James Smith, an agricultural worker from Newick married Margaret Emma Diplock, who was from Lindfield, in 1881 and the couple had nine children who survived infancy, born between 1883 and 1899; Arthur, Frederick, Spencer, Henry, Edward, Leonard, Sissie, Sydney and Cyril. The family lived in various addresses in the local villages; Hamsey, Cooksbridge, Barcombe and Newick, but had settled in Cornwells Bank, part of Newick parish by the mid-1890s. All of the boys attended Newick Boys School. In 1914 the family home was Yew Tree Cottage, which still exists on Tilehouse Lane.
Four of the Smith brothers who served during the Great War would die with a gruesome annual symmetry, one in each of the years 1915, 1916, 1917 and 1918.
By 1913, it appears that Sydney and Leonard had become bored with life in rural Sussex and both had emigrated to Australia, and were still there when the Great War broke out. Sydney went to the recruiting office in Melbourne on the 7th September 1914. His records show that he gave his age as 19 years and 6 months old (he was actually only 18). He was 5ft 4¼in tall, weighed 103lbs with a chest measurement of 33in, a clear complexion, blue eyes and brown hair. He gave his occupation as ‘Gardener’ and his religion as ‘Church of England’. His attestation papers note that he was under 21 years of age and that he had parents and relations living in England. He joined the 14th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force on 1st October 1914 and left Australia on 22nd December 1914 on the troopship Ulysses.
The Battalion undertook training in Egypt, before embarking for the ill-fated Gallipoli Campaign. The operation, sometimes referred to in contemporary sources as the ‘Dardanelles Campaign’ was an amphibious landing of troops on the Gallipoli Peninsula. The ultimate aim of the mission was the capture of Constantinople (modern Istanbul), the capital of the Ottoman Empire, which had joined the war on the side of the Central Powers on 31st October 1914.
The 14th Battalion landed on the 26th April 1915, encountering only light opposition at the landing ground soon to become known as Anzac Cove (after the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps). As the allied formations moved inland they came up against more determined opposition. This culminated in a massed attack by the Turks on 19th May.
On that day, the 14th Battalion were manning a position called Courtney’s Post, and faced overwhelming enemy numbers, often fighting hand-to-hand. Sydney was wounded in the right knee by a piece of shrapnel at some point during the day and was evacuated from the front line. The 14th Battalion held firm and the successful defence of the position led to the award of the first Victoria Cross to an Australian during the Great War, to Private Albert Jacka, who survived the war, a much-decorated if controversial hero.
Sydney’s wound was clearly serious and he was evacuated from Gallipoli aboard the hospital ship Galeka, arriving at a hospital at Heliopolis in Egypt on 28th May. He left the hospital on 4th July 1915, to return to Gallipoli, but the date on which he arrived back with his battalion is not recorded. He was killed in action on the 19th August 1915, while his unit was holding a frontline trench. He was 19 years old. The circumstances remain a mystery. Battalion records do not list any deaths on that day, which was described as ’exceptionally quiet’, although three men were wounded and one was reported as missing, presumably Sydney.
The second of the Smith brothers to be killed during the Great War died of wounds received whilst serving in a support role during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. He is the only one of the four brothers who has a named grave, and also appears to have been the only one to leave a widow.
Edward enlisted on the same day as another Newick lad, Frederick Langridge, in November 1915 at Lewes and they were both posted to the 1/5th Battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment. No. 3469 Private Smith (and No. 3470 Private Langridge) joined a battalion that was originally a territorial unit, but was designated as a Pioneer Battalion in August 1915, responsible for heavy physical work such as road repairs and trench digging. Both men sailed for France in April 1916, during the build-up of troops for the Battle of the Somme. Shortly before his departure Edward married a local Newick girl Alice Mabel Hemsley, who was the daughter of the village baker
The War Diary of the 1/5th Battalion shows that ’22 draft from Base arrived’ on 21st April 1916, while the battalion was involved in communication trench digging to the rear of British lines on the Somme. Presumably Privates Smith and Langridge were amongst these men who were soon put to work in the area. The War Diary is not particularly detailed for the next months, but by mid-July the Sussex men were working in the Ovillers area, still on the Somme.
Edward was wounded on the 24th July 1916, but the details remain unclear. Official records show that the battalion was involved in the excavation of a communications trench on that day, but make no mention of casualties. Other documents show that Edward died from his wounds on 26th July. He was 25 years old. Fred Langridge survived his time in the Somme battle area, despite being wounded, but would die in the Ypres Salient in July 1917. He story is told at the street which bears his family name.
Edward is buried in Puchevillers British Cemetery, which lies just to the east of the small village of Puchevillers, to the north-east of Amiens. The cemetery was used by the locally-sited casualty clearing stations during the Battle of the Somme. There is no personal inscription on his gravestone. The cemetery contains the remains of 1,763 Commonwealth servicemen, most of whom died during the second half of 1916. The cemetery was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens.
Private Smith is commemorated on both the school and church memorials, and in the Roll of Honour and Book of Remembrance held in the church, and at the Green. His name also appears in St George’s Chapel in Chichester Cathedral. The chapel was rededicated as the Memorial Chapel of the Royal Sussex Regiment on 11th November 1921. The names of the 6,800 men from the Regiment who fell during the Great War are listed there in battalion order. They include nineteen men with connections to Newick. The names of the 1,024 men from the Regiment killed during the Second World War, including one from Newick, Private Wilfred Anger, killed in action near Monte Cassino in 1944, are recorded in a Memorial Book kept beside the chapel’s altar.
He was entitled to the Victory Medal and the British War Medal. Military records describe him as the ‘son of James and Emily (sic) of Newick, nr. Lewes, Sussex; husband of Alice Mabel Smith of 2, Sunnyside, Marlpit Hill, Eden Bridge (sic), Kent.’ Presumably his medals were sent to Alice in Edenbridge, who also received a pension.
The third of the Smith brothers to be killed during the Great War died during the Battle of Arras in April 1917, on an apparently ‘routine’ day in the trenches.
It appears that Frederick had left Sussex by the outbreak of the war as he joined up in Woodbridge, Suffolk in September 1914. Both place and regimental number are consistent with these details as Fred joined the Suffolk Regiment initially as No.2379. He sailed for France in May 1916.
He was posted to the 4th Battalion, Suffolk Regiment, and was promoted to Corporal at some point. Fred was also given the new Regimental number TF200583 when new numbers were issued to ‘old’ Territorial regiments in 1917.
By the middle of March 1917 the battalion was encamped near Sailly Laurette, a village on the banks of the River Somme. The Suffolks spent most of the remainder of the month training and route marching, with visits to the baths set up in the local village. Church parades were apparently voluntary. Towards the end of the month there was more concerted training on the rather-ominous sounding ‘attacking a position in the open’.
On the 2nd April the battalion marched to La Neuville, and in the following days moved onto Molliens au Bois, Naours, and then to Languevillettes, arriving at Beaurepaire Farm on 5th April. The weather on the march had been cold with regular snowfall. The Suffolks moved to Berles au Bois, some 11 miles to the south-west of Arras on the 8th April, and were put on notice to move in the near future. The Battle of Arras was launched the following day. The War Diary notes that there was heavy fall of snow.
The Suffolks were ordered to take up support positions on the 12th April, and spent the next few days salvaging equipment and burying the dead under German artillery fire near the village of Neuville-Vitasse. The battalion took over frontline trenches on the night 16th/17th April 1917. The move was delayed as the trenches were ‘very heavy going’. Four men were killed and 13 wounded during the changeover, which was complete by 7.30am on the morning of the 17th. All available records give Frederick’s date of death as 17th April 1917. He was 32 years old.
His death was reported in The East Sussex News on 4th May 1917, in an article which notes that the Smiths had already suffered two bereavements in the war and still had two sons in the forces. It also records that Fred had played for Newick village cricket team. A letter of condolence received by the family was reproduced in full:
April 22nd 1917
Dear Mrs Smith,
It is a very sad letter that I must write to you regarding the death in action of your son. He was killed instantly by a shell which also killed two others in his Company. He had not been in my Company long, but long enough to impress me with his capabilities as an NCO and he will be a great loss to the Company. He was buried near where he fell and a cross has been put up over his grave. These are sad days for a good many of us now, but let us hope that the fighting which is now taking place will soon bring the war to a close. Your son has played his noble part and died one of England’s heroes – the noblest death a man can.
I am, yours in sympathy,
S. Scrimgeour (Capt.)
Corporal Smith’s place of burial was lost or destroyed during subsequent fighting and he has no known grave. He is commemorated on Bay 4 of the Arras Memorial, which lists the names of almost 35,000 Commonwealth servicemen killed in the Arras sector between the spring of 1916 and August 1918. The memorial was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens with sculpture by Sir William Dick and was unveiled in 1932. The adjacent Arras Flying Services Memorial commemorates the almost 1,000 airmen who were killed on the Western Front and who have no known place of burial.
The memorials are located within Faubourg D’Amiens Cemetery, which contains the remains of over 2,500 Commonwealth servicemen who died during roughly the same period. Burials of French military personnel killed in the area were moved to other burial grounds after the war and the memorials were built in their place.
Frederick Smith is listed on both of the village’s war memorials, in the Roll of Honour, and Book of Remembrance, and at The Green He is also commemorated at the Suffolk Regiment Memorial Chapel at the Church of St. Mary in Bury St, Edmunds. There is an alabaster cenotaph in the chapel dedicated to the 6,873 men who died while serving with the Regiment during the Great War. There is also an illuminated Roll of Honour. Fresh flowers are placed in the chapel every week.
He was entitled to the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. Military records describe him as ‘son of James and Margaret Emma Smith of Yew Tree Cottage, Colonels Bank, Chailey, Lewes, Sussex’ . Presumably the medals were sent to Yew Tree Cottage.
Spencer was the last brother to be killed. He joined up on 23rd March 1916 in Chichester. All surviving military records give his name as George Spencer Smith, and he served under that name. He sailed for the continent in November 1916. G9591 Private Smith joined the 13th Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment, and would serve on the western front for the next 18 months.
The battalion had seen action during the German spring offensive on the Somme in 1918, and were resting at the beginning of April, but by the 10th of the month the battalion had marched north to the Ypres Salient, and were at Ottawa Camp near Vlamertinghe. Losses on the Somme had clearly been heavy and the battalion’s strength of 27 officers and 724 other ranks was made up roughly half/half of men from 13th Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment, and men from the 13th Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment, forming a so-called composite battalion.
By the 13th April the composite battalion was holding positions at Ridge Wood near Whytshaete, and remained in the front line until they were relieved on the night of 20th/21st April. The War Diary gives casualty figures of 4 officers and 130 men for this period. On 24th of the month the battalion moved by light railway to Elzenwalle, and took up positions near St. Eloi. At 2.30am the following morning, the Germans began a heavy bombardment of the battalion’s position, which included gas shells. German infantry attacked at 4.15am. Some of the battalion were driven back, but orders were received to hold the line, ‘at all costs’, and the survivors held on.
Throughout the night of the 25th/26th the position was continuously shelled, and by 5.00am it was clear that another infantry assault was about to be launched on the battalion’s battered trenches. At 5.30am an SOS was sent to the rear stating that an attack was imminent, but there was no reply. Aided by a heavy mist, by 7.30am large numbers of enemy troops were within 50 yards of the British positions, and they pressed home their attack. The battalion HQ was overrun, and in the ensuing confusion the attacking German infantry inflicted heavy casualties.
By 3.00pm the remnants of the battalion had reported for duty at Vooremezeele to the rear of the front line and were ordered to a camp further west to await stragglers from the day’s fighting. The War Diary shows that some men did manage to rejoin the battalion, but a roll call taken on the 27th showed that the composite battalion now consisted of only 8 officers and 150 men.
Spencer was reported as killed in action on 26th April 1918. He was 32 years old. He has no known grave and is commemorated on Panel 88 of the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing, located near Ypres. This impressive monument bears the names of nearly 35,000 Commonwealth soldiers killed in the Ypres Salient between August 1917 and the end of the war, who have no known grave. The Memorial forms part of Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest Commonwealth War cemetery in the world, which contains nearly 12,000 graves. It is one of the most visited locations on the Western Front. He is also commemorated on both the church and school memorials, in the village’s Roll of Honour and Book of Remembrance, at The Green and at St. George’s Chapel in Chichester Cathedral, like his brother Edward and seventeen other Newick lads.
Spencer was entitled to the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. Military records record him as the ‘son of James and Margaret Emma Smith, of Yew Tree Cottage, Colonels Bank, Chailey, Lewes’. His medals were presumably sent to his parents.
Mercifully two of the other Smith brothers were invalided out of the army before they entered the firing line. Cyril joined up in May 1916 and was posted to the 6th Battalion, East Surrey Regiment. However he was discharged as unfit for further service in August of that year, which suggests he did not finish his training, although a surviving picture of him does suggest he qualified as a signaller. His records could not be traced, but this early date suggests he either fell ill or was injured in a training accident.
As Leonard joined up in Australia his full medical record survives and provides a fascinating story. He enlisted in October 1916, but he was declared medically unfit for service on arrival in England in March 1917 due to a deformed foot (bizarrely the result of extended bed-rest after damaging his knee falling out of a tree as a child). It is unclear how he passed a previous medical examination in Australia, as the examiner in England described him as a ‘frail weakling’. He returned to Australia.
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