The Smiths

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It has to be said, Horatio Nelson Smith is one of our favourites. We can’t help it. His name just rolls off the tongue, a splendid blend of the fantastically flamboyant and the plain ordinary. And of course, a magnificent nod to to a heroic historical figure with a local connection just a short paddle up the River Wandle. Then, there is his age. Without a birth certificate, we can’t be sure if he was sixteen or just turned seventeen when he died on the Somme at the Battle of Ginchy, but we know he was born in the third quarter of 1899. Horatio featured in an early blog post called ‘Horatio’s Columns’ the inference being to the location of his home at 53 Hazelhurst Road now close to the site of the two fourteen storey tower blocks. Since then we’ve visited his grave at Guillemont on two occasions, most recently when we attended the Somme Centenary Commemoration at Thiepval. At a time when we have just honoured the most famous boy soldier in Britain, Sidney Lewis, with a Blue Plaque, it seems appropriate to re-visit one who was only a few years older and one of the very youngest of the Summerstown182. When Chris Burge offered to try and do some more digging on him we jumped at the opportunity.

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Horatio’s father, Henry Smith was a porter and warehouseman from Kent. He married Elizabeth Fender Moor, who was of Scottish birth, in 1890 and they set up home at Ralph Street in Southwark. Their eldest child, another cracker of a name – Percival Lancelot Smith, was born the following year and Janet Fender Smith arrived two years later. Following Horatio, there were two other girls, Alice and Margaret. By 1901 the family were in Scovell Road near the Elephant and Castle. A mix of railway viaducts and tall tenements, this area was typical of late Victorian inner-city London life. It was a rough, tough and very poor overcrowded part of the city. But close to the river, its wharves and markets would have provided Henry Smith with many work opportunities. The area was badly damaged during the Blitz and by the late sixties was completely redeveloped. It would seem that for a short period at the turn of the century the Smiths relocated briefly to the Streatham/Mitcham area. School records show that both Percival and Janet attended a school there when the family lived at 8a Greyhound Terrace and Alice was born in Mitcham in 1901. It appears they were back in Southwark by the time Margaret arrived in 1905. However by 1907 they were in Tooting, beginning a lengthy association with the area south of St Mary’s Church known as The Fairlight.

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Electoral rolls show that they lived in a variety of addresses around there. One of these at 115 Fountain Road would later be associated with Thomas Port, another of the Summerstown182. They also lived at No11. Another home was at 62 Foss Road before they alighted at 53 Hazelhurst Road in 1911. The house survived the 1944 V2 rocket but not subsequent development and we think the site of it is at the southern end of a block called Newbridge Court, very close to where the roses are in the photo at the top of the page.  Henry’s job was now indicated as a ‘provisions merchant’ and Janet was working as an ironer, at one of the many local laundries. Horatio attended Fountain Road School, now Broadwater Primary. We know this because his name appears in a beautiful small bound ‘roll of honour’ notebook which is in the Wandsworth Heritage Services Archive. There is no text and it simply contains in elegant handwritten script, the names of over a hundred pupils and teachers who served in the First World War. Amongst these are twenty one written in red ink who didn’t come back. One of them is a Smith H.N.

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There was no sign of Percival Lancelot Smith at Hazelhurst Road. His calling, perhaps inspired by his father’s choice of name for his younger brother, was the high seas. He had joined the navy the previous year and signed up for 12 years of service. A few months before Horatio was killed he was a stoker on HMS Canada at the Battle of Jutland. His naval career spanned almost 25 years and continued after his marriage in 1930. He had three children and we will be trying to contact the family to see if they can tell us any more about Great Uncle Horatio.

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When war broke out in August 1914, Horatio was fourteen going on fifteen. With a big brother now well-established in the navy, its easy to see how like Sidney Lewis, he must have been keen to get a piece of the action. His service records have been lost so Chris has once again interpreted his movements by studying those of other men with similar service numbers. Horatio’s ‘Soldiers who Died in the Great War’ listing gives a few clues. It tells us that he was initially in the 7th London Regiment, one of a number who were known as ‘The Shiny Seventh’. It also indicates that he enlisted at Sun Street. This was the administrative centre and he very likely actually signed up in Hammersmith. His service number suggests the date he joined as being around April 1915 when he was still 15 and that he was part of a group that were trained but kept on home territory in reserve. Did his parents know this was happening? The pay would have been handy or perhaps they thought it was OK as long as he wasn’t being sent overseas. Maybe like the parents of Sidney Lewis they never knew. His medal card indicates that he didn’t go to France until the following year when the acute need for manpower would have made his age irrelevant in the eyes of the war machine – he was now a trained soldier ready to be thrown into the fight.

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Two young soldiers whose numbers are very close to Horatio’s were Arthur Wass and Robert Callaby, both underage and sent home from France. Arthur Wass had volunteered on 30th April 1915 joining the 3/7th London Regiment. He went to France just four months later but was returned two months after that. His true age in August 1915 was 14 years and eleven months. Robert Callaby joined the same battalion on 3rd May 1915 and was sent to France in December. He was returned to England on 2nd March after his mother had written to say he was underage. He was fifteen. This letter written on 14th January 1916, probably very similar to the one written by Fanny Lewis, gives a fascinating insight into prevailing attitudes. The papers shown here are held in The National Archives.

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On 23rd April 1916, St George’s Day, Horatio was transfered to the 4th London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers) and was now right in line for the great Somme attack on the morning of 1st July at a place called Gommecourt. In the ‘War History of the 4th Battalion The London Regiment’ by Captain Clive Grimwade, published in 1922, the author describes the conclusion of that disastrous day. ‘So ended the first day on which the 56th Division had been in battle, a day on which after the most stubborn fighting and unsurpassed devotion the gain of ground was nil, and which dealt London the severest blow in loss of personnel that it ever suffered on any single day throughout the War’. From a strength of 32 officers and 890 other ranks only 7 officers and 356 men answered the roll. Such was the decimation of the regiment that they were out of action until the first week of September when Horatio returned to the front line at Leuze Wood. It was here that Horatio, sixteen going on seventeen, was killed on 9th September 1916 in the Battle of Ginchy. Fighting alongside Horatio but further up the line were the 16th Irish Divsion, who on the same day he was killed famously captured the village of Ginchy.

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Leuze Wood, known to the troops as ‘Lousy Wood’ occupied an important position providing protection to the approaches of Guillemont and Ginchy. Bouleaux Wood was a narrow north-eastern adjunct to the wood, its undergrowth well-furnished with German barbed wire and defensive posts. Clear evidence of the wood’s importance was shown during Sir Douglas Haig’s visit to Fourth Army HQ on the afternoon of 4th September when he made clear that the capture of the wood and nearby high ground was of the utmost urgency. Captain Grimwade’s account recalls how the day began for the 4th Battalion. ‘The morning of 9th September dawned mistily but by 10 o’clock the suns rays had dispersed the haze and disclosed to the enemy the new earth thrown up in front of our hastily dug assembly trenches’. The Germans knew something was up and unleashed a ferocious bombardment. Whether Horatio ever made it out of the trench we’ll never know, but what followed in the attack was chaos and confusion, with many men being killed by their own barrage. Commonwealth War Grave Commission documents show that Horatio was originally buried at a location in front of Bouleaux Wood. He was laid to rest alongside several other unidentified men and an officer. At the end of the war his remains were moved to nearby Guillemont Road Cemetery.

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This now contains 2,263 graves of whom only 740 have been identified. It was greatly increased after the Armistice when graves including almost all those of July-September 1916 were brought in from the battlefields immediately surrounding the village. A notable resident is Raymond Asquith, the son of the Prime Minister, who was killed just a week later. His Times obituary, written four days later described him as ‘a man of brilliant promise’ and the inscription on his headstone reads ‘Small time but in that small most greatly lived this star of England’ from Shakespeare’s Henry V. Heroic stuff, but lets be honest, he didn’t have as great a name as Horatio Nelson Smith.

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After the war, Horatio’s family moved to 116 Smallwood Road, another house which no longer exists. They were there until at least 1939. Horatio’s mother passed away in 1949 at the age of 87. Percival Lancelot Smith married Dorothy Stallard in Portsmouth in 1930. He had three children and died in 1979. Call us sentimental fools, but we’ve got a vision that perhaps on his wedding day, Percival cast a glance at HMS Victory and raised a glass to the memory of his gallant younger brother.

Many thanks to Chris Burge for researching the story of Horatio Nelson Smith.

https://archive.org/stream/warhistoryof4thb00grim#page/n0/mode/2up