Story behind the real-life 'Saving Private Ryan'

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Story behind the real-life 'Saving Private Ryan'
In this May 7, 2014 photo, Amanda Nelson, the granddaughter of World War I Pvt. Wilfred Smith, shows family photographs during an interview at her home in Barnard Castle, England. Nelson said that she made a special point of seeing the Steven Spielberg film "Saving Private Ryan". The 1998 Oscar-winning film which depicts the fictional account of a WWII rescue mission for a single American soldier whose brothers were killed fighting. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)
In this May 7, 2014, Dianne Nelson, 70, the daughter of World War I Pvt. Wilfred Smith, shows family photos during an interview at her home in Barnard Castle, England. Nelson said that her father never talked about his experiences, even when a childhood essay on the Great War offered the ideal teaching moment. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)
In this May 7, 2014 photo, Amanda Nelson, the granddaughter of World War I Pvt. Wilfred Smith shows family photographs during an interview at her home in Barnard Castle, England. Nelson said that she made a special point of seeing the Steven Spielberg film "Saving Private Ryan". The 1998 Oscar-winning film which depicts the fictional account of a WWII rescue mission for a single American soldier whose brothers have been killed in fighting. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)
This May 7, 2014 photo shows a general view of the War Memorial on the grounds of the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, England. Among the 125 names carved on the face of the monument are the five sons of Margaret and John McDowell Smith, all killed in World War I between 1916-1918. One name not on the monument is that of a sixth brother, Wilfred Smith, who was just 20 when he was plucked from the Western Front and sent home. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)
This May 7, 2014 photo shows a general view of the War Memorial on the grounds of the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, England. Among the 125 names carved on the face of the monument are the five sons of Margaret and John McDowell Smith, all killed in World War I between 1916-1918. One name not on the monument is that of a sixth brother Wilfred Smith, who was just 20 when he was plucked from the Western Front and sent home. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)
This May 7, 2014 photo shows the names of the five Smith brothers that are engraved on a War Memorial on the grounds of the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, England. The five sons of Margaret and John McDowell Smith were all killed in World War I between 1916-1918. One name not on the monument is that of a sixth brother, Wilfred Smith, who was just 20 when he was plucked from the Western Front and sent home. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)
This May 7, 2014 photo shows a general view of the town of Barnard Castle, England. The five sons of Barnard Castle residents Margaret and John McDowell Smith were all killed in World War I between 1916-1918. A sixth brother, Wilfred Smith, was just 20 when he was plucked from the Western Front and sent home. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)
This May 7, 2014, photo shows a scroll commemorating the service of Pvt. Frederick Smith in Barnard Castle, England. Five Smith brothers were killed during World War I, a sixth son, Wilfred Smith, was just 20 when he was plucked from the Western Front and sent home. (AP Photo/Courtesy of the Scott Heppell)
In this May 7, 2014 photo, Teesdale Mercury, editor Trevor Brookes, pulls out an archived book that contains the 1918 paper, which reported Queen Mary’s intervention to rescue Wilfred Smith from the front line during World War I in Barnard Castle, England. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)
In this May 7, 2014 photo, Teesdale Mercury editor, Trevor Brookes, looks an archived book, which contains the 1918 paper that reported Queen Mary’s intervention to rescue Wilfred Smith from the front line during World War I in Barnard Castle, England. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)
This May 7, 2014 photo shows an article in the 1918 Teesdale Mercury newspaper with the report of Queen Mary’s intervention to rescue Wilfred Smith from the front line in World War I, Barnard Castle, England. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)
A British firing squad prepares to execute a German spy somewhere in Great Britain during the Great War, date unknown. (AP Photo)
In this Aug. 23, 1917 photo released by the Imperial War Museum, soldiers of the Royal Marine Artillery sit on a railway gun during the Battle of Langemarck in Woesten, Belgium. Britain's Imperial War Museum is launching an ambitious online database on Monday, May 12, 2014 to remember the lives of the millions of men and women who served in World War One. The museum hopes that the history project, timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of WWI, could form a permanent digital memorial to the scores of soldiers, nurses and others from Britain and the Commonwealth who contributed to the war by piecing together their life stories. (AP Photo/IWM Q2764)
SEVENTY NINE OF ONE HUNDRED PHOTOS WORLD WAR ONE CENTENARY TIMELINE - In this 1917 photo provided by the U.S. Signal Corps, the first 5,000 American soldiers to reach England march across historic Westminster Bridge in London. (AP Photo/U.S. Signal Corps)
THE YANKS CAME: World War I brought the United States into major action on the world scene for the first time. Officially neutral until April 1917, she supplied food an munitions to Britain and France. And in the spring of 1918, fresh troops from the U.S. were decisive in smashing the Germans` last big offensive on the Western front. Here American infantrymen fire a 37mm gun at a German position in France. Date of Photo unknown. (AP-Photo/rw/-undated-)
French President Charles de Gaulle lays a wreath at the foot of the statue of Marshal Ferdinand Foch in Grosvenor Gardens, London, England on April 5, 1960. Marshal Foch commanded the Allied forces in France during the last 18 months of the First World War. (AP Photo/Worth)
Lighthouse at Scarborough, England with a big shell in its walls as a result of the bombardment in December 1914. The raid marked the first fight on English soil with a foreign since the French Landed in Sussex in 1690. (AP Photo)
In this handout provided by the U.S. Signal Corps, the first 5,000 Yankee soldiers to reach England are marching across historic Westminster Bridge after parading before cheering throngs in London in an undated photo. (AP Photo/U.S. Signal Corps)
In this composite image a comparison has been made of Scotland Yard. Commemorations of The First World War Centenary begin in 2014 and will last until 2018. *** COLOR 2014*** LONDON - MARCH 17: A gated barrier runs near Scotland Yard on March 17, 2014 in London, England. A number of events will be held this year to commemorate the centenary of the start of World War One. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images) ***ARCHVE 1910s*** A large crowd of men respond to a call by the War Office for married men aged between 36 and 40 to become munition workers. They gathered outside the Inquiry Office at Scotland Yard in London, England during World War 1. (Photo by Paul Thompson/FPG/Getty Images)
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By Danica Kirka

BARNARD CASTLE, England (AP) - Carved into the simple obelisk commemorating the fallen are the names of five sons of Margaret and John McDowell Smith. There's a story behind the name that isn't there - a sixth brother, Wilfred - and a century after World War I a local historian has dug out the details from archives.

Wilfred Smith's survival is a story of sacrifice amid a war that demanded so much of it from virtually every family in Britain.

Because long before there was the fictional tale of "Saving Private Ryan," there was the real-life story of saving Pvt. Smith.

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The people of Barnard Castle have long known the story of the Smith brothers and that Wilfred, or Willie as he was known, survived.

But how that happened was largely unknown until local historian Peter Wise searched the recently digitized archives of the local newspaper, the Teesdale Mercury. In a minuscule item buried at the bottom of a long gray column came the answer: Queen Mary, wife of King George V, heard about the sacrifice of the brothers and intervened to send Willie home.

A century later, the news has stirred memories and inspired a mixture of pride and astonishment.

"To say it's been massive is probably not an understatement," said Trevor Brookes, the newspaper's editor. "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."

Some 9 million soldiers died in the war that began in 1914 and ended in 1918, and it was common for families to lose more than one son. Brothers and friends would join so-called "Pals Brigades" so they could serve together - and communities sometimes found that a single skirmish could wipe out a generation of their men.

But even so, this story was different.

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Wilfred was the youngest son of a chimney sweep who scraped by in the slums of Barnard Castle, a market town nestled in a landscape dotted by herds of deer and turreted castles in northern England. When Wilfred was 12, there were 10 members of his family living in three rooms in Poor House Yard, according to the 1911 Census of England and Wales. While Wilfred was still in school, his 14-year-old brother, Frederick, was already working in a local mill.

For many poor young men, joining the army was an adventure, a chance to get regular meals and pay, especially since recruiters told them the war would be over in a matter of months. Local World War I buff John Pringle said the boys would have been anxious to leave the drudgery of the flax mill or the shoe-thread factory.

Wilfred didn't want to go, but did when his country called. A photograph taken at the time showed four of the brothers posing in their uniforms with a cute white dog at their feet. The image would remain on Margaret's mantel throughout the war.

Robert 22, died first, in September 1916. George Henry, 26, died less than two months later.

Frederick, 21, died in July 1917, while the eldest, 37-year-old John William Stout - who had their mother's maiden name because she was not yet married when he was born - died in October 1917. The fifth son, Alfred, died in July 1918.

Margaret's grief was apparently more than the vicar's wife, Sarah Elizabeth Bircham, could bear. Bircham, who organized care packages for troops in the trenches, wrote to Queen Mary about the deaths of Margaret's five sons and how she had a sixth son still at war.

The Teesdale Mercury reported what happened next, printing the reply of the queen's secretary, Edward Wallington.

"I am commanded by the queen to thank you for your letter of the 16th instant, and to request you to be good enough to convey to Mr. and Mrs. Smith of Bridgegate, Barnard Castle, an expression of Her Majesty's deep sympathy with them in the sad losses they have sustained by the death of their five sons.

"The Queen has caused Mr. and Mrs. Smith's request concerning their youngest son to be forwarded for consideration of the War Office authorities."

So Wilfred went home to Barnard Castle - though little is known about exactly how that came about. He suffered the lingering respiratory effects of a mustard gas attack and newspaper reports suggested he was temporarily blinded. But once home, he worked as a chimney sweep and a stone mason.

At the Bowes Museum, a memorial was erected to residents who fell in the Great War, including Wilfred's brothers. His mother laid the first wreath at its dedication in 1923 - chosen by the war veterans for the honor. Wilfred was at her side.

He went on to become a devoted husband, father and grandfather who liked to laugh and took joy in simple things. His granddaughter, Amanda Nelson, recalls going to his home for lunch on weekends, where he would delight the little ones by racing snails or other bits of silliness.

His daughter Dianne Nelson said he doted on her and that, as the youngest, she got away with everything.

Now 70, she said her reserved father never talked about his experiences in the war, even when she needed to write a childhood essay on the topic and asked him to tell her about it. The family had heard about the queen and the letter, but it was simply a hazy oral tradition.

Amanda Nelson made a point of seeing the Steven Spielberg film, "Saving Private Ryan." The 1998 Oscar-winning film depicts the fictional account of a World War II rescue mission for a single American soldier whose brothers have been killed in the fighting.

"It was as if they knew the story of us - except they are called the Ryans and not the Smiths," she said.

Although Margaret Smith once told a relative "Don't have boys. They'll just end up being cannon fodder," Amanda Nelson stressed that Margaret believed she did the right thing by allowing her sons to serve.

"She would gladly send them again to fight," Amanda Nelson said. "For king and country."

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In this community, where people often live not far from where their ancestors lived, the Smith story seems very real despite the passage of time. There's a sense of connection to the past that Brookes, the newspaper editor, feels strongly.

Earlier this month, he lifted a dusty, faded red book from an upstairs shelf that holds full-sized bound copies of the paper: the volume labeled 1918. He pushed his finger down the page, to the final sentences of a long column of newsprint, below an item on a produce sale for the War Prisoners Fund.

Brookes has wondered why such a unique and tragic tale would garner so little attention in the paper.

His guess was that by 1918, people had wearied of war - so many had lost so much. But he also speculated the plight of the Smith family might have been deemed less newsworthy because they were members of the town's underclass.

"If not for 'Private Ryan,' it might be lost to history," he said, crediting the Spielberg movie as having offered a contemporary connection.

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Wilfred Smith lived until 1972, when he died at age 74. He was a frequent visitor to the monument at the Bowes Museum that bears his brothers' names.

In "Saving Private Ryan," the now-older soldier stands before the graves of the men who saved him and recalls their sacrifice, saying he tried to live the best life he could. Wilfred Smith's family believes that he, too, could hold his head high as he scanned the names of his brothers at the Bowes obelisk.

"He was a good dad," Dianne Nelson said with pride. "He was a true person."

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