George Hamnett Derbyshire (Darbyshire on memorial)
Rank: Stoker, 1st Class
Number: SS/104514
Unit: Hawke Battalion ROYAL NAVAL DIVISION
Date of Death: 7 September 1916
Age: 33
Cemetery: Berlin South Western Cemetery, Germany

George’s surname is spelt incorrectly as Darbyshire on the Stockport War Memorial

He was born on 9 June 1888, at Ashton on Mersey, the son of a gardener William Derbyshire and his wife Elizabeth. The couple are known to have had three other children – Lizzie, Lucy and William Percy. William would become a professional golfer and, during the War, served in Salonika with the Royal Field Artillery.

George chose a different career and joined the Navy in 1907. He served for five years and then returned home to civilian life. The family was now living at 20 Moorland Road, Woodsmoor Road, Stockport and he found work at the nearby Mirrlees engineering works in Hazel Grove. He was, however, still on the naval reserve and when War was declared on 4 August 1914, he was recalled to service.

Over 20,000 ex-sailors had been recalled and they were surplus to the Navy’s needs at the time – all the available ships had full crews. Many of them were hurriedly brought together to fight on land as soldiers, alongside the existing Brigade of Royal Marines. They were issued with almost obsolete rifles and, in the rush to get them into action, many went overseas without proper basic kit such as water bottles or mess tins and they would fight in their blue naval uniforms, not khaki. The Marines had landed at Dunkirk on 20 September and immediately marched north to help with the defence of Antwerp. The two new brigades of sailors followed soon afterwards, arriving at Antwerp on the night of 5/6 October.

No sooner they had arrived, than an order to withdraw to a second line of defences, believed to be around the Chateau Weyninex. By the morning of the 8th, it became clear that the position of the British (and Belgian) troops was untenable under the pressure of the advancing Germans. Preparations having been made throughout the day, the formal orders to retreat were issued at 5.30pm. The History of the Royal Naval Division records that “Hawke, Benbow and Collingwood (battalions) only learnt of the order to retreat….at about 7.15 and were, even at this point, not informed as to the vital point that the retirement was to take effect on receipt.”

Vital time was, indeed, lost but eventually the sailors started to pull back. Hawke managed to disengage first, crossing the river at Burght. Their route to the safety of the south was cut off and they had no option but to go northwards towards neutral Holland. Many crossed over the border and would be interned for the remainder of the War. Many others who, due to extreme fatigue, could not keep up were forced to surrender to the Germans.

George was one of those taken prisoner and would spend the last two years of his life in a PoW camp near Berlin. A few days before he died, he developed a carbuncle on his spine and was transferred to PoW Hospital Kaseme on Alexandrinenstasse, Berlin, where he died of pneumonia.

He was originally buried at the PoW Camp Cemetery at Hasenheide. After the War, the many burials around Berlin were brought together into a single new Britiish Cemetery and George’s body and those of 63 other men buried in the Cemetery were reinterred.

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