Rank or Title
Date of Birth
17 Sep 1897
Date of Death
Place of Birth
World War I Address
Place of Death
Soldier or Civilian
Memories of what my father told me
by Harold Smith, November 2014
My father, Sidney Harold Smith, was born in Grove Road, Luton, Bedfordshire, on 17th September 1897. He was almost 40 when I was born. I grew up listening to my father making references to his experiences during the First World War. Initially, I remember him calling it "the last war"; later he would call it "The first war" as peace came in 1945. People often say that their father would never speak about what they experienced while serving on active service. This was not the case with my father. He died in 1956 while I was doing my National Service but not before we were able to compare experiences, which I will refer to later.
When WW1 was declared in August 1914, my father was living at home with his parents. He was approaching 17 years of age and worked locally in the hat trade. His first event which he told me about was the arrival of the North Midlands Division of the Territorial Army, who were posted to Luton as part of a war plan to use the part-time Territorials to defend the Home Counties while the Regular Army (the British Expeditionary Force) went to fight in Europe. As there were no barracks for the incoming troops, under government powers laid down for such an occasion, troops were billeted in private houses. My father described how a company of newly arrived troops were marched into Grove Road. An officer asked each house how many people lived there and how many rooms they had. On the basis of the reply a certain number of troops were allocated to live at that house. My father said that his parents' allocation was (I think from memory about six or so) was enough troops to fill their front room with camp beds. I would presume that the family's furniture was moved out to another part of the house.
The troops formed up daily in the street and were marched away for training. My father, being 16-17 at the time, was not much younger than the billeted troops. He told me he did spend time with them and got to examine their rifles. Because of the large number of casualties experienced by the B.E.F. in the first engagements of the war in Belgium, it was not long before the North Midlands were posted to join the B.E.F. in France and Belgium. Whilst their stay in Luton was not long, it was long enough for the men of Staffordshire to meet and later marry local Luton girls. As I grew up in Luton, I came to know two men who were from Staffordshire and had passed through the town on their way to France but were married local girls as a consequence.
I have had the advantage of filling in some detail which my father never told me from his service record which is held at the National Archives at Kew. I have no idea why my father did not enlist before he was nearly 18. He did tell me that he enlisted voluntarily without telling his parents beforehand. I suppose being the youngest in his family and the only boy, there would have been family pressure; his father had been a member of the Bedfordshire Volunteers in the late 19th century so was unlikely to be the one to apply pressure.
My father enlisted in January 1916. He signed on (attested) at the local recruitment office in Luton on 31st January 1916 and was enlistment as No. 131509 Driver S H Smith Royal Field Artillery (RFA) and was issued with an armlet no. 57189. He returned home and had to wait until April. I presume that the armlet was issued to him to be worn to make it obvious that he had enlisted. The delay presumably was presumably because the training units had a backlog in training recruits.
He was required to present himself at 35 Manchester Street, Luton, at 9 a.m. on 4th April 1916. He signed a form to state when he would be 19 years of age on September 17th 1916. He had a medical which recorded his height as 5ft 6 ins and his chest girth as 34 ins which expanded by 2.5 ins. His physical development was “Fairly Good”, vision 6/6 6/6 and he had slight flat feet.
Six days later (10th April) he was enlisted at No 6 T.F. Artillery Training School, Biscot Mill Camp, Luton just twenty minutes or so walk away from home. It was many years after having done National Service that I realised that I was called up at the age of 18 years and eight months. My father enlisted when he was 18 years and ten months. I do remember that when I left home to join up my parents were at the front door to say goodbye and I noticed a look on my father’s face which said a thousand words. He was remembering his enlistment day.
He started training as a driver in a gun team. He could not ride a bicycle let alone ride a horse; he never learned to ride a bike. When I was in the army for my National Service (in the Royal Military Police), I had to learn to ride a motor cycle. When I went home for leave after the course, I described how I had to acquire confidence in handling the motor cycle to my parents. My father laughed and said that he had been taught confidence with a horse in exactly the same manner. Both of us had been required to ride slowly on a circuit with other members of our section, stand on the saddle and raising a leg in turn, sit side-saddle and put the opposite side leg in/on the stirrup/footrest and then reach forward for the boot to be aligned with the horse’s head/front wheel hub. It was as if someone took the training manual for how to ride confidently and converted it for motor cycling.
I do not recall much of my father’s experience at Biscot Mill. I was familiar with the location of the camp for it was twenty minutes walk away from where I lived but had been built upon before I was born. However I remember my father telling me that he was put on a charge when doing his training. It happened when the whole parade was called to mount and he caused utter disorganisation. He was the middle driver of the gun team and had charge of two horses. As he mounted his horse he accidentally pricked his horse with a spur. The surprised horse reared up, bit the horse in front and kicked out at the horse behind. This panic spread to the other three horses and the team unsettled horse teams on either sides. In no time at all the whole parade dispersed and fled down the hill from the mill area down to the River Lea (down what is now a road called Montrose Avenue. He was put on a charge and had to appear before the Commanding Officer.
Training lasted five months. During that time he learned how to clean his kit and his horses. He had learned to ride and become part of a gun team which had three drivers and six horses. I don’t know the details of why he never was required to pull guns. All his service was taken up in pulling a limber which was used to carry shells. At the end of his training he had his photograph taken at the studio of the local photographer W. H. Cox in Wellington Street, Luton.
On 5th September 1916 he was posted to RFA 4 Reserve Brigade, Woolwich prior to being sent to France. He left for France six days later and joined 156 Brigade on 24th September. I remember him saying that when he arrived in France there was a parade at which a general inspected the men. The general asked my father how old he was as he looked younger than 19 which he was about to become. The photograph above does show him to look young.
I have no details of where he served in France and Belgium except from recalling him mention Ypres, Arras and Dickebusch. He was in support of a highland division at one stage for he said that the German prisoners he saw at that stage were quite worried about the men who wore kilts and played bagpipe music. He also witnessed the assembly of a large cavalry force prior to its attack at Arras. He said that the cavalry was drawn from many parts of the Commonwealth.
Off-duty entertainment was seldom mentioned, but I do remember him saying that in a bar in France, he was quite shocked by a French barmaid who had learned all her English from the army which must have caused problems for her in polite company. Off-duty accommodation was varied as he spoke of living in tents and also in barns. In the latter case he said that they could be rat infested. One night as he was falling asleep be felt something land on his chest and could feel a heart-beat. It was a rat and he yelled and moved rapidly. The rat ran off. When in a barn in the evening, they would throw their boots at any rats which appeared.
Hygiene was poor. I can remember being shocked when I learned that my father had lice. He learned that you could kill their eggs by passing the seams of his clothing over a lighted candle and you could hear the crackle of the lice eggs as they were burned. From time to time his unit was attended by a mobile bathhouse trailer where you undressed at one end, passed through hot showers and collected clean clothing at the other end. I am not sure what items of clothing were re-cycled in this way. In spite of such provision I note that my father’s medical record shows that in March 1917 he was admitted into 135 Field Ambulance with scabies. He recalled that when he was demobilised he returned home (in his uniform), his mother demanded that he went straight upstairs, took all his clothes of and threw them into the garden to be burned on a bonfire.
My father was not impressed with army catering which was a monotonous diet of tinned bully beef and carrots, which could quickly be prepared on a camp fire, and dried biscuits. He was camped some way from the front lines as his unit’s main role was to collect shells from secure storage some way from the front and convey it to the artillery. He did say that he did experience having his breakfast interrupted by an attack from German aircraft who dropped bombs on to their camp.
His horses were from Canada. They had been broken in Canada to a basic level but some were quite difficult. He quickly learned that you needed to be aware when dealing with the horse’s rear hoofs as one gave him a painful bite when his bottom presented an irresistible target. On being posted to a new unit a trick was played on my father by his new colleagues. They told him to say “rabbits” to one of the horses to see what reaction he got. He tried it and the horse went berserk. These were the sort of horses which he had to drive through vulnerable points on the road under bombardment and the noise of battle.
He did recall that on one occasion when the road to the artillery was targeted by intense German bombardment they had to leave their horses and the limber and seek refuge in shell holes. My father jumped into a crater on his own and found there was a dead German soldier in the hole. My father looked at the soldier, who was a young man like himself, and began to wonder about what sort of person he was. After a while he searched the man’s pockets and found a letter and photograph of the man’s wife. It made him realise that the enemy were men very much like himself. He returned them to the man’s pocket and left once the bombardment ceased. He saw death in many situations and said how you became used to it. He said that he saw men sewing up the shrouds of the killed sitting astride the body and smoking while they did this normal duty.
On 1st November 1917, my father was admitted to the 3rd Australian Field Ambulance with myalgia (a medical term for muscle pain). It turned out to be appendicitis. The War Diary of the 3rd AFA for that day shows that it was at a place named E’toile near Mazinghien, France. The Battle at Passchendaele was coming to a conclusion and the 3rd AFA was moved on the day after my father arrived. This may have caused the initial misdiagnosis as the unit was preparing to move. His casualty record shows an entry sixteen days later of him arriving at the 11 Stationary Hospital (based at that time at Rouen) where he was diagnosed as P.U.O. (pyrexia of unknown (or uncertain) origin) T.F. (no clear meaning has been found for this abbreviation). One week later (24th November) the record shows that he was transferred to England by ship, Hospital Ship Esscouibo. He was sent to the Cheltenham Red Cross Hospital, which was actually in Gloucester. The notes at the hospital record that he was in hospital 71 days.
The notes say: “Admitted with P.U.O. Five days later developed appendicitis and was successfully operated on next day. Made good recovery.”
My father always said that he had gangrenous appendicitis, which would explain why he stayed in hospital for 71 days. In addition a telegram was sent to his parents which said that he was “dangerously ill”. He said little about his stay in hospital but I do remember that him saying about an Australian soldier in his ward who had lost part of his skull. To amuse the ward he could make the top of his head wobble.
On discharge from hospital on 23rd January 1918 his army record has a gap of just over four weeks which I believe was taken up in having home leave, probably for the first time since passing out. However in this period he also had a dental examination by the army and was declared dentally fit. His next move was to convalesce at the Royal Artillery Command Depot, Ripon South where he was posted on 18th February 1918. He spent time there getting fit for service. This was during the time of the German Spring Offensive when the front in France was over-run by a sudden attack to try to reach Paris. There was a call for reserves to be sent to France. On the day my father arrived in Ripon, the Commandant of the Depot was among a group despatched to France (he is recorded in Ripon Cathedral as being killed in action in 1918).
At Ripon he became fitter. The only account of his stay which he gave was about Church Parades. Every Sunday he was marched off to the local C. of E. Church and this became tedious, especially as the Roman Catholics fell out from the parades and had free time. On Sunday he fell out when the command came for Roman Catholics to fall out. To his horror, the R.C.s were then told to form up and were marched to Mass. That was the only time he took Holy Communion in an R.C. Church.
After 74 days at Ripon, on 1st May 1918, there was a further call for everyone who could be spared to be sent over to France. My father was told while on parade that he was fit to return to France. He said that the convalescents were called on parade and “they” (unspecified) came along the ranks saying “you are fit” even though some were not really ready to resume active service”. They were ordered to pack and were marched down to the station for a train to take them to Woolwich to join the 52nd Army brigade.
At that time the poet Wilfred Owen was convalescing in Ripon, living in Borrage Lane. He wrote about a body of men being marched off to France in a poem called "The Send-Off" in which he writes of raw young recruits marching off to war. It could well have been the squad in which my father was marching off to France. The one big difference was that he and his fellow convalescents did know what faced them. Shortly after Owen was to follow them and did not survive the war.
After a two weeks in Woolwich, he was posted to France and then joined 122/52 Brigade on 13th June 1918. While he was in hospital, his old unit had been over-run during the German Spring Offensive. He said he could well have become a prisoner of war. I do not recall any specific comments of my father about the six months he spent in France/Belgium before the Armistice. He ended the war in Jemappes. His unit was billeted with a Belgian farming family. They had a photograph taken with the farmer’s daughter as a record of the end of hostilities. (See below. My father is on the back row 3rd from the right.)
I have no idea what happened to my father’s horses nor do I recall how he passed the twelve or so weeks between the Armistice and his posting to the Dispersal Centre at Purfleet on 7th February 1919. He was discharged from the army on 9th March 1919. His discharge documents record his last unit was Unit 122 Battery R.F.A. His fitness at demob was A1 dated in his record on 1st February 1919.