Remembrance Day: Tragic tale of three Barking First World War veterans remembered with cross

Kim Smith (centre) holding the cross she will erect. Her three great-uncles (Clockwise from top left

Kim Smith (centre) holding the cross she will erect. Her three great-uncles (Clockwise from top left) John, Francis and Albert. - Credit: Archant

After unearthing the tragic stories of her three great-uncles, who fought in the First World War, Kim Smith tells Anna Silverman why she’s chosen to mark their graves this Remembrance Day.

From childhood, Kim Smith has heard stories about her Great Uncle Francis and his untimely death after surviving the Great War.

But only recently did she unearth the tragic tales of his two brothers, both First World War veterans with heroic stories buried with them in an unmarked grave in Barking.

It’s a a situation she will remedy on Remembrance Sunday this year by erecting a specially-made cross in Rippleside Cemetery.

“Although they died long before I was born, having uncovered their tragic stories, I feel a bond with them now. I felt quite strongly I should mark the grave,” said Kim, 56, whose ancestors hailed from Abbey Road in Barking.

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“It seemed fitting to choose Remembrance Sunday because the boys did their bit for King and country and this is, obviously, also a special year for First World War commemorations. It felt like my own personal tribute to them.”

Like many people, Kim first became interested in geneaology after watching BBC1’s Who Do You Think You Are? But it was an old suitcase containing family memorabilia, stumbled upon while clearing out her mum’s house, that really piqued her curiosity.

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With help from the archives and local studies centre at Valence House in Dagenham she learnt about the lives of her great uncles.

John was made a prisoner of war in east Germany having served in the second battalion of the Suffolk regiment.

“He suffered cruelty, deprivation and was exposed to killer diseases,” said Kim.

Somehow John survived the camp and returned to Barking. He became a frozen meat porter in the Docklands until his tragic death in 1926 when he developed septicaemia after a meat bone pierced his hand at work.

“How ironic someone who survived all he did in the war was to die as the result of a freak accident,” said Kim.

The next brother down was Albert, who was assigned to the Royal Fusiliers.

After suffering recurring bouts of trenchfoot he was transferred to the Labour Corps.

“It was made up of wounded servicemen but that didn’t stop them dying in enemy action,” said Kim.

However, Albert, like John, survived the war. He returned to the Docks and lived only another 23 months before dying of meningitis in 1921.

The third brother, Francis, also survived the conflict – only to die prematurely when his house took a direct hit during the Blitz.

“I’m so glad I started looking into my family history,” said Kim.

“When you’re a kid you’re not as interested. It’s a sad irony that, by the time you are, the people you want to start asking questions are gone.

“Whenever I got a spare minute I went down to Valence House and that’s how I gradually pieced all their stories together. Remembrance Day is the recognition of the sacrifices made by previous generations. I feel strongly it doesn’t matter whether it was right or wrong – these men went out there with high hopes of an adventure and they were massacred.

“Whatever side of the political divide you’re on with the current conflicts, many young men have died serving our country and we owe them a debt of gratitude.

“I’ve always bought a poppy but it goes beyond that now for me.”

Eight members of Kim’s family will join her erecting the cross to mark her great-uncles’ grave on Sunday.

She said: “It will be poignant but we’ll feel like we’re finally paying them the tribute they deserve - the people in our family who did their bit for king and country.”

Read more: Ushakov medal awarded to Dagenham seaman for wartime missions in Arctic

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