J. Alan Smith offers a personal reflection on the First World War
I was born in December 1939. For my generation, the Second World War was the War and it had a dominant influence on our lives, certainly until the mid-Fifties when the post-war rationing finally ended. Among my early reading matter were the Biggles books, followed by war stories such as the Dam Busters and the biography of Douglas Bader. Taking O Level History in 1956, I was examined on the period 1760– 1914, which touched on the period leading up to the First World War but did not cover the War itself. And, for my age group, it was ‘The First World War’: the expression, ‘The Great War’, belonged to history.
Awareness of the Great War dawned gradually: there was no Damascene moment! In the Sixties there came the Alan Clark/‘Oh, What a Lovely War’/Blackadder 4 revisionist view of the Great War which left me wondering how the Allies had won. It now seems that this revisionist view is itself subject to revision, for example in the TV drama documentary, The Somme – from Defeat to Victory.
In comparing the two World Wars of the twentieth century, the Second has more dramatic interest than the First: the retreat to Dunkirk; the war in Private George James Smith, with the 16th Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters, died on 9 October 1916, aged 34, at the Schwaben Redoubt and is commemorated at the Thiepval Memorial. I have supplied details about my great-uncle to Pam and Ken Linge who are organizing a database about the fallen for the Visitors’ Centre at Thiepval. Another brother of my grandfather was Lt James Howard Smith who was awarded the Military Cross for an action on 29 September 1918 at Bellenglise with the 1st/8th Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters.
My grandfather had an uncle, Alderman George Smith, a Past Mayor of Doncaster, three of whose sons took part in the War. Lt Stanley Smith, with the 1st/5th Battalion of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (KOYLI), died on 18 November 1915, aged 22, and is buried in the Bard Cottage Cemetery in Belgium. Lt Roland Smith, with the 20th squadron of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), formerly with the 3rd Battalion of the KOYLI, died on 6 April 1917, aged 19, and is commemorated at the Arras Flying Services Memorial in the Pas de Calais. The third son, Albert Smith, after service with the Sherwood Ranger Yeomanry, was commissioned in the Lincolnshire Regiment. Wounded twice and gassed once, he transferred to the RFC: shot down in flames in July 1918, he North Africa; the return to Europe through Italy and France; the vastly greater numbers in the conflict between Germany and the Soviet Union; and the fighting in the Pacific and South-East Asia. In contrast, in the First, our attention is mainly on the Western Front where, after the Allies brought the German offensive to a standstill, there was very little movement. One fact that stands out from the comparison is the fact that British casualties in the First were approximately twice those in the Second. To gain a real understanding of the Great War we need to look at it from two viewpoints: that of families and that of localities.
Photos and documents
I gained knowledge of my family’s involvement in the Great War gradually through the acquisition of photographs, press cuttings, and other documents and provide the following information on the assumption that they are not atypical. Neither of my grandfathers took part in the War. Each had started a family before the War started and was not in a financial position to volunteer. I have a photograph of my mother’s maternal grandparents, the Terringtons, with their three sons and two daughters: each of the sons was wearing khaki, having joined the army on the same day. All the sons survived the War although I cannot say what effect it had had on them.
My paternal grandfather lost a brother on the Somme: became a prisoner until the end of the War. He was in the Territorial Army between the Wars and then saw active service throughout the Second World War, attaining the rank of Brigadier.
Epping Town Council chooses Councillors as representatives to a variety of local organizations in order to assist communication. Since 2003 I have been the Council representative to the Royal British Legion, Epping and District Branch. At the Church Service on Remembrance Sunday the names of the fallen are read out: approximately 100 from the First World War, approximately 50 from the Second World War, and one from Afghanistan. John Duffell, Secretary of the Branch, has produced a number of histories of Epping and the two World Wars, including A History of Epping War Memorial, which includes brief biographical details of the fallen.
Over the next four years we can look forward to commemorating different aspects of the Great War that will help to educate us all. Afterwards, perhaps someone will have the idea of building homes for heroes without needing to have a war first. ND