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John’s last letter

Background

Some years ago, my family visited a car boot sale near Leominster in Herefordshire. The children went off to find dinosaurs and action figures and whatever else they were interested in at that time, taking their mum with them. I have never been a big buyer or collector of anything but I am always interested to find books, photographs and postcards to do with the Great War. I stopped to have a look through a box of cards and ephemera and came across an envelope containing some bits and pieces of the right sort of era. On one was written “John’s last letter”. I didn’t even look. I couldn’t breathe. I smartly handed over £1.

It was one of the most sobering and emotional things I have ever had the privilege to see and on behalf of his family I regard it as a most precious possession.

It’s time to share the story of John William Christopher Smith.

John’s military story

John’s service record appears to have been destroyed when the Army Records Centre in Walworth was bombed in 1940.

By chance, his family had paid to have an entry in De Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour. It provides excellent details.

The entry refers to what his family had been told about the way that John met his death.

Some analysis revealed that John had joined the army voluntarily, attesting during the short-lived existence of the Group System of recruiting and being called up to begin service on 9 February 1916. He was allotted to the Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment) and trained with its 6th (Reserve) Battalion. On 6 March 1916 he was part of a draft that was transferred to the 20th (County of London) Battalion of the London Regiment (Blackheath and Woolwich). At that point he was renumbered as its Private 5983 and posted to the 3/20th Battalion.

He landed in France as part of a large draft for the 1/20th Battalion on 15 June 1916 (for some reason, the date of entry in John’s entry in the campaign medal roll is given as 16 June but  I suspect this to be an error).

Extract from campaign medal roll. The National Archives collection WO329. Crown Copyright.

The 1/20th had been in France since March 1915. By 11 June 1916 it was down to just 23 officers and 395 men, having recently faced a German attack at Vimy Ridge. The draft was sent to bring it back up towards full strength. The battalion was under command of 141st (5th London) Infantry Brigade of the 47th (2nd London) Division.

During August 1916 the division was withdrawn into a rear area for a period of rest and training, and John’s battalion spent this time at Agenvillers, NE of Abbeville. Late in the month, the division began to move to come into the area in which the Battle of the Somme had been in progress for several weeks. By 23 August the 1/20th Londons had arrived at Bresle, where they spent time in more training. On 14 September the battalion marched forward into the battle area, for the division was about to take part in an attack as part of a renewed phase of operations known as the Battle of Flers-Courcelette.

From the British Official History, illustrating the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. The 47th Division had the task of capturing High Wood, a notorious location that had already cost thousands of lives on both sides.

John’s letter

Five pencil-written sheets from the Somme.

Addressed to
Mr. J. Smith
89 Buchanan Gardens
Willesden
London NW

Postmark
Field Post Office 183
26 September 1916

“Sunday, 24 September 1916, same address

To my own dearest father,

As last I am free to answer your very nice letter. I am very pleased to know that you are still keeping in good health, and am very pleased to say that I am, which is due to ‘God’s great mercy’, for no one, only those who have come through it, knows what we have had to bear from last Thursday [14 September] until we were relieved last Tuesday night [21]. I will now try to give you a little idea of what it was like, for we were only a few days with the RE’s and rejoined our unit on Sunday.

On the Thursday afternoon we tried to reach the boys in the line and managed to get near them when they shelled us heavily, and we were obliged to seek shelter in a shell hole for several hours, after which we had to return. On the Friday evening [15] we again tried to reach them but a shell wounded several of our party and I was very fortunate to escape for they were lying around me, poor fellows, an Saturday was as bad, for in the evening they shelled us heavily with high explosives and tear gas, also gas bombs, and it was terrible.

Our boys came out of the line <censored> and we were able to rejoin them, but it was only for a few hours, for we were back again Sunday night [17]. The weather had now changed and the rest of our time in the line was very wet, cold and miserable. The Huns gave us a little rest during the night, but shelled us again on Monday morning [18] and only ‘God knows’ how I escaped, for one of their shells burst on the back of my parapet, tearing my waterproof and trousers to rags and burying me up to my waist, it requiring two of my comrades to dig me out, also breaking my shovel in two and it was then I realised how ‘God’ is protecting me.

We had it very rough until we were relieved Tuesday night [19] and, I am pleased to say, we are now a long way back resting, for how long I cannot say.

I doubt if you would have known me for I was dirty and covered in mud and clay, but am pleased to say that I am now tip top again, having been rigged out afresh.

I met George Kemmitt on my return and thanked him for his kindness, those cards were one for mother and one for Ethel, and I am very pleased he wrote to you, for as he is on headquarters staff he will always be pleased to tell you any news about me when I am unable to write. I am pleased to say that my friend came through safe, for George is his brother in law. I am very happy with them both, and you can not credit how smooth and comfortable George makes it for us both, for he is a good Christian, and I owe him a great debt for the way he looks after us, for we want for nothing.

I have been made Company Stretcher Bearer, so I hope to have it more comfortable now, for it has its advantages and disadvantages but I would sooner be this than the other.

The weather has been glorious since we have been out of the line and today is lovely again.

I hear from later letters that Aunt Emm has brought you up a lot of lily roots from Cambridge. I hope they wil be a success, and I am very pleased to know that the garden has been such a picture this year. I am sure it is something to be proud of, Dad. Yes I think it is a shame about that man and his wife concerning their son, and I only hope and trust you will never have the occasion to be placed in a similar position. I have no more news so will close, with fondest love and best wishes to your dear self and all. Goodbye and ‘God bless’ and protect you all.

From your ever loving and affectionate son
XXXXX John

Written on the back on the envelope is “John’s last letter. Killed 25 Sept 1916”. This is not quite true.

John wrote that letter at Bresle, to which the battalion had returned after the High Wood action. It has sustained the loss of 15 officers and 224 men killed, wounded or missing.

The day after John signed his letter, the battalion returned to the front. On 1 October it participated in a divisional attack towards Eaucourt l’Abbaye. He was killed in action, presumably in the manner as described by his Segeant.

John’s family believed he had been buried in the Eaucourt l’Abbaye area. This is possibly true, but he has no known grave today and is commemorated at the Thiepval Memorial.

A total of 104 officers and men of the battalion lost their lives on that terrible day. Of these, only 15 have a known grave. They all lie in Warlencourt British Cemetery, having been brought into it during post-war clearance of the battlefields. The cemetery contains many others who could not be identified. It would be good to one day find that John William Christopher Smith is one of them.

Genealogy

John was born on 22 November 1892, the son of John James Smith and Alice Maud Smith.

The 1911 census shows the family to be living at 60 Linden Avenue, Willesden. His parents were present (his mother given as Maud Smith) as were his younger sisters Ethel, 16, and Ada, 13. John was shown to have the occupation of telegraph messenger.

The family’s home by 1916 was at 89 Buchanan Gardens, Kensal Rise, Willesden. One can only imagine the grief and sense of loss felt here when their only son was killed.

The register compiled in September 1939 shows his parents still at 89 Buchanan Gardens, their war time home. Ethel, given by her full name of Alice Ethel, was stil at home and now employed as a bookkeeper. The house still exists.

An inscription was added to a family grave in nearby Willesden New cemetery

IN LOVING MEMORY OF/OUR ONLY SON/JOHN W.C. SMITH/LONDON REGIMENT/WHO WAS KILLED IN THE ADVANCE ON/EAU-COURT L’ABBAYE, FRANCE/AT THE MOMENT OF BEING SHOT/HE WAS ASSISTING A WOUNDED COMRADE./BORN NOV. 22.1892 – DIED OCT. 1. 1916./Out of the warfare of the world/into the peace of God.

I discovered that in 2008 the auctioneer Dix Noon Web  had disposed of John’s medals and other artefacts. How I wish I had seen it. Their catalogue read,

A Collection of Medals to the 20th (Blackheath and Woolwich) Battalion, London Regiment Pair: Private J. W. C. Smith, 20th Battalion London Regiment, killed in action, 1 October 1916 British War and Victory Medals (5983 Pte., 20-Lond. R.); Memorial Plaque (John Smith); together with Great War Tribute Cross, gold straight-armed paty cross, 32 x 32mm., obv. ‘22 Loyalty 1914’; rev. ‘Presented to C. Smith (name engraved) by F.L.C.’, ring suspension, extremely fine (4) £200-240 Footnote John William Christopher Smith was born in Kentish Town, London, lived in Kensal Rise and enlisted at Harlesden. Serving with the 20th Battalion London Regiment, he was killed in action in France on 1 October 1916. Sold with damaged card lid of the box of issue for medals, with accompanying slip, in registered envelope addressed to ‘Mr J. J. Smith, 89 Buchanan Gdns., Willesden’; Plaque in card envelope within original envelope bearing the same address.

How the family’s possessions – these lovingly kept letters and cards – came to be in a car boot in Herefordshire some 50 years after he wrote home for the final time is unknown.

Links

Group System of recruiting

London Regiment

47th (2nd London) Division

Battles of the Somme 1916