Finding George Snow

Yesterday, Hours After Sending Out "A Postcard From the Edge of Disaster" I Learned What Happened Next.


Be sure to read my previous post A Postcard From The Edge of Disaster before reading this!

I didn't expect to post again about George, author of the Postcard from the Edge of Disaster. And I also didn't mean to post anything today.


Last night, my friend Angela in England (who is obviously an insomniac like me, because Britain is five or six hours ahead of us) messaged me to ask if I knew what became of George Snow. Did he fight in the First World War? Did he die in it?

In fact, despite my insistence that I didn't want to waste time looking for him, I had done a quick half-hearted Google search while I was writing the post. But sure enough, as I suspected, there were too many George Snows. Anyway, I wasn't even sure Snow was his last name. I also know how easy it is to waste an afternoon like this. I'm not a genealogist or an antiquarian, someone who values everything old. Historians ask “Who cares?” If we don't have a good answer to that, we don't waste our time.

I had made my point: World War I was a devastating bloodbath that killed millions of young men, including nearly 750, 000 from Britain alone. The shock really was a “Deluge” that overturned everything, from blind faith in the political establishment, to religious certainty, to the ways in which women dressed, and wore their hair. Everyone who survived the War, and that was most people, was still profoundly affected.

So, I thought, it really doesn't matter to us whether this one guy fought, or died. I didn't even know how old he was, if he was as young as he sounded. Honestly, the odds were in favor of George's survival: Only 2% of the British population died in the First World War. My guess? George ended up a bank clerk or something similar, married a girl called Mabel or Gladys, enjoyed a beer, a cigarette, and a nice game of dominoes down the pub, and died in the 1960s, still tutting over the shocking behavior of young people today.

Except maybe he didn't?

Blast. I wanted to know, too.

I suddenly remembered the Commonwealth War Graves Commission site. Even as Angela and I were still chatting online, I tapped in “George Snow”. Sure enough, there was a long list of George Snows who are buried in France. The first few I clicked through showed it was hopeless: the entries gave names, regiments, and the name of the cemetery where each poor victim of the trenches was buried, far from home. But seldom any more information at all. By the time I got to George Snows with middle names, I was ready to call it a day.

But Angela was still typing her latest reply, so I clicked on George Wilkie Snow, because Wilkie is a good Scottish name, it's even in my family, and why not? Whatever.

It was him.

I found him.

I was 98% sure when I saw this.

“OMG, I found him,” I typed to Angela.

I clicked on an accompanying document. It showed epitaphs that parents had requested for their dead sons' gravestones in France. Among them was one for George Wilkie Snow. And now I knew I was right. Mrs. Snow had written an epitaph for the gravestone on Plot 1521: “Father in thy gracious keeping leave we now our loved one sleeping.” And she lived at 51, The Gardens, East Dulwich, London.

The address on the postcard.

Families’ chosen epitaphs for a few of the more than 4000 British WWI dead buried in a single French cemetery, including George Snow, in Plot 1521

George Snow was killed in action in the trenches in France in 1917. He was 22 years old. Three years after writing his postcard, George was dead.

The Historian and the Person

Historians live for “eureka" moments. When, after working days, weeks, months, or years in an archive, reading boring and irrelevant documents in hope of finding anything that relates to our subjects, we find something that makes our hearts race? That’s when we remember why we like research. If you studied to be a historian, but never had that feeling, you probably quit the PhD program early. I hate to say it, but it's the dissertation that sorts out the historians from the smart and sane people who just like history. You have to be at least a little bonkers to want to spend all your time with dead people's letters.

But looking up George Snow felt more like genealogy to me. Look, genealogy, researching your ancestors, is fascinating stuff. But unless you're a celebrity doing genealogy for a TV show, unless you're, say, Bernie Sanders discovering that Larry David is your cousin (which he did) nobody else cares about what you found.

So why do I care about George Snow?

Because I am holding the postcard he sent to his mother a month before the War began. Because, it turns out, he was a perfect symbol of the oh, so many young men who died in that war.

And because I am human. We don't call history one of the humanities for nothing, and I care not what historians who consider themselves social scientists think of that. At the end of the day, history is about, by, and for people. I made you care about George Snow. I made me care, too.

Now I have to face up to what I have learned about him. I'm going to share it with you. Because once I had his name, it turned out, there was more, even from a cursory web search.

George, Hayfield, and the Other Wilkies

Some of my educated guesses were right. George was young. His last name was Snow. Hayfield was, and is, a house in Peebles, and the uncle with whom George was staying in 1914, whose name, as it happens, was George Wilkie, built it. George's mother's maiden name was Harriett Wilkie. Our George was named for his mother's brother, from whose home he wrote the postcard.

But I was also a little off in my guesswork. I learned from an online chat among WWI buffs that other documents about George Wilkie Snow exist, including a glowing headmaster’s report. Why on earth would even avid military history buffs care about some lower middle-class lad, probably the son of a shopkeeper?

Because he wasn't.

I spent more time with Google Street View, and forced it to stop jumping around. Hayfield Villa isn't the house I had thought it was. The actual house is twice the size, and it's today been divided into two large apartments.

George wasn't an aristocrat, and Hayfield wasn't Downton Abbey. But they were both solidly middle class, neither upper middle nor lower middle, just middle, and, dear American friends, that doesn't mean what you think it does in Britain, and especially not in 1914.

In the deeply unequal society that Britain was in the years before WWI, only a few people were middle class. A headmaster's report? This meant George was educated past the age of 13 or so, and the vast majority of children were not. This was a sign of great privilege. George's mother's family, the Wilkies, weren't fabulously wealthy. They also weren't poor, or even in any apparent danger of becoming so. They were Middle Class.

A quick digression. The year George died in France, in another part of Scotland a fair way from Peebles, the wife of a poor illegitimate farmworker gave birth to their first child, a girl, in a cottage with linoleum floors and kerosene lamps. This working-class family was also named Wilkie. The baby's father was the illegitimate son of a ploughman and a maid who was so independent, she refused to marry her baby's father. She married the man of her choice instead, leaving her son to be raised by his grandmother. Her maiden name was to be the new baby's middle name, because her son apparently hadn't held all this against his mother.

These Wilkies had nothing much in common with the family in the modestly grand house in Peebles, to whom they were very distantly related, if at all.

By the time this first baby was born, the new mother had lost two of her brothers, and a cousin they had all grown up with, to the War that was still raging in Europe. The baby herself would grow up to marry a man who had lost his father in the War, even before he was born.

The baby was my grandmother.

Breathe. You read that right. It's true.

It's not impossible I'm related to the wealthy Wilkies. But honestly? I don't care. I'm very proud of my working-class ancestors, and pleased they were able to haul themselves into the lower middle class: The illegitimate ploughman became a railway worker, operating the levers of the signal box, and joined a union (I have his union pin somewhere). His daughter's future husband, the illegitimate son of a dead WWI soldier and a factory worker, studied so hard in the tenement flat in which the family lived that he cried at the memory of it in his old age, and he became a pharmacist and respected community leader. Without them, I wouldn't be writing this, and you wouldn't be reading it. And I knew most of them, and loved them. I never knew the illegitimate ploughman, my great-grandad, because he was gone before my time, but I have home movies, and my son is named for him.

The Privilege of Class and Rank: To Die First

It's 5:25 in the morning. I need to get back to telling you about George Wilkie Snow. Who might or might not share genes with me. Scotland is so small and so inbred, though, the chances are good. So now it's personal.

George's privilege was also his undoing. The reason that some WWI buffs find him interesting is because he was an officer, an educated man, a Second Lieutenant, not a common old private, not cannon fodder like my ancestors were.

Except that he was. Second Lieutenants had the highest rate of casualties of any army rank in the war. They were upper and middle class lads assigned to lead working-class lads into battle. When the generals gave the order, 2nd Lt. George Wilkie Snow would have gone over the top of the trenches first, carrying only a revolver, his men right behind him, and led them through barbed wire into the teeth of machine gun fire.

I wonder if that is how he died. It probably was. And who is left to remember? There were so very, very many lads who died like this. In the words of another 2nd Lieutenant, Wilfred Owen, the greatest of WWI poets, from Anthem for Doomed Youth:

What passing bells for men who die as cattle?

Wilfred Owen himself was killed in action on November 4, 1918. He died almost exactly to the hour one week before the Armistice, the end of WWI, the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month of 1918, when the guns were silenced. In that silence, Britons safe at home began to come to grips with what they had done to their sons, their daughters, and themselves. Wilfred Owen’s mother (whose name, Harriett, complete with the unusual spelling (two ts), was the same as George Snow’s) was freshly in mourning when she should have been sighing and smiling with relief. The church bells chiming out for peace at the Armistice were her son’s passing bells.

Many, many people remember Wilfred Owen, the poet. But who will remember the anonymous others like George Snow, these long-dead boys, now that all those who knew them are also gone?

Right now, we do. George is ours to remember, because although he was no poet, we have read his postcard, and we feel invested in his story. We care.

The Royal British Legion runs a site in which anyone can write a one-sentence tribute to a WWI soldier, and leave a longer story. I suggest we link to this story, but I honestly need your help writing the tribute. The site’s suggestions are a bit lame, cliches like “Thank you for your service”. Have thoughts on what we should write? Leave a comment, or, if we're you and I are connected, drop me a note.

If you would like to adopt George with me, and take his memory well into the 21st century, you can even download an official memorial certificate from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission site, here. The download button is at the foot of the page, and it's both secure and free.

Thanks to George’s family's prominence (social standing based on wealth) in Peebles, even though he was born and probably grew up in England, there was a whole newspaper article about his death in the local paper. That's another sign of class privilege: nobody wrote in the newspaper about my working-class ancestors' deaths in the war, although my great-grandfather may have got his photo in the paper when the War Dead were commemorated. But that's okay, I would love to read about George. Unfortunately, I haven't found the text of the article, but, thanks to the WWI buffs, I did find his photo.

Everyone? This is George Wilkie Snow.

So now, one last question: Is George in the group on the front of his postcard? My husband and I think he might be, and we pointed to the same guy. Which of the young men do you think he was?

I stayed up into the dawn to write this. Hope it made sense. Hope it moves you as it did me. Thanks for reading.

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