The last post was a short biography of the life of William Turner, a great uncle of mine who died in the First World War. Whilst writing up the post and reflecting on the past during the remembrance service on 11th November I realised that there were many other family members who paid the ultimate sacrifice during the First World War. Here is the story of George Edward Donohoe, another relative through my father’s side. In many ways George’s story is different to that of William Turner’s; he was not a military man – as the records clearly show – and he was drafted in to the military during the war period. But the outcome is the same: both died during the war.

My ancestors, the Donohoes of Plymouth, were established with the arrival of Francis Donohoe from Ireland in the second half of the 19th Century and his marriage to Elizabeth Forrest in 1881. Together they had three children: Mary Ann Donohoe (who was the grandparent of my father), William Donohoe (who died in 1911), and George Edward Donohoe (who died during the First World War). Due to George’s involvement in the war, the Ancestry website revealed a cache of useful military documents, all of which provided me with an opportunity to piece together his story.

Family Trees - Donohoes of Plymouth

George was born in 1896 in Plymouth and followed his father in working as a ‘docker’ at New Gun Wharf in the dockyard. By 1914 he would have been in his late teens and still at the beginnings of his life; however, the outbreak of the war changed all of this. George was drafted into the army in 1916; earlier that year the Military Act imposed conscription on all single men aged between 18 and 41 (only exempting the medically unfit). George’s military documents shed a considerable amount of light on the details of both himself and the family. George signed up at the age of 20 years and 3 months, on 10th July 1916. His attestation form notes that it is for ‘short service for the duration of the War’. The military documents provide detailed information about George’s physical appearance. He was just 5 feet and 5 inches tall, and weighed only 103 pounds: just over 7 stone. This seems a surprisingly small height and low weight for a solider, however, both are within the average for British soldiers in the First World War (with a height of 5ft 7in or more a rarity).[1] Such small sizes indicate a malnourished diet before the outbreak of war; the army attempted to make the men healthier by providing them with more meals – all of which sheds light on the social conditions of England in the Edwardian era. Furthermore, the records also list George showing ‘marks  indicating congenital peculiarities or previous disease’, as well as holding a speech impediment.

1911 Census (14 years old)1911 census: the Donohoe family

What the records do not – and could not – state is George’s own thoughts on being conscripted. Ultimately, whatever his thoughts he had no choice but to obey to the orders to be conscripted into the army and be subjected to the demands of the military authorities. Historians have written of the conscripted men becoming resentful at being pulled away from their home-lives. One conscripted man, Alfred M. Hale, compared his experiences of enlistment with ‘a certain compartment full of convicts bound for Dartmoor I had once seen at North Road Station, Plymouth’.[2] George signed up as part of the Labour Company with the Devonshire Regiment. He was based in England between 10th June 1916 to 9th March 1917; on 10th March he travelled to France to fight in the war. He would survive only five months before being killed in action in August 1917.

George Donohoe - Army Record (Medical History)

George Donohoe – Military Record

His ‘Casualty Form’ lists injuries sustained during 1917, as well as his transfer to the newly formed Labour Corps. The Labour Corps were formed in February 1917 and primarily comprised men who had fought on the front-line and had been wounded or taken ill, or those who on enlistment were too old or un-fit to serve on the front. By the end of the war in November 1918 around 400,000 men served in the Labour Corps (10% of the army), with 9,000 of them killed. They were involved with ‘the immense effort of building and maintaining the huge network of roads, railways, canals, buildings, camps, stores, dumps, telegraph and telephone systems’.[3] Undoubtedly George’s experience from Devonport Dockyard would be of use in these situations. However, many believe that the Labour Corps ‘suffered from its treatment as something of a second class organisation’.[4]

George was awarded medals for his service and sacrifice, including the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. Both medals were issued to millions of soldiers who had served in the Great War.[5] George’s body was laid to rest in No Man’s Cot Cemetery in Boesinghe, Belgium. His headstone displays the details of his service number (56321), his Devonshire Regiment, and his death date off 8th August 1917. The commemoration by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission states:

Private George Edward Donohoe


6th Labour Coy

Devonshire Regiment

Who died on 8 August 1917, aged 21

The story of George Donohoe is a sad one; his parents lost both sons in the space of a handful of years, and George himself was never able to life a full and proper life in finding a wife and having children of his own. The only surviving child – Mary Ann – did continue onwards, marrying in 1897 and having a family of her own. Her descendants have spread across the country throughout the decades of the twentieth century into the current day. And although George’s story is a forgotten one, his sacrifice – and the sacrifice of millions of others – made the future of Mary Ann and her children, grand-children, and great grandchildren possible.


[1] Ian Houghton, 2017

[2] Paul Fussell (ed.), 1975, p.40

[3] The Long, Long Trail, 2017

[4] The Long, Long Trail, 2017

[5] It would be interesting to find out where these medals and located today.