Here I am by a small stone measuring about 9" square which hides as much bravery as it does a pitifully woeful life. There’s not much see here - a "36" carved into a stone among others in a war section of the cemetery. Associated with it is a Victoria Cross medal worth about £120,000 which the Royal Highland Fusiliers care for in Scotland. Bit odd as George was born and died here in Birmingham where I’m stood. The poor lad didn’t even make it to 50.
Not much is known about George's early life. He was the fifth child of nine and followed his dad into working as a wood turner. Aged 26 he married Florence, they had their first child and he joined the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers. For six years he fought in India and was then sent to fight in South Africa as the Boer War commenced. On Friday 15th December 1899 he was part of an massive advance to wreck the Boer defence line along the Tugela River. Even though 21,000 soldiers were involved in the three pronged attack there was heavy resistance and both flanks were repulsed. George was with the soldiers on the left flank helping transport some big guns. As the troop used horses to escort artillery across the river they found themselves under very heavy rifle fire. The enemy had waited for the perfect moment to attack from their trenches on the opposite river bank. Kills here high. George was lucky not to be killed outright and joined those abandoning the guns and horses for safety.
He found a sheltered position but broke cover several times to help the injured and pull back the heavy guns (one was saved.) Most soldiers had been wounded or killed but somehow he remained alive. Eventually he took a bullet in the shoulder and had to rest up. Thankfully enough people remained alive to witness George’s near-suicidal and repeated attempts to help out. Later he was awarded the Victoria Cross from the Duke of York (later King George V) who was visiting South Africa.
By 36 he had four children and left the army for civilian life. He should have stayed though as he suffered hard times financially and became an inmate at Erdington Workhouse. He ended up in court after not performing his allotted task at the workhouse and stealing iron (worth 6 shillings) from a metal makers mill. His defence was that he wasn’t getting a due a pension of £50 per annum but the hard judge jailed him for a month. Prison meant he had to forfeiture of his Victoria Cross medal and it was sold at auction in 1908 for £42. Life worsened and George and his wife (and children) became inmates at the Aston Union Workhouse. They were so poor that three children were sent to be fostered in Canada. There were two more children but neither reached their first birthdays.
Aged 42 George and his wife were living in Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire with two new children. World War Two commenced and he joined the army again but was discharged within two years on medical grounds. He died suddenly of a heart attack in Birmingham aged just 49 leaving his family living in extreme poverty.
I soon found stone 36 inside a lawn surrounded by well-maintained hedges. It's difficult to think he was buried with full military honours yet there's no headstone - poverty I suppose. He was probably put in a cheap coffin despite the pomp of a military burial. I touched the stone above his bones and thought what a bedraggled life he’d had. Shortly before he died he heard he should have given up his VC medal. King George V declared that “even were a VC to be sentenced to be hanged for murder he should be allowed to wear the VC on the scaffold”.
I had a stroll around the small war section of the cemetery and looked at the other graves marked by numbers. Were they all paupers? Surely they deserve more than a number I thought. The names relating to the bones are on monument looking onto them. Thankfully George’s medals returned to army hands and they're now with Royal Highland Fusiliers Museum in Scotland. I had a coffee and a cheese sandwich in the car. One grave was bedecked with early daffodils. Perhaps Spring isn't too far away I thought. I did a salute and left.