William George Scott

Name William George Scott
Corps South Staffordshire Regiment, 1st Battalion
Rank Lance Corporal
Service No. 8587
Date/Place of entry Birmingham
Date of death 7 November 1918
Memorial/Grave Saint Martin's Cemetery, Vevey, Vaud, Switzerland

William George Scott was the fourth of six children of Onesiphorus Scott and his wife Lydia nee Willetts, and a nephew of Mary Lines nee Scott of Cottingham. He was born in 1886 in Aston, Birmingham, where Mary and her husband Owen Lines lived after their marriage in 1880 and where their first three children were born. William George Scott was born two years after the birth there of his cousin Owen George Lines.

William George’s family had lived in Aston throughout the nineteenth century long before it was officially absorbed into the city of Birmingham in 1918.  Birmingham was a huge manufacturing centre whose metalworking industries supported many different trades. Generations of the Scott family were variously employed as jewellery makers, die sinkers, tool stampers, engine fitters, engine turners, drillers, and cycle and motor trade workers. Until late in the century such work was usually carried out in small workshops but by1900 large factories had become dominant.
When William George was growing up he would have benefited from the significant civic improvements initiated by Mayor Joseph Chamberlain in the 1870s. These included improved street lighting, slum clearance, public park creation and a clean water supply.

The given name Onesiphorus - it occurs in St Paul’s 2nd Letters to Timothy - was a traditional name within the family, though William George’s father understandably chose to call himself Oney in at least one census entry (He still chose to bestow it on his own eldest son who subsequently also opted for Oney, then Owen.)
Onesiphorus senior was a steel tool stamper who died in 1900 aged forty two when William George was fourteen and employed as an apprentice plumber (he was listed in the census as ‘George’) as was his brother Fred.

In 1908 William George married Caroline Barton and they had two children, William George and Enid Mary. According to the 1911 census the small family were still in Aston where he was employed as a motor machinist.
The only official records to survive regarding his military career are the British War Medal and Victory Medal rolls and those relating to his death. They tell us he enlisted in Birmingham into the 1st Battalion of the South Staffordshire Regiment and was ranked lance corporal when he died.

There is however an entry in the ‘public member’ section at www.ancestry.co.uk which says  William George was taken prisoner after the Battle of Mons in November 1914 and spent the next four years as a prisoner of war (PoW) in Soltau (Hannover) PoW camp. The website also has photos of him. The fact of his imprisonment is backed up by a record on the website www.genealogist.com that lists a W.G. Scott, ‘previously reported missing, and now reported as a wounded PoW in 1915’. I do not have a subscription to the site so cannot look for further details.
There is one discrepancy between the account on ancestry and what official records remain for William George. The Battle of Mons took place in late August 1914, some weeks before the 1st Battalion landed at Zeebrugge so he cannot have been wounded during the battle or subsequent retreat, unless he was then with a different battalion. (The 2nd Battalion of the South Staffordshire regiment was at Mons.)

As a father of two children it seems unlikely - though not impossible - that he enlisted before the start of the war, so his military career was probably very short. The 1st Battalion was in South Africa in August 1914, and returned to England on19 September. It joined the 22nd Brigade in 7th Division together with various other regular army units which had been serving outside the UK. The newly created Division landed in Belgium on 6 October. Its first task was to help in the westward evacuation of the Belgian army, after which it entrenched near Ypres, the first British troops to do so.

The Division took part in the 1st First Battle of Ypres from 19 to 22 October and suffered very heavy losses. It was back to fighting strength the following January, having acquired the name ‘The Immortal Seventh’ but it seems likely William George was by then a prisoner of war.

From the very start of the war, the German government had far more prisoners to deal with than it had expected. It was not just the British who’d said the fighting would all be over by Christmas. By the end of September the German army had taken prisoner 125,050 French soldiers and 94,000 Russian, as well as British, numbers for which it was utterly unprepared. There was no detention infrastructure and initially prisoners ended up in whatever was locally available - tents, barns, empty buildings and fields. They were often treated brutally.

In 1915 the number of prisoners reached one million, an unprecedented figure. In response the German government set up nearly three hundred prison camps, frequently using the prisoners themselves to build them. There was no central administration of these camps. Germany was divided into military districts, each corresponding to an army corps whose commanders acted as military governors of their district. Part of their duties covered the running of prisoner of war camps so living conditions in each camp depended to a significant extent on the attitude of each commandant and his staff.

The worst camps were mostly on the Russian and Austro-Hungarian fronts where unsanitary living conditions and ill treatment caused the death of thousands, many from typhus. Camps in western Europe were usually better. Happily, relatively speaking, for William George Scott, Soltau Hannover camp was considered a good camp. The International Red Cross report on Soltau, all one hundred and eighty six pages of it, is available online at: http://grandeguerre.icrc.org/en/Camps/Soltau-Hanovre-/479/fr/

A prison camp for non-officer soldiers (Mannschaftslager) consisted of wooden barracks ten metres wide by fifty metres long, each of which housed about two hundred and fifty men. The barracks were surrounded by a barbed wire fence three metres high. Inside, straw or sawdust bunk beds sat on either side of a central passageway. Furniture was minimal. There was generally a canteen where prisoners could sometimes buy extra food, a barrack for packages, a guardhouse, guards’ barracks and kitchens. Besides sanitary facilities, improved following the typhus outbreaks, there might be a library, chapel, or performance hall.

Non-officer prisoners of war from both sides of the conflict were usually put to work in small working units, typically in agriculture, forestry or mining. This was legal under international law. Prisoners in Germany might be returned to their camp at night or held under guard in local units. The International Red Cross regularly inspected the camps, but not these units where living conditions were sometimes dreadful.

The worst were those near the front line where prisoners had to work under shellfire. By 1916, the German, British, French, Austro-Hungarian and Russian armies were all keeping permanent units of prisoners as forced labourers at or near the front, as a form of reprisal. Germany sent newly captured British and French prisoners to carry out forced labour on the Eastern Front after France transported German prisoners of war to camps in North Africa, and Britain began put them to work for the British army in France. Many of those sent to the Eastern Front died of cold, starvation and ill treatment. In 1917 this reprisal practice escalated on both sides.

We do not know what William George’s experiences were, but while most prisoners survived the war, he was not to be among them. The record states that Switzerland, to where injured prisoners from both sides of the conflict had been sent since May 1916, officially accepted him on 7 November 1918. He died that day at Interlaken hospital, just four days before the end of the war. He was buried in St Martin’s cemetery at Vevey, on the northern shore of Lake Geneva, in a section designated for Commonwealth war graves. He is one of eighty eight British and Dominion sailors, soldiers and airmen of the war who died before they could be repatriated and are buried in Switzerland.

He was survived by his wife Catherine and their two children back home in Birmingham. His mother Lydia had died in 1913 aged fifty three. More than one hundred and fifty thousand men from Birmingham, over half of the male population, served in the armed forces during the war. Around thirteen thousand of them are thought to have died, and thirty five thousand  wounded.

William George was first cousin to Owen George, Henry William and Frederick Albert Lines.