Ben and George Smith: Brothers-in-Arms

Introduction and Identification
Having done a few of the guys in quick succession, I decided that I would take a break from the Great Wyrley fallen soldiers to cover something different; however, I then realised that it was actually approaching the centenary of one of the chaps, so I changed my mind and I am sure people appreciate why. To be honest it wasn’t just the centenary that tweaked my interest, but also the fact that a second ‘Smith’ was recorded on the fallen plaque and this ‘Smith’ puzzled me. If you take a look at the photograph below there is something strange about it: if you didn’t spot it, Thomas Smith appears on the plaque above George. The plaques only have one other instance where alphabetical order is not observed, which is Theodore Bason (in this case by surname) – so why is Thomas out of order?

George Henry Smith and a Thomas Smith on the Wyrley Gates. 2014.

George Henry Smith and a Thomas Smith on the Wyrley Gates. 2014. Remember to click on photos to enlarge,

No prizes for my regular readers in guessing where this is going, but the thought of an error in some way popped into my mind. I took a look at the first of my corroborative sources, the stalwart of correctness that is the Great Wyrley Methodist Chapel plaque. It had a George H Smith and a Benjamin Smith – also, ironically, in reverse alphabetical order. So George H Smith seemed to be accurate, but the other ‘Smith’ was still unclear.

The Smith boys on the Great Wyrley Methodist plaque. (1928). 2014.

The Smith boys on the Great Wyrley Methodist plaque. (1928). 2014.

I next turned to the Staffordshire Roll of Honour: this was compiled in February 1926 by the Staffordshire War Memorials Committee and contains all the Staffordshire war memorials and the names upon them. The roll had two ‘Smiths’ under the Great Wyrley entry, in correct alphabetical order: the first was a B Smith, a Sapper in the Royal Engineers; the second was a GH Smith, simply marked as of being of Private rank. To add to the confusion, Cheslyn Hay also had a B Smith and a G Smith; however, according to the Roll these were assigned to the South Staffordshire Regiment and so may not be anything to do with our Smiths.

The 1926 Staffordshire Roll of Honour for Gt Wyrley - showing a H Withnall. (Walsall Local History Centre)

The 1926 Staffordshire Roll of Honour for Gt Wyrley – showing a GH Smith and a B Smith.
(Walsall Local History Centre)

All-in-all, as far as Great Wyrley is concerned, I was satisfied that I was looking for a George H Smith. Thomas Smith did appear to me to be an error, but what was likely to in fact be a Benjamin Smith could wait for another day – that was until not only did I find the proof I needed that it was Benjamin, but that these men were in fact brothers. The coup de graces came in the form of a newspaper account and the applications for the 1917 Great Wyrley Roll of Honour: there were entries for both a George and a Benjamin, which were clearly written by the same person and at the same time.

The applications for entry on the Gt Wyrley Roll of Honour for Benjamin and George Henry Smith, 1917. The handwriting is the same. (Staffordshire Record Office)

The applications for entry on the Gt Wyrley Roll of Honour for Benjamin and George Smith, 1917. The handwriting is comparable.
(Staffordshire Record Office)

So, not only did it seem silly to cover much of the same family background in two articles, but it felt far more fitting to tell their stories, at least what we know of them, together…

The Smith Boys: Early Life
The boys were children of the very elusive Benjamin and Sarah Smith. Due to fluctuating ages on the census and a common surname, all we really know of them prior to 1871 is that that they were born in the Tipton area, likely in Princes End and Bloomfield, sometime between 1847 and 1850. We cannot, with ease and certainty, trace a marriage for them. What we can say with certainty is that they were clearly a devoted couple, as they set about making ‘Smith’ the most popular of surnames all on their own 🙂 .

In 1869 the couple are in the Tipton area, as Thomas, the first of their children, is born there around that year. Isaac, the second of the children, followed in 1871. Sarah, the eldest of the daughters, was born in the Tipton area around 1876. She was followed by two more boys, John around 1878 and Charles around 1880, both of which were born in the Tipton area.

The census of 1881 shows that the family were living in a courtyard house in Tibbington Terrace. Tibbington was then its own hamlet between Princes End and Bloomfield. Benjamin Smith was described as being a mill furnace-man, which is not surprising as Tibbington was surrounded by various iron works. The 12 year-old Thomas was described as being a scholar. The household was made-up with a 19 year-old lodger, who also worked in an iron works.

Benjamin junior was born around 1883 in Princes End, but within a few years the family had relocated to Churchbridge and it is here that George Henry is born around 1886 and his younger sister, Comfort, in 1888. In 1891 they are living on the Walsall Road. Father, Benjamin, is still an iron worker, along with his eldest sons, Thomas and Isaac. It is possible that the 13 year-old John is, too (having left school by this age). It is possible that they all worked at Gilpin’s, as they lived very close to the Robin Hood pub and the Gilpin works.

The 1891 census for the Smith family in Churchbridge. (National Archives)

The 1891 census for the Smith family in Churchbridge.
(National Archives)

Things would change for the family in the tail end of 1900, when Benjamin Smith senior passed away at the age of 55 (if that is correct). Shortly after, the 21 year-old Charles Smith would marry Mary Ann Muckley and move into a house in New Street, Bridgtown. Several members of the family would join him there, although Charles was listed as head of the house. Sarah, his mother, along with Thomas, Benjamin, George and Comfort would reside in Bridgtown in 1901; all of the boys were described as being in the ‘iron’ profession, although Ben and George would be just ‘general labourers’. Isaac, Sarah and John have all flown the nest.

1901 census for the Smith family, now in Bridgtown after the death of Ben senior. (National Archives)

1901 census for the Smith family, now in Bridgtown after the death of Benjamin senior.
(National Archives)

By 1911, the family have dispersed further. Around 1908, Charles Smith moved back into Churchbridge (near the Robin Hood) with his now extensive family.  Charles now had six children, but still managed to find room in his house for his 27 year-old brother, George Henry, to lodge. Both Charles and George Henry were axle-forgers, which does suggest that they were employed at Gilpin’s to me. George Henry was unmarried and would remain that way.

George Henry Smith lodging with his brother in Churchbridge, 1911. (National Archives)

George Henry Smith lodging with his brother in Churchbridge, 1911.
(National Archives)

Benjamin would marry on the other hand. In 1905, sister Comfort had married a John Henry Mann. She  would have moved to Queen Street in Cheslyn Hay and gone on to have four children by the time that Benjamin married John’s sister, Florence Mann, in late 1910. Ben was seven years her senior and they wasted little time in having a family with their first child, William Henry, being born in early 1911. The family were at this time living on the Walsall Road in Bridgtown. Ben was a stall man – a coal miner in effect – and we know that prior to the War he was working at the Leacroft Colliery. Benjamin’s mother is living with the family, as is his eldest brother Thomas, who is now 42, unmarried and seemingly, without an occupation.

Benjamin Smith on the 1911 census. (National Archives)

Benjamin Smith on the 1911 census.
(National Archives)

As an aside, in July 1911 we know that a Benjamin Smith from Churchbridge caused a scene in the White Lion Inn, for which he was ordered to pay 20s costs for being drunk and disorderly. Smith refused to quit the pub when landlord Phineas Clarke asked him to do so and ended-up using foul language and assaulting two customers, breaking a tooth of one. If it is our Benjamin, and it seems likely, before we judge I would like to point out that his son, William Henry, died around this time and the death or a period of sickness prior to it may have been a contributing factor.

Florence would deliver the couple’s second and last child in the mid-months of 1912. Baby Florence was to be a blessing no doubt, having lost William Henry. Sadly, baby Florence would know nothing of a natural family life: her mother died when she was a year-old (Florence senior was just 23 years-old), and within a year of that her father would have left for war, never to return.

The War: George Henry Smith
Before we start, George Henry Smith has no surviving war records, so like many of the Wyrley fallen, his military career is cobbled together from what little there is that is easily available.

We know from his casualty record that George Henry Smith attested at Norton Canes, but we have no idea when. His medal card places him in France on 19 January 1915, as a part of the 1st battalion of the Grenadier Guards – the premier Guards regiment of the army. We know that his military number was 17417, which we know was allocated to him (in the Grenadier Guards) within the first couple of weeks that war had been declared. I cannot believe that George would have attested, actually been called-up, trained (in a period where thousands were attesting every day) and landed in France within five months unless he had already had some military training: George may well have been a Special Reservist or a former Territorial, recalled to the colours.

George Henry Smith's medal card, showing he landed in France on 19 Jan 1915. (National Archives)

George Henry Smith’s medal card, showing he landed in France on 19 Jan 1915.
(National Archives)

Whether George Henry was once in the Grenadier Guards or had once attested at Norton Canes into Colonel Harrison’s 2nd North Midland Field Company like his brother, we may not know. Whichever, there maybe a good reason for a transfer to the Guards if he were not a Grenadier originally: the 1st Battalion had landed in France in October 1914 as a part of the 7th Division and had been rushed to action at Ypres, where it had been cut to pieces stopping the German advances and flanking manoeuvres as the trench systems became established during the ‘race to the sea’. Simply put, the Battalion needed men quickly to bring it back to operational strength.

Whenever George joined up with his battalion, he was certainly in the Artois region of France in March 1915. George, the 1st Grenadiers and the 7th Division would be swept-up in the planned assault at Neuve Chappelle. The battle was designed at simply punching, then exploiting a hole in the German lines. It opened on the 10 March and despite the poor weather conditions the early stages of the battle went well: the RFC had aerial superiority and the German wire was destroyed by bombardment. An assault on the right by the infantry followed, which swept past the German front-line trenches but was stopped south of the Port Arthur–Neuve Chapelle road. In the centre, Neuve Chapelle itself was captured. The advance on the left had been held-up by stubborn resistance. On 12 March, the Germans launched a counter-attack which failed, but forced the British to exhaust their artillery ammunition causing the abandonment of the offensive on the 13 March.

The Neuve Chappelle area at the time of the battle. (Times)

The Neuve Chappelle area at the time of the battle.
(The Times)

George would be killed in the offensive and although the 10 March is given in some records, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and other sources have his death dated as somewhere between 10 and 13 March – the dates of the Neuve Chapelle offensive. His body was interred somewhere then moved into the Canadian Cemetery No2 at Neuville – St Vlaast (Vimy Ridge) at a later date.

He was awarded the 1915 Star, British War and Victory medals , which were sent to mother, Sarah. The disbursement of his property is interesting upon his death, he left instruction for it to be divided between several of his family: his mother, brothers Charles and Ben and sisters Sarah and Comfort. His only testament in the newspapers was a line at the end of Benjamin’s story, which can be seen below.

The War: Benjamin Smith
Benjamin appears to have been a Territorial prior to the War, but it is actually a little uncertain as to whether he was. Unlike brother George, a little of Benjamin’s war record survives – although it is clearly much damaged.

Benjamin signed-up for the 2nd North Midland Field Company, Royal Engineers, which was a Territorial Force. This field company had been raised from 1908 onwards (when the Territorials were formed) by Colonel Harrison, owner of the Cannock Chase Colliery Company and so the Great Wyrley Colliery no3 (known locally as Harrison’s). Indeed, he raised the company, by hook-or-by-crook, although not exclusively, from many of his own employees. He used a property he owned, Norton Hall (in Norton Canes), as the drill hall.

Benjamin attested at Norton Canes, the Company HQ. His original attestation is too damaged to date, but appears to have been signed-off in December 1914. There are, however, problems with this date, the first of which is that the age of this 5′ 11″ man was given as nearly 27, which would actually date the attestation to around 1909. Secondly, he gave his address as 82 New Street, Bridgtown: the census shows us that Benjamin was in New St on the 1901 census, but had left by 1911. Finally, his number was 740, but later also given as 1566 – so it is possible that he returned to the Force in December 1914, which is when his service is calculated from in his war record.

Attestation into the 2nd North Midland Field Company, RE for Benjamin Smith - the New St address and age place this prior to the Dec 1914 date from which his service is calculated from. (National Archives)

Attestation into the 2nd North Midland Field Company, RE for Benjamin Smith – the New St address and age place this prior to the Dec 1914 date from which his service is calculated from.
(National Archives)

He doesn’t appear on the nominal roll for the Company taken at Luton in September 1914, so we can assume that he hadn’t joined or returned to the Force at that point. The Cannock Advertiser later stated that he actually joined-up in the November, rather than the December on his war record. Whichever, as a Territorial, he must have agreed to serve abroad at some point, as he could not be compelled to do so. Benjamin’s unit became the 2/1 North Midland Field Company at some point before the Company, a part of the 46th (North Midland) Division, would embark for France. Benjamin’s medal card states that he landed in France on the 1 March 1915, just a few days prior to brother George’s death.

The 2/1 North Midlands Company became the 468 Field Company. The Division moved into Belgium, to the Ypres area to be more precise, although the 468 Field Company may have been attached to the General Headquarters. Things are a little vague from this point, as his war record is so damaged and that we are unsure of his actual location. Significantly, Benjamin could have been in the Ypres region when the Second Battle of Ypres broke-out on 22 April 1915.

Brief medical notes on Benjamin, May - Aug 1915. (National Archives)

Service notes on Benjamin for Dec 1914 – Aug 1915.
(National Archives)

Significant, as this month-long battle saw the first use of poison gas by the Germans on the Western Front. At some point in May 1915, Benjamin had reported sick. On 22 May 1915, he was evacuated back to England. His damaged records are difficult to decipher, but it appears he was ‘sent over’ with ‘bronchitis’. It isn’t clear as to where he was sent, but he remained in the hospital until the 16 July. TB was later suspected, but it really isn’t clear. Things took a turn for the worst and he was moved to the Devonshire Hospital in Buxton on the 16 July 1915. Here, after a running battle with high temperature, joint swelling, chest pains, twitching of the limbs, fluid on the lungs and eventual paralysis, he died on the 16 August 1915. It would be reported in the Cannock Advertiser as death from the effects of gassing, which is possible as chlorine gas poisoning attacks the respiratory system and several symptoms do seem to be present within the damaged medical notes.

He was buried in Buxton Cemetery with full military honours on 20 August. The funeral was attended by his mother, who now lived in Low St in Cheslyn Hay, as well as his brother Charles, sister Comfort and daughter Florence. A detachment from his old regiment made-up the firing party. A wreath was laid and the events were ‘watched by a large concourse of people’. He was awarded the 1915 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. Effects amounting to over £16 were sent on to his brother, Charles.

Benjamin's death as reported in the Cannock Advertiser. George is mentioned, too.  (Cannock Library)

Benjamin’s death as reported in the Cannock Advertiser. George is mentioned, too.
(Cannock Library)

And so the second of the brothers died. Both had signed-up as the War opened and both were shipped to France quickly, likely as they had both had previous service or skills to be utilised. Both were to last just a matter of weeks; George being killed in action, Benjamin through gas or a respiratory illness.

There is no real epilogue to this; with a name like Smith and the lack of a later census it is difficult to follow the family from then on, without purchasing a plethora of certificates on hope alone.

The original purpose of this article was to tell George’s story a century on; however, after investigation, it also became Benjamin’s story and the highlighting of another error on the Great Wyrley plaques. Funny, but with these closing few lines, I find my thoughts turning from them to little Florence and the fact that, while more than likely dead herself, this is her story, too.

In memory of George, Benjamin… and little Florence

With Thanks to:
Cannock Library
The Times
Walsall Local History Centre
Staffordshire Record Office
National Archives

Birmingham University and Andrew Thornton
Long, Long Trail

  1. Flanders Field says:

    Another very well researched and written article. As my mother’s maiden name was Smith you have my respect for taking on such a task, needles in haystacks is child’s-play compared to researching ‘Smith’.

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