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Newspaper archive yields real-life ‘Private Ryan’ story

A local historian has uncovered a real-life version of the movie ‘Saving Private Ryan’ by searching a weekly newspaper’s archives.

The 1998 Steven Spielberg film depicts the fictional account of a World War Two rescue mission for an American soldier whose brothers have been killed in fighting.

But a real-life story involving the rescue of a British soldier after his five brothers were all killed in the First World War has now come to light.

Local historian Peter Wise uncovered the story when searching the archives of the Teesdale Mercury, and it has since been picked up by international news agency Associated Press.

The story concerned a Private Wilfred Smith of Barnard Castle who was brought home from the trenches after Queen Mary became aware that his five brothers had all perished in the conflict.

It followed a personal plea by Sarah Bircham, wife of the vicar of the County Durham town, who wrote to the Queen about the deaths of the Smiths’ five sons and how they had a sixth son still at war.

The Mercury printed the reply that was sent by the Queen’s private secretary, Edward Wallington, conveying her sympathy to the family on their “sad losses.”

It added:  “The Queen has caused Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s request concerning their youngest son to be forwarded for consideration of the War Office authorities.”

The upshot was that Pte Smith returned Barnard Castle where he lived until 1972, when he died aged 74.

The century-old story has since been covered again in the paper, inspiring a mixture of pride and astonishment among readers.

Mercury editor Trevor Brookes told AP: “To say it’s been massive is probably not an understatement.

“Every parent can probably roughly imagine how terrible it would be to lose a son, but to lose five sons at the risk of losing a sixth — that’s tragedy. I don’t think any British family suffered a greater loss.”