Rifleman, Rifle Brigade, 12th Bn.
Service no. S/2933
Killed in action on 25 September 1915, aged 18
Remembered at Ploegsteert Memorial, Hainaut, Belgium
Chris Burge writes:
William Edward Smith was born in Lambeth on 18 April 1897 and baptised on 16 May 1897 at St Saviour’s, St George’s Square, Pimlico. He was the first child of William Timothy, from Bethnal Green in east London, and Esther Annie Smith (née Butt) from Pimlico, on the north side of the Thames, who were married at St Mary the Less, Lambeth, in 1895. William Edward was born while his parents were living at 3 Hotspur Street, Kennington and William’s father worked as a ‘carman’. At the time of the 1901 census, the family were living in a five-storey tenement block at 279 Tooley Street, close to Tower Bridge and William’s father was working from home as a self-employed newsagent.
The 1911 census shows how the family had grown since Edward was born. William Snr was now 38 and Esther, 33. In their 15 years of marriage eight children had been born with five surviving infancy: Edward, 13; Lilly, six; Sidney, three, Frederic, two; and Violet, three months. Esther’s widowed father John Butt was living with them, along with a niece Nellie Tilbrook, who may have been a visitor. William Snr was still working as a self-employed newsagent. Home for the Smith family was now 53 Lambeth Walk where they lived in five rooms as the sole occupants of the property. There were a further three more additions to the family: Ernest, born in 1912, Ivy (1914) and Winifred (1918).
At the outbreak of war William Edward Smith was 17 and the only child in the Smith family likely to play an active part in the conflict. A few damaged pages of his service papers have survived, smudged and barely legible in places but it is clear that he was caught up in the surge of volunteering in late August and early September 1914. He enlisted in London on 9 September, falsely claiming to be 19. At a little over 5ft 10in tall, weighing 8st 12lbs and with a 35in chest, he was not obviously underage. He was recruited to the Rifle Brigade as Rifleman S/2933 Smith, W.E. and initially posted to the newly formed 9th Battalion but was transferred on 1 October to the 12th Rifle Brigade who were at Blackdown near Aldershot, Hampshire. His conduct sheet shows him overstaying a pass at Blackdown and smoking on parade both there and when the battalion had moved to Grayshott by March 1915, and irregular conduct on parade in April at Larkhill. The long months of equipping and training the battalion came to an end when they embarked for France, sailing from Southampton on 21 July 1915 and landing at Le Havre on 22 July 1915.
The battalion were first in trenches near Fleurbaix in early August and then Fauqissart on the Aubers Ridge. They worked on service and communications trenches in early September before returning to the front line trenches in the same area on 16 September. Orders were received on the 21st for an attack on enemy positions in conjunction with the Meerut Division, to take place on the 25th. The enemy were alerted by the explosion of a mine in their sector and an artillery bombardment. The attack was a costly failure with nearly all the officers either killed or wounded; of the other ranks, 43 were killed, 213 wounded and 76 missing, but believed killed. Rfm S/2933 Smith W.E. was originally listed in the battalion casualty returns as wounded on 25 September. This was revised on 19 November to killed in action on that day.
At the end of the war the Smith family were living at 16 Priory Place and it was William’s father who completed Army Form W5080 in order to receive his son’s medals, plaque and scroll. He listed the entire Smith family on the form, which was witnessed and countersigned at All Saints Church.