Armistice 100: George William Sleet, an Islington First World War hero haunted by killing and poison gas
PUBLISHED: 12:00 11 November 2018
Islington's George William Sleet was a career soldier who had seen the army as a way out of a life scarred by childhood neglect.
However, after an eventful – and at times harrowing – time guarding the Khyber Pass in what was the colonial India, the outbreak of war in Europe would have a profound and indelible impact on George’s life.
He survived the abuse, the Somme, and a serious bullet wound – not to mention the Second World War and the Blitz – but by the time of his death in 1961 aged 72, a difficult life had left him frail and fragile.
In truth, George’s grandson Barry Page said, when he was invalided home with a bullet wound in his hand sometime after the Battle of the Somme, he was never the same man.
“Men, who were classified as the ‘walking wounded’, appeared in the streets dressed in hospital blues.
“Among the nurses that tended these patients were several ladies from India. From one of the high castes, they were known as Ayahs. Grandma was always taken with them and their colourful silk saris she would refer to them as ‘handsome women’.
“He survived poison gas attacks, but the effects left him with weak and infected lungs that haunted him to his death.”
George became a post office clerk after the war’s conclusion and began to raise a family – he had two daughters and a son, having married Winifred during the war at St. Peter’s Church, Islington, on January 21st, 1917.
Like many men who fought in the trenches, George was reticent to talk about the horrors he had witnessed.
That said, his family heard snippets from him.
Barry added that his grandfather told them of experiencing his “fair share” of advances through No Man’s Land.
He said: “He witnessed comrades falling in their tracks or being blown to bits by shellfire. Whenever there was a successful attack, and the German trenches were overrun by sheer weight of numbers, the vicious hand-to-hand combat became a total mêlée.”
One of George’s most powerful memories was off killing an enemy soldier after circling a haystack.
Barry said: “Well, in granddad’s own words, ‘it was either him or me’. The element of surprise favoured my grandfather, and he dispatched the German with one bayonet thrust.
After the war ended, George was living in Essex Road with his wife’s parents, and despite the horrors he had barely escaped from, some semblance of normal life returned.
The situation was the same for George’s brother-in-law, Dick Harrington, was another Islingtonian who suffered in the trenches.
After enlisting in the army as war began, Dick saw battle on the Western Front.
Horrifically, his tour of duty was cut short by a poison gas attack.
Barry explained: “The extent of his injuries absolved him from further involvement in active service and later in life he was often struck down by terrfying seizures.”
Between the wars, as a postman, George had a steady job cycling the Islington streets, and by 1924 he and Winifred were raising three children in the crowded Essex Road apartments. They soon moved out, to the Liverpool buildings in Highbury Station Road.
Of course, like the rest of their generation, the Great War was not to be the last war, and both George and Dick survived the Blitz while younger men were sent off to fight.
One such younger man was George’s only son, also called George. Barry explained his uncle joined the navy.
“It wasn’t long before he saw active service on the high seas with the hunt of the Graf Spee. Sooner or later, everyone in the family became involved in the war effort.
After the Second World War, George had hoped to find a little cottage with a garden, but sadly he died in 1961, before he could realise that dream.
Barry said: “Granddad died on August 21, 1961. He had had a hard life too. The abused childhood, his Army service in India and the four years in the trenches of the First World War and then the night work with the Post Office – it had all worn him down.”