Smith, Thomas J L. Died 21st Mar 1918

Thomas J L SMITH, having such a common surname, and probably having moved from some distance to work at British Thompson Houston (BTH) in Rugby, has not been specifically identified, although some parts of his life and his military career can be followed briefly in the records.

Before the war Thomas was working in the BTH Drawing Office, and this is later confirmed as his name appears as ‘SMITH T J L’ on the list of ‘BTH Employees Who Served in the War 1914 – 1918’; and as ‘SMITH Thomas J L’ on the list of names on the BTH War Memorial when it was unveiled in 1921.[1]

A search for births found nothing definitive, however a search for a marriage produced a registration in Rugby in Q3, 1914 [6d, 1583] between Thomas J L SMITH and a Nellie M DAVIS.

Further searches for Thomas – and indeed Nellie, with her almost equally common surname – in Rugby proved fruitless and it is likely that he was one of many workers who came to work in Rugby at the expanding British Thompson Houston works in the years immediately before the war.

Thomas joined up early, and indeed, the various dates could suggest that he may have already been a member of the territorial force. On his Medal Card he is listed as Thomas J Smith, a Corporal, No.187, – a very early number – in the 1st/1st Warwickshire Royal Horse Artillery (Territorial Forces). At a later date it seems he was transferred to the ‘Som Royal Horse Artillery’ – probably the Somerset Royal Horse Artillery – as No.618345 – a much later style number.

The Warwickshire Royal Horse Artillery was a Territorial Force Royal Horse Artillery battery that was formed in Warwickshire in 1908. On the outbreak of war on 4 August 1914, many territorial members volunteered for overseas service and the unit was split into 1st Line (liable for overseas service) and 2nd Line (home service for those unable or unwilling to serve overseas) units.

The 1st Line battery was embodied with the 1st South Midland Mounted Brigade on 4 August 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War. Initially, the brigade moved to Diss, Norfolk and joined the 1st Mounted Division. Later in August, a concentration of mounted brigades was ordered to take place around the Churn area of Berkshire and the brigade moved to the racecourse at Newbury.

At the end of October 1914, the Warwickshire Battery departed for France, landing at Le Havre on 1 November. The Warwickshire Royal Horse Artillery was the first Territorial Force artillery unit to go overseas on active service, spending the whole of the First World War on the Western Front, mostly with 1st Cavalry Division and 29th Division.

The ‘qualifying date’ i.e. the embarkation date on Thomas’s Medal Card, is 31 October 1914, thus it seems that he was indeed with the battery when it went to France on 1 November 1914. He would thus have also qualified for the 1914 Star.

It is uncertain what Thomas’s movements were thereafter. The activities of the 1st/1st Warwickshire RHA are well documented, however, Thomas’s Medal Card also includes the ‘Som Royal Horse Artillery’ – and a later service number: 618345 – and although also well documented they fought in different actions.   However, still with this same later number, Thomas is recorded by CWGC as being in “A” Bty. 298th Bde., Royal Field Artillery. When and why he might have transferred between these various batteries is uncertain – and no Service Record survives to record his movements.

Suffice to say he remained on the Western Front and at some date before late 1917 he had been promoted to Corporal and in later 1917, he won the Military Medal for bravery in the field.

His Majesty the KING has been graciously pleased to approve of the award of the Military Medal for bravery in the Field to the under mentioned Non-commissioned Officers and Men:-
… 618345 Cpl. T. J. Smith, R.F.A. (Rugby).[2]
… 618345 Cpl. T. J. Smith, R.F.A. (Rugby).[3]

Rather than outlining his possible movements and actions in three different Batteries, until any further information appears, one must assume that he was involved in a great many actions, and being in the artillery was less likely to be killed than as a front-line infantryman. As mentioned the CWGC indicates that in March 1918 he was with “A” Bty. 298th Bde. Royal Field Artillery.

On 4 April 1917, 298th (N. Midland) Bde, RFA (TF) was re-designated as 298th Army Brigade, RFA.[4]

During 1918, 298th Brigade, RFA was an Army Brigade, RFA and from 28 February 1918 to 30 March 1918 it was supporting the 14th (Light) Division of III Corps.[5]

However, on 21 March 1918, the Germans launched a major offensive, Operation Michael, against the British Fifth Army and the right wing of the British Third Army. The German artillery targeted command and communications; then, the destruction of artillery; and then the front-line infantry. The artillery bombardment began at 4.40am on 21 March 1918, and hit targets over an area of 150 square miles, the biggest barrage of the entire war. Over 1,100,000 shells were fired in five hours.   It was possibly during this initial shelling of the British artillery positions early on 21 March 1918 that Thomas was killed.

The Brigade War Diary indicates that on 21 March 1918 the Brigade was in positions in the Montescourt area. Early that morning it was ordered to fire on a line between Sabliere Farm – Manufacture Farm. The Brigade Wagon Lines were heavily shelled with 40 horses, one officer and four men killed and six wounded.[6]

It is possible that Thomas was killed, or indeed wounded, later dying, on that occasion during the shelling in advance of the opening of Operation Michael.   The 61st (South Midland) Casualty Clearing Station which was stationed at Ham from January – March 1918,[7] started to receive casualties at 5.00a.m. on 21t March 1918.[8]

Thomas could have been one of the early casualties, and was either already dead on arrival or died soon afterwards and he was buried adjacent to the Casualty Clearing Station. There appears to be some confusion in the description on the CWGC site [unless there really was a pre-existing German cemetery on the site] however, it seems that the CCS were burying their dead, including Thomas, in what would later become the Muille-Villette German Cemetery, after the area was over-run.

The British soldiers buried in what became a largely German Cemetery at Muille-Villette were ‘concentrated’ [exhumed, moved and reburied] in 1919. The Ham British Cemetery was constructed next to and just behind the Muille-Villette German Cemetery, and the British graves were regrouped in this new cemetery, which explains the same map reference being used.

Thomas’s body could be identified as he was originally buried under ‘Foot Board: E55’ at ‘MR: 66D Q 2a 1-4’ from ‘Official Identity’. He was reburied in Plot ref: I. E. 21 at the new Ham British Cemetery. There was no age or personal family message on the gravestone.

Ham is a small town about 20 kilometres south west of St. Quentin … The British Cemetery is in the village of Muille-Villette. In January, February and March 1918, the 61st (South Midland) Casualty Clearing Station was posted at Ham, but on 23 March the Germans, in their advance towards Amiens, crossed the Somme at Ham, and the town remained in German hands until the French First Army re-entered it on 6 September 1918. Ham British Cemetery was begun in January-March 1918 as an extension of Muille-Villette German Cemetery,[9] made by the Casualty Clearing Station.

In 1919 the British graves in the earlier and German cemetery were reburied in the new British Cemetery, together with those ‘concentrated’ from two other German cemeteries, and communal cemeteries and churchyards.

His death was recorded in the Coventry Evening Telegraph, but seems to have been missed by the Rugby Advertiser.

‘The Roll of Honour, Warwickshire Casualties. Rugby Men in Casualty Lists. Three employees of B.T.H. to make the supreme sacrifice are: Corpl. T. J. Smith, R.F.A., Sapper E. Wagstaffe, R.E., and Pte. Alfred William Elson, Hampshire Regt., …’.[10]

Thomas J L Smith is also remembered on the Rugby Memorial Gates as well as on the BTH Memorial to those who fell, as noted above. His Medal Card showed that he was awarded the British War Medal and the Victory Medal, the 1914 Star and the Military Medal for ‘bravery in battle on land’.

On the back of his medal card is written, ‘N M Smith applies for her late husband’s medals 7.11.20’, which also confirms his marriage with Nelly M Davis.

 

RUGBY REMEMBERS HIM

– – – – – –

 

This article on Thomas J L Smith was researched and written for a Rugby Family History Group [RFHG] project, by John P H Frearson and is © John P H Frearson and the RFHG, January 2018.

 

[1]       Taken from the list published in the Rugby Advertiser, 4 November 1921.

[2]       Supplement, The London Gazette, 12 December 1917, p.13021.

[3]       Supplement, The Edinburgh Gazette, 13 December 1917, p.2569.

[4]       The brigade’s war diary for the period January 1916 to February 1916 can be found at The National Archives under WO95/3016. Its war diary from March 1917 to February 1918 can be find under WO95/456. Information from Dick Flory at http://1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums/topic/168241-a298th-north-midlands-brigade-rfa/.

[5]       Information from ‘quigs1969’ at http://www.rootschat.com/forum/index.php?topic=694165.0; and from Dick Flory at http://1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums/topic/192545-298-brigade-rfa/.

[6]       Information from ‘quigs1969’ at http://www.rootschat.com/forum/index.php?topic=694165.0; and from Dick Flory at http://1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums/topic/192545-298-brigade-rfa/.

[7]       However the 61st CCS Diary states that the CCS at Ham and their patients were evacuated by 23 March and the area was captured by the Germans.   One reference [http://www.longlongtrail.co.uk] suggests the CCS were also in Ham from March – April 1918, and then were at Vignacourt, although the War Diary suggests they had withdrawn.

[8]       WWI War Diaries, 1914-1920, Royal Army Medical Corps, 61st Division, from www.ancestry.co.uk, p.290-291.

[9]       See comment in text above as to the sequence.

[10]     Coventry Evening Telegraph, Saturday, 20 April 1918.

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