Monday, 1 November 2004

Fallen in Action

In the chancel of St Thomas' Church, Worsbrough there is a plaque in memory of The Revd Capt George De Ville Smith, curate of the parish, who fell in action in France on 1st July 1916.
I've always thought there must be an interesting story behind it and so was pleased to receive a phone call from someone who was interested in researching the incident.  As a result I now have the following details.
Mr.Smith had been ordained at St.Anne's Church Birkenhead and served there before moving to Barnsley where he became curate of Worsbrough Dale from 1st Sept 1911 to 31st Dec 1914 under the Revd William Banham.  Here he was founding officer of the Church Lads’ Brigade (which as Church Lads’ and Church Girls’ Brigade continued until recent times and influenced the lives of many young people from the parish) and took a special interest in the work of the Sunday School. 
With the outbreak of the war, he joined up with the Barnsley Pals’ Battalion (which was at that time in its initial stage of formation) and became Second Lieutenant of D Company.  One of the men under him was Tommy Oughton who was 18 in August 1914.  Tommy lived at Wombwell and worked at Mitchell's Main pit at Darfield before volunteering.  He was also a teetotal chapel lad and his religious outlook no doubt coloured his opinion of his officer:
"He turned out to be a right rum customer and we weren't long in giving him a nickname. With being called De Ville Smith we gave him the name 'Devil Smith.' He was a chap who was very strict but what hurt us more, he used to come out with a bit of swearing. With us knowing that he had been a parson, we thought that was all wrong, hence his nickname."
July 1 marked the opening of the Battle of The Somme. D company was not the first company to go over but slightly behind. They had filled the trenches vacated by the third and fourth waves of attack and now it was their turn.  In Tommy Oughton's words again:
"... there was shelling, rifle and machine gun fire as we went across. We hadn't a chance. I can't really describe what I saw to tell the truth. There you were, you could see bodies dropping here, there and wondering, is it you next? I saw plenty of men I knew drop. No hope at all. Of course we didn't get far before we were knocked back... As we came back that's when I saw 'Devil' Smith's body and he looked to have hardly a scratch on his face. It must have been the shock that killed him. There was a shell that landed not far from him, we could see where it had dropped."
Another witness of Capt Smith's death was Philip Brocklesby, Second Lieutenant.   (Philip's brother, Bert Brocklesby, was imprisoned as a conscientious objector).  The following quotation's are from Philip's diary.
On the afternoon of June 30 he was leading 13 Platoon which in turn was leading D Company …
"so that I had much of the company of Capt De Ville Smith on the way up. I think he felt the hand of death near. Fortunately for D company we were to assemble in the last of the eight trenches, named Babylon."
Having gone over the top and been forced into retreat they were in a trench.
"There was a near burst of a 5.9 in (exact figure unclear) and quickly news was passed along the trench that Capt De V. Smith had been badly wounded.  Again D Company was ordered to move to the right and two bays further on I had to step across his body as he lay very close to death."
His death shows how strange shell bursts can be:
"Capt Smith, Capt Normansell and a messenger runner were all in line in a trench traverse. The runner had just handed a message to Capt Smith when the shell burst. Capt Smith was badly wounded and died in half an hour. The runner got a nasty splinter wound in his chest. Normansell who was stood between them wasn't hit."
In another memoir where Phil revisits the trenches with some friends some years later he refers to the incident again. Talking about the march to the trenches …
"I had Captain Smith with me for most of the way ... Perhaps I am being wise after the event, but his conversation seemed to indicate that he had some premonition that he would be killed.  Actually D company had few casualties and it seemed strange that he should be one of them."
The following report by Lieut. Hions is taken from an obituary to Capt Smith published in the Chronicle soon after his death:
“Captain G. de Ville Smith led his Company in the advance across the open, in face of heavy shell and machine gun fire.  His courage and coolness as a leader, helped greatly to inspire his men.  We reached our next trench and were held in reserve for some time.  The call came for a platoon to reinforce the front line.  The Captain ordered me to proceed with the boys, and when I left he was busy sending and receiving reports.  I sent back two runners reporting my arrival, and on their return I was informed of his death.  He was struck by shrapnel and died instantly.  I may say the Company, as a whole feel very much the loss of their commander.”
The obituary says Capt Smith was a single man whose father died when he was 10 years of age.  It describes him as having a tall commanding figure and a charming personality which endeared him to everyone with whom he came into contact.   
In a note in the Parish Magazine of August 1916 Mr.Banham describes his former curate as “an acceptable earnest and faithful preacher.”  Prior to writing this the Vicar had announced the news of Capt Smith’s death to the congregation at St.Thomas’s.  They were moved to tears as he recalled the love and esteem which Mr. Smith had inspired in the people of the parish.  They joined in prayer that God would grant him eternal rest.
The Tommy Oughton quotations are taken from "Barnsley Pals - The 13th and 14th Battalions, York and Lancaster Regiment" by Jon Cooksey. Published by Leo Cooper, an imprint of Pen &Sword Books Ltd. 01226-734555.
Philip Brocklesby diary quotation reproduced by permission of his nephew Malcolm Brocklesby.  Malcolm has a sculpture on the theme of ‘Prisoner of Conscience’ on exhibition at Monk Fryston church (just north of Knottingley) at present, the concept of which was triggered by Phil's conscientious objector brother Bert.
The following is by an anonymous Oxford undergraduate, writing a few days after the outbreak of World War One, in which he was to be killed three years later.
To have given me self‑consciousness but for an hour in a world so breathless with beauty would have been enough. But thou hast preserved it within me for twenty years now and more, and hast crowned it with the joy of this summer of summers. And so, come what may, whether life or death, and, if death, whether bliss unimaginable or nothingness, I thank thee and bless thy name.