February 1, 1918

A 19-year-old member of a prominent Ashbourne family was reported to have died while a prisoner in Germany.

William Reginald Sturston Smith, of the Royal Flying Corps had been reported missing on October 22, but the family, at Clifton, had now heard that he had died of his wounds.

The young airman had joined the RFC in January 1917, gaining his wings in August and been sent out to France with 28 Squadron in October. Within a few days he was listed as missing in action, his plane having been shot down,

“Lieut. Smith was a most promising officer, possessing the spirit of daring which would have carried him far in the hazardous career he had chosen had he been spared.”

The paper said that news of his death had caused a sensation at Ashbourne Cricket Club where he was well known.

Smith, whose home was Clifton Hall, was the nephew of JH Smith, a magistrate, county councillor and Ashbourne Rural Council Chairman and grandson of WR Smith, also a Justice of the Peace and chairman of the Ashbourne Board of Guardians.

Such was the perceived success of the tank assault on German lines on the first day of the Battle of Cambrai on November 20, 1917, that church bells  rang out across England. The joy was to be shortlived, however, as the German 2nd Army counter-attacked.

This week the paper Ashbourne Telegraph carried a first hand account of the battle.

Unusually for the paper, no name was attached to the letter which gave a dramatic description, purportedly written by “an Old Ashbourne Boy” said to be serving with the Royal Garrison Artillery “somewhere in France”.

“We bombarded Jerry for a few hours before the time fixed for our Boys to go over, and then the actual moment arrived, and all our guns put up a creeping barrage, just keeping in front of our Boys. It was a splendid sight to see, seven or eight hundred Tanks go creeping over the front line trenches, and the cavalry too in thousands, and then our boys behind with bayonets fixed in massed formation.

“Jerry was taken by surprise for once. They were running about in all directions just like rabbits. Some of the officers were captured in their pyjamas and some were having breakfast.”

Cease fire was called as the British troops had advanced out of range, so the artillery advanced to the German frontline trenches, which ‘Old Ashbourne Boy’ said were stocked with good food and bottles of wine and beer.

They kept up the barrage while the infantry dug in in their new position.

“Our advance was a great success but the Germans at once drew all the troops from the Russian front and threw them up against us in thousands. Our infantry had to retire and before we knew it Fritz was on the top of us.”

He continued his tale, relating how first their communication lines were cut and eventually they were given orders to withdraw.

“It was awful for us, with having no rifles; we didn’t stand much chance against Fritz as he was using the machine guns against us. Some of our boys were fighting with picks and shovels. We all go scattered about everywhere and shells and bullets were flying everywhere and to make matters worse old Jerry’s aeroplanes came over flying low, and he actually turned his machine guns on us.”

The story takes an even more dramatic turn when the writer reveals that he and other men volunteered to go back to their abandoned position to dig out the guns.

“Over the top we went crawling like rabbits on the hard frozen ground until we reached the guns again…. It was a nerve trying experience; we all worked like N*****s (redacted by the author) digging the guns out of their positions.”

Despite the cold the men were sweating and they had to stuff handkerchieves in their mouths to stifle the coughs to avoid making their presence known.

“We got the guns out of position and padded the wheels with rubber, then up comes four good teams of horses, 16 in each team, they were soon fastened to and our guns were saved. When the Germans saw the wheel tracks and empty gun positions next morning I expect someone would get in trouble for not spotting us.”

Tanks were credited with breaking the deadlock at Cambrai, and it was a tank on exhibition in Derby for the Derbyshire tank Bank Week which was causing a great deal of interest. The editor observed:

“No doubt the opportunity will be seized by thousands to see this marvelous modern war implement. The Government have realised the possibilities of raising money by showing the people the kind of weapons we are fighting with, and it is hoped the county of Derby will show its patriotism in a practical manner by subscribing to the war chest is as generous a manner as other large towns and counties have.”

The chances of this were improved by the offer from Gilbert Crompton, the High Sherrif of Derbyshire, to offer up to £1,000 of prizes for people buying War Bonds or War Savings Certificates from the Tank Bank during the week. He was offering 10 prizes a day of up to £100.

A detailed account of the visit of ‘Old Bill’ can be found here: http://bit.ly/2FhVtCg

The Telegraph published a selection of letters of thanks from men who had received parcels from the Ashbourne Soldiers and Sailors Christmas Parcels Fund.

“The letters vary in character, except in one particular, and that is the unanimous cheerfulness which each one imparts.”

The editor’s Notes of the Week commented that this cheer was “an excellent and example to the pessimists at home”.

An Ashbourne dentist whose fitness for military service had been reduced from Class A to Class C1 appealed to the Derbyshire Appeals Tribunal against his call-up papers.

He said he was a married man with one child and had been practising in Ashbourne for five years and if he had to go would lose his business.

The tribunal was told on average he extracted 100 teeth a week and that he had four brothers; two serving, and two discharged.

It was decided to adjourn a decision for 14 days.

  • My fellow researcher and De Montfort University colleague John Dilley is conducting a similar real-time project with the Market Harborough Advertiser. Check out his Newspapers and the Great War blog
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