If you ask any parent what is something they fear the most, they would say the loss of a child. The loss of a child goes against the natural order—children are supposed to outlive their parents.
Imagine the complete tragedy the Smith family from Barnard Castle in County Durham experienced when they learned five of their six sons were killed during the their time serving in the First World War—two in 1916, two in 1917, and one in 1918. Mr. Smith, the patriarch of the family died in 1918, which left Mrs. Smith to grieve the loss alone. The 1918 intervention of the local vicar’s wife in writing to Queen Mary, the wife of George V. could have very well saved Mrs. Smith’s only surviving son, Wilfred. Buckingham Palace contacted the War Office and Wilfred was saved from serving on the front line. Wilfred lived until the age of 72 and had five children.
The loss of five sons was not a unique occurrence. Queen Mary may have been stirred into action when Amy Beechey from Lincoln was presented to her and the King in April of 1918 after five of her eight sons were killed while in battle. When the queen thanked her for her service, Amy responded: “It was no sacrifice, Ma’am. I did not give them willingly.”
Annie Souls from Great Rissington in the Cotsold also lost five of her six sons—three in 1916 and two in 1918. The local newspaper recorded that “Fred’s body was never found, but his mother kept a candle burning in the window of the house in the hope that he would return.”
The Dominions experienced equal losses. Charlotte Wood from Winnipeg, Canada, lost five sons and two were seriously injured. She was one of three mothers who stood before Edward VIII prior to his unveiling of the iconic memorial at Vimy Ridge in northern France in 1936. “I wish your sons were all here,” the King said to her. “Oh, Sir,” cried out the elderly woman, “I have just been looking at the trenches and I just can’t figure out why our boys had to go through that.”
The government nor the military thought of the devastation that the families and the communities would endure because of the loss of so many brothers. Not even the deaths separately of George and Roland Boys Bradford, the only brothers in history to have won the Victoria Cross, woke them up to the pain the families would be suffering.
No records were kept at the time of exactly how many brothers were killed, or how many fathers and sons were lost. Only now are we able to understand the full impact of these multiple deaths on the families. In the Gallipoli campaign, no fewer than 196 pairs of brothers were killed. Of the 392 men, only 13 have marked graves. Two commemorated on the Helles Memorial are Captain Austen Belcher and Lieutenant Humphrey Belcher. Both of these boys served in the 5th Siltshires and were killed within three days of one another in August, 1915.
Schools and communities all over the country were hit by the massive amounts of families who suffered the same tragedy. One of Eton’s greatest stars was Julian Grenfell who was a soldier-poet. He was killed in May, 1915. His brother, Billy, went on from Eton to Oxford where he was on track for an All Souls fellowship. Billy served bravely on the front line. When he led a charge at Hooge in July 1915, he told his men to “remember you are Englishmen—do nothing to dishonor the name.” He was killed by German bullets early into the attack.
Sidney Woodrofe grew up at Marborough. Though he was wounded, he continued to struggle to find a passage through the German wire. He was hit three more times and died shortly afterward. He was awarded a posthumous VC. His brother, Leslie, was wounded in the same attack and was later killed in 1916, while a third brother, Kenneth, was killed a year earlier at Aubers Ridge in May.
Not even the shedding of aristocratic blood made the government or the army change their mind to protect the families of those who had already suffered so much loss. The US was one of the very first nations to introduce such a policy, although it wasn’t until the Second World War after the loss of five Sullivan brothers in 1942 for it to come into effect. The theme gave birth to the 1998 American war film, Saving Private Ryan, which was set during the invasion of Normandy and told the story of Private James Ryan, the last survivor of four brothers.
Compassionate let-outs were on offer. The Telegraph reports that after John Gordon Shallis lost for brothers during the Great War, he was brought before a tribunal in Middlesex which declared that it was “of the opinion that the mother is entitled to the comfort she will obtain by the retention of this last son”.
Today, we feel the agony of the families when we see the return of coffins from Iraq and Afghanistan. The pain of families who suffered multiple losses in the Great War ricochets down through the decades. It is the last untold tragedy of that “war to end all wars”.