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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Company Sergeant Major George Edward Geary #63395, 4th Battalion

Although the majority of my blogs usually involve men from the 3rd (Toronto) Battalion, I have a affinity to men from the 23rd Battalion as well. This could involve soldiers from the 3rd, 4th, 13th, 14th, and PPCLI Battalions.So it was with this in mind when I purchased and probably overpaid for the British War Medal of CSM George Edward Geary who was Killed In Action in the field July 8/9, 1916 while serving in the 4th (Central Ontario) Battalion. Subsequently while researching the man on I came across a post and medal photographs from Susan Carlisle who as it turned out, resides in Scotland. Susan and I exchanged communication and she kindly has authored the following details on George's life.
The 1914-15 Star and Victory medal awarded
to CSM George Geary #63395, 4th Battalion
"George was born in 1884 in Bishop Auckland, and grew up in Evenwood a few miles to the south west. He seems to have been an unsettled person. In 1901 he was working as a coal miner, but shortly afterwards he joined the merchant navy only to be invalided out a year later. He said that he then served for a time in the Durham Light Infantry, but I have been unable to prove this. I do know that in 1911 George was working as a contract miner near Penrith, and that two years later he emigrated to Canada. By this time both of his parents had died and his only near relation was a married sister in Bishop Auckland, although he did have lots of cousins.
The outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 found George working as a clerk in Calgary, and he enlisted with the Canadian Army a few months later. It is possible that he was homesick and saw this as a route home, because he named as his next-of-kin a non-relation in Evenwood who could be a girlfriend. The Canadian volunteers were sent to Salisbury Plain for training, where George was transferred into the Fourth Battalion (also known as the Central Ontario Regiment) and started to move up the ranks. Then in 1915 George was given leave prior to departing for active service in France, and set off for County Durham. I do not know where he stayed; what I do know is that he visited a house in Chopwell. He had been invited there by a man called Robert Smith, a coal miner who had enlisted with the Medical Corps despite being a married man and in his late thirties. Robert will also have had embarkation leave in 1915, and the family story is that he ‘brought a Canadian home with him’. So George met Robert’s daughter Margaret, and seems to have fallen in love with her.

CSM George Geary #63395
seated front along with Herbert
Sutcliffe # 63835
The Fourth Battalion embarked for France in February 1915 and moved up to trenches in the northern sector, where the soldiers saw almost continuous action in April, May and June. The next twelve months were relatively quiet, and the Canadians had a routine of eighteen days at the front followed by six days in the rear. Then in June 1916 the Battle of Mont Sorrel began in the Ypres Salient. This was an offensive launched by the Germans in an attempt to divert manpower from the Somme. George was amongst the Canadians deployed against them, and on the 8th of July he was killed.
George was a successful soldier in that when he died he had reached the rank of Company Sergeant Major. He was also posthumously awarded the Military Cross. The citation reads:
London Gazette, No. 29684, 27-7-16 
‘For conspicuous and consistent gallantry when in charge of battalion bombers and when leading patrols. On one occasion he took up a position 25 yards in front of our trenches in order the better to knock out the enemy, and succeeded in doing so, although himself wounded’.
And the Military Cross was sent to Chopwell, because before he died George had adjusted his record and made Margaret Smith his next-of-kin. The 1914-15 Star and the Victory Medal followed after the Armistice.
George Edward Geary is commemorated on the Menin Gate in Belgium. He is one of nearly 55,000 men who had died in the Ypres Salient by August 1917 and have no known grave. He is also commemorated in Chopwell on the plaque inside the Anglican Church, and could be the ‘G.E.Gray’ on the roadside memorial. I searched the North East War Memorials website but could not find his name anywhere else. So it was the Smith family who remembered him.  If that is what George had wanted, then he made the right decision when he changed the name of his next-of-kin. Margaret Smith’s descendants still have his medals today.

George E. Geary arrived in Halifax, Canada July 21, 1913 from Liverpool, England on the vessel "S.S. Mongolian". Ship's manifest lists his occupation as a "miner" and destined for Stellerton, Nova Scotia, presumably the coal mines.

S.S. Mongolian, Allan Steamship Lines, Montreal

Excerpt from a letter published in the Halifax Courier August 27, 1915 from Private Herbert Sutcliffe #63835 referring to Company Sergeant-Major Geary

Sgt Major Geary is in command and seemed to have got it into his head that I was indispensable to the cause so thinking that my sphere of usefulness might be extended somewhat I had no objections except being loath to leave my companions. Geary is an original, serving first in the navy and the army, he then turned his hand to mining. He is something of a philosopher, and we have many discussions in the dug-out. I am general factotum to this gentleman.  

Excerpt from a letter published in the Halifax Courier November 30, 1915 from Private Herbert Sutcliffe #63835 referring to Company Sergeant-Major Geary

   I am sorry to say that Sgt. Maj. Geary is at present placed hors de combat with shrapnel wounds. As a result, I am now in charge of the rifle grenade department. The Sgt.Maj. is in England, he wrote me from Boulogne, saying although he had about 50 shrapnel wounds, only four were very bad.  

Excerpt from a Letter published in the Halifax Courier June 26, 1916 from Private Herbert Sutcliffe #63835 referring to Company Sergeant-Major Geary 
This continued for a time, then the 16th and 13th went over the parapets, bayonets fixed, capturing the positions without much opposition, so effective had been the bombardment. The 3rd and 4th then advanced, for on us devolved the business of holding and consolidating the captured lines, the most trying job of all, for the enemy came back at us with ordnance of all kinds, heavy and light.

We of the Grenade section held ourselves in readiness to repel counterĂ¯·“attacks. We lay in our trench soaked through and through with the pitiless downpour of rain, shivering with cold and pelted with heavies, high explosives and shrapnel, envying the men who were in the charge, for they at least could keep themselves warm. We were all heavily laden with grenades, shovels and sandbags, ready for any emergency. At daybreak German prisoners began to come down, survivors from that hail of fire, most of them youths of 17 or 18 years, some carrying wounded comrades on their backs and otherwise propping each other along. Two stalwarts were carrying out their officer while others carried our own wounded.

Military Cross awarded to CSM
G.E. Geary, #63395 by "The King"
All day we sat low in our trench, escaping with but three or four casualties. My rifle was smashed and rendered useless by shrapnel. As darkness came on we were ordered to move further up, and we passed more than one still form laid by the wayside. Then we, the 4th Battalion bombers, were told off to take a section of trench which had been overlooked in the confusion. Dispositions were quickly made, extra grenades were handed out, and each man received a ration of rum. We were divided into two squads, an officer led one squad and the Sgt. Major the other. Two officers of the 16th were to show us the ground to be taken. We advanced under a hail of shrapnel and high explosive shells, and before we reached our objectives the two 16th officers were killed, our own wounded and others hit. Having lost our guides we were non-plussed and got into an advance trench meanwhile. Here we waited for an hour under a tremendous fire from the enemy. I stood in that trench, one foot over the ankle in mud and the other on some object, which on closer inspection proved to be a dead German, and figured my time was up, for hundred pounders were bursting on every hand.
CSM George Geary, 4th Battalion name on the
Menin Gate Memorial, Ypres
The sergeant-major now in full charge decided to retire to a trench on a certain ridge. Here we lay from dawn till dark again under pitiless rain and no less pitiless shell fire. We lost three men blown out of recognition by one big shell dropped among us, two others had to go out, suffering from shell shock. Towards night to our great satisfaction word came that we were to be relieved. When it was dark, the sergeant-major sent the men a squad at a time, he, three men and myself remaining to hold the trench and receive the incoming bombardiers who were of the 24th Battalion 2nd Division. They came eventually, and we debouched past wrecked wagons, dead horses, and dead men. We managed to get along in a returning ration wagon to a certain railway station where we piled into coal trucks, and were taken down close to our camp, and here we lay to recuperate.  [12 July 1916 Herbert wrote to say that Sgt.Major Geary had died: 63395 Geary George Edward 4th Battalion July 8, 1916. There is a G.Geary on the Menin Gate.

According to the medal card in George Geary's service file, in addition to the BWM, Victory and 1914-15 Star medals which were mailed to fiance Margaret Smith, a Memorial Plaque and Scroll in 1922 and 1921 respectively. No Memorial Cross was issued.

While the Battalion War Diary does not specifically mention the death of George Geary, it has a very comprehensive detailed account of the attack late evening July 8, 1916 and early morning July 9 Mount Sorrel trenches whgich also involved the 3rd (Toronto) Battalion HERE.

A special thank-you to Sandra Davies, Teeside, Tyne & Wear; England for sharing these letters from Herbert Sutcliffe on the CEF Study  Group Forum.

Also a big thanks to Susan Carlisle, Scotland for sharing her profile on George Geary and photographs of his medals.

Thanks to CEF Study Group member Marc Tremblay for allowing me to reunite the Plaque with the British War Medal.

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