George Edward Cates VC
Born at 86, Hartfield Road, Wimbledon in May 1892, George was the son of travelling salesman George Cates and his wife, Alice. The couple had nine children and moved house several times, partly to accommodate the needs of their growing family.
George was educated at Rutlish School, Merton Park. This had its own cadet force and membership undoubtedly helped George to prepare for the military and his role as an army officer.
Prior to the war George was Assistant Scoutmaster of the 2nd Wimbledon troop, based at the YMCA. The Boy Scout movement made a valuable contribution to the war effort, acting as messengers, giving first aid and fundraising.
Following the outbreak of war, George joined the Artists Rifles ( 28th County of London Battalion,) a regiment in the British Army Reserve. Formed in 1859 its members included professional artists such as William Holman Hunt and William Morris. By 1914 the regiment had 3 sub battalions and was so popular amongst former public school and university students, that recruitment was eventually restricted to those recommended by existing members.
George spent his first months as a private and signalman ( relaying messages between the front line and military headquarters. This was initially done using flags, but soon progressed to telephone messages or visual signals using mirrors, lamps and Morse code due to the hazardous nature of life at the Front.
In 1915 George secured a commission as 2nd Lieutenant in the Rifle Brigade and joined the 2nd Battalion in France. By 1917 the British cavalry had secured the town of Peronne. On 4 March the 2nd Rifles were kept in reserve as the 8th Division successfully occupied the German first and second lines, three miles to the north. Four days later George and his comrades were in a working party responsible for deepening a captured German trench at Bouchavesnes. It was at this point that he performed the act of valour for which he was awarded a Victoria Cross.
The following details of his actions were printed in the London Gazette, an official Government journal used to publish statutory notices.
George Edward Cates, 2nd Lieut, The Rifle Brigade, 8th March 1917, Bouchavesnes, France
For most conspicuous gallantry and self sacrifice. When engaged with some other men in deepening a captured trench, their officer struck with his spade a buried bomb, which immediately stared to burn; 2nd Lieut Cates, in order to save the lives of his comrades, placed his foot on the bomb which immediately exploded. He showed most conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in performing the act which cost his life but saved the lives of others. This heroic young officer died of his wounds the same night, 9th March 1917.
London Gazette, 11th May 1917
George was 24 years old when he died. He was buried at the Hem Military Cemetery, France. His father received the posthumous VC from King George V, in an official ceremony at London's Hyde Park on 2 June, 1917. An exception had been made to allow the award, since the deed for which it was given was not technically performed "in the face of the enemy."
The military authorities took great care to return the 2nd Lieutenant's personal effects to his grieving family. These included a cigarette case, a pipe, a comb, a broken pen, a gold ring, a key chain, a solar stud, a pocket book, tobacco pouch and some coins.
The Cates family experienced many tragedies during the war years. A year after the death of George Edward Cates, his younger brother, Geoffrey, 2nd Lieutenant in the 10th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, was killed on 21 March 1918. His name appears on the Arras Memorial. George's two older brothers, Harry and William, emigrated to Canada in 1908 and 1911 respectively. Both served in the Canadian army during the war. William, a Private in the Canadian Army Medical Corps, was drowned on 27 June 1918, when the Canadian hospital ship, H M S Llandovery, was torpedoed by a German submarine. He was 30 years old and is commemorated on the Halifax Memorial in Nova Scotia. One can only image the suffering of George and Alice Cates at the loss of their three sons.
On 8 March 2017, a commemorative event was held to mark 100 years since the act of valour for which George was awarded the VC. A souvenir order of service was produced and the Wimbledon Guardian also reported on the event.