Monday, 3 November 2008

Charlie Smith in the Machine Gun Corps

Image © and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin

Some time ago Nigel Aspdin sent me this postcard photograph of a family member, Charles Sydney Smith, who served in the Machine Gun Corps (British/Imperial, rather than Canadian) during the Great War. Charlie was born in 1890 in Nottingham, son of a bank clerk John Bywater Smith (1847-1897) and Mary Ann Woolley. After his father died in 1897, they moved to Derby, where he married Beatrice Slater in 1915. In the outdoors portrait, he is shown in the uniform of a British officer, the cap badge identifying him as a member of the Machine Gun Corps, and mounted on a horse. The lower margin of the photograph is annotated, "France. May 1916," while the reverse, shown below, has a lengthier message to his wife.

Image © and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin

Darling little girlie,
What do you think of this photo, it is not very good as my horse won't keep still. Hope the measles are OK. We move up into the trenches to-day. Weather is A.1. Want a letter from you and can't get one. Will write if possible to-night, hope to get leave after this spell in the trenches, but will let you know in plenty of time.
All my love
This would be an interesting photograph to research on its own, and it was sitting in my "to do" file, waiting for a suitable moment. However, yesterday, while browsing photographs for sale on eBay, I came across a listing of a postcard which seemed rather familiar:

It seems an extraordinary coincidence, but this photograph was taken at exactly the same spot as the one of Charlie Smith, albeit that the shutter on the window has been raised and a woman stands in the previously empty doorway. The eBay listing states that it is inscribed on the reverse, "Dick 21.6.16," so it appears to have been taken just over a month later. Unfortunately, my meagre funds allowed for eBay purchases won't stretch to this one. I presume the photographer's studio was located in the vicinity of the yard.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission web site and database show that Major Charles Sydney Smith of the Machine Gun Corps, and husband of Beatrice Smith of 3 Wheeldon Avenue, Derby, died on 28 November 1918 at the age of 28, and was buried at the Nottingham Road Cemetery in Derby (Grave/Memorial Ref. 3872 (C.)). It also states that he was awarded the Military Cross, and was mentioned in dispatches. The Nottingham Road Cemetery, which featured in a recent article, "contains 193 First World War burials and 134 from the Second World War. There is a small war graves plot of about 40 burials from both wars, the rest of the graves are scattered throughout the cemetery."

Image © National Archives and courtesy of

His medal card shows that he arrived in France on 11 March 1916, but there is sadly little else to show what he was doing between then and his death in November 1918, shortly after the war had ended.


  1. Your blog is outstanding!

    Here is the url of the blog from the Archives of the Sandusky Library, if you would like to take a look:

  2. Thank you for your kind comments. Your work in making the photographs and archives of the Sandusky Library available to the public via the net is important and, I'm sure, appreciated by those who are from that area. Regards, Brett

  3. Finding that photo on Ebay and matching it with the one I had sent you many months ago has whetted my appetite to go digging again among Charlie Smith’s papers, and in particular the many hundreds of letters he sent home to his wife. Each time I read a letter again I seem to see a small point I have missed before. I thought it would be fun to try to work out exactly where that photograph was taken, an impossible task you may initially assume. Letters never gave the address of course, and although envelopes have Field Post Office marks, they are helpful only when correspondence suddenly starts coming with a differing FPO number, indicating a change of location. However the fact that location changed was generally mentioned in the letter anyway.

    My first big clue was that on Thursday May 11th 1916 he wrote (extracts):

    97 MGC
    BEF France
    Thursday 11th

    Dear Little Girl.................................We had another field day
    this morning..............I took my section with 4 do some
    firing at about 300yds range.................................I had my guns
    just on the edge of an open track and was busy with them when I saw a large
    cavalcade of horsemen approaching down it with Union Jacks, lance pennants
    etc fluttering in the wind, and who should it be but Sir Douglas Haig. He
    pulled up his retinue about 100 strong and asked who was in command of the
    party I said I was and gave him a pucker salute and talked to him for about
    5 minutes. He asked me about my work, the men etc, gave me a hearty
    handshake from his horse, wished me good luck and they moved on. He had Sir
    Ian Hamilton with him and other big bugs, rather swanky eh? shaking hands and
    having a chat with the CIC..........................

    Now....if I can find out where Haig was on that day I know where Charlie Smith was too! And that information is not going to be an impossible task. Surely history has documented the daily location of the Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, blamed by some commentators for the 420,000 casualties under his command in pushing the German front line back 7 miles?

    I know from letters in the subsequent days that Charlie was pretty static at the time. Sunday May 14: “.......News here is at a premium as we are still in the same old rest billets.......” Monday May 15: “ enclosing you two groups [photos] which I have just got and expect one of me on my horse and some more will be ready tomorrow................they are not really bad are they considering they are taken by an amateur female professional if you can understand me..........?

    I know you know I like a good challenge Brett. I certain plan to be calling in at this farmhouse on my way to my French vacation next July!!


  4. Some months later, I find myself in Normandy looking at June 1944 history when I suddenly receive a message out of the blue from a Great War Forum member who has transcribed Haig’s diaries, and he offers me the following clues I have been waiting for:

    Quote email:
    Hi Nigel,
    Attached is the diary for 11 May 1916. This is transcribed from the original handwritten manuscript diary at the NLS, and as is my usual practice I've retained DH's somewhat idiosyncratic and inconsistent abbreviations.

    As you'll see, DH was moving about a lot on the day in question. However, as your man was with the 97 MGC, which was part of 32 Division, it's reasonable to
    suppose that DH came across him deployed somewhere in the vicinity of 32 Division's HQ, which DH gives as being at Senlis. However, as DH says he motored to Senlis from Hedouville and your man's diary is clear that DH was riding, I would suggest that the two probably met somewhere in the vicinity of Hedouville, to which location DH says he rode with his escort, and which was adjacent to 32 Division's positions around Senlis. Your diarist also mentions
    Sir Ian Hamilton as being part of DH's entourage but this is clearly a case of mistaken identity, as DH identifies the senior offcers accompanying him as Generals Rawlinson and Kiggell.

    Hope this is of some interest so far as narrowing down a little your ancestors location on that day.
    End quote email.

    Continued in next comment

  5. Haig Diary (manuscript) 11 May 1916

    Thursday 11 May
    Glass fell slightly, but day kept up.
    I arrived at by motor at Toutencourt about 10. This H.Q. Xth Corps. I went into details of the proposed action of the Corps with Gen. Morland. Sir H. Rawlinson (commanding Fourth Army), and Gens. Kiggell and Davidson (from G.H.Q.) were with me. General Morland thoroughly understands the nature of the operation, and will do well I feel sure. He is quite satisfied with his G.O.C. Divns. And with all his Brigadiers except possibly one.
    I went on to Harpouville where our horses met us. I rode round the Battalions of the 100th Bde – Br. Genl. T. Hickman (M.P. for Wolverhampton). This belongs to the Ulster Divn. (36th) – Some of them rather weak and no prospects apparently of getting recruits in Ireland. Hickman served with me in S. Africa and is an old man for the command of a Brigade in war. He told me that he thought that the importance of his duties in Parliament would necessitate his going. I merely said that he had done his duty in raising and training his Brigade, and that his work in Parliament seemed now to be of very great importance to the Country.
    I rode across country to Headouville, H.Q. of 36th div. – I went through the proposed operation of the Div. with M-Gen. Nugent, commander. I thought his plan, which included movements to a flank under fire, too complicated; and told him that, even at a peace manoeuvres, such an operation usually miscarried! Genl. Morland quite realises this, and will modify it.
    I motored to Senlis, H.Q. 32nd Div. And saw Gen. Rycroft and his Staff. In explaining his projects Gen. R. seems to show more imagination of the real situation than some of the other Divl. Generals.
    We lunched by the roadside and then motored to Henencourt the H.Q. of the 8th Divn., Major Gen. Hudson. Two of his Brigadiers were present (Gordon & Pollard); and we discussed his operations. Pollard was wounded last October when handing over Loos to a French Genl...the latter was killed. The shell entered the dug out and killed the Bde. Major of our 3rd Bde., Terry – a capable officer. Pollard has recently returned after being laid up for six months.

    At Warloy we got our horses again and rode round some of the Battns. Of the 96th Bde. [which] were at training. Bd-Gen. Yatman rode with me.
    At Contay Br. Gen. Jardine commanding 97 Bde. met us. I saw some bombing carried out by a detatchment of the Y.L.I. under a young officer who had got his command from the Coldstream Gds. He joined as a private immediately war was declared and came to France in the 4th Gds. Bde. under my command. I saw the Parson of the Divn. at Contay. He had given up his vicarage at Carlisle to come out. A fine patriotic old man. My brother Bee met me at Contay. He is regimental Transport Officer with the First Battn. Dorset regt. He has been taking the rations down to the Battn. in the trenches at night, and seemed quite happy feeling he was doing his duty. V. Hard work for a man 4 years older than me!
    We next motored to Montigny H.Q. III Corps – Genl. Pulteney. He seemed v. fit and cheery, but after listening to his views on the proposed operations of his Corps I feel that he had quite reached the limits of his capacity as a commander. A plucky leader of a Brigade or a Division, he has not studied his profession sufficient to be really a good Corps comr.
    We got back to my advanced H.Q. about 6 p.m.



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