Born 28 October 1884 in Milton, near Sittingbourne, Kent, George was the first of four children of George Emptage and his wife Charlotte Victoria Stone. Though Charlotte was referred to as George’s wife, they didn’t marry until 1892, after the birth of all four children.
George William’s siblings were Mary Ann Ethel born 1885, Agnes Constance, born 1887 and Charlotte Maud, born 1890.
His father George was born in Minster, Isle of Sheppey, the son of Henry Stephen Graham Emptage and his wife Jane Ferrell.
In 1891 and 1901 the family were living in Chalkwell Road, Milton, Kent. George senior was a mariner and, in 1901 George was 16 and, unusually for then, no occupation was noted.
By 1911, just George remained at home with his parents. He was 26, noted as a general labourer.
George was 32 when he was called up for service and joined the 3rd Battalion Queens Regiment on 13th October 1916. He was transferred to the 5th Labour Corps, part of the 29th Middlesex Regiment, on 18th May 1917. His regiment number was 152561.
George William, 5ft 8 inches in height, was a bricklayer’s labourer who had never learnt to write and signed his name with an “X” when enlisting. George’s life in the army lasted only 284 days. His character was noted as “good” but by the middle of July 1917 he was a patient at the Military Hospital in Colchester and a formal medical report was completed under the “review of exceptions”.
George was classified with “Imbecility (congenital)”, with his disability being from birth and the opinion expressed was that it was caused through heredity, not by any active service, climate or ordinary medical service.
In answer to the question “What is his present condition?”, the medical officer wrote
Memory very deficient, cannot answer any of the questions left blank in this form. Sits all day doing nothing. Has never been able to earn his living, was always kept by his mother. Never in over a months observation has he had the initiative to speak to anyone.”
The recommendation was that George be discharged as permanently unfit though his discharge papers say that he was “no longer physically fit for War Service”. He was discharged on the 23rd July 1917.
He was described on discharge as having several tattoos: back of right hand, lady beetle, clasped hands; left hand: sailing ship, left forearm: lady with wings and flowers and lady ‘with scanty attire’.
George returned to his home at Lavers Cottages, Milton, but sadly towards the end of 1918 he contracted influenza and double pneumonia and died at the Workhouse Infirmary at Milton Regis on the 19th November 1918. He was buried at Holy Trinity Church, Milton.
His name is inscribed on the Milton Regis War Memorial in Milton Regis near Sittingbourne in Kent. Even though he never fired a shot in anger and never went abroad, his name deserves to be honoured amongst all the other men who served throughout the Great War.
George may have been classed as an “Imbecile” by the army but it is important to put that word in to the context of 1917 rather than present day. In today’s more enlightened society, we can help people who may have learning difficulties or slowness in their demeanour, without the need to call them an “Imbecile”.
It is not at all clear that George suffered from an inherited condition but it is clear that he should never have enlisted, or rather, never have been conscripted.
By 1916 the initial rush of men volunteering to join the service in World War One was over and conscription was introduced, with single men aged 18 – 40 who were not in essential war work being the first to be called up. There were Military Service Tribunals which could adjudicate upon claims for exemption, including for health conditions. Perhaps George’s family did not know how he could apply to the Tribunal or felt there was a stigma in doing so.
However, given his condition, we must ask ourselves why George was accepted by the enlistment personnel. Perhaps the army was so desperate for men by then that they turned a blind eye to it, until it became evident that George could not function in the army.
David Emptage and Susan Morris
Photograph courtesy of Julian Simmonds and www.telegraph.co.uk
Additional Information courtesy of the Kent History Forum.