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1798: William Percy Smith (photograph)

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posted on 2024-01-16, 13:47 authored by Lest We Forget Project Team

Sue Faulding in conversation with her mother, Nora Faulding, recalled Nora’s father, William Percy Smith. Sadly Nora Faulding, who lived at ‘The Beeches’ in Menston, died September 2018, a few weeks after sharing these memories.

William Percy Smith (known to family and friends as ‘Percy’) was born November 4 1897/8 near Pickering in the North Riding of Yorkshire. He enlisted as a member of the Royal Garrison Artillery in 1915/6. His daughter kept a brass button polishing stick with the embossed initials ‘RGA’. William had altered his birth certificate to appear older than he was, because he was keen to serve with men from his local area. After training William Smith was sent to serve in the trenches at Vimy Ridge, in northern France.

Nora said: "When many years later we visited the Western Front we could not understand how anyone could have lived in such conditions. They lived in the tunnels that had been dug under the ridge. My Dad told us that they killed the lice in their clothes by running a lighted match down the seams. All the soldiers smoked and so they had matches. He recalled playing football with German soldiers from the opposite front line one Christmas morning."

William Smith was injured, both from a gas attack in the tunnels and from an exploding mine; he would carry shrapnel in his arm and chest for the rest of his life. He was transferred back to England. Once back across the Channel, all the injured soldiers were lined up in rows on the platform at a station in southern England to be put on trains for transfer to different parts of the country.

Nora said: "My Dad heard a Yorkshire accent and called out, asking if he could be put on a train going to Yorkshire. He managed it, but had to leave his bed and kit on the platform. He was transferred to a military hospital on Fulford Road in York.

Later in 1924, he married my mother, a seamstress from Scarborough, and they farmed in North Yorkshire for many years. My three sisters and I were brought up on farms. I am the oldest and was born in 1925."

William and Ida Smith farmed in several places in North Yorkshire, including at Cloughton, about four miles from Scarborough and at Goathland where Nora was born in 1925. Later they had a farm in Tockwith, nearer York, which is the one I remember from when I was a child.

Nora said: "I remember my father coughing every morning. We knew when he had got up as we could hear the coughing. My mother said he had been gassed in the underground trenches in France, and it had damaged his lungs. We were told to leave him alone until the coughing stopped."

I recall that my grandfather talked about being gassed in the tunnels, and that it left him with long term lung damage and a distinctive cough. As a little girl I was both horrified and fascinated by the coughing, and by the little pot he used to catch the phlegm. However, leading an active outdoor life did enable William Smith to survive into his seventies, much longer than many former soldiers who had endured the gas attacks of World War I.

Note: In February 1916 the British XVII Corps, under Lieutenant General Sir Julian Byng, relieved the French Tenth Army in the sector that included the German-held escarpment, Hill 145, Vimy Ridge. This ridge, a long high escarpment that dominates the surrounding Douai plain, had been the focus of Allied attacks in 1914 and 1915 that had cost many thousands of casualties, and had been largely unsuccessful. The British knew that the Germans had built an extensive network of tunnels and deep mines, and so the Royal Engineers deployed specialist tunnelling companies along this section of the Front, and these tunnelling operations continued throughout the exceptionally cold winter of 1916-17. The men in the trenches that winter endured extreme hardship. The Allies dug tunnels beneath the German lines and set large caches of explosives to be detonated when the time for the attack came. Elaborate tunnel systems with train tracks, piped water, lights, and huge underground bunkers to stockpile supplies and arms were established. Twenty kilometres of tunnel were built, sufficient to protect the 24,000 troops being moved up to the front line. The task of taking Vimy Ridge was allotted to the Canadian Divisions, but they were supported by British Artillery and by the 51st Highland Division. The battle of Vimy Ridge was fought 9-12 April 1917, and is noted as ‘Canada’s most celebrated military victory’.

During the battle the 6 inch guns of William Smith’s British regiment, the Royal Garrison Artillery, were fired from behind the Canadian lines towards the German trenches. The most important tactical innovation used in this battle was the rolling barrage. Early in the war, when soldiers attacked a position, the artillery would bombard that position and then stop so that the soldiers could run over and take it. However, this caused problems, as often the time between the bombardment and when the soldiers actually arrived on the position allowed the defenders time to get prepared for the attack, and inflict devastating casualties on the attackers. The rolling barrage meant that the soldiers advanced at the same time as the bombardment. At Vimy, the artillery moved forward 90 metres every three minutes. Moving forward with his artillery unit would have made William Smith more vulnerable to exploding mines.

The Allies needed to take this high ground to protect the northern flank of the Arras front in the large offensive that would be known as the Battle of Arras, also begun Easter Monday, 9th April. By the close of the fourth day the Ridge had been taken, but at a heavy cost. 100,000 Canadians had taken part, and 10,000 had become casualties, nearly 3,600 of which were fatal.

History

Name of contributor(s)

Sue Faulding

Subject of the story/individual the object(s) relate to

William Percy Smith

Date(s) the event(s) in the story took place

1917

Location(s) where the event(s) in the story took place

Vimy Ridge

Object(s)

Photograph of William Smith in uniform.

Community Collection Day

St. John's Parish Room, Menston, Ilkley (03/11/18)

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