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'Just like George': Why Mike McGrother is walking to France to lay sunflowers on a soldier's grave

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

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A Stockton musician is walking from Easingwold to Esquelbecq to lay tributes at the grave of a First World War soldier who was shot for cowardice and desertion, only to be pardoned 90 years later.

George Hunter was a young Stockton dad who, suffering from what would later be known as ‘shell shock’ and eventually ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’, ran away from the trenches in 1916.

He was captured as he was reunited with his wife and children in Easingwold near York and transported back to Belgium, where he was found guilty of desertion and sentenced to death.

Private Hunter was shot near Ypres at dawn on July 2, 1916 – the second day of the Battle of the Somme. Aged just 25, he was the first Durham Light Infantry soldier to be executed during the First World War.

Now, Stockton musician Mike McGrother is following in George’s footsteps and is en-route to his grave in Esquelbecq Military Cemetery in France, where he will lay sunflowers on behalf of the people of Stockton-on-Tees.

“During George’s trial it was acknowledged that he was suffering from a mental condition and should be seen by a doctor specialising in mental health,” said Mike.

“This was dismissed and, most likely as an example to others, George was executed. In 2006, George and 305 other British troops shot for cowardice and desertion received a posthumous pardon from the Government.

“As we move towards the centenary of the end of that horrific war, he represents the hundreds of others whose names and stories need to be remembered.

“We’re calling the walk ‘Just Like George’ because he also represents the Stockton-on-Tees residents today who, ‘like George’, are struggling with post-traumatic stress.

“This isn’t just a soldier’s condition – it affects thousands of people living among us and it is important that their stories are heard too. I will be sharing these stories on a dedicated Facebook page.

“In reading them, we can perhaps take time to empathise and look after each other a little bit better. That can perhaps be a fitting legacy for George Hunter – soldier, sunflower, father, son.”

Mike was met at Easingwold by the Mayor of Stockton-on-Tees, Councillor Maurice Perry, and the Mayoress, Mrs Laraine Perry, who presented him with the sunflowers to be laid on George’s grave.

The Mayor said: “Entrusting Mike with these sunflowers is such a fitting way of paying tribute because it is a continuation of what we started back in 2014, when the people of the Borough came together to grow sunflowers in memory of their Great War dead and to mark the centenary of the start of the war.

“We called the project ‘1,245 Sunflowers’ and the inspiration for it was Stockton’s Book of Remembrance, which lists 1,245 soldiers who died in the First World War. We asked people to grow sunflowers and cut them down in August to signify the lives lost prematurely.

“It was about reflecting on the lives of those who went to war and never returned, so laying sunflowers on George’s grave brings things full circle, if you like. I wholeheartedly applaud what Mike is doing and will be following his journey very closely.

“There have been many community projects and events to commemorate the First World War centenary in the Borough since 1,245 Sunflowers and these will of course continue this year as we mark the centenary of the end of the war.”

To follow Mike’s journey visit his Facebook page www.facebook.com/georgehunter1246