The story of Barnard Castle’s Mrs Margaret Smith and the loss of her five sons in the First World War is a well known story which is worth revisiting.
Many cannot imagine the loss of one child, let alone five. Yet this was the reality with which Margaret and John Smith were faced when they lost five of their six sons in the war. They received one tragic letter after another, painfully discovering that Robert, George, Frederick, and Alfred Smith and John Stout were all sadly killed between 1916 and 1918.
The father of the five sons, John Smith, who worked as a chimney sweep in Barnard Castle, passed away in 1918. Mrs Smith was left heartbroken, with only one son, Wilfred, known as “Willie”, still alive. Private Smith was serving in the war and suffering the effects of mustard gas poisoning.
It was then that a local vicar’s wife, Mrs Bircham, made a dramatic and heartfelt intervention. After writing to George V’s wife, Queen Mary, requesting intervention in Mrs Smith’s heartbreaking scenario, she received the following response: “The Queen has caused Mr and Mrs Smith’s request concerning their youngest son to be forwarded for the consideration of the War Office authorities.”
The War Office spared Wilfred from serving on the front line and Wilfred came back to Barnard Castle to be reunited with his mother. After receiving nothing but devastating news, Wilfred’s return offered some relief at last to Mrs Smith. Despite suffering chronic chest problems, her surviving son lived on to the age of 72, leaving five children.
Margaret Smith was given the honour of laying the first wreath at the war memorial at the Bowes Museum in 1923.