Smart R.W.

ROBERT WILLIAM SMART 1889 – 1918

250339 Private Robert William Smart, 1/6th Battalion, the Durham Light Infantry died 17 October 1918.  He was 29 years old and is buried in Niederzwehren Cemetery, near Kassel, Germany [1] and commemorated on the St. Helen’s Colliery Memorial Cottages, Maude Terrace, St. Helen’s Auckland, Bishop Auckland, County Durham.

Family Details

Robert (Bobby) was born 1889 at Tindale Crescent, the son of George and Elizabeth (Lizzie) Smart.  There were at least 8 children:

  • Elizabeth born c.1869 at Guisborough, North Yorkshire
  • Rose Hannah born c.1872 ditto
  • Mary Ann born c.1880 at Tindale Crescent
  • Selina born c.1884 ditto
  • Jane Annie born c.1887 ditto
  • Robert William born c.1889 ditto
  • And twins, Richard Allison and John Thomas born c.1894 at Tindale Crescent.

In 1891, George and Elizabeth lived at Tindale Crescent.  He was a coal miner, born at Marlborough, Wiltshire.  Elizabeth was born at Gainford near Darlington, County Durham.[2] In 1911, George worked as a coal miner (shaftsman), Robert as a hewer, Richard was a putter and John was a self-employed fruiterer (own account).[3]

Service Details

The service record of Robert William Smart has not been researched but he was given the regimental number 3171[4] when enlisting with the 1/6th DLI, a territorial force.

The 1/6th Battalion was formed in Bishop Auckland in August 1914 as part of the Durham Light Infantry Brigade, Northumbrian Division and in May 1915 became the 151st Brigade, 50th Division. [5]  The Division moved to France 16 April 1915 and served with distinction on the Western Front throughout the war.  Other battalions in the brigade were:

  • 1/7th Battalion, D.L.I
  • 1/8th Battalion, D.L.I.
  • 1/9th Battalion, D.L.I.
  • 1/5th Battalion, the Loyal North Lancs. joined June 1915

Following heavy casualties in June 1915 the battalion merged with the 1/8th to become the 6/8th then it returned to its original identity 11 August 1915.

The brigade was supported by:

  • 1/5th (Cumberland) Battalion, the Border Regiment joined December 1915
  • 151st Machine Gun Company formed 6 February 1916
  • 150th Trench Mortar Battery formed 18 June 1916

Other units joined in 1918:

  • 1/5th Battalion, D.L.I. joined February 1918
  • 6th (Service) Battalion, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers joined July 1918
  • 1st Battalion, the Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, joined July 1918
  • 4th Battalion, the King’s Royal Rifle Corps joined July 1918

Following the German Spring Offensive it was reduced to cadre strength in July 1918 and transferred to Lines of Communication. [6]

The Division took part in the Second Battle of Ypres, 24 April – 25 May 1915 but Private R.W. Smart did not enter France until 27 June 1915 so was not involved in this action.

The Battle of the Somme commenced 1 July 1916 but the 50th Division were not involved until 15 September 1916, the Battle of Flers-Courcelette which was the 6th phase.  Following this battle, it was involved in the following actions:

  • The Battle of Morval (7th phase) 25 – 28 September
  • The Battle of Le Transloy (8th phase) 1 – 18 October

In 1917, the 50th Division saw action at Arras and Passchendaele:      

  • The First Battle of the Scarpe, 1st phase of the Arras Offensive, 9 – 14 April 1917
  • The Second Battle of the Scarpe, 2nd phase of the Arras Offensive, 23 & 24 April 1917
  • The Second Battle of Passchendaele, 8th phase of the Third Battle of Ypres, 26 October – 10 November 1917

Then in 1918, the 50th Division came up against the full might of the German war machine during the Spring Offensive in Picardy, France.  The following 3 battles are also known as the First Battles of the Somme 1918:

  • The Battle of St. Quentin 21 – 23 March
  • The Actions at the Somme Crossing 24 & 25 March
  • The Battle of Rosieres 26 & 27 March

The following 2 battles are known as the Battle of the Lys.

  • The Battle of Estaires 9 – 11 April 1918
  • The Battle of Hazelbrouck 12 -15 April 1918

Following a most trying time on the Somme and the Lys battlefields, the Division was withdrawn and sent to IX Corps then on the Aisne, believed to be a much quieter area.  Unfortunately this was not the case and the Division was hit hard by another German attack.

  • The Battle of the Aisne, 27 May – 6 June 1918 [7]

After suffering particularly heavy casualties while on the Aisne, the Division was substantially reorganised. [8]

Private R.W. Smart could have been captured and taken prisoner at any time.  Not until his service records or the War Diary are researched can the date be suggested with any degree of certainty.  An assumption has been made in this work that he was captured during the last battle in which the 50th Division and the 6/DLI were involved – the Battle of the Aisne but firstly, a few comments on the German Spring Offensive.

Spring 1918: The German Offensive – an overview

3 March 1918: Soviet Russia made peace with Germany and her allies by virtue of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.  As a result, Germany could now transfer troops from the Eastern Front to the Western Front.  More importantly, these Divisions included the original elite of the German Army – the Guards, Jagers, Prussians, Swabians and the best of the Bavarians.  In all, 192 Divisions could be deployed in the West.  The Allies could field 178 Divisions. [9]  A single division numbered about 19,000 men [10] so Ludendorff could call upon about 3,650,000 men as opposed to the Allies 3,380,000.  Thus, the Germans now held superiority in numbers.

The German High Command needed victory to be gained before the American Forces arrived in Europe in huge numbers.  America had entered the war 6 April 1917 and in the July, Pershing asked for an army of 3 million men.  The first of her troops arrived in France 26 June 1917. [11] The training and build-up of troops obviously took time but eventually by June 1918, the Americans were receiving about 250,000 men a month in France.  This amounted to 25 divisions in or behind the battle zone and another 55 in the United States ready to join the action. [12]

Elsewhere, the French were able to draw on a new annual class of conscripts after a year of inactivity but the British were worn down by continuous fighting during the summer of 1917 with major offensives at Arras, Messines, Passchendaele and Cambrai. [13] The strength of the British infantry had fallen from 754,000 in July 1917 to 543,000 in June 1918 producing a manpower crisis. [14]

21 March 1918: The German Spring Offensive was launched.  There were 5 phases:

  • 21 March – 5 April: Operation Michael, the Battle of Picardy (otherwise known as the First Battle of the Somme 1918) against the British.
  • 9 – 11 April: Operation Georgette, the Battle of Lys against the British sector near Armentieres.
  • 27 April: Operation Blucher-Yorck, the Third Battle of Aisne against the French sector along Chemin des Dames.
  • 9 June: Operation Gneisenau, the Battle of the Matz against the French sector between Noyan and Montdider.
  • 15 – 17 July: Operation Marne-Rheims, the final phase known as the Second Battle of the Marne. [15]

The Germans enjoyed spectacular territorial gains particularly during the initial phases of the offensive and led the Kaiser to declare a “victory holiday” for German schoolchildren, 23 March.  The cost in manpower was enormous.  Between 21 March and 10 April, the 3 main assaulting armies had lost 303,450 men – a fifth of their original strength.  The April offensive against the British in Flanders cost 120,000 men out of a total of 800,000. [16]

The German High Command calculated that it required 200,000 replacements each month but only 300,000 recruits stood available taking into account the next annual class of 18 year olds.  There were 70,000 convalescents available from hospitals each month but even counting them, the strength of the German Army had fallen from 5.1 million to 4.2 million men in the 6 months of the offensive.  It could not be increased on the estimated scale required. [17]  To add to this dilemma, in June 1918, the first outbreak of “Spanish Flu” laid low nearly 500,000 German soldiers.  This epidemic was to reoccur in the autumn and wreak havoc throughout Europe and the wider world. [18]

Added to this the poor diet of the German troops, battle fatigue, discontentment with the military leadership, social unrest at home and a general realisation that their great effort was beginning to wane, the Allies counter attack in mid-July began to seize the initiative.  Sweeping victories over demoralised German forces eventually led to the resignation of Ludendorff 27 October, the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, 9 November and the signing of the Armistice 11 November 1918. [19]  But next, a brief account of the Battle of the Aisne and the actions of the 6/DLI.

The Third Battle of the Aisne: 27 May – 6 June 1918

The German attack was launched by 4,000 guns across a 40km front against 4 Divisions of the IX Corps.  There was heavy concentration of British troops in the front line trenches and casualties from this bombardment were severe.  In fact the IX Corps was virtually wiped out.  The bombardment was accompanied by a gas attack after which 17 German infantry divisions advanced through the gaps in the line.  Rapid progress was made and the Germans broke though the reserve troops (8 Allied Divisions – 4 British and 4 French) between Soissons and Reims.  By the end of the first day, the Germans had passed the Aisne and reached the river Vesle gaining 15km of territory.  By 3 June, they had come within 90km of Paris and captured 50,000 Allied soldiers and 800 guns.  French casualties were heavy, with 98,000 losses.  The British suffered 29,000 casualties.  But by 6 June, the German advance had run out of steam. [20]

An account of the 6th D.L.I. during May and June 1918  [21]

The first week of April saw the 6/DLI involved in action in what was to become known as the Battle of Lys before it was relieved and sent to join the French troops in the line at Chemin des Dames in the area around Soissons, thought to be a quieter area.  In early May, an epidemic of influenza visited the training camp at Arcis before the battalion marched to billets at Glennes, a small village near Aisne.  The 6/DLI moved up the line to relieve the 73rd French Infantry in the woods east of the Craonne Plateau.  All was quiet until the evening of 26 May when the message was received that an enemy bombardment was to take place the next morning.

27 May:

1.00am: heavy barrage, 3,000 yards flooded with high explosives, shrapnel and gas shells.

4.50am: enemy attack had overwhelmed the forward posts.  X Company wiped out, enemy advancing rapidly, reserve company (Z) close to HQ had the enemy on top of them.  Lieut.-Col. Walton and about 40 men searched for the best place to make a stand, still under a barrage.  5/DLI came up to the communication trench to find it occupied by the enemy.  Battalion practically “annihilated.”

Afternoon:  Lieut.-Col. Walton, a few men of 8/DLI and 5/Northumberland Fusiliers held the bridge at Concevreux.  They were not joined by any men from the front.  For the next 2 days, 2 commanding officers of the 6/DLI and 8/DLI found themselves in command of various men of other battalions.

Captain Lyon described the situation:

“I found to my dismay and surprise files of Germans immediately to our front and level with our line on the right.  I had been reckoning on the customary pause before an infantry line can follow a barrage.  But the German tactics here – well justified by success – were to place their advance troops almost in the skirts of the barrage thus giving the defence no time to recover…The intense bombardment, heavy beyond all precedent, had split the line into small isolated groups of sadly shaken men, who fell an easy prey to the first German line.  A large number must have surrendered without resistance…The speed and method of the advance – nowhere did I see the slightest confusion or hurry – filled us with a despairing admiration – I certainly am prepared to regard the preparation and execution of the whole attack as one of the best things an army has ever done.” [22]

Perhaps Private R.W. Smart was captured at this time.  He was certainly a prisoner of war and is buried in Germany.

29 May:

The remnants were ordered to move from Villers Argon to Baslieux-sous-Chatillon:

“before reaching the latter place, every available man was again collected to form part of a company under Major Heslop, representing the remnants of the 151st Brigade in a Battalion to which each Brigade of the Division contributed one Company.”

After a night at Quisles Chateau, the battalion moved towards Vile-en-Tardenois to support the 74th Brigade.  The 151st Brigade Company were ordered to act as advance guard and to seize the high ground north and east of Romigny.  This was done but the enemy attacked in force and the Company was driven out to a position south of the village which they held until reinforcements arrived.

“The remnants of the Division, except the Composite Battalion, were assembled at Vert-la-Gravelle, south of the Marne when a Composite Brigade was formed…After a week spent in reorganisation, moved up to Chaumuzy and the Bois de Courton where it did good work in a counter attack on the Bligny Ridge.”

“It may be mentioned that that the total casualties in the battalion during the months of March, April and May had been 60 officers and over 1,200 other ranks.”

Later research records that between 21 March and 1 June 1918, 6/DLI lost 12 officers and 294 other ranks, killed in action and/or died of wounds. [23]

The War Diary of the 6/DLI for June 1918 provides the following details:

“VERT la FRAVELLE June 1st – Remnants of Battn (about 35 fighting men) inspected by GOC Divn.  About 35 men under Capt. HARE were still in the line and were in action with the French near BOIS de BONVAL.

2nd Composite Bde formed. Lt Col Walton to command 151 Bde Composite Battn.

Capt. HARE’s party moved to BOIS de COURTON.” [24]

The War Diary confirms that only about 70 men were left after the German onslaught.

Private R.W. Smart was awarded the 1914-15 Star, the British War and Victory medals.[25]

Burial

Private Robert William Smart died 17 October 1918 and is buried at grave reference VII.C.15, Niederzwehren Cemetery, Kassel, Germany.  His headstone carries the following inscription, provided by his mother:

“Dear Old Bobbie One of the Best”

There are 1,796 Commonwealth First World War burials and graves were brought in from 190 burial grounds in Baden, Bavaria, Hanover, Hesse and Saxony including the following prisoner of war cemeteries, Dietkirchen, Hameln, Langensalza, Meschede, Ohrdruf and Sennelager. [26]

References

[1] Commonwealth War Graves Commission

[2] 1891and 1901 census

[3] 1911 census

[4] Medal Roll index card

[5] http://www.1914-1918.net/dli.htn

[6] http://www.1914-1918.net/50div.htn

[7] www.warpath.orbat.com/battles_ff/1915.htm and also 1916, 1917 & 1918

[8] “The Story of the 6th Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry – France April 1915-November 1918” edited by Capt. R.B. Ainsworth MC July 1919 and “The Faithful Sixth” H. Moses 1995

[9] “The Somme” P. Hart p.421

[10] http://www.cwgc.org/somme

[11] http://www.firstworldwar.com/timeline

[12] Hart p.437

[13] http://www.1914-1918.net/batt22

[14] Hart p.437

[15] Hart p.426 & http://www.firstworldwar.com/timeline

[16] Hart p.435

[17] Hart p.439

[18] Hart p.438

[19] http://www.firstworldwar.com/timeline

[20] http://www.firstworldwar.com/battles/aisne3.htm

[21] Ainsworth & Moses

[22] Moses p.105 & 106

[23] Officers and Soldiers Died in the Great War

[24] 6/DLI War Diary

[25] Medal Roll

[26] Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Photographs:

Smart RW Medal Roll

One thought on “Smart R.W.

  1. Pingback: ST.HELEN’S | The Fallen Servicemen of Southwest County Durham

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s