Company Sergeant Major George Mayer Symons

This is part of a series of essays about the First World War casualties commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Virginia.

Panoramic Photograph of Camp Lee, 1917
Panoramic Photograph of Camp Lee, 1917

Company Sergeant Major Instructor George Symons was a pre-war regular soldier. In 1918 he was posted to the British War Mission in the United States, where he died at Camp Lee, Virginia on 8 October 1918 during the influenza pandemic.

George Mayer Symons was born in Holborn, London in the third quarter of 1891—the seventh of the six sons and three daughters of Henry James Symons, a hansom cab driver, and Julia Mary Ann Symons (née Mayer).[1] The family later moved from Holborn to Camberwell, south of the river.

George Symons enlisted as a regular soldier in late-1908, aged 18, and joined The Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment); he was allocated the number L/13400.[2] He was posted to the 2nd Battalion, which was stationed in India at Jubbelpore (now Jabalpur) with a detachment at Pachmarhi Cantonment.

Following the outbreak of war, the 2nd Battalion sailed from India in December 1914, arriving in England in early-January 1915. It was based at Stockingford, near Nuneaton in Warwickshire as part of 86th Brigade, 29th Division—the Division was a regular formation made up of battalions that had been recalled from garrison duties across the Empire.

The 29th Division was ordered to the Mediterranean as part of the force that would take part in the Gallipoli campaign. Having been inspected by the King at Stretton-on-Dunsmore on 12 March, 2nd Royal Fusiliers sailed on 16 March on the SS Alaunia from Avonmouth, via Malta to Alexandria. George Symons did not, however, sail with the Battalion.

The reason for him remaining in the United Kingdom is not known—it is possible that he was attending a course of instruction—but he finally embarked for the Mediterranean sometime in August, arriving in that theatre of operations on 25 August.

By the time of his arrival 2nd Royal Fusiliers had seen considerable action. Having landed at X Beach, Cape Helles on 25 April the Battalion suffered half of its strength killed and wounded in three days’ fighting. It was engaged in major actions throughout May and by 7 June had been reduced to only 2 officers and 278 men. Having been withdrawn to Lemnos on 15 July, the Battalion returned briefly to Cape Helles before landing at Suvla on 20 August, where 86th and 87th Brigades took part in the attack on Scimitar Hill the next day; the attack, the last major attack of the Gallipoli campaign, was unsuccessful and 2nd Royal Fusiliers dug in near Chocolate Hill.[3]

Suvla Bay and Anzac Cove, Gallipoli
Suvla Bay and Anzac Cove, Gallipoli

It was here that Sergeant George Symons rejoined his battalion, with a large draft of officers and men that brought it up to strength for the first time since the landing in April. The Battalion was relieved and embarked for Imbros, where, although safe from the enemy, it suffered 200 more casualties from diarrhoea. The number of casualties suffered in the period since the landing in April is staggering—George Symons was lucky to have avoided becoming one of the 1,736 killed, wounded, missing or evacuated sick.[4] Following his inspection of 86th Brigade, the Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, General Sir Ian Hamilton, wrote:

11th September, 1915. Imbros. Ran across in the motor boat to see the 86th Brigade under Brigadier-General Percival. Went, man by man, down the lines of the four battalions—no very long walk either! These were the Royal Fusiliers (Major Guyon), Dublin Fusiliers (Colonel O’Dowda), Munster Fusiliers (Major Geddes), Lancashire Fusiliers (Major Pearson).

Shade of Napoleon—say, which would you rather not have, a skeleton Brigade or a Brigade of skeletons? This famous 86th Brigade is a combination. Were I a fat man I could not bear it, but I am as unsubstantial as they themselves. A life insurance office wouldn’t touch us; and yet—they kept on smiling!’[5]

For two months from late September, when it returned to Suvla, the Battalion held the line near Chocolate Hill—this period included three night attacks and regular patrols. There is no way of knowing what part George Symons played in all of this or whether he was present during the flood that occurred on 26 November:

November 26th dawned fine, and so continued until about 5 p.m., when it began to rain. Almost at once it became a characteristic tropical downpour. In an hour there was a foot of water in the trenches. From the hills where the Turks lay a tremendous flood of water swept towards the Fusiliers’ position. The barriers reared so painfully against the Turks were swept away in a flash. In a few minutes the face of the country had changed. Into the trenches swept a pony, a mule, and three dead Turks. Several men were drowned. The whole area became a lake. The communication trenches were a swirl of muddy water. All that could be seen was an occasional tree and a muddy bank where the parados had been particularly high. The bulk of the battalion had scrambled out of the trenches, and stood about on the spots which remained above water, soaked to the skin, and at least half of them without overcoats or even rifles. The moon lit up these small knots of shivering men on little banks of mud in a waste of water. Not a shot was fired on either side. The common calamity had enforced an efficient truce.

Orders came by telephone that the battalion was to hold on to the line at all costs. Meanwhile two orderlies, Frost and James, had been sent to brigade headquarters, and had been compelled to swim most of the way. About 10 p.m. the water subsided slightly, and the men threw up rough breastworks of mud. There they lay huddled together in extreme discomfort, cut through by a piercing wind. The next day the trenches were still from 4 to 5 feet deep, and the men were forced to keep to them. The truce had ended as strangely as it had begun, and any one showing above the trenches was liable to meet the familiar fate. Captain Shaw was shot dead, Lieutenant Ormesher was mortally wounded; and with such object lessons the bitter discomforts of the trenches were made to seem preferable. In the afternoon the wind rose again. It became intensely cold. A blizzard swept the country. Men were sent back to hospital; but some of them died on the way, from exposure and exhaustion. Two of them, belonging to W Company, who shared this fate, had struggled on until they found some sort of shelter near the Salt Lake. There they had paused to rest. The younger of the two could probably have got back to camp alone, but he would not leave his comrade in the storm and darkness and snow. The next morning they were found together—frozen stiff. The younger, his arms round his companion, held a piece of broken biscuit in each frozen hand, and there were biscuit crumbs frozen into the moustache of the elder man.

Under such conditions the tacit truce was renewed. Rum and whisky were brought up to the trenches; but with the utmost difficulty. At midnight on the 27th, the wind was colder, the snow thicker. About 4 a.m. (November 28th) the commanding officer and the adjutant were the only survivors in the reserve line; and it was clear that even superhuman endurance had limits. Permission was obtained to bring the battalion back to the brigade nullah, where the ground was higher and more sheltered. There were only about 300 left in the firing line, and they were got back with great difficulty. Hardly a man could walk normally. The trench was crossed by a single plank. A few of the men were shot as they staggered across. Some failed to get back at all. Others were kicked along with merciful brutality, or they would have given up the struggle. There are few pictures in military history which equal in poignancy that of this little band who, having faced what was almost beyond the power of men, struggled back to life from the very gates of death.

By 7 a.m. the battalion had arrived at the nullah, where they were given warm food and put into blankets. The majority were taken to hospital during the day suffering either from exposure or frost-bite. The strength of the battalion was now 11 officers and 105 other ranks. A party of men, under Second Lieutenant Camies, were sent back to the Dublin Castle post to hold on to next evening. On the 29th it froze hard, and after midnight it was found that the party from another regiment who were to have relieved Second Lieutenant Camies, had lost their way. At 4 a.m. (November 30th) Camies and his men were found still at their posts, but in an almost helpless condition. Sergt.-Major Paschall was sent to take out the relieving party and bring back Camies. The outpost on return all went to hospital, and at 4 p.m. roll call showed only 10 officers and 84 other ranks (70 effective) remaining. The storm had wrought a greater havoc than any battle.’[6]

On 3 January, 2nd Royal Fusiliers finally left the peninsula and sailed for Egypt; by March 1916 it was in France.

It is impossible to say when Sergeant Symons left the 2nd Battalion and, therefore, what experience he had of the Battalion’s actions in France. What is known is that at some time in late-1917 he was detached for duty with the Army Gymnastic Staff (AGS) as a physical training and bayonet fighting instructor, allocated a new regimental number (1125) and then promoted to Company Sergeant Major Instructor.[7] He is likely to have been a regimental physical training instructor and an instructor at a school before applying, or being selected, to join the AGS.

Soldiers on a Physical and Bayonet Training Course for Unit Instructors
Soldiers on a Physical and Bayonet Training Course for Unit Instructors

The AGS had been formed in 1860 in order to provide a professionally trained cadre of instructors who could develop a more rigorous physical training programme for the Army, and to promote the organisation of sport. It was an establishment, not a corps, and men were attached to the AGS from their parent regiments. Like the rest of the Army, the AGS expanded to cater for the demands of the much bigger wartime Army. At the outbreak of war the Army actively recruited civilian gymnastic and physical training instructors, who were sent to Aldershot—to the School of Physical Training—where they were assessed. Successful completion of this assessment resulted in their appointment as an Acting Sergeant Instructor (or Acting Quartermaster Sergeant or Company Sergeant Major Instructor depending on their level of expertise) and posting to a training establishment or physical training school. Command Schools of Physical and Bayonet Training were established in 1916 to train unit instructors, to train and assess potential AGS instructors from men already serving in the Army, and to provide refresher training. 1916 also saw the establishment of schools in France to support the British Expeditionary Force.[8]

By July 1918, Company Sergeant Major Instructor Symons was held on the supernumerary strength of the 5th (Reserve) Battalion, The Royal Fusiliers and had been posted to the British War Mission, for employment at one of the United States Army training camps. The training component of the British War Mission numbered 261 officers and 226 NCOs spread across the training establishment—it was highly regarded and is credited, with its French equivalent, of being pivotal to the successful expansion of the United States Army in 1917 and 1918.

The AGS had provided instructors to the training mission in the United States since October 1917, when 25 officers and NCO instructors arrived and were assigned to the divisions then training.[9] Amongst a contingent of officers and men that sailed from Southampton on RMS Olympic on 27 July 1918, destined for the British War Mission, was Company Sergeant Major Instructor George Symons.[10] He arrived in New York on 1 August. Also in this contingent of instructors was Captain Harry Daniels VC, MC—he had earned his awards as a company sergeant major with 2nd Battalion, The Rifle Brigade (Prince Consort’s Own) before being commissioned and attached to the AGS.

Symons’ new place of duty was Camp Lee, Virginia. Camp Lee—named after General Robert E. Lee—had been established on farmland acquired by the War Department east of Petersburg in Prince George County soon after the United States entered the war. It was one of 32 cantonments built to cater for 16 National Army and 16 National Guard divisions. Initially, Camp Lee was the home to the 80th ‘Blue Ridge’ Division—recruited from New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and District of Columbia—which embarked for France in June 1918. Camp Lee then became a training camp for replacements; its major units were the Infantry Replacement and Training Camp, 155th Depot Brigade, one of two Veterinary Training Schools, a school for bakers and cooks, and one of the five Central Officers’ Training Schools for infantry officers.

Recruits at Camp Lee exercising with a medicine ball
Recruits at Camp Lee exercising with a medicine ball

Company Sergeant Major Instructor Symons arrived at Camp Lee in early August 1918. A month later influenza arrived. The first case was reported on 13 September and the incidence of cases increased rapidly. The camp hospital was quickly overwhelmed and rooms in barracks, and later whole barracks, were set aside for the confinement and treatment of the milder cases. At the same time, blocks of barrack buildings ½ mile from the camp hospital were set up as an annex to the hospital. Quarantine restrictions were imposed to reduce contact with the civilian population, although by then the disease had spread to Richmond.[11] [12] The rate of new infections peaked in Camp Lee in the first week of October; by noon on 3 October 6,449 cases had been reported, resulting in 167 deaths.

Hospital Staff, Camp Lee
Hospital Staff, Camp Lee

George Symons was one of those struck down by the disease during this period. He died at the camp hospital on Tuesday 8 October 1918, one of 28 men to die in that 24 hour period.[13]

Poplar Grove National Cemetery
Poplar Grove National Cemetery

He was buried at Poplar Grove National Cemetery, Petersburg, one of seven burials in 1918.[14] Poplar Grove National Cemetery was established as a burial site for United States soldiers killed during the Siege of Petersburg. Confederate soldiers were buried at Blandford Church Cemetery. The work to clear the battlefield around Petersburg began in 1866 and was completed by 30 June 1869, when the burial corps that had carried out the work was disbanded. By then 6,178 Union and 32 Confederate soldiers, and five civilians had been buried in the cemetery; only 2,139 are identified. Since then there have been a further 32 Civil War burials (29 in 1931 and three in 2003) and 61 other burials between 1896 and 1957, when the cemetery was closed to non-Civil War interments.[15] George Symons is buried in grave 5596. It is in section C, in a radial row of graves established between 1896 and 1933 in the walkway in the centre of section C; it begins to the right of the gun monument and leads north-east. His grave lies between unknown soldiers in graves 3013 and 3014.

Poplar Grove National Cemetery
Poplar Grove National Cemetery

The refurbishment of Poplar Grove National Cemetery began in 2016 and as part of that process an incorrectly inscribed, flat grave marker (which had replaced a United States flat marker in 2008) was replaced by a new upright headstone in a dedication ceremony at the cemetery on 27 August 2016. The spelling of his rank on the headstone and on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission commemorative page reflects the traditional spelling of that rank, now confined to the Foot Guards and The Rifles.

The new gravestone for George Symons, August 2016
The new gravestone for George Symons, August 2016

George Symons is also commemorated in the Royal Fusiliers Roll of Honour. This book of remembrance, dedicated with the regimental memorial on 4 November 1922, resides in the regimental chapel in St Sepulchre-without-Newgate at Holborn Viaduct, not far from the regimental memorial at High Holborn; both near to where George Symons was born.

His medals group comprises: 1914-15 Star; British War Medal 1914-20; and Victory Medal.

Fort Lee Archive for the photographs of Camp Lee.
Stephanie Killingbeck, Assistant Curator, The Fusilier Museum & the verger at St Sepulchre-without-Newgate for the photograph of the Roll of Honour.

Anwaerter, J; Curry, G W. (2006). Cultural Landscape Report for Poplar Grove National Cemetery. Boston: Olmstead Center for Landscape Preservation.
Campbell, J D. (December 2003). ‘The Army Isn’t All Work’: Physical Culture in the Evolution of the British Army, 1860-1920. The Graduate School, The University of Maine. Electronic Theses and Dissertations. Paper 185.
Hamilton, I. (1920). Gallipoli Diary. Volume 2. New York: George H. Doran & Co.
O’Neill, H C. (1922). The Royal Fusiliers in the Great War. London: William Heinemann.
Camp Surgeon, Camp Lee, VA. (7 November 1918). Report on the Influenza and Pneumonia Epidemic. RG 112, Records of the Office of the Surgeon General (Army). National Archives.

1. (Back) Henry James Symons (born third quarter 1852) and Julia Mary Ann Mayer (born third quarter 1857) married on 6 September 1876 at Clarkenwell. In addition to George Mayer, they had eight children: Helen Amelia Mary (1877), Selina Julia (14 February 1881), Alfred James (1883), Richard Charles (1885), Arthur Thomas (1887), Albert James (1889), Ernest William (1895), Marian Louise (1897). Selina Julia, Alfred James, Richard Charles, and Arthur Thomas were baptised together on 27 May 1988.
2. (Back) The ‘L’ prefix on his regimental number indicates such a regular enlistment.
3. (Back) The summary of the Battalion’s actions is taken from the wartime history of the Regiment: O’Neill, H C. (1922). The Royal Fusiliers in the Great War. London: William Heinemann.
4. (Back) 19 officers and 260 other ranks were killed; 40 officers and 914 other ranks were wounded; 24 officers and 376 other ranks were evacuated sick and 7 officers and 96 other ranks were missing.
5. (Back) Hamilton, I. (1920). Gallipoli Diary. Volume 2. New York: George H. Doran & Co.
6. (Back) O’Neill. Op. Cit. pp 105-108.
7. (Back) This date is derived from an analysis of other records. In addition, the absent voter list for 1919 (compiled from information submitted in 1918) records him as living at 269 Beresford Street, Woolwich and as being in the Army Gymnastic Staff—1125, Company Sergeant Major.
8. (Back) An excellent history of the Army Gymnastic Staff in the war may be found here: Campbell, J D. (December 2003). ‘The Army Isn’t All Work’: Physical Culture in the Evolution of the British Army, 1860-1920. The Graduate School, The University of Maine. Electronic Theses and Dissertations. Paper 185.
9. (Back) Campbell. Op. Cit. p 212.
10. (Back) The other instructors in this contingent were:
1055 Company Sergeant Major Instructor George Henry Anderson, The East Surrey Regiment
38153 Sergeant Instructor Thomas Coburn, The Norfolk Regiment (formerly The King’s (Liverpool Regiment))
9074 Company Sergeant Major Instructor Charles Alfred Donnithorne DCM, The Border Regiment
8291 Company Sergeant Major Instructor Arthur Gosling, The Cheshire Regiment
9607 Company Sergeant Major Instructor John William Husher DCM, The Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding Regiment)
TR/8/11617 Sergeant Instructor Albert Clement Locker, The Devonshire Regiment (formerly 940, The Royal Warwickshire Regiment)
1727 Company Sergeant Major Instructor Daniel McConville, Army Gymnastic Staff (formerly 10599 The Gordon Highlanders) 7/17
8721 Quartermaster Sergeant Instructor John Thomas Murray, The South Wales Borderers
38076 Sergeant Instructor Walter Rushworth, The Norfolk Regiment
38009 Sergeant Instructor Stanley Frederick Smith, The Norfolk Regiment
10530 Company Sergeant Major Instructor William Robin Thomas DCM, The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles)
1147 Company Sergeant Major Instructor William Wilcox, Army Gymnastic Staff (formerly 8836, The South Wales Borderers)
1658 Sergeant Instructor Arthur James Wilkinson, Army Gymnastic Staff (formerly 10841, Coldstream Guards)
34227 Sergeant Instructor Percy Hutchings, The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment
A number of other instructors in that contingent have not been positively identified (it is believed that they include some Canadian NCO instructors): William Denton, William Edwards, John Thomas Harper, James Hughes, Donald McDonald, Frederick Preston, Charles Price, James Fred Seaton, Henry Duncan Sheldon, Alfred V Smail, (?) Smith.
In addition to Captain H Daniels VC, MC, there were 29 officers on board: Brigadier General L R Kenyon, Director of Munitions Inspection; Captain C E Ashby MC, The London Regiment—an officer of the British staff in Washington DC; 23 other officers of the British War Mission (including two Canadians, Captain L Kirk-Greene, 5th Battalion Canadian Mounted Rifles, and Lieutenant John McWatters, Canadian Infantry); three officers of the British Naval Mission; and an officer returning to the British West Indies from sick leave. Most of the instructor officers were appointed as at 19 July in London Gazette 26 September. Issue 30920, pp 11405-406 (the officers appointed to the British War Mission on 12 July in the same Gazette (and three Canadian instructor officers) had arrived in the United States on RMS Mauritania a week earlier).
11. (Back) Camp Surgeon, Camp Lee, VA. (7 November 1918). Report on the Influenza and Pneumonia Epidemic. RG 112, Records of the Office of the Surgeon General (Army). National Archives.
12. (Back) Here you can read more about the influenza pandemic in Camp Lee and Richmond.
13. (Back) In the report produced by the Camp Surgeon at Camp Lee the strength of the command was reported as 49,300 all ranks. Between 13 September and 7 November 1918, there were 11,637 cases of influenza and 1,960 cases of pneumonia, resulting in 674 deaths. In a smaller outbreak in December 692 cases were reported, of whom four died.
14. (Back) It is acknowledged that some of the Civil War soldiers buried here may not have been United States citizens.
15. (Back) Anwaerter, J; Curry, G W. (2006). Cultural Landscape Report for Poplar Grove National Cemetery. Boston: Olmstead Center for Landscape Preservation.
16. (Back) The burials in 1918 were all First World War casualties:
Private Charlie Favors, 155th Depot Brigade, Camp Lee; died on 16 March 1918; C5594
Private Arthur H. Heward, 155th Depot Brigade, Camp Lee; died on 12 June 1918; C5595
Private Mike Kosich, 155th Depot Brigade, Camp Lee; died on 9 January 1918; C5593
Captain Arthur L. Lynn, 8th Cavalry; died at Presidio, Texas on 11 October 1918; C5598
Private Stanley Urbanowicz, 3rd Camp Development Battalion, Camp Lee; died on 5 October 1918 C5597
Private Frank D. Williams, 465th Motor Truck Company; died in France 26 September 1918 and buried at American Cemetery 4, Neufchateau. Reinterred at Poplar Grove National Cemetery C3447A.

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