Two brothers disabled in the First World War…

and the third who didn’t make it home

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve posted about two brothers – Bob and Bert Smith – from the South Wiltshire village of Downton who both served in, and were disabled by war. As today is Armistice Day, 11 November, for this week’s ‘off-topic’ post, let’s focus on their elder brother Ernest who wasn’t so ‘lucky’.

Born in February 1887, Ernest Smith was the only one of his brothers to have sustained a military career in the years before the Great War as a professional soldier. Smith had served in the  Coldstream Guards in the Sudan, a few years after the Battle of Omdurman (1898) under Kitchener. He travelled widely round Empire countries and sent several interesting picture postcards home to his parents. He even owned a camera and some of his surviving photographs were taken on service in Egypt and the Sudan in 1906-8.

Smith was invalided out of the army with dysentery in about 1912 and worked at a local tan yard along with his father who was a journeyman tanner.

Ernest Smith 10584 Wiltshire Regiment

Ernest Smith
10584 Wiltshire Regiment

At the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 Smith joined the 1st Battalion Wiltshire Regiment and for the early part of the war was an instructor at the Regiment’s Camp at Weymouth. He was then given the option of training troops on Salisbury Plain, but instead chose to go out to fight at the Western Front. It is believed that he was a sniper.

Before he left England he advised his younger brother Bert (my grandad) not to join up – ‘theäse bide where thee bist’ in his broad Wiltshire accent. Grandad did just that, not signing up till compulsory conscription in 1916.

In late May 1915 Acting Sergeant Ernest Smith was shot at by a German sniper. The bullet hit his pocket watch and this probably saved his life. The pocket watch and bullet were posted home. Now fascinating curiosities, then, stark reminders of the realities of war.

Ernest Smith June 1915

Acting Sergeant Ernest Smith (front Centre), Belgium, June 1915, a week before he was killed.
Private Jack Haydon (right, front row) was standing next to Smith when he was shot.

Two weeks later Smith was not so lucky. On 8 June 1915, he was killed on Hill 60 at Ypres. He had apparently looked out of one of the tunnels and was shot in the head by a German sniper. Wiltshire Regiment Private John Vincent (‘Jack’) Haydon was standing next to Smith when he was shot. Haydon later told Ernest’s family that he’d died instantly. They no doubt knew this was a kind lie. In reality Smith took over two hours to die – the nature of his death was reported in the local newspaper.

The War Diaries of the 1st Battalion, Wiltshire Regiment show that Sergeant Smith was the only member of the Battalion killed on 8 June. He seems to have been rather unfortunate as on that day the Wiltshires were relieved by the Honourable Artillery Company and returned to Ypres early the following morning for rest.

In Goodbye to All That, Robert Graves gives a graphic description of a similar death he witnessed on 9 June:

I saw a group bending over a man lying at the bottom of the trench. He was making a snoring noise mixed with animal groans. At my feet lay the cap he had worn, splashed with his brains. I had never seen human brains before; I somehow regarded them as a poetical figment. One can joke with a badly-wounded man and congratulate him on being out of it. One can disregard a dead man. But even a miner can’t make a joke over a man who takes three hours to die, after the top part of his head has been taken off by a bullet fired at twenty yards’ range.

Smith's name inscribed on the Menin Gate

Smith’s name inscribed on the Menin Gate memorial

Originally Sergeant Ernest Smith had a military grave at Ypres and details of its location were sent to his grieving parents. Regrettably the grave disappeared – it was blown to pieces – during the subsequent 3rd Battle of Ypres (which is more commonly known as Passchendaele). So Smith’s name appears alongside the 56,000 inscribed on the Menin Gate memorial at Ieper, Belgium. You’ll find his name there ‘Smith E’, on Column 1706, Panel 53, M.R. 29 of the memorial. It’s directly beneath a ‘Shakespeare W’ – the most typical of English names in the corner of a foreign field. Although I have to point out, this Shakespeare’s no William, but a Walter, same regiment as Smith but killed three months before.

Ernest Smith’s parents received the parcel containing his pocket watch a few days after they’d heard news of his death. I donated the watch and its bullet to the Imperial War Museum a couple of years ago so Smith’s story won’t get lost.

Map of Ypres marked by Jack Haydon

Map of Ypres marked by Jack Haydon

Private Jack Hayden (later promoted to Lance Corporal) survived the war and died as recently as 1981. Leafing through pages of that same local newspaper we read he was injured on at least four occasions in 1915-17, the first of which was in days of Smith’s death. He missed the horrors of the Somme in July 1916, as he was in hospital at Norwich suffering from shell shock, but by October he had again been wounded. In 1917 he was injured twice – in April and August. Then in the spring of 1918 he was taken prisoner of war by the Germans.

But of the four Haydon brothers, Jack was the ‘lucky’ one: Private William George Haydon died of pneumonia in a military hospital in 1916 aged 26; Sergeant Arthur Ellis Haydon MM, a prisoner of war, died in March 1919 also aged 26; Private Frank Haydon died in March 1920 from the flu epidemic aged 23; and their only sister, Kathleen died from tuberculosis less than three years later, aged 17.

About Ed Green

Writer and editor, Yorkshire bred, now living and working in Central London. This blog charts the writing of my memoir 'Twinned' - life with and without my disabled sister. It features disability issues, cerebral palsy, traumatic death, bereavement, twinless twins, guest posts, and throws in the occasional 'off topic' post.
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