Signaller Cecil Ernest Smith, MM, 77754, Royal Garrison Artillery, 421st Siege Battery
Cecil Ernest Smith was born in Ossett in early 1895, the youngest son of three children born to Dye Works manager Herbert Smith and his wife Alice (nee North) who married in Ossett in 1888.
In 1901 and 1911 Herbert, Alice and their three sons were living at Hawthorn Villa on Runtlings Lane Ossett. Latterly Herbert, a rag and wool dyer, was working for Eli Townend Ltd. Hawthorne Villa was Cecil’s address in 1915 and at the time of his marriage in 1921. Their home was two doors away from the home of Harrap Townend and his son Archer who served in the Royal Garrison Artillery and was killed in action on 10th April 1917.
Cecil’s attestation for Army service is dated the 10th November 1915 when he was 20 years and 11 months of age, and was then working as a rag dyer, probably at Sunny Dale Mills where his father worked. On the 11th December 1915, Cecil was placed in 'B' Reserve until he was mobilised on 6th May 1916 when he joined the Royal Garrison Artillery as Gunner 77754. Cecil was 5’ 5¼” tall, 132 lbs in weight with a 37” chest measurement. In the picture at the left, Cecil Ernest Smith is shown top left, standing with a group of his RGA colleagues.
After initial service at depot he joined the 210th Siege Battery RGA on the 2nd September 1916. He embarked from Southampton for France on the 10th November 1916, arriving at Le Havre the following day. On the 20th August 1917, he suffered wounds to his right arm caused by shrapnel. He underwent treatment at the general hospital at Etaples and on the 4th September 1917 he was invalided to England for seven weeks treatment and convalescence at Birmingham and later at Ripon.
He attended Signalling School at Fareham from late November 1917 and obtained his 1st Class classification as a signaller and telegraphist on the 19th February 1918. It was quite a month for Cecil and around the same time he was presented with the Military Medal for bravery in the incident in which he suffered wounds in August 1917.
Cecil's father, Herbert Smith, died in early 1918. On the 19th March 1918, Cecil left Southampton for Alexandria in Egypt, arriving there on the 3rd April 1918. Later that month he served in Cyprus, was redesignated from Gunner to Signaller and subsequently served in Palestine with the 421st Siege Battery, RGA before returning to Egypt. Cecil was demobilised from the 421st Battery of the Royal Garrison Artillery on the 1st February 1919 with a month's furlough. He left Egypt on 4th February 1919 and was placed on “Z” Reserve in the event that the enemy did not comply with the terms of the Armistice.
Cecil Smith returned to his home at Hawthorn Villa, Runtlings, Ossett and was awarded the British and Victory campaign medals for his service during the War. On the 22nd December 1921 at the New Wesleyan Chapel, Wesley Street, Ossett, Cecil, a mungo manufacturer, of Hawthorn Villa Runtlings Ossett married 27 year-old Martha Crossley Wilson, spinster, of 'Ash View', Runtlings, Ossett, the youngest daughter of Joseph Wilson and his wife Sarah (nee Pawson). Sadly, Martha C. Smith died in 1926, aged just 32 years of age. Cecil remarried his housekeeper Hilda Robinson in 1944. Cecil Ernest Smith died in Ossett aged 92 years in 1987.
In September 1984, the "Ossett Observer" printed an article penned by Cecil E. Smith, MM, describing his WW1 experiences:
"Back down the years to the distant trenches - It is just seventy years since the first fighting began in the terrible First World War. Surviving veterans are becoming fewer, and one of them, Mr. Cecil Ernest Smith, of Mapplewell Crescent, Ossett, has decided to make a permanent record of his memories through the pages of the "Observer".
Mr Smith, who will be 90 in January, spent most of his life in the family shoddy business, but from 1916 to 1919 was a signaller with the Royal Artillery. He received the Military Medal for Gallantry during service in France.
His battery commander wrote to his father: "Your son has today been awarded the Military Medal for Gallantry. The particular act for which I recommended him happened before he was wounded - as you know, he was slightly wounded in the arm a few days ago - it was really slight and need cause you no anxiety. Your son was out laying telephone wires under shell fire and stuck to his job for some hours in spite of it and did very well indeed. When he was wounded, he stopped to bandage a comrade who was also wounded. He is a son of whom you must be very proud."
Here in Cecil Smith's own words, are his recollections of the war:
"I was called to the Forces in 1916 and joined the Royal Garrison Artillery. I trained to be a signaller and went out to France in September 1916. I was on the Western Front and visited the front lines continually. I was in Arras during Christmas 1916.
We were firing over Arras and I had to go to our observation post through Gard du Nord railway station which was all smashed up. Our post was in a row of houses from which we could see the German lines. With was an officer called The Honourable Stoppford. He came from Ireland and was a real gentleman. He would not let us go out to repair the wires until the shelling had abated a little. We used to cook in the cellar.
We then moved to different parts of the front including the salient near Ypres. During the winter of 1916/1917 we had to saw the bread ration because it was so cold. In fact it was the hardest winter on record. Our job was to lay telegraph wires to the front line where we had to observe our guns shelling and correct them on to targets. Often we were nearly up to our knees in mud and frequently had to sleep in it.
We had to manhandle our guns, 6 inch Howitzers into position during darkness, which was a terrible job. Then we had to hump 100lb shells to the positions form which we were firing. We always moved at night and in darkness. Our guns pounded the barbed wire in front of the Hindenburg tunnel for days, smashing it up ready for our infantry to go in. The wire in front of the tunnel was at least fifty yards wide.
When the tanks advanced in the dark, my pal and I were nearly run over as they passed our battery. Mine was the 210th Siege Battery, 6 inch Howitzers. Our soldiers took the tunnel, which had a very wide trench where about fifty steep steps were situated. The Germans were trapped inside the very deep tunnel. Our infantry pitched Mills bombs down before taking them prisoner.
All the Hindenburg Line was taken that day. I saw a lot of our lads caught amongst the smashed wire and also killed by the German machine-gun fire. Our tanks could not descend the steep trench.
It must have taken a long time to make the tunnel and trench and to erect the barbed wire. The Germans were caught like rats in a self-made trap. The Hindenburg Line stretched for miles. We had plenty of mud and water to contend with. Our clothes had to dry on us. The firing of enemy guns and Very lights was continuous during darkness. Once when we were returning from the front line (we used to go in twos and threes) one of our pals gave up the ghost and lay down. We had to make him go with us. It was so cold and all the time shelling was going on.
My pal, Gunner Wood, and I made a small dugout to sleep in and early one morning a gas shell knocked the dugout in from the side. We could smell the gas and we managed to get our gas masks on quickly. Sometimes we did not know where we were, which made it difficult to get to the front line in the dark. Once we were passing in front of a field battery when they opened up with a salvo. We flattened ourselves to the ground until there was a lull.
We also had the experience when the troops were going over the top at daybreak. We were laying our telephone wires on the ground when an infantryman came along carrying the rum ration to the troops who were going over the top. He tripped up, spilling both dixies of rum. I shall never forget that smell.
I had a steel jacket (mail back and front) sent to me by my sister-in-law. I once got a shock through it when I was in a dugout with a telephone in my hand when there was a thunderstorm. Once when the shells were bursting around us, I was flat on my face when a lot of earth came down from the bursting shells.
We had to lay the telephone wires during heavy shelling, for which my friend Gunner Wood and I were awarded the Military Medal. We were out laying wires when a shell burst nearby. We had not time to fall flat and I was hit in the right arm by shrapnel. My other pal, Gunner Lowe, who had a twin brother in the same battery, got a piece of shrapnel in the stomach. I bandaged him and then went seeking help. I found an officer of a field battery who said 'Let me look at your arm', there was blood running down my arm, but I did not know I had been hit until he told me. I told him where my pal was. He cut my tunic sleeve out and bandaged my wound. He said "We will look after your pal."
On my way back to my battery I was never so scared. The shells seemed to be following me and I was dropping flat every few yards. At the battery I picked my haversack up and they sent me walking down the line to the first-aid dressing station. There I saw some terribly wounded men. Gangrene had set in and it smelt bad. While I was there shells were falling nearby.
However, I was sent to a hospital in Boulogne. Then they told me they were clearing all casualties out because of a big push which was going to start. So I was sent to Solihull, near Birmingham. When I awoke the next morning I saw a pal from my home town. We were pals before we joined the army. His name was Edward Illingworth and he had been hit in the stomach.
After leaving Solihull hospital, which had once been an asylum, I was sent to Fort Fareham in Hampshire, where I was when my father died. I had a feeling before his death that something was happening. I could not settle down. Then I received the telegram saying that he had died. I went on leave and then returned to Fareham where we were training again. They asked for volunteers to go to Egypt to fight the Turks. I was posted with another pal called Jones who came from Hunslet, near Leeds.
We had to trek into Palestine on our own. We had just the number of the battery we were looking for. On the way there we were resting by wayside one day when up came a bevy of officers on horseback and we did not stand up to salute. They pulled up and asked us if we did not recognise an officer when we saw one. We got a ticking off and went on our way. We found the battery (421st Siege Battery) late in the evening. The heat suited me. We used periscopes to observe the Turkish lines.
We were on top of the hills and I found a small cave near at hand which I used to go into when I could feel the coolness. I sent a fern home from the cave. Once I found a box of Very lights and fired one at night down the waddy. It was like daylight for a time."
1. "Ossett Observer", 14th September 1984
2. Private correspondence with Eric Cudworth, Horbury who supplied the "Ossett Observer" article about Cecil E. Smith and knew him personally.