Byfield's Walter George Smith MM
Walter George Smith was born in mid-1899 and grew-up on The Green in Byfield, south west Northamptonshire, England. Byfield is a rural village, then of some five hundred souls and, although a quiet farming community, like many others it was much troubled by the “Great War”; a number of local lads went off to fight, sixteen were never to return.
Inspired by the recruiting drive of the time, Walter couldn’t wait to get stuck-in and joined the army when only 17 years old. He was one of the many that lied about their age. At the time, the armed forces were not recruiting below the age of 19 but the casualties were so high and replacements so sorely needed, everywhere blind-eyes were turned.
Byfield was fortunate in having a railway station, although trains were infrequent, a better service could be found from Woodford Halse, a larger village a couple of miles to the east (sadly, there are no trains now). It was from there that Walter travelled to London Marylebone and on to France. Relatives can still remember being told how he cheerfully went to war, walking across the fields to Woodford station, kitbag over his shoulder, with his family coming along to wave him off.
Walter joined the London Scottish Regiment. Relations still living in Byfield today can't say why a boy from the Midlands joined a Scottish Regiment but they do remember photos of him cutting a dash in his kilt. He fought on the Western Front for two years, first on the Somme in the Second Battle of Picardy early in 1918, that was when Paris was under bombardment; Walter later transferred to the Machine Gun Corps, 2nd Division, 2 Battalion. Later, he fought near Amiens and was promoted to the rank of Corporal. He was severely wounded on the 28th September 1918 near Rumilly (-en Cambresis), south east of Arras during the battle to breach Germany’s Hindenburg Line.
Walter and his men advanced through that line with their Vickers Machine Guns, to a position in a ruined building which gave little more than psychological protection from the hail of enemy bullets put up in ferocious defence of the enemy position they were overrunning. Giving-out more than they received, their murderous weapons inflicted many casualties on their foes. Walter urged his men on and took four prisoners before being severely wounded in the head by shrapnel from a shell exploding nearby.
Because of his deeds that day he was awarded the Military Medal, the communication announcing that award appears below...
Walter was also mentioned in despatches by his Commander, whose words were “Major General C. E. Peireia Congratulates Cpl. W. G. Smith on his fearlessness and dash in handling his machine gun during operations on 28th September 1918.”
Walter eventually succumbed to his wounds and was stretchered back to a field hospital. His family were informed and, courtesy of The Salvation Army, his mother Lily was able to visit him. By then he had been transferred to a large military hospital complex near Etaples in France; Lily arrived two days before he died on the 21st October, just three weeks before that terrible war ended. From his mother’s efforts to reach his bedside before he died, and whilst the war still raged-on, speaks volumes about where Walter got his courage and determination.
In the words of Byfield’s local historian John Russell, “Lily, small in stature but stout of heart, later went back to France and fetched back the wooden cross that had been placed on his grave” in Etaples, near Boulogne, when a proper headstone was installed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
That wooden cross was kept in Byfield’s Independent Chapel until it closed in 1999; it is now to be found in Byfield’s Holy Cross Church.
Thanks to Frederik S. from Foursquare for the image of Etaples Military Cemetery above, where Walter now lies.
Corporal Walter George Smith MM’s Medals
Left: Military Medal, a medal for gallantry and devotion to duty when under fire in battle on land, issued to troops below commissioned rank. Middle, the British War Medal, automatically awarded for services in the event of death between 1914 & 18, and right, the Victory Medal, awarded to those having been mobilised, fighting, having served in any of the theatres of operations, or at sea between midnight on the 4th/5th August 1914 and midnight on the 11th/12th Nov. 1918.
Above left: Walter’s “Dead man’s penny”, a 6cm diameter memorial plaque issued to the next of kin of all those killed in the First World War. The inscription bears Walter’s name and around the edge, “He died for freedom and honour”. Above right: Walter’s silver plated cigarette and matches cases. The cigarettes are Players’ “Country Life” circa 1918, one, half smoked, probably by Walter.
Above, a belt, still with the dried mud of the trenches upon it, taken from one of the German soldiers Walter captured on his last day of fighting. The buckle’s inscription reads “God with us”.