From Eton to Ypres: The Letters and Diaries of Lt Col Wilfrid Abel Smith, Grenadier Guards, 1914-15

From Eton to Ypres: The Letters and Diaries of Lt Col Wilfrid Abel Smith, Grenadier Guards, 1914-15

by Charles Smith

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ISBN-13: 9780750969192
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 05/04/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 5 MB

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Wilfrid's Early Days

Wilfrid Robert Abel Smith was born at Goldings, near Hertford, on 13 September 1870, the eighth of twelve children and the third of five sons of Robert and Isabel Smith. Robert Smith was a successful banker descended from Thomas Smith of Nottingham, who founded the first English provincial bank in about 1658. Smith, Payne and Smith was well known in the City of London with premises at 1 Lombard Street. Robert was a God-fearing, philanthropic banker of the kind more often to be found in Victorian times than in the present day. Born in 1833, he had married Isabel Adeane in 1857, when she was only 18. The young couple lost no time in producing a large family. Their first child was born nine months and three days after their marriage. At the age of 30, Isabel found herself with eight children. Four more were to follow by 1879. There were six to nine years between each of the surviving four brothers, one having died at the age of 9, so it seems that none of them will have been at the same school together.

Wilfrid spent his infancy at the old house at Goldings in the village of Waterford near Hertford, where he had been born. When he was 6, the family moved into the enormous new Goldings built higher up the hill away from the damp of the river below. This house still stands but has been divided into apartments. It was designed by Thomas Devey, one of the most successful but least-known domestic Victorian architects. It is described by Mark Girouard in The Victorian Country House as 'One of Devey's largest and most depressing houses'.

Robert did not undertake this project until he had built Waterford's first parish church in 1872, where there is now a memorial to Wilfrid. He employed Morris & Co. to fit out the church's interior and it contains one of the finest collections of Pre-Raphaelite stained glass with windows designed by William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones and Ford Madox Brown.

Wilfrid followed his two elder brothers to school at Cheam, near Newbury (according to his mother, 'the only good private school then in existence'), and then to Eton and the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. It was at Eton and Sandhurst that his ears apparently suffered from battering in the boxing ring, resulting in some deafness; it was a characteristic (the deafness, not the boxing) later possessed by his daughter Sylvia and her son. He was fond of music and took up the cello.

His taste for a soldiering career was almost certainly sparked by his father's younger brother, Philip Smith, a tall, finely built bachelor who had a distinguished career in the Grenadier Guards and retired as a lieutenant general. Philip was close to Robert and Isabel and would have seen much of the children. In 1882 he took the 2nd Battalion of the regiment (which Wilfrid was himself destined to command) to Egypt where, under Sir Garnet Wolseley, the expedition scored a startling victory at Tel el-Kebir over a far superior force of insurgents by a brilliant little battle lasting thirty-five minutes. One can well imagine the pride and delight of the 12-year-old nephew at the triumph of his uncle, who was rewarded with a CB (Companion of the Order of the Bath).

Wilfrid's Lent Term school report from Eton in 1885 gives little indication of the 14-year-old's true potential. Whilst he came first out of thirty-two, his class was Division XVIII, so his peer group would have been amongst the least academic of his year group. His conduct report read, 'a terrible fidget: lacking in power of concentration: very fairly punctual', and his overall summary was, 'Deserves credit for steady industry, often against the grain. Is not a clever boy, and takes a long time in mastering new ideas, but retains them well when he has made them his own. Ought to make more effort to get the better of his flightiness.'

Wilfrid's exam results at Sandhurst suggest that he was not a candidate for the Sword of Honour (his marks placed him at the top of the bottom quartile for his year), but his riding prowess earned him a special certificate of proficiency. He was commissioned into the Grenadiers in 1890, joining the 1st Battalion in Dublin and moving the following year to London. He spent the following seven years in and around the capital. His adjutant (a 'head boy' role responsible for the young officers) was Charles Fergusson, a fierce and terrifying man later to reach great heights, who would have seen that Wilfrid behaved himself and learned his business swiftly and well. That apart, he must have had a wonderful time.

It was a good life for anyone fortunate enough to have been born into a prosperous family when the British Empire was at the height of its confidence and prestige, and never more so than when fashionably placed in society. Military duties were humdrum, largely confined to ceremonial, administration, sport and home-grown entertainment. From time to time, there were camps for rifle shooting (described as 'musketry') and marches and manoeuvres still conducted in scarlet tunics and bearskin caps. Leave for the officers was plentiful and could amount to several months of the year so long as it was spent in developing military virtues of courage and skill in the hunting field or killing pheasant and grouse. Dinners, balls, levées and parties of all kinds were numerous. Wilfrid returned to Goldings often and there were other fine houses to visit. His fun, however, will have been much marred by the death in 1894 of both his father Robert and his uncle Philip (his mother lived until 1913).

Curiously, though he used 'Abel' as part of his surname in bookplates and elsewhere, his military records invariably show him as W.R.A. Smith. His wife was always 'Violet Smith' or 'Mrs Wilfrid'. It was the succeeding generation that first adopted 'Abel' as a matter of course. His bookplate also identifies his chosen profession as a soldier with a bearskin and a sword in the bottom right-hand corner.

Wilfrid's first service abroad came in 1897, when the 1st Grenadiers went to Gibraltar. They were refused permission to take bearskin caps. Whilst the stay cut short Wilfrid's shooting season at home, it gave him the opportunity to go after different quarry from the usual fare of pheasant, partridge, hare and rabbits. His game book records a five-day shooting expedition to Seville and the River Guadalquivir in search of bustard and geese with two fellow officers, the Hon. Edward Loch and Edward Verschoyle. Wilfrid was to write to Loch's sister, Lady Bernard Gordon Lennox, seventeen years later following the death of her husband, Lord Bernard Gordon Lennox, during the First Battle of Ypres.

Wilfrid recorded at the end of the trip:

The weather throughout was glorious, just like June, and we all enjoyed it enormously, the only blot being that Verschoyle never hit a thing the whole time. He was very seedy and had jaundice badly when we got back. We had to pay 1 Peseta for each bustard and 30 cents per goose to get them into Seville, and 10 pesetas to get them onto Gib. It was a great trouble, but they kept well and ate first rate. Total 57 Head.

The first real excitement arrived in 1898, when Wilfrid's battalion was given notice to join Kitchener's Sudan expedition, designed to bring an end to the persistent Dervish activity and to avenge the death of General Gordon in 1885. Kitchener achieved his purpose in decisive fashion. The 1st Grenadiers travelled up the Nile by rail and riverboat, arriving at Omdurman where, on 2 September, at derisory cost to the British and Egyptian force, over 10,000 Dervishes, mostly armed with primitive weapons, were mown down by rifle, machine gun and artillery fire without getting anywhere near the firing line. What part did Wilfrid play? In 1973 an account of Omdurman was published by Philip Ziegler, who asserted that, at an early point in the battle, there had been a messy and inglorious scuffle in front of the line between a Dervish and one of Kitchener's staff, 'Lt Smith of the Grenadiers'. Not so. The offending officer was Smyth of the Queen's Bays, who was rewarded with the Victoria Cross. Wilfrid was in charge of the battalion transport and looking after mules in the rear. But it must have been exciting nonetheless. Press cuttings of the campaign, including several drawings, were collected at home and Wilfrid later pasted them into an album which survives.

The following extracts from a letter that he wrote to his mother on 5 September 1898, following the fall of Khartoum, give a flavour of his experiences on the expedition:

My dearest Mother,

So it's all over and our flag is once more over the Government House at Khartoum side by side with the Egyptian flag. We had a desperate fight, it lasted five hours, and is said to be the biggest fight ever fought in the Soudan. I suppose you will want to know all about it, and as I have nothing to do and time hangs rather heavily on our hands, I will tell you a certain amount ...

At 6.45 by my watch the first shell went, and then for an hour and 50 minutes we fought. Their first line came rather to the right of my Battn. led by the Kalifa's son. As soon as they appeared the Artillery began. Their first shot went too far, the second a little short, the 3rd got them exactly over the big banner carried by the Kalifa's son. Down went the banner and Heaven knows how many men. I saw all this beautifully through my glasses, and then I had to set to work getting up ammunition, as the Battn. began to do a bit of execution. At last they retired and we got ready to advance. They never came nearer to us than 700 or 800 yards ...

The Town stinks worse than any place I could imagine, and if we stay here long I am afraid there will be a lot of sickness ...

Not long after returning home, Wilfrid was given a plum appointment as ADC (aide-de-camp: personal assistant) to the Governor of New South Wales. This was the only time he served away from his regiment and it had momentous consequences. The Governor, William Lygon, 7th Earl Beauchamp, was, at 27, younger than his own ADC. A glittering political future was forecast for him and he had been appointed to acquire some experience of public service (as it happened, it was later discovered that he was rather too fond of liveried footmen and his prospects collapsed in ruin).

How Wilfrid came by the appointment is not clear but such affairs were often handled on a personal basis and he will certainly have known Beauchamp's younger brother, Edward Lygon, a Grenadier who was fated to be killed in South Africa in May 1900. Comfortably installed at Government House in Sydney, Wilfrid was responsible for the Governor's personal and social affairs. The seating plan for a large dinner in January 1900, written in his own hand and including his own name, was on show to tourists in 2012. His time in Australia involved travels across the continent and a visit to New Zealand in March 1900. Here Wilfrid experienced the traditional welcome, the Haka. He was also able to enjoy the novel experience of shooting godwits at Onehunga, a port on the edge of Auckland.

A visitor arrived in the form of Violet Somerset, Beauchamp's cousin and the daughter of the 2nd Lord Raglan. In the beautiful gardens and Scottish baronial splendour of the Government House, she fell in love with the ADC and he with her. They were engaged on 17 September 1899. A handsome portrait was painted in Sydney of Wilfrid as a captain. Promotion could be very slow as it depended on vacancies being created by death or retirement.

Wilfrid returned home on 1 November 1900 and on 3 December he and Violet were married at Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Street, by the Reverend John Mansel-Pleydell, his brother-in-law. The honeymoon was spent at Goldings, at Longhills near Lincoln with his second brother Eustace and his family and at Normanton near Nottingham, one of the seats of the Earl of Ancaster, before they settled in London.

Violet's diary for 1901 is a delightful record of some of the joys and agonies of a young bride, as well as a few of the great events of the time: 22 January – 'Queen died at 6.30 pm. Wilfrid shot at Papplewick.' Wilfrid's game book recorded a bag of fifty-nine for the day. It was his last day of the season and his summary of it read: 'Did not get home from Australia till 1st Nov. and so got no shooting to speak of.'

Violet's husband's routine does not seem to have been more irksome than in earlier years, but when Wilfrid had to spend nights away on guard or in camp, she wrote, 'Oh how I miss him,' though he wrote to her every day and sometimes also sent a telegram. They lived quietly though many visits were made and returned and they enjoyed a variety of London entertainments. Wilfrid's younger brother, Bertram, was a frequent visitor and the two hunted together when in the country. Curiously, there is no mention of the tragic death of his eldest brother Reginald and his 13-year-old nephew Cyril (Reginald's son) in that year. There was cello in the evenings (Violet was a good pianist), piquet and even the new game 'bridge'.

He often went to work by bicycle, which did him credit in an era when an officer of the Guards was not supposed to be seen on a bus or carrying his own shopping. On occasion he would ride to Goldings while his wife travelled by train. The first evidence of their possessing a car comes in 1903, when Wilfrid's accounts show a new category of expenditure, 'Motor', starting with an entry of £179 12s paid to Locomobile Co., for the purchase of a car.

And despite the ominous news on 18 December, that 'Wilf was told that he is to take the next draft to S. Africa next month,' Violet's diary ends with, 'What a happy year 1901 has been,' followed by a memorandum, 'House-parlourmaid, Annie Smith, Bladon, £20 a year, 1/6 washing, no beer'.

On 16 January 1902, Wilfrid sailed from Southampton to South Africa to join the 3rd Battalion. The Boer War had already been running for over two years and both the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the Grenadiers had been out for most of that time. But the battles of the early months, which had often proved more painful for the British than for the Boers, were long past and the war had become a matter of manning strongpoints, blockhouses and barbed-wire lines along the railways, and launching drives to round up the Boer guerrillas while their farms were burnt and their families moved into the now notorious concentration camps.

Wilfrid's company was responsible for a part of the railway line. It attracted little attention from the hard-pressed Boers, who made peace on 1 June. Wilfrid is recorded as having left for England on 27 June, which was fortunate as the main body of the battalion was not home until October, having been away for more than three years.

In July 1903, back with the 1st Battalion, Wilfrid was appointed Captain of the King's Company, traditionally containing the tallest men in the regiment. This was a coveted post that he held until the end of 1906 and would have been approved personally by the king. One of his albums records Wilfrid being received by the king on 27 June 1905 and presented with 'a pair of Sleeve Links bearing the Badge of the Company'. In fact, the only special role for the company was to find the bearer party at a monarch's funeral and thereby attract some little glory for its captain. Wilfrid would no doubt have reflected somewhat ruefully on the timing of his tenure, which lay squarely between the deaths of Victoria in 1901 and Edward VII in 1910, but he had the consolation of a coronation medal in 1911.

During this time the family started to arrive: Ralph in 1903, Lyulph in 1905 and Sylvia in 1908. At some point they moved to Upton Lea in Slough (telephone Slough 62).

On relinquishing the King's Company at the end of 1906, Wilfrid was promoted major and went again to the 3rd Battalion. Here he stayed for eight years, until the outbreak of war in August 1914. War clouds were gathering well before that time and training had taken on a new urgency. There were reforms in the army. Fitness and discipline were further improved. Long marches were frequent. Above all, the sharp lessons taught by the Boers were learnt and shooting skills reached a level that was probably never to be surpassed. They were to be needed in spades.

Wilfrid was a meticulous man and kept detailed accounts of his income and expenditure. His first account book is dated 1883 when, aged 13, he would have started at Eton. His banker father presumably encouraged him to account for his money from an early age. The 1883 accounts itemised the money he received throughout the year, mainly from his father, which totalled £19 10s. His later accounts provide an interesting insight into the lifestyle of a Guards officer of the day. In 1907, his net army pay as a major was £411 10s 10d, an amount comparable to what a major would earn in 2015. Out of this he had to cover regimental expenses of £137 12s. These included £2 2s for a wedding present to Lord Bernard Gordon Lennox (who was to die on 10 November 1914 in the First Battle of Ypres). The net balance of his army pay covered only a small proportion of his family's living expenses, which totalled £1,568 4s 6d. A Guards officer required a significant private income. Perhaps the most surprising significant category of expenditure was 'Subscriptions' which, at £162 18s 10d, accounted for over 10 per cent of the family budget. While this included subscriptions to a large number of regimental and sporting clubs, together with The Travellers Club, nearly £100 was paid out for life insurance. Wilfrid's accounts go into great detail, itemising, under 'Sundries', numerous purchases of dog biscuits, a dog collar and chain and even a drill book, which cost 3s.


Excerpted from "From Eton to Ypres"
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Copyright © 2016 Charles Abel Smith.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents

Wilfrid's Family Tree,
1 Wilfrid's Early Days,
2 Outbreak of War and Promotion,
3 Wilfrid Takes Command of his Battalion,
4 13 October to 22 November 1914 – First Battle of Ypres,
5 December 1914 – Rest, Refit and Christmas in the Trenches,
6 January 1915 – A Miserable New Year,
7 February 1915 – Strengthening the Line at Cuinchy,
8 March 1915 – Rest in Béthune and Transfer to Givenchy,
9 April 1915 to 17 May 1915 – Strengthening the Line at Givenchy and the Emergence of New Hazards,
10 Wilfrid's Death at the Battle of Festubert,
11 Wilfrid in Memoriam,
Biographical Index,

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