The movie Saving Private Ryan was much feted when it was first released for its realistic depiction of the sheer terror experienced by those who took part in the D-Day landings on Normandy’s ‘Omaha Beach’.
The plot – which centres around the bid to find Pvt Ryan, the sole survivor of four siblings who went to war, and to bring him to safety – mirrors actual events.
At a time when men, women and children were being blown to pieces in the Second World War, there was one tragedy, which occurred in 1942, that made even the most battle-scarred soldiers and citizens pause and give thanks that they had been spared such pain.
In November, 1942, the cruiser USS Juineau was in the South Pacific when it was torpedoed. On board were five brothers – George, Frank, Joe, Matt and Al Sullivan. They all died that day. The Navy didn’t like putting serving siblings on the same ships, but the Sullivan boys had insisted on serving together… with tragic results.
To lose one child in war must be terrible, but to lose all five, as the Sullivan family had, must have been absolutely devastating.
As a result of that terrible calamity, the American Army enacted a Sole Survivors policy in 1942 to prevent an entire family being wiped out while in the service of their country.
The policy was first used in 1944 in the case of the Niland brothers. Edward Niland was shot down over Burma in May of that year, presumed dead. Of his three remaining brothers, Bob was killed in Normandy on June 6 and Preston was killed the following day.
That just left Fritz, who had fought with the 501st Airborne Division in the opening days of the invasion. To keep him out of harm’s way, he was brought back to America where he served as an MP until the end of the war.
There was more happy news for the Niland family to come, because it later emerged that Edward Niland had actually been captured by the Japanese and spent the rest of the war as a POW.
But these were not the only cases of brothers going to war. In fact, a British family’s tragic circumstances predated the Niland case during World War One, when British Army chiefs gave permission for Pvt James Bell to leave his post and return to his wife and two young children in Australia.
Bell’s four brothers had been killed serving in the war over an 18-month period, a fact which was explained to the War Office in a letter written by Bell’s sister, Annie, who pleaded that her sole remaining brother be released from duty and allowed return to his family.
On December 1, 1915, James’s youngest brother, Laurie, died while serving with the Australian forces at Gallipoli. He was only 22.
A few weeks later, on December 27, John Bell (30), was shot in the head, fighting in Flanders. All that is known of another brother, Herbert, is that he died in a prisoner of war camp.
The eldest, Joseph (42), was killed by a bomb in the same theatre of war on June 23, 1917.
James Bell arrived in France two months after the death of Joseph. He worked as an ambulance driver. James must have felt Death’s shadow cover him as he thought of all the siblings he had lost to war.
He did his duty for five months before Annie’s letter had the desired effect and officials granted her wish. James was relieved of his duty. In March, 1918, he set sail for Australia, where he had emigrated before the war, and to the arms of his waiting family.
He died many years later from natural causes.
However, it’s worth pointing out that not all stories of soldiering siblings ends in tragedy. There was one remarkable tale of one family of brothers who served in the First World War and survived – all nine of them.
Sara Hanscombe, from Beckenham, south-east London, was a widow when the war began in 1914. How she must have felt watching all her boys join up is hard to imagine, but fortune shined upon her that’s for sure.
Eight of them fought on the front line, while a ninth served in England. Over the course of the war, the Hanscombe brothers were shot, gassed, blown up and taken prisoner in France. Between them the brothers suffered a total of 21 wounds.
One of the brothers, Sergeant Bert Hanscombe, even managed to win the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the Military Medal for his service.
George (36), who who was clearly following in his father’s footsteps by siring seven children of his own, was listed as missing in 1917. He had been shot in the hip and taken prisoner in Germany.
Another brother, Richard had the dangerous role of messenger in his battalion and was known for running through heavy shellfire with dispatches to HQ in the Nieppe Forest, on the Western Front
His sibling James, with typical Hanscombe luck, was wounded in the head in 1916 then again in 1917, but survived.
Sara Hanscombe served in her own way through those war years… fretting for her boys and dreading the day she was sure to receive notice that one or more of them had been lost to her forever.
At the end of the war, she received a letter on behalf of King George V to thank her for family’s service to the country.
It’s nice to know that not all stories of siblings in war ended in tragedy and that the odds – no matter how stacked – can sometimes, unbelievably, be defied.