LAST week’s column told the remarkable story of how one North-East town marked the centenary of the end of the First World War.

Stockton-on-Tees lost 1,245 sons in The Great War and each one of them was remembered with sunflowers, grown by members of the community, and symbolically cut down in their prime in November 2014. 
The 1,245 Sunflowers project developed into a magnificent four-year commemoration, bringing local people together through music, art and host of community events.

This week’s column tells the heart-breaking story of the young man who was almost lost in time because his name didn’t feature on the official list of 1,245 fallen soldiers…

At the beginning of 2017, Mike McGrother, the musician, teacher and creative whirlwind engaged by Stockton Borough Council to lead the centenary commemorations, started working with youngsters at the town’s library.

Determined that no-one should be overlooked in Stockton’s commemorations, Mike challenged the youngsters to come up with a story that might have been missed. What emerged from their research was the truly tragic tale of George Hunter, a young lad from Stockton’s Tilery estate. 

Before the war, while working at Anderson’s Foundry, at Port Clarence, George had suffered a terrible industrial accident which left him with a mental impairment that affected his short-term memory.
Nevertheless, George enlisted in the 4th (Reserve) Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry and was sent to France in 1915, leaving behind a wife and two toddlers. 

His inability to remember orders, along with the effects of severe shell shock, led to him being seen as a trouble-maker. Deeply troubled by the death and destruction all around him, he tried to get himself medically discharged by deliberately raising his hand above the trench on Christmas Eve so that it was shot to bits by German snipers.

With limited medical supplies, George was patched up and sent back to the front-line but, eventually, he could take no more and ran away. The records show that he somehow made his way back to England and was reunited with his family in what he thought was the relative safety of Easingwold, near York, when military police spotted him.

He was dragged away from his wife and children and taken back to Ypres. His commanding officer, Major General Ross, wrote: “There has been a prevalence of desertion and I consider that an example is necessary.” 
And so, on July 2, 1916, George was led out at dawn and shot as a coward. The first DLI soldier to be executed during the First World War, he was 25.

The tragedy continued to deepen. Back in the North-East of England, his family were in disgrace. His children taken away from his widow and his name never recorded in Stockton’s Book of Remembrance.

As 2018 approached, Mike McGrother set about finding out as much as possible about George Hunter. Mike’s friend, Dan Donnelly, wrote a song about George and called it The White Feather. To highlight the issues surrounding mental illness, Mike hooked up with The Samaritans and embarked on a walk around Teesside. Taking the first three numbers of the charity’s helpline – 116123 – he covered 116 miles and, piece by piece, a clearer picture of George’s life emerged. 

To the delight of everyone involved in the 1,245 Sunflowers project, George’s grand-daughter, Beryl Buttle, was found to be living in Stockton and her grandad’s grave was located in France. 

With two friends, Ian McCallan and Mick Riley, Mike set off on yet another walk. It took them from Easingwold to the Hull Ferry and across to Bruges. From there, they walked to Ypres and visited Poperinge, across the Beligian border, where George had been shot. Finally, they laid a sunflower on his grave at Esquelbecq War Cemetery.

George Hunter was not only killed and buried 102 years ago but his country also tried to erase his memory from history. That is no longer the case. The people of Stockton remembered him by giving his image pride of place at an art installation at the town’s disused Holy Trinity Church, on Remembrance Sunday earlier this month. Beryl, his grand-daughter was among those who came to pay their respects.

George Hunter is no longer remembered as a deserter. He is now officially remembered as Stockton’s 1,246th sunflower. 

THIS newspaper should also feel proud, not just because of the way it has covered the four years of the centenary, but for playing such a prominent part in the campaign to win posthumous pardons for more than 300 soldiers executed for alleged cowardice during the First World War.
The Government bowed to pressure in 2006 by announcing that a 90-year injustice should be put right.
May George Hunter and the others like him – lads who ran because of shell shock, mental illness and sheer hopeless terror – rest in peace.