11:16 Wednesday 15 January 2014

First World War research fills in missing link for Burton steam engine driver

Written byMARK MCKAY

PRIVATE George Root’s grave lies overlooked by the towering cross of sacrifice in a quiet corner of the military cemetery in the French town of Albert.

It is a place his 69-year-old grandson Terry first visited in the early 1990s on his quest to find out about his grandfather’s role in the First World War.

But for Terry, of Otter Street, Hilton, there was always a missing piece of the puzzle explaining why his grandfather signed up to fight.

After all, George was a father of three children and had a highly-skilled job driving steam lorries for Burton brewers Bass, Ratcliffe and Gretton.

It was only after Terry enlisted the help of family historian Malcolm Goode that the question of why his grandfather is buried in a picturesque French town astride the River Somme was answered.

Mr Goode’s research revealed that before the war George lived in Shobnall Road with his wife Mary, son Thomas and daughters Elsie and Lucy.

He started working life as a ‘waggoner’ driving dray carts, and later steam engines, delivering beer from the breweries to pubs in the town.

It was the skill of knowing how to operate these lumbering steam-powered machines which would result in George not returning home after he went off to fight.

Mr Goode’s research revealed George enlisted in the Darby Scheme on December 7, 1915, and placed on the Army Reserve list B.

Mr Goode said: “Men who enlisted on the scheme could have their mobilization delayed until they were needed.

“George had the skill and experience of being a steam engine driver, a rare skill in those days, and would ensure that he would not serve with the infantry, artillery or cavalry.

“His skills and abilities in being able to drive would be sorely needed as steam vehicles would steadily replace the horse, for the transportation of very heavy loads and guns.”

George was called up on May 7, 1917, and ordered to complete basic military training.

He embarked for France aboard the Lydia and arrived at Le Harve on July 17 to serve in the 44th Auxillary Steam Company of the Army Service Corps.

Mr Goode said: “Being the driver of a steam powered lorry meant George would possibly be responsible for the movement of the very largest guns for the Royal Garrison Artillery Siege Batteries, this would also include large and heavy rounds of ammunition fired by those guns.”

It emerged that George served with the unit for eight months before he was killed in action on March 24 trying to prevent these heavy artillery pieces being captured after Germany launched an all or nothing offensive three days earlier.

Mr Goode said: “So successful was the initial German break through that it became a very dangerous job trying to move those guns to prevent them being captured by the enemy.

“The unit war diary for the tells us all that there is to be told, and unfortunately that is very little.”

The entry for March 24 said a single Foden steam engine was abandoned near the hamlet of Bazentin, next to the River Somme, and there were two causalities, one killed and one wounded.

Mr Goode said: “We can only guess that this was George and his colleague who was the fireman of the lorry.

“George and all the other Foden crews would probably be desperately trying to move these very large and exceptionally heavy guns before they were captured.

“Unluckily for George, steam lorry’s needed fuel and water at regular intervals, while he was topping up with water he was killed by an enemy bomb.”

Almost a century later, Terry said discovering why his grandfather went off to fight finally filled in the ‘missing link’.

He said: “I’m just so pleased and grateful that I now have the complete story. It gives me peace because I know now why this chap from Shobnall with three kids died in Northern France.

“Most people from Burton would have served in the Staffords, but Mr Goode found George’s army records which added a whole new dimension.

“His job gave him this particular skill so he was sent off when he was wanted as a driver.

“George is no more of a hero than the other thousands of others who lie in graves, but this is personally poignant to me.”

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