teesdale during WW1. Judith gave us details of the cemeteries and memorials to the brothers, in Belgium and France, and we amended our route to visit 4 of the brothers. The 5th brother, Private Alfred Smith (Durham Light Infantry), was buried at Terlincthun cemetery at Wimille in north east France but unfortunately there wasn’t enough time to visit him during our trip.

The amended plan was to visit Private Robert Smith (Durham Light Infantry) who was buried at Dernancourt cemetery in France, Corporal George Henry Smith (Durham Light Infantry) whose name was inscribed on the Thiepval Monument in France (his body was never found), Private Frederick Smith (Durham Light Infantry) whose name is inscribed on the Menin Gate at Ypres in Belgium (his body was never found) and Sergeant John William Stout (West Yorks Regiment) whose name is inscribed on the memorial at Tyne Cot cemetery in Belgium (his body was never found).

Following a fascinating visit to the site of the Battle of Waterloo we spent our first night in Arras, northern France.

The next morning, we set off in the cold and rain to travel 30 miles south to find the grave of Robert in Dernancourt Cemetery. Robert is buried in a beautifully tended Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) cemetery overlooking the gently rolling green fields of the Somme region of Hauts-de-France. We placed a cross and poppy on his grave and made a brass rubbing of the gravestone which is inscribed with the crest of the Durham Light Infantry and the words ‘6/3433 Private R Smith, Durham Light Infantry, 19th September 1916’. We spoke to several of the local groundsmen who are employed by the CWGC to tend the graves. One of them in halting English told us stories of the troops from Australia, New Zealand and UK who had fought in the area. As we left we thanked him for his time and he replied, “No, it us for us to thank your soldiers for what they have done for us”.  Very moving.

We left Dernancourt and headed for the Thiepval Monument a few miles to the north to find George whose name is inscribed there alongside over 72,000 UK and South African soldiers who fought in the area and whose bodies were never found. The scale of the monument is staggering and was built to honour the sacrifices made by French, UK and South African soldiers in the Somme region. To the rear of the monument is a graveyard with equal numbers of 300 French and 300 UK and South African soldiers who endured equal hardships. George was in the Durham Light Infantry and his name is inscribed on an “Addenda” panel on the rear wall of the monument indicating that his name may have been added some time after the main walls were inscribed. We made a brass rubbing of the inscription and placed a cross and poppy alongside it.

On the 3rd day we visited the Vimy Ridge memorial which is dedicated to the Canadian forces who fought and took the ridge from the Germans who had held it for 2 years. The Canadians lost 3500 men in 4 days. We also explored the underground tunnel under Arras used to hide 24,000 Allied troops prior to the battle of Arras. We spoke to a Canadian student who was spending 6 months at Vimy Ridge as an unpaid guide. She said with great conviction, “ None of these monuments you see here or in other parts of The Somme glorify war, they stand to remember the sacrifice of brave young men”.

Late in the afternoon we headed back to Belgium to the town of Ypres (known to the British Tommies as Wipers) for our last night. We watched the ceremony at 8 pm at the Menin Gate where every night the traffic into the town is stopped and the crowds gather to watch the Last Post ceremony and laying of wreaths.

On the final morning, we returned to the Menin Gate and found the inscription to Frederick which reads ‘Smith F 25205’. We took a brass rubbing of the inscription and placed a cross and poppy alongside it.

We found John Archibald McIver’s inscription on the Menin Gate and my Great Uncle George’s grave in the Reservoir cemetery, took brass rubbings and left crosses and poppies.

Finally, we headed for Tyne Cot cemetery which is near Zonnebeke, 5 miles from Ypres, to find John. Tyne Cot is the largest CWGC cemetery in the world and contains the graves of nearly 12,000 soldiers. On the memorial wall to the rear of the cemetery are inscribed the names of 35,000 soldiers whose bodies were never found. The graveyard overlooks the fields of Passchendaele, the scene of terrible carnage during WW1. The sheer size of the graveyard is awe inspiring, the graves seem to go on for ever. We found John’s name inscribed alongside hundreds of his fallen comrades in the West Yorkshire Regiment. John’s inscription reads Stout J. W. (John’s surname was his mother’s maiden name as she was unmarried when he was born, but he is still a Smith brother). As we were unable to visit Alfred at Terlincthun we left a cross and poppy for both John and Alfred alongside John’s inscription as a mark of respect to both brothers. We took a brass rubbing of John’s inscription.

Mission accomplished we headed back to Zeebrugge to catch the overnight ferry to Hull and back home after a thought provoking, emotional and humbling but satisfying trip.