WTVC NewsChannel 9 :: News - Top Stories - Before 'Saving Private Ryan,' Pvt. Smith Was Saved
Friday, June 20 2014, 09:21 AM EDT
Before 'Saving Private Ryan,' Pvt. Smith Was Saved
Photo: In this May 7, 2014 photo, Amanda Nelson, the granddaughter of World War I Pvt. Wilfred Smith shows family photographs during an interview at her home in Barnard Castle, England. Nelson said that she made a special point of seeing the Steven Spielberg film "Saving Private Ryan". The 1998 Oscar-winning film which depicts the fictional account of a WWII rescue mission for a single American soldier whose brothers have been killed in fighting. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)

By Danica Kirka, Associated Press

BARNARD CASTLE, England (AP) -- Carved into the simple obelisk commemorating the fallen are the names of five sons of Margaret and John McDowell Smith. There's a story behind the name that isn't there - a sixth brother, Wilfred - and a century after World War I a local historian has dug out the details from archives.

Wilfred Smith's survival is a story of sacrifice amid a war that demanded so much of it from virtually every family in Britain.

Because long before there was the fictional tale of "Saving Private Ryan," there was the real-life story of saving Pvt. Smith.


The people of Barnard Castle have long known the story of the Smith brothers and that Wilfred, or Willie as he was known, survived.

But how that happened was largely unknown until local historian Peter Wise searched the recently digitized archives of the local newspaper, the Teesdale Mercury. In a minuscule item buried at the bottom of a long gray column came the answer: Queen Mary, wife of King George V, heard about the sacrifice of the brothers and intervened to send Willie home.

A century later, the news has stirred memories and inspired a mixture of pride and astonishment.

"To say it's been massive is probably not an understatement," said Trevor Brookes, the newspaper's editor. "Every parent can probably roughly imagine how terrible it would be to lose a son, but to lose five sons at the risk of losing a sixth - that's tragedy. I don't think any British family suffered a greater loss."

Some 9 million soldiers died in the war that began in 1914 and ended in 1918, and it was common for families to lose more than one son. Brothers and friends would join so-called "Pals Brigades" so they could serve together - and communities sometimes found that a single skirmish could wipe out a generation of their men.

But even so, this story was different.


Wilfred was the youngest son of a chimney sweep who scraped by in the slums of Barnard Castle, a market town nestled in a landscape dotted by herds of deer and turreted castles in northern England. When Wilfred was 12, there were 10 members of his family living in three rooms in Poor House Yard, according to the 1911 Census of England and Wales. While Wilfred was still in school, his 14-year-old brother, Frederick, was already working in a local mill.

For many poor young men, joining the army was an adventure, a chance to get regular meals and pay, especially since recruiters told them the war would be over in a matter of months. Local World War I buff John Pringle said the boys would have been anxious to leave the drudgery of the flax mill or the shoe-thread factory.

Wilfred didn't want to go, but did when his country called. A photograph taken at the time showed four of the brothers posing in their uniforms with a cute white dog at their feet. The image would remain on Margaret's mantel throughout the war.

Robert 22, died first, in September 1916. George Henry, 26, died less than two months later.

Frederick, 21, died in July 1917, while the eldest, 37-year-old John William Stout - who had their mother's maiden name because she was not yet married when he was born - died in October 1917. The fifth son, Alfred, died in July 1918.

Margaret's grief was apparently more than the vicar's wife, Sarah Elizabeth Bircham, could bear. Bircham, who organized care packages for troops in the trenches, wrote to Queen Mary about the deaths of Margaret's five sons and how she had a sixth son still at war.

The Teesdale Mercury reported what happened next, printing the reply of the queen's secretary, Edward Wallington.

"I am commanded by the queen to thank you for your letter of the 16th instant, and to request you to be good enough to convey to Mr. and Mrs. Smith of Bridgegate, Barnard Castle, an expression of Her Majesty's deep sympathy with them in the sad losses they have sustained by the death of their five sons.

"The Queen has caused Mr. and Mrs. Smith's request concerning their youngest son to be forwarded for consideration of the War Office authorities."

So Wilfred went home to Barnard Castle - though little is known about exactly how that came about. He suffered the lingering respiratory effects of a mustard gas attack and newspaper reports suggested he was temporarily blinded. But once home, he worked as a chimney sweep and a stone mason.

At the Bowes Museum, a memorial was erected to residents who fell in the Great War, including Wilfred's brothers. His mother laid the first wreath at its dedication in 1923 - chosen by the war veterans for the honor. Wilfred was at her side.

He went on to become a devoted husband, father and grandfather who liked to laugh and took joy in simple things. His granddaughter, Amanda Nelson, recalls going to his home for lunch on weekends, where he would delight the little ones by racing snails or other bits of silliness.

His daughter Dianne Nelson said he doted on her and that, as the youngest, she got away with everything.

Now 70, she said her reserved father never talked about his experiences in the war, even when she needed to write a childhood essay on the topic and asked him to tell her about it. The family had heard about the queen and the letter, but it was simply a hazy oral tradition.

Amanda Nelson made a point of seeing the Steven Spielberg film, "Saving Private Ryan." The 1998 Oscar-winning film depicts the fictional account of a World War II rescue mission for a single American soldier whose brothers have been killed in the fighting.

"It was as if they knew the story of us - except they are called the Ryans and not the Smiths," she said.

Although Margaret Smith once told a relative "Don't have boys. They'll just end up being cannon fodder," Amanda Nelson stressed that Margaret believed she did the right thing by allowing her sons to serve.

"She would gladly send them again to fight," Amanda Nelson said. "For king and country."


In this community, where people often live not far from where their ancestors lived, the Smith story seems very real despite the passage of time. There's a sense of connection to the past that Brookes, the newspaper editor, feels strongly.

Earlier this month, he lifted a dusty, faded red book from an upstairs shelf that holds full-sized bound copies of the paper: the volume labeled 1918. He pushed his finger down the page, to the final sentences of a long column of newsprint, below an item on a produce sale for the War Prisoners Fund.

Brookes has wondered why such a unique and tragic tale would garner so little attention in the paper.

His guess was that by 1918, people had wearied of war - so many had lost so much. But he also speculated the plight of the Smith family might have been deemed less newsworthy because they were members of the town's underclass.

"If not for `Private Ryan,' it might be lost to history," he said, crediting the Spielberg movie as having offered a contemporary connection.


Wilfred Smith lived until 1972, when he died at age 74. He was a frequent visitor to the monument at the Bowes Museum that bears his brothers' names.

In "Saving Private Ryan," the now-older soldier stands before the graves of the men who saved him and recalls their sacrifice, saying he tried to live the best life he could. Wilfred Smith's family believes that he, too, could hold his head high as he scanned the names of his brothers at the Bowes obelisk.

"He was a good dad," Dianne Nelson said with pride. "He was a true person."

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. Learn more about our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.

Before 'Saving Private Ryan,' Pvt. Smith Was Saved

Advertise with us!

Related Stories

  • TN/GA Regional News
  • National News
  • International News
  • WTVC :: Community - The Good Life

    The Good Life

    Celebrating the events, adventures and activities that represent "The Good Life" in the NewsChannel 9 viewing area.
  • WTVC :: Community - Sideroads


    Take a ride with Brian Smith to explore the unique people and places to be found along the Sideroads of the NewsChannel 9 viewing area.
  • WTVC :: Community - Road Trippin

    Road Trippin

    Come Road Trippin' with us and see all the great sites in your area!
  • WTVC :: Community - Closings and Delays

    Closings and Delays

    These are the latest School and Business Closings reported to NewsChannel 9. If you see errors or need to add a school or business, call 423-757-7320.
  • WTVC :: Community - Educator of the Year

    Educator of the Year

    Vote now on your favorite candidate teacher for the Educator of the Year!
  • WTVC :: Community - Wednesday's Child

    Wednesday's Child

  • WTVC :: Community - Deaf & Hard of Hearing

    Deaf & Hard of Hearing

    Information provided to NewsChannel 9 by members of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Community.
  • WTVC :: Community - Community Calendar

    Community Calendar

  • WTVC :: Community - Photo Galleries

    Photo Galleries

  • WTVC :: Community - Sponsored Events

    Sponsored Events

    Check Back Often for NewsChannel9 Sponsored Events!

NewsChannel9 Top Stories

Chattanooga Man Charged with Aggravated Rape of A Child

Common Core Town Hall Prompts Some to Do Their Research

Police Need Help Finding Fraud Suspects

Bessie Smith Cultural Center Picks Independent Auditing Firm

SL Tennessee Adding 1,000 New Jobs

Dalton Starts "Newcomer Academy" for Young Immigrants

Serious Head-On Crash Sends Several to the Hospital

Main Street Meats Creates Unique Cuts By Hand

CFC Ready For National Semifinal

Cleveland Speedway Sold

Who Thinks President Obama Will Be Impeached? The White House

"Ring Cam" Brings New Perspective to Popping the Question

Car Smashes into Chattanooga Gas Station

Motorcycle Accident in Sale Creek

Republican Candidates in TN 3rd District Pick Up Endorsements

Our Monthly Facebook Friend of the Day Winner!

GMC Mid-Morning Update for Friday

Roadwork for Weekend of July 25, 2014

Back to School Breaking you Checkbook?

Algeria Plane Crashed in Mali, Africa

Speaking Out On The Dangers Of Synthetic Marijuana

Common Core Town Hall Highlights

Graysville Police Chief Reinstated

Common Core Town Hall: Entire Program

Code Violations Being Repaired at Grundy Co. Jail

Quarter Century Anniversary of Cold Case

Dade County Property Owners Facing 44.28% Tax Increase

Feds Set Maximum Penalty for Not Buying Health Insurance

Chattanooga Police Captain Makes History

Second Synthetic Pot Bust for Dalton Business Owner

David's Picks for the Weekend

Mother Arrested for Leaving Kids in Hot Car While She Gambled

Hamilton County Woman Charged with TennCare Fraud

Baby Monitor Recall in U.S.

Georgia Gustnado Caught on Camera

Execution in Arizona Draws Controversy

Our Thursday Facebook Friend of the Day

GMC Mid-Morning Update for Thursday

Should You Avoid Flying?

DeKalb County Woman Arrested on Drug Charges

Family of Deaf Couple Sues Erlanger Hospital

Two Police Captains Charged In Money Laundering Case

4 Kids Left Unattended in Hot Car, Mother Charged with Neglect

Chattanooga Man Facing Rape and Kidnapping Charges

City Council Announces Public Forum on Noise Ordinance

EPB Reassures Customers Its Billing Is Accurate

Pros & Cons of Common Core

The Price of Freedom: World War II Veteran George Palmer

Preseason Praise for Mocs at SoCon Media Event in SC

Chattanooga Police Chief Picks Top Leadership

Unwelcome 'Art' at Dalton's Creative Arts Guild

Retired Vet Walking from "Sea to Shining Sea"

"Made in Tennessee" Ad Campaign Made in Missouri

FAA Extends Travel Ban to Israel for Another 24 Hours

Cross Burned Outside Clarksville Church

Dog Vigil Goes Viral

Demolition Graffiti Party

Our Wednesday Facebook Friend of the Day

Senior Center at East Gate

GMC Mid-Morning Update for Wednesday

Bradley Co Accident Shuts Down Roadway

Georgia Primary Election Runoff Results

Chattanooga's Noise Ordinance: Turn The Volume Up?

Spy Camera Found in Downtown Chattanooga Bathroom

Churches Vandalized, What Tipped Elders Off

Inspector Addresses Parking Garage Safety Concerns

The Political Landscape of Common Core

EPB Releases Findings of Street Light Audit

Chrysler Issues Jeep Recall

Spy Camera Found in Chattanooga Business Bathroom

Neighbors Throw Rocks on Man's Window to Tell Him Apartment is on Fire

Cleveland Gas Station Robbed

Car Plows into Cleveland Business

Child Removed from Home with Meth Lab

Local Group Aims to Help Families with Kids Heading to School

Generous Donation Helps Local Farmers Market

Report: Tennessee Children's Well-Being Improving

Citing Security Concerns, U.S. Airline Companies Scrap All Israel Flights

Catoosa Police Publish Home Invasion Suspect Sketch

Federal Appeals Court Deals Health Care Law Major Blow

GA Voters Head to the Polls in Primary Runoff

Mysterious White Flags Replace American Flags on Brooklyn Bridge

Our Tuesday Facebook Friend of the Day

Prince George Turns 1!

GMC Mid-Morning Update for Tuesday

Third Congressional District Candidates Speak At UTC Forum

Man Sought for Stealing from Children's Miracle Network

Calvin Digs Deeper Into Common Core

Bradley Co. Detectives Need Help Finding Church Thieves

Christan Taylor - A Beacon of Friendship

Busy Intersection Under Investigation After Accident

UPDATE: Biker Community Reacts to Fatal Motorcycle Crash

Chattanooga Coca-Cola Community Expands

Obama Gives Protection to Gay, Transgender Workers

Is Russia Concealing Evidence in Ukraine Plane Shootdown?

Pedestrian Struck and Killed in Chattanooga

Sideroads: Mayfield Farm

Man Adopts a Fine Feathered Friend

Our Monday Facebook Friend of the Day

Middle East Crisis

Advertise with us!

Newsmax Headlines

Sponsored content

Business News

Orders for US durable goods up 0.7 percent in June

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Orders for long-lasting manufactured goods rebounded in June after a May decline, helped by a recovery in demand in a key category that signals business investment plans.

Consumer Info

   WEST PALM BEACH, FL -- (Marketwired) -- 03/21/14 --
 Companies that pride themselves on being eco-friendly may have conflicted
 ideas between marketing with ad specialties and maintaining their green
 reputation. ...

Entertainment News


LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Dwayne Johnson remembers the first time he ever encountered the idea of Hercules.

Get This


PAMPA, Texas (AP) -- A military museum in the Texas Panhandle is going nuclear.

Science/Tech News


NEW YORK (AP) -- Television certainly has changed much over the past 50 years.


Tonight on WTVC NewsChannel 9

7:00 Wheel of Fortune

7:30 Jeopardy

8:00 Shark Tank

9:00 What Would You Do?

10:00 20/20

11:00 NewsChannel 9

11:35 Jimmy Kimmel Live

Complete Schedule »

Road Trippin
No Text Zone
Pay It Forward
Storm Track 9 Radar
Storm Track 9 Weather App