Norman Smith – WW1 survivor, hero and medallist

2018 was the centenary of the end of World War 1 and I carried out extensive research into trying to identify the names of soldiers with a Netherthong connection, who had fought in that war and survived. The chapter titled “Netherthong- details of soldiers who fought and survived WW1” was the result. I managed to find 163 survivors one of whom was Norman Smith and I was fortunate to find a few details about him and the fact that he was awarded a medal for bravery. Then, in January 2020, I was contacted by Chris Earnshaw, his grandson, who sent me some photographs and ephemera. He also mentioned that his grandfather had written his memoirs about his experiences during the war. This was sufficient justification for me to give Norman this his own chapter.

  He was born in Oldfield in 1895 and, until he was 15, he  lived all his life in Netherthong and attended the National School ( see his school attendance record for 1908 ) before he moved to Longwood.. His name appears on the Parish Church ROH as a Corporal in the 1/5 Battalion of the Duke of Wellington 49th. West Riding Regiment, who enlisted as a private on 19th.December 1914 and went to France in June 1915. During his service he was promoted to Corporal. When he was 21 he was awarded the Military Medal and ribbon for gallantly rescuing a comrade on the battlefield under fire. After the war he lived in Longwood, Linthwaite and Cowlersley/ Milnsbridge. The Golcar District Heroes’ Fund recognized his meritorious conduct by presenting him with a solid gold ten- guinea English- made watch ( see photo below ). In circa 1978 at the age of 83 he wrote  about his experiences as a Corporal in the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment and these memoirs are held as Catalogue No. KX212 in Kirklees West Yorkshire Archive Service. The photographs and ephemera were supplied by Chris Earnshaw ( January 2020).

Norman Smith in uniform
Norman Smith with his medals
Greetings card sent by Norman to his mother
Norman Smith School Attendance 1908

Reverse of the watch presented by Golcar District Heroes Fund.
A group of Norman’s pals – Wilson and Maurice marked. The x is Norman.

A soldier pal of Norman called Sid James.
Photo of four of Norman’s pals – one marked Joe Taylor.

In June 1986 the Huddersfield Daily Examiner carried an article about Norman’s memoirs of his experiences during the war. As they filled about 50 pages, the reporter, obviously limited by how many column inches he was allowed , used a combination of what he considered key points and quoted sections of Norman’s own words. There are a number of anomalies in the report particularly over dates.

I’ve included the article below.

The horrendous conditions endured by soldiers in the trenches of the battlegrounds of France during WW1 are graphically portrayed in the memoirs of a Huddersfield man. The writings of Mr. Norman Smith have only just come to light four years after his death at the age of 84. They were discovered by his daughter, Mary, at their family home for the last 58 years in Cowlersley. For four years before his death Norman had chronicled his memories of WW1. He was born in Scholes in 1895 and was the son of a weaver. He enlisted in December 1914 and during the next four years he was to witness death and destruction on a terrible scale and survived the battle of the Somme.

After only a few weeks basic training Norman left Southampton aboard a paddle steamer bound for France as a member of 2/5 Duke of Wellington Regiment .His pay was 1/- per day. After further training including guidance in the use of gas masks, he was sent to the front line trenches. He described his first night on sentry duty in a trench only 25 yards from the German lines. ” The trenches were dug about two feet into the ground with the rest of the depth being made by building sandbags up to about five feet high. Sentry duty, during the hours of darkness, was two hours on and two hours off during which time the infantrymen were expected to grab some sleep. Any show of smoke from the trenches would have brought shelling from the Germans and the men fried bacon and boiled water using smokeless fuel.” Norman described the trenches being strewn with bodies and parts of bodies and yet men were expected to drink water that had collected in shell holes.

One of the communication trenches was named Colne Valley and it was whilst travelling down this trench that Norman experienced a mortar attack. ” You could hear the thud and then see them coming over, two of three in the air at the same time. They made a very large report. Going down the trench, pieces of timber could be seen marked ‘ unknown soldier buried here’. At one place a pair of leather jackboots were showing in the side of a trench-the feet of a German soldier. In the aftermath of such an attack, stretcher bearers attempted to reach the wounded – they had to crawl full length through the smashed trenches under file from German snipers. Another threat was that posed by the whizz-bangs, small artillery shells, fired at the trenches. They travelled at a very fast rate, the shells arriving over our trenches before we heard the report from the German guns.”

Norman spent this period of the war near Ypres with four day stints on the front line. When the rains arrived and conditions worsened, some trenches were two foot under water and others were just streams and the men were issued with thigh boots. ” We had a very tough time during October, November and December 1915 although casualties were light but sickness was very heavy and, at the end of December, when we were relieved, the platoons were less than 20 men strong. To ward off trench foot, soldiers would rub whale oil on their feet.” After surviving the ordeals of Ypres, Norman and his colleagues began to join what was described to them as ‘a new army’. Their destination was the Somme. He described the preparations made for the Battle of the Somme. Two months before the attack it was quite obvious what was coming and was openly talked about by the officers, NCOs and men. Late on the night of January 30 1916, Norman, whose job was company runner, set out with his battalion in full marching order and carrying two days rations. Their first stop was in a trench near Aveloy Wood which was about one mile from the front lines.

About midnight on July 1 with the battle now raging, Norman got orders to move to near Thriepval. “The roads were choked with artillery and streams of captured German soldiers , many of them wounded. One German , laying on a stretcher, asked me very politely if I would give him a drink of water, which I did. He told me he had lived in London and looked old enough to be my father”. On July 2, stories began circulating of heavy Allied losses. One of the messages he had to relay said the 147 Brigade will not attack. Attack cancelled. For the next seven weeks, without a break, Norman was among those who held the front line. Nights were spent repairing the trenches and burying the dead. As fighting continued, B Company was reduced from 150 to 28. Relief came when Norman, now a corporal, was instructed to return to England and resume work at David Browns.

He was a civilian once again until April 19 1919, when he received orders to return to his unit in France. He was sent to join the 10th. Duke of Wellington Regiment, not in France but in Padua. He describes heavy fighting and loss of life and it was whilst he was in Italy that the Armistice was signed. His demobilisation came in early March and he returned to Huddersfield. Most of the rest of his life he worked at John Crowthers in Milnsbridge. He was awarded the Military Medal. Norman did not want his son to fight in WW2 and who went to work in the pits as a Bevin Boy.

His memoirs are titled :

Memoirs of Norman Smith MM, 1895-1980.

5th. Duke of Wellington West Riding Regiment and

18th. Duke of Wellington 23rd. Division.

They are far too long for me to include in their entirety in this chapter so instead I have selected paragraphs in Norman’s own words that are especially interesting. At the end of his writings, he added what was effectively an addendum titled -Notes on different topics. They are so poignant that I have copied them below after his memoirs.

During October, I was sent on a few days instructions on the Mills bomb. This was at a farm near Poperinghe. Before the Mills bomb, we had a bomb made out of empty jam tins, very poor. These were ignited by striking the fuse on a piece of sandpaper tied on the back of ones hand. During October and November our Colonel left us, it was said the trouble was nerves. Col. Headlam ( later on Major General ) was very strict, he started to smarten us up ( we needed it ). He noted a large number of hat badges were missing and gave the order that they had to be replaced. After this, anyone losing his cap-badge must go in front of him to explain the reason. We were now doing more training, but also plenty of working parties. During October 1915 the rains came. Trenches were flooded , communication trenches became streams. The front line, in some places, was 2 feet deep in mud and water. The dug-outs were out of use. I think we went into the front line twice in those conditions. Afterwards we received thigh boots and the frontline period was reduced to 48 hours. There were saps of ours which went up to 25 yards from the German trenches. These were now withdrawn and the front line was manned by posts of platoon strength about 30 yards apart. The first time we went in with the thigh boots, we drew them at a place behind the Canal Bank, changed into these waders ( in the rain ) and then made our way over the top, as communication trenches were not usable. We carried over our own boots with us , and afterwards found the platoon we were relieving, who were in a short stretch of trench, perhaps 1 foot deep in mud and water.

On the day of the gas attack, which was on December 19, 1915, we were taken up to the Canal Bank. Our gas mask had now been improved, being a kind of bag made out of flannel, with the eye piece made of mica, and with a mouthpiece of rubber, to enable one to breathe out. The open end of the bag was tucked into the neck of the tunic. They were very uncomfortable although better than the other two types which we had. We passed through the hamlet of Brelin, although about two miles from the Canal Bank, had still ladies who sold coffee, tea and biscuits. In this hamlet there was a smell of gas ( musty hay ) and we fixed gas masks, took them off after getting through the place. Only on this particular day did we go to the Canal in daylight. We had to crawl a certain distance before we reached the Canal safely. A number of gas casualties were laid out behind the Canal Bank, perhaps waiting for darkness to remove them. The only people I saw attending to them were two padres, some of them appeared to be very sick. We had to move on and man the reserve line on the top of the Canal Bank. I think we stayed there two days and then went up to the front line. Was in the line on Christmas day 1915, very quiet, bread and cheese for dinner. 49th. Division was relieved after Christmas and marched to Naours for a rest and refit. I visited the new Talbot House at Poperinghe, must have been one of the very first to do so, would be in the early part of December 1915 and I remember signing the Visitors’ book. One amusing thing was when we asked for a book to read, we had to hand over our caps. These were returned when we took the book back”.

It was very tiring marching to Naours, not very fit after all those weeks in the mud and water. While on the Canal Bank sometime during November, a rather amusing incident happened to me and my friend Claude. We were in the Canal Bank in reserve, and we two were detailed to take a dixie of rice pudding to the men holding the fron line. This would be about 10pm. There was no communication trench we could use, so had to go over the top and find the platoon. We were on the extreme left of the BEF where the front crossed the Canal, the French troops being on our left. We had to cross the canal by the bridge on our extreme left and this could only be used in darkness, as it was under observation by the Germans during daylight. At night they frequently turned their machine guns on the bridge. The procedure was to wait ( undercover ) until the Germans traversed the bridge with the gun, and when the gun stopped to get across as quick as possible. This we did but the Germans broke their sequence this time and turned the gun on the bridge when we were very near the centre. It was a very low bridge , no tow rails. We dropped down at once, the dixie fell into the canal. I had my head over the offside of the bridge and my cap fell into the canal ( steel helmets had not yet come ). As soon as the machine gun stopped, we ran back to the end of the bridge, where we had come from and where there was protection. Then we had a discussion on what to do, decided to go back to our dug-out and say no more about it. Never heard any more about the rice pudding, but I had lost my cap and worse still, my cap badge. I received a new cap without any problem but had to go in front of our CO about the badge, told them the truth. He never asked any word about the pudding, gave me four days C.B. and paid for a new cap badge. “

” One officer, whom I went out with acted rather strangely, playing with a Mills bomb and suggesting he would like to blow himself up. A few days later he was taken away ( mind ). It was during one of these patrols, that we came across two German soldiers and took letters we found on them, which I still possess. These bodies must have been lying there for several months, according to the dates on these letters. When relieved from this area we went back several miles to a village called Reincheval, reinforcements arrived and we soon found out what our next job was to be.”

” During the last of the four days, we were completely exhausted. Food had been short, raining all the time, and the Platoon Sergeant, one of the old brigade seemed to have drunk what little there was of the rum ration. On that 4th. day, I did something I regretted. After telling the Sergeant that I was going down a dug-out to have a few hours sleep before darkness, the dug-out was very deep and was joined at the bottom by the steps to another dug-out. The other one was for officers. The one I was in was for signallers. The dug-out was full of soldiers, did not see any from our platoon. I very quickly crawled under a wire bed to have a nap before the Sergeant came to waken me, but at that moment the new company officer came in with a revolver in his hand, turning everyone out except the signallers. He did not see me but I was out and up the steps as soon as he had gone back. I never saw anything like this before, but the officers spent a lot of their time in that dug-out. What a difference this might have made as I was given the Military Medal and received promotion.”

This last paragraph deals with Norman finally going on the leave he was due and avoiding the continuing carnage on the Somme, spending a year in civvy-street before being mobilised again and going to fight in Italy.

In November 1916, I was expecting my 1st. leave home since coming out in the Spring of 1915. I was certainly overdue, I had not complained but our local press in Huddersfield took up the case and probably this came to the notice of our Adjutant. Order soon came I was to go on the next leave. Finally in March 1917, had to report to base and catch the ration train on its return journey and report to 49 Div. Base orderly room. I had to wait two days and then had to report to HQ, Huddersfield. After a few daysI received my transfer to Class W Army Reserves and was back working as a civilian at the firm ( David Browns ) which I had left when I joined the army. Carried on working there until April 1918 when I received telegram ‘ Mobilisation of Class W Army Reserves ‘. I had to report at once and proceed to unit in France. I reported to the Reserves Battalion at Ripon, and I was sent out to our 10th. Battalion Duke of Wellington Regiment, 23rd. Division. The train journey through France took five days , arrived at Padua ( Italy ). The front seemed very quiet compared with France. I left at the end of February 1919 for demobilisation. The band played us off with ‘Auld Lang Syne’. Tears came into my eyes, but they were tears of joy, and I did not want to see the army again. I was demobbed early in March. Work was waiting for me.”

” I have had a good life, plenty of work and good health, happy family and am now nearly 80 years.

Addenda.

LIVING CONDITIONS. Very bad winter for infantry, particularly in the trenches, when out on rest during the winter, I remember sleeping on a concrete floor, just one blanket between you and the concrete. In February 16, we were sleeping in huts near Bousingcourt. The huts were boarded and covered with roofing felt. The sides were a wooden framework with green canvas with dirt floors. These were new huts.

FOOD. As regards myself, always on the short side- I suppose I had a good appetite, not easy to satisfy mostly bacon and bread for breakfast. Dinner nearly always stew, sometimes we might have a joint chiefly mutton. Sometimes rice pudding( not much sugar or milk ), sometimes we might have hard biscuits softened up and mixed with raisins.

TEA. Chiefly bread and margarine with jam or cheese. About once a month we would have a piece of cake with currants and raisins in. Bully beef was quite often used in the stews, a good stand-by, always seemed to be plenty of cheese, if we wanted supper, mostly bought by ourselves. Often tea would be about 4.30. Nothing else until 8 next day, even in the trenches. This was so , even though the weather might have been bad.

SHELL SHOCK. Very bad. They had my sympathy, morale got very low sometimes in our battalion, and there were a few self-inflicted wounds. Also there were some who ate the cordite from the bullet casing to bring on a high temperature. There were a number of accidents through carelessness.

NARROW ESCAPES. Was practising throwing of Mills Bombs, September 1916. The new man dropped the bomb when starting to throw and, foolishly, we were standing on a wooden foot board raised little higher than the bottom of the trench. The bomb fell underneath the board…. out of the trench and fell flat. Neither of us was wounded, but others who were standing quite a good distance away were wounded. Was ready to mark off in columns, perhaps on the second day of the battle of Italy, the Lewis gun section was just in front. On the command quick march, No.1 Lewis gunner ( they had not yet got their handcarts over the river ) threw his gun upon his shoulders and the gun let off a single round, just appearing to pass over my head.

THE TRENCHES. In the early days in the trenches we often had to cook our own meals. Nights appeared to be long and cold. If you did get a place to sleep, you would wake up cold and move about for a little to get warm. We were often troubled by louse.

SMELLS. Very bad in the trenches, particularly in warm weather or when you were digging and you struck a dead body.

THE TRENCH SYSTEM. Very bad in some places. During October, November and December we went into the front line for two day periods. No communication trenches, we had to go over the top and drop into what was the front line, up to the knees in water and mud. The Officer and Sergeant had a piece of corrugated iron to give a little protection. We remained in water and mud all the time.

CHURCH PARADES. Always appeared to me to be a mockery.

LATRINES. Sometimes very crude. In August 1915 in Warboy our latrines were on the side of the road on spare land. Just a trench about 18 inches deep with a canvas about four feet around the trench.

COURSES. Had courses on Mills Bomb 1915. Lewis Gun 1916. Sniping 1916, several NCO courses all these, courses taking place chiefly when the battalion was on rest. Watched Sir John French go by in car – December 1915. Watched Sir. D.Haig go by in car – September 1916. Marched past Lord Cavan in Italy – November 1918.

ARMY COMMANDERS. 2nd. Army was visited by General Plummer and given a speech after leaving his command – January 1916. 4th. Army – never saw Rollinson – 1916. 5th. Army – never saw Gough – 1916. 3rd.Army – never saw Allenby – 1916-17. 1st. Army – did not know who the commander was at that time.

CORPS. COMMANDERS. Lt. Allenby – never saw him in 1915. LT. General Moorland – never saw him 1916. Lt. General Snow presented me with colours, Military Medal – 1916. Lt. General Babbington – passed by in car – 1918. Never knew who Corps. Commander was in the 1st. Army.

LEAVE. Was out for 16 months before I got my first leave, was going on leave before the Somme offensive , but leave was cancelled in May 1916 for several, months.

ENTERTAINMENT. Our Division had its own concert party which visited occasionally. First going into the trenches, looked forward to going in but soon changed my mind.

OVER THE TOP. Knew we had to do it, forgot about oneself when in action, but while waiting a little worrying, looked forward later to receiving a slight wound to take us back to Britain.

GAS. Very uncomfortable wearing respirators of whatever type, the ones we used at Ypres in 1915 were smothering. I was company runner during early part of the Somme battle taking ………..

Norman made some ( small ) contributions to ” The First Day of the Somme ” by Martin Middlebrook, ISBN 0 7139 0194 2, published 1971. They were credited to Pt. N.Smith, Cowlersley Yorkshire.

Chris informed me that Norman went back to Italy many years after the war. He also took Chris, when he was 14, to the Somme battlefields and Thiepval Memorial to the Missing. This Memorial is dedicated to the 72,337 missing British and South African servicemen, who died at the battles of the Somme between 1915-1918, with no known graves. It may be pertinent that five soldiers from Netherthong are included in that list- they were Irvin Barrowclough, George Richard Gledhill, John Henry Hoyle, Edward Smith and John Roberts.

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