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  • Writer's pictureSarah von Allmen

Remembrance 2020 (9)

A short series of blogs about Stockport men.

9. George Southern Ritchie

John Walker Ritchie, a cotton merchant from Aberdeenshire, married Mary Southern, a solicitor’s daughter, in Burnley in 1878 and had four children: Ellen (1879), George Southern (1881), Henry Clement (1884) and John Douglas (1885). The first two children were born in Manchester before the family moved to Heaton Moor, where they lived on Heaton Moor Road. In August 1890 the family were on holiday in John’s native village of Collieston when he was tragically drowned in a boating accident along with his father and a young lad from the village. However, he left his widow comfortably-off and the family grew up with all the advantages of the upper middle class.

George was educated at Manchester Grammar School and then articled as a clerk to his uncle Walter Southern, qualifying as a solicitor in 1902: he became a partner in the Burnley firm of Southern, Fullalove and Ritchie in 1908. He enlisted in the army in November 1914, joining the 21st Battalion (Public Schools and Universities) of the Royal Fusiliers. He went overseas on 15 November 1915, but then returned to England to train for a commission and was gazetted as a Second Lieutenant in the Machine Gun Corps on 5 August 1916.

Tanks, which had been developed by the British as a response to the stalemate of trench warfare, were first used on the Somme in September 1916. At the time they constituted the Heavy Section of the Machine Gun Corps, and George appears to have belonged to this section from the outset: it was separated from the rest of the MGC on 18 July 1917 to form the Tank Corps. A tank was normally crewed by a junior officer such as George, three drivers and four gunners.

The first really effective mass use of tanks was at the Battle of Cambrai, beginning on 20 November 1917. However, they were still in their infancy and in addition to the dreadfully hot and noisy conditions inside they were notoriously prone to mechanical problems. As George’s tank advanced on Bourlon Wood well ahead of the infantry on 23 November it broke down, but rather than remain in relative safety inside, George got his crew out, and armed with their machine guns they followed closely behind another tank, firing on German soldiers flushed out by the advance. When the infantry arrived, George remained with his crew helping them to consolidate until recalled later that night. For his initiative in this action he was awarded the Military Cross for “gallantry and devotion to duty”.

When I first read the citation of his medal award, I must admit I was irresistibly reminded of small boys playing war in the school playground (“You can’t shoot me, I’m a tank!”), but when I started reading about the Battle of Cambrai I found it hard to believe that George (and his crew) could have survived unscathed. Half the tanks were out of action after just the first day of the battle, and 28 were lost in all.

George came safely through the rest of the war, ending it with the rank of captain, and amazingly his wartime service was mirrored by that of his brother John Douglas, who reached the same rank and also won the Military Cross. He returned to civilian life in Burnley with his wife Elizabeth Helen Duff, whom he had married in Aberdeenshire in August 1916, and resumed his legal career, becoming president of the Burnley Law Society in 1948. He died in Burnley in 1954 at the age of 73.

Although he left Heaton Moor before the outbreak of war, George was included in the Roll of Honour of servicemen from Heaton Moor Congregational Church supplied to the Stockport Advertiser in January 1915.

My WWI website is dedicated to all First World War servicemen from the Heatons and Reddish: the survivors as well as the casualties.

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