FRANK WILLIAM SMITH
27672, 8th Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry
(previously 1789, West Somerset Yeomanry)
Died of Wounds 5th May 1917
Buried Etaples Military Cemetery
The reports of Frank Smith’s death – and there are five of them – seem to respond to something special about him. Maybe it was his youth, just 19 – ‘such a bright young life’, but maybe too something in his personality: ‘of a bright and cheerful disposition’, ‘of a happy disposition and liked by all who knew him’, ‘my best war chum, liked by all officers and men of his company and platoon’.
Frank, or Francis, was born on 19th April 1898, the oldest child of Frank and Bessie Smith. They were a young family (all Frank’s brothers were young enough to serve not in WW1 but in WW2). Frank senior was baptised at Otterford in August 1871, the son of John Smith, a Dairyman at Hayne Farm. Interestingly the Smith family were living next to the Buttles at Waterhayes in 1881.
Frank senior and Bessie Hartnell were married at Otterford in Autumn 1897. They seem to have moved around in the area; young Frank was born at Curland; in 1901 they were at Courtsmoor, Churchstanton where Frank senior was a groom; their next child was born in 1904 at Clayhidon, but then they are back in Otterford, living as tenants at North Hill Farm, Higher Widcombe (on the site of the current Abbeywood House). Frank senior was a Farmer’s Carter.
Young Frank attended Otterford School from 9 October 1905 to 13 May 1911. As a boy he worked for Mr Brooks-King of Widcombe, and then in the garden at Buckland House, Buckland St Mary for the Reverend Mr A P Potts; when there he lodged with the Every family at Meanwood.
Frank joined the West Somerset Yeomanry, probably in 1915 ‘when he was barely 17 years of age’. The two surviving photographs of him are in his Yeomanry uniform, booted and spurred, looking absurdly young and very handsome. He was transferred to the 8th Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry. His friend Private Bill Savery writes that they trained together at Tidworth on Salisbury Plain. According to The Taunton Courier Frank, and Bill too probably, had been in France for five months when he died; they must have arrived in a draft late in 1916. This suggests that Frank was kept in England till he was 18 plus.
Did they arrive for the last stages of the Somme battles, before they petered out in the mud of winter? About the middle of December the Battalion went into billets at Paradis, near Vieille Chapelle, where they stayed till March. Travelling north, they arrived in the Arras area on March 10, where they remained out of the Front Line in detailed training on model trench systems built to resemble the German front line.
The Battle of Arras, or to describe its initial phase more precisely, the First Battle of the Scarpe (which ended on 14 April) began on April 9 after days of terrifyingly heavy bombardment of the German lines. The 8th, part of the 63rd Infantry Brigade, 37th Division, fought till withdrawn to Arras on the April 12 with heavy losses: two officers wounded, 26 other ranks killed, and 70 wounded and missing. The weather was terrible; heavy rainfall, followed by snow, so bitterly cold and wretched for the men.
The Second Battle of the Scarpe (23-24 April) began for the 8th as they were moved up on the 22nd/23rd ready to attack at 4.45am. Again, attacking with fellow Battalions, they suffered heavily, ‘the whole front … swept by heavy machine gun fire and a terrific hostile shrapnel barrage’. This was the day on which Frank was wounded. Bill Savery wrote to Frank’s family:
‘We were blown up by the same shell, which also buried us. Afterwards when we were dug out, I heard him call “Bill”, “Bill”. Then I went unconscious and don’t remember any more. They reported me killed, but I recovered by nightfall and then made inquiries for Frank, and was told that he was gone back to the dressing station, so I did not see him again, although we may have taken to the same hospital. It was 12.35pm when he met with his wounds which cost him his life on the 23rd day of April in the big push, for I had just taken my watch out to see the time.’
He was reported in the Somerset County Gazette as ‘having been badly wounded in the legs’; Bill writes that ‘I really cannot say whether he was wounded in the legs, but I am told in hospital that his wounds were on his right arm and on the side of his face’ – which can’t have been much of a comfort to his family.
Taunton Courier, 16 May 1917
Frank and Bill had a pact to ‘write to one another’s folks at home’ if anything happened to either of them.
Between the 20th and the 28th April 4 officers and 17 other ranks were killed, 14 officers and 180 other ranks wounded, with 99 missing. A terrible toll. The whole attack (Bill Savery’s all too familiar ‘big push’) gained 7000 yards at a cost of 160,000 killed and wounded.
Frank would have been taken to a Casualty Clearing Station, and ultimately to the 26th General Hospital at Étaples. This was located in a vast complex near the coast, with the necessary rail, road and boat transport for bringing troops and the sick in and out.
Elsie Tranter, a Nurse at the 26th, writes:
At present, our work in the theatre is hard and we have very long hours. We are on duty most days from early morning till very late at night. Three times this week it has been well into next morning when we have got to bed, then Sister Shann and I take it night about for emergency calls. These calls, unfortunately, are rather frequent and as they are almost invariably for haemorrhage, we have to be very quick in getting across from our tents to the theatre. Today I had to assist at ten amputations, one after another. It is frightfully nerve-wracking work. I seem to hear that wretched saw at work whenever I try to sleep. We see the most ghastly wounds and are all day long inhaling the odour of gas gangrene. How these boys suffer! This war is absolute hell. We see and hear all day and every day the results of its frightfulness. We can hear the guns quite plainly here.’
All the press reports of Frank’s death are reproduced here and on the following pages. He is commemorated not only on the Buckland St Mary Memorial, but also on the one at St Leonard’s Church, Otterford. As well as the photographs of him, his family have a lovely embroidered postcard, complete with flowers and patriotic butterfly, which he sent back from France.
[Particular thanks to the Smith family for allowing us to use their photos and mementoes.]