Researched and written by Anne Wright
Pte F Smith
7th Battalion, East Surrey Regiment
Killed in action, 22.9.1917
In 1891 the Smith household at 1, Orchard Cottages, Baker Street in Weybridge consisted of David and Jane, their two sons Joseph and Frederick and David’s father. The boys were close in age, Frederick, who was born in the town in on 11 July 1883, was just a year younger than his brother. He was baptised at St James’ Church on 22 September. The brothers’ father and grandfather were general labourers and their mother was a laundress. Ten years later Frederick, a former pupil of St James’ School (Baker Street), was a painter and glazier whilst his father was now a gardener. In 1911 only Frederick and his mother, now a widow, remained at home; he continued to earn his living as a house painter. On 24 August 1912 Frederick married Ella Beatrice Makins, a farmer’s daughter, at Holy Trinity Church in Wimbledon. He continued to live in Weybridge; he and his wife made their home at 1, Yew Villa in Thames Street.
Frederick enlisted in Kingston and arrived at Boulogne with his battalion made up of 30 officers and 387 men at 2 am on 2 June 1915. They would endure much hard work and many painful losses as they served on the Western Front. The battalion was involved in the Battles of Loos (1915), Somme (1916) and the Arras Offensive (1917) all before Frederick’s death in action. Their first experience of trench life came at Ploegsteert (in Belgium; 2 km north of the French border) where they found the trenches required a great deal of work. Their first serious casualties were inflicted not when they were in the firing line but when a German shell exploded as they were making their way back to their billets at Le Bizet (close to Ploegsteert) on 12 July; 14 men were injured. Frederick and his colleagues were in and out of the trenches in this area until the beginning of the Battle of Loos on 25 September.
The 7th East Surreys were ordered to occupy the Le Touquet salient if the Germans vacated it; they were at their battle positions at 4 am but as the bombardment did not sufficiently damage the enemy they did not attack and were ordered back to their billets. By the 30 September they were at Vermelles, north-east of Loos, where they came under heavy shelling. They remained on this part of the line throughout October as the battle continued: on the 9th they were in the trenches at the Quarries north-west of Hulloch and under heavy bombardment; four days later Frederick and his comrades were part of a general attack to straighten their line and take difficult positions from the enemy. The East Surreys captured their objective but at a heavy cost: 2 officers were killed and 2 wounded; 56 other ranks were killed, 156 wounded and 33 reported missing. The Battle of Loos was effectively over, the British had not been able to capitalise on early successes because their reserves were not able to follow up quickly enough, the difficulty of the terrain, persistent German shelling and machine gun fire.
The Battle of Loos was spoken of as ‘the Big Push’ in 1915 but would be surpassed in this respect by the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The 7th East Surreys moved south in May, detraining at Amiens and marching to Flesselles where they took part in a practice attack. The actual battle began on 1 July; Frederick’s battalion went into reserve positions close to Ovillers (north-east of Albert) on 2 July at 6.30 pm. Such were the casualties suffered by other units that thoughts of continuing the attack were given up at 1pm on 3 July with the battalion being ordered to hold their present line. The following day they went into the front line; here they witnessed the devastation caused on the previous two days. The trenches had been badly damaged and were full of the dead and wounded; the mud and water was over boot level as they worked. Frederick and his comrades brought in about 250 wounded often doing so in daylight. When they were relieved after three days they left the trenches virtually clear. They remained in the battle zone east of Albert until they moved south-west to the Amiens area in late October.
Frederick’s last Christmas Day, spent in billets at Grand Rullecourt, passed off well with extra food and a football match. Even the loss of another game 8 – 0 on 27 December did not dampen optimism as the battalion diary reflected in its entry on that date, ‘The team looks as though it will improve tremendously with practice.’ The period of relaxation did not last long; on 14 January 1917 the battalion had moved north once more and were in trenches to the east of Arras. They remained in the Arras sector and at 5.30 am on 9 April stood ready to advance as part of the Spring Offensive. The East Surreys got away successfully in the brief gap between the opening of their own barrage and the response from the Germans. Their advance came with a high cost: 3 officers killed, 3 wounded and 1 missing; 36 other ranks killed, 136 wounded and 4 missing. Frederick survived only to spend a miserable night (10/11 April) in shell holes waiting to move forward to positions north of Monchy (south-east of Arras) only to be moved back to the old British line on 12 April. This was the story of the offensive – early success could not be capitalised on as the Germans moved reserves forward quickly to plug gaps and then counter-attacked even though the Canadians had taken Vimy Ridge.
The East Surreys stayed in this battle zone throughout the summer. They again took heavy casualties during a British attack on 3 May: 3 officers killed, 3 wounded and 5 reported missing; 26 other ranks killed, 117 wounded, 89 missing and 6 gassed. They were often billeted in Arras between being in the front line. On 17 September the battalion was in familiar territory in the Monchy trenches, the Germans were busy sending over trench mortar fire which was damaging the front line. In spite of this a neighbouring battalion made a successful raid on the German trench on 22 September but the return barrage came down heavily on the East Surreys. There were two casualties; Frederick was one of them.
He had fought on the Western Front for two years and three months; Frederick was laid to rest in the Windmill British Cemetery (I.E.21) at Monchy-le-Preux, 7km south-east of Arras. His widow remained in Weybridge until at least 1925, living first at The Hollies in York Road and then at Chesterton in Princes Road. Frederick’s mother, Jane, was still living at Orchard Cottages in 1930.
Surrey, England, Church of England Baptisms, 1813-1912, www.ancestry.co.uk
Surrey, England, Church of England Marriages, 1754-1937, www.ancestry.co.uk
Surrey, England, Electoral Registers, 1832-1962, www.ancestry.co.uk
UK, Soldiers Died in the Great War, 1914-1919, www.ancestry.co.uk