Details of Private Smith’s family life have been supplied by an article that appeared in the Staffordshire Weekly Sentinel on Saturday July 8th 1916: “Official information has been received by Mrs. Smith of 2, Barlow Street, Congleton that her husband, Private W. Smith of North Staffordshire Regiment has died of wounds on June 17th.
Smith was the eldest son of Mr. and Mrs. John T. Smith of 64, High Street, Biddulph and was the first to enlist from Biddulph on Auguat 6th 1914 at Shelton. He went to France in March 1915. He was 26 years of age and worked at the Victoria Pits, Black Bull previously. He leaves a widow and one child aged two years.” In a Chronicle report of July 1st it is stated that William enlisted on August 5th and thus “had the distinction of being the first recruit to join up at Biddulph”. The CWGC confirms details of his widow and provides an address in Congleton: “husband of Mrs May Smith of 32, Spring St. Congleton”.
William Smith married May Timms on May 4th 1914 at St. Stephen’s, Congleton. William was aged 25 and a collier living at 28, Spragg Street, Congleton. His father was John Thomas Smith, a carter. It would seem that his mother was John’s first wife, Alice Cumberbatch, who he married in 1889.
A photograph of Private Smith appears alongside both the Sentinel and Chronicle reports of his death.
An article that appeared in the Weekly Sentinel in late July 1916 reported on a memorial service for fallen Biddulph soldiers. This also makes reference to Private W. Smith.
The Great War had only been declared two days when William Smith gave up his pit job at the Victoria Colliery Black Bull. On a visit to Shelton Barracks on August 5th or 6th 1914 he enlisted into the 1st battalion North Staffordshire Regiment. He is said to be one of the first Biddulph men to enlist. This battalion went to the Western Front with 6th Division on September 12th 1914 and without service records it can only be assumed William Smith joined his battalion at a later date. His medal card records a date of entry into France as April 1915 which confirms the newspaper article.
Training details are sketchy. It is not known where the replacement men received their training. William, as part of a draft, crossed the channel on March 31st 1915 to join the battalion in Flanders, there gaining final instruction. In the Ypres salient at Hooge, William would see his first action. In October the 1st Staffords became part of 72nd Brigade, 24th Division; not that it would make any difference to the lads in the trenches. The battalion spent the winter of 1915-16 in the Ypres and Hooge area of Belgium and continued to defend their lines.
The routine of trench life continued through the miserable winter months. The ground was frozen and the cold and wet got to the lads with many suffering with trench foot. Trench maintenance and sand bagging work was carried out during quiet times. The snipers were always a deadly threat causing many a casualty, as did the enemy mortars. Waiting for relief, the battalion normally spent five days in the front line, then a long walk to spend five days in a back area. William would now understand why they trained in the dark to follow the man in front.
Early in 1916 still in the Ypres area at Wulverghem, the division experienced an enemy gas attack resulting in many casualties. Into summer the brave 1st North Staffords defended their line from attacks and with the occasional raid their casualty rate increased. In June, one of these casualties was William who was seriously wounded and sadly on June 17th 1916 died. No details have been uncovered; we only know he is now at rest in the Dranoutre Military Cemetery Heavelland. The historical records of the cemetery show many burials from 72nd Brigade 24th Division. In close proximity to the cemetery were two Casualty Clearing Stations where William may have been treated for his wounds.
The Chronicle printed part of Private Smith’s last letter home to his wife, which he wrote on June 16th, the day before he died. In this he refers lovingly to his only child. “She is before me as I write these few lines, and in imagination I can hear the prattle of her tongue.”
He also reassured his wife that despite having a slight cold he was all right and “hoped the day was not far distant when he would be able to come to dear old Blighty.”
There are a number of intriguing questions as the Biddulph memorials all record a John W. Smith and not William Smith. A recruitment article in 1914 refers to “Reservists and men serving with the colours” and includes “William Smith – High Street” in the list. This leads us to question if there was, in fact, also a John William Smith who died in battle that we have not been able to find details for. This highlights one of the many problems that we are encountering as we research this project.
Private John W. Smith is remembered on the St. Lawrence churchyard cross and memorial board and he is also recorded on the cenotaph in Albert Square. Private William Smith is also remembered on Congleton War Memorial. His name does not appear on any of the Biddulph memorials.
Mike Turnock & Elaine Heathcote.