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Gunner Ernest Alfred Smith, No. 49069

A British Army Regular 1907 to 1919 in the Royal Field Artillery (RFA) and Royal Horse Artillery (RHA)


This website is a work in progress, by way of tribute to my maternal grandfather, Ernest Smith. His story is an interesting patchwork with some pieces remaining to be discovered.

Who Was Ernest?

E.A. Smith was husband of Elsie (nee Cox), father to Moira and Patricia and, beyond his lifetime, grandfather to six grandchildren.

Ernest saw extended service in the regular army before, during and after the First World War, including in India, at Gallipoli and in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). He served with the following Royal Artillery batteries:

He subsequently married and went to live and work in trade in Rangoon, Burma, where his daughters Moira and Patricia were born in the 1920's.

During the 1930's the family members variously returned to England. Having previously survived the Great War Ernest died prematurely in London in 1932 at the age of 42 from the effects of tuberculosis.

Researching Ernest

Based on written enquiries to the Ministry of Defence and personal searches at The National Archives at Kew, Ernest's army service record has not survived. Many records were destroyed during World War Two (the "Burnt Records"). The following record sources have proved invaluable in the researches:

Ernest's Soldier's Small Book With Record of Service 1907 - 1913

Enquiries have still to be made to try and confirm Ernest's unit, battery and postings during the period 1916-1917.

Early Years and Enlistment

Ernest was born in Ware, Hertfordshire in 1890. At the 1891 England Census Ernest A was 1 year old, living at Oak Cottage, Macers Lane, Wormley with his gardener father Alfred T and his mother Emily, ages 23 and 24 respectively. By the 1901 Census the family had moved to Daisy Villa, Park Parade, Enfield and Ernest (age 11) had a sister Gertrude (age 8). Emily was absent and records suggest that Alfred and she were separated, being divorced in 1905.

At the time he joined up, Ernest's was a grocer's assistant living with his father Alfred and stepmother Nellie in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire. He enlisted at Woolwich in November 1907, signing on in the Royal Artillery for six years in the army and six years in the reserve service.

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Twelve Years Artillery Service

Ernest enlisted as a Gunner at No. 1 RFA depot and after initial training he was posted to the 121st Battery Royal Field Artillery at Home in early 1908, serving there until January 1910. Ernest was then posted to the 69th Battery Royal Field Artillery in India remaining until the end of 1912.

In December 1912, Ernest was posted as Gunner to the 98th Battery Royal Field Artillery at Nasirabad. Whilst there, he extended his service to 12 years. On 1 September 1913, Ernest was posted as Gunner to "Y" Battery Royal Horse Artillery, based in Mhow, India.

"Y" Battery returned Home to the UK at Christmas 1914, after the outbreak of World War One, and joined and trained with 29th Division before being sent to the Dardanelles. Ernest fought with them at Gallipoli and was wounded there on 26th June 1915.

Family recollections suggest that after Gallipoli, Ernest served in France on the Western Front and thereafter in Mesopotamia.

There is no direct evidence of Ernest's postings in 1916 and 1917. However, in 1918 and 1919 he can be placed definitely with "V" Battery RHA in Mesopotamia, based on photographs and on recorded returns for absent voters for his home county of Hertfordshire.

Ernest effectively spent most of World War One on overseas service with the RHA, including being wounded a second time and seeing out his twelve years service to late 1919.


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An Artilleryman in India

The British military force in India was made up of units of the British Army and of the Indian Army. The two armies were mixed together in the same command structure to provide a field force and forces for internal security duties.

In India, Pre-WW1 - Seated Colleague's Medals Include:
The Kabul To Kandahar Star 1880, The Afghanistan Medal and The India General Service Medal

Ernest's served with 69th Field Battery (1st Brigade RFA) in 1910-12, initially based at Rawalpindi. He would have been with them when in October 1910 the Battery moved to Nasirabad - a long journey of 780 miles on horseback taking several months, via Lahore, Ferozpore, Hissar, Delhi and Jaipur.

The photograph below of Ernest shows him in the uniform of a Royal Artillery driver, with heavy leather gaiters and wearing two Good Conduct Badges, indicated by the chevrons at his left cuff.

Ernest in India Pre-WW1

An Imperial Durbar (the "Delhi Durbar") was held in India in December 1911 to celebrate the Coronation of King George the Fifth. Based on contemporary photographs of the event, Ernest is likely to have been present off-duty as a spectator, since 1st Brigade RFA is not listed as participating in the Durbar.

Spectator Snapshot at The Delhi Durbar 1911

When the 69th left India at the end of 1912, Ernest was posted as Gunner to 98th Battery RFA, recently arrived at Nasirabad from South Africa. Whilst with them he extended his service as a regular from 6 years to "complete 12 years with the colours", hence at least until 18 November 1919.

Ernest was a keen and skilled rider and a photograph below shows him at a display, taking a pair of horses over a jump. This would have reflected the driver's role in a gun team.

Ernest "At Jumps, Two in Hand"

Horse Handling "Under Fire"

Both the above photographs are stamped on the reverse: "Herzog & Higgins, Photographers, Mhow, C.I."

A year or so later, Ernest was transferred as Gunner to "Y" Battery RHA at Mhow. This move from RFA to RHA would have been a source of some pride. The Battery was formed in 1900 and in November 1911 had formed part of the King's escort in Bombay. Ernest returned Home from India with the Battery in December 1914 after the outbreak of War in August.

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With "Y" Battery at Gallipoli 1915

Between January and March 1915, the 29th Division was formed in Warwickshire mainly comprising Battalions returned from overseas garrisons. Along with RHA "B" and "L" Batteries, "Y" became part of the 15th Brigade R.H.A. as part of the Divisional Artillery. The Batteries were each equipped with four 18-pounder guns. The 29th Division under Major-General A.G. Hunter-Weston landed on the Gallipoli peninsular on 25 April 1915 and served at Gallipoli until January 1916.

By May a continuous trench system existed right across the peninsular and the opposing lines were only 200 yards apart. But there was no respite for the guns ashore. They were constantly engaged and constantly under attack, with "Y" Battery reporting many casualties to counter battery fire.

During June, "Y" Battery was involved with others in shelling Turkish batteries, trenches and redoubts, including in support of attacks by the French and British. During this month, "Y" Battery experienced 6 horses killed with 2 personnel killed and 12 wounded, including Ernest. He was wounded on 26th June 1915, as recorded in the "Y" Battery War Diary and listed in the 29th Divisional Artillery War Record and Honours Book 1915-1918 .

Whilst it is speculation, Ernest may have been evacuated to 19th General Hospital, Alexandria and then returned to Gallipoli later in 1915 once he had recovered. The above record probably accounts for the first of two wound stripes which Ernest received during World War One.

With or without Ernest, in early January 1916, 29th Division was evacuated from Gallipoli and by March had been moved to near Pont Remy the Western Front, via Egypt and Marseille. The Division remained on the Western Front for the remainder of the war.

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Somewhere In Mesopotamia 1918

In pursuit of protecting the supply of oil from Persia, the British Indian Army bore the brunt of an expeditionary campaign in Mesopotamia in 1914. Rapid initial progress led to over extended supply lines leading to the disastrous siege of Kut-Al-Amara and defeat there in April 1916. Subsequently, a change of strategy and commander led to successes against the Turks and the fall of Baghdad in March 1917. Further engagements took place in 1917 and 1918 (including use of cavalry and horse artillery), until the Turks finally signed an Armistice in October 1918.

A photograph taken at the beginning of 1918 shows Ernest sitting on an artillery piece (probably QF 13-pounder) with the rest of the gun crew etc.

With RHA in Mesopotamia, Probably "V" Battery
(Ernest Seated in Centre, on Field Gun)

The photo is marked on the reverse in purple ink (query chinagraph): "From Ernest, Somewhere in Mesopotamia 22/1/18". This is typical of WW1 service photographs sent home from abroad.

At the time the photograph was taken, the RHA Batteries "S", "V" and "W" were in Mesopotamia as part of the Tigris Corps and saw extensive action. They had arrived in theatre at different times between 1915-1917, with each being attached to the particular Indian Cavalry Brigade with which they had been associated in India.

There is a family recollection reported by  Patricia Smith, from her mother Elsie, that her father Ernest was briefly captured by the Turks, but subsequently escaped on horseback. This sounds quite feasible owing to the often fast-moving nature of the battles in the desert, involving horse artillery deployment in conjunction with Cavalry. Sometimes rapid battery withdrawal was required under attack by mobile enemy forces.

Mesopotamia was very difficult in the field, owing to extreme temperatures, flooding in the river valleys, mud, dust, insect-borne diseases and general problems with medical facilities and transport.

Absent Voter Lists

Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies make search facilities available over the internet and this includes Absent Voter Lists, which were returns made by family members for voters who were serving overseas in the First World War. Images of particular pages of the register can be purchased.

There are three entries for Smith, Ernest Alfred at the address: Sunningdale, Flamstead End (West), Cheshunt. This corresponds with an updated address in his Soldier's Small Book. All three entries give his service no. as 49069 and his unit and regiment as V Battery, RHA. His rank is given as Gunner in Autumn 1918, then Bombardier in Spring and Autumn 1919.

At that time, the traditional rank of Bombardier in the Royal Artillery was equivalent to the single-stripe Lance-corporal in the wider British Army. The next higher artillery rank was Corporal, a two-stripe rank. These were both junior non-commissioned officer (NCO) ranks.

Allowing that the Absent Voter applications had to be in about two months prior to publication, this pushes his rank information etc back in time a little. So we might amend the information as: Gunner at end of July 1918, Bombardier at end of January and July 1919.

The autumn 1919 Absent Voter details however may have been a convenient repetition by his family, if they did not have updated information on his promotions. This thought is prompted by Ernest receiving further promotion towards the end of his service, as discussed below.

RHA Battery Under Inspection in Mesopotamia
(Ernest Standing at Left Hand Side)

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After The Armistice

Following the Armistice in October 1918, occupation duties in Mesopotamia/Iraq took place between 1919 and 1922. However, there were questions being asked in Parliament in 1919 on behalf of men of RHA Batteries in Mesopotamia and Palestine, in relation to lack of home leave, delays in demobilisation and tortuous transport home via India.

An undated Christmas silk postcard sent home to Elsie and his family, probably for December 1918, gives his service no., name, rank (Bombardier) and his battery sub-unit as C Sub.

The National Archive index for artillery unit war diaries shows that "S", "V" and "W" Battery's War Diaries run respectively to February, March and February 1919. "V" and "W" Batteries appear to have returned to England in May 1919, becoming part of VI Brigade RHA later that year when it was reformed at Shorncliffe.

Taking the battery details on the Absent Voter List in autumn 1919 at face value, Ernest returned to England with "V" Battery in mid-1919. In November 1919 whilst at Shorncliffe he would then have completed his twelve years service in the regular army. It is thought that he left the army in late-1919 or early-1920.

There is an alternative scenario, which is that as a regular Ernest stayed on in Mesopotamia in 1919 and served in the RHA Composite Battery, whose war diary runs from March 1919 to January 1920. This might sit better with his actual rank advancement.

A possible indication that he did stay longer in Mesopotamia is that in the photograph above, his figure at left is smartly turned out and seems consistent with him in the uniform of a B.Q.M.S., as below. Alternatively, the first photograph could be of "V" Battery at say Shorncliffe in 1919, although all the figures are wearing the topis usually associated with the Eastern Front.

Ernest in Uniform circa 1920

The colour-tinted photograph of Ernest in uniform is undated but probably in 1920, as discussed below. The visible insignia include medal ribbons above the tunic left hand chest pocket, rank chevrons on his upper right sleeve, overseas service chevrons on the lower right sleeve and wound stripes on the lower left forearm. Some key observations can therefore be made on his uniform, as follows:

Issuing details on the RHA 103B medal roll suggests that the photograph was taken no earlier than April 1920, whilst the lanyard to the left shoulder dates the photograph to 1920 or earlier (the lanyard was moved to the right shoulder that year in the RA).

The medal card gives Ernest's rank on award as Corporal, a two-stripe rank, and this would have been held for at least six months to qualify. Conversely, the higher rank of B.Q.M.S. would have been held for less than six-months, so not appearing on the medal card.

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Wartime Romance

Family recollections from her daughter Patricia Smith are that Elsie Cox met Ernest whilst he was recovering from wounds at a hospital in Dollis Hill, London early on in the First World War. This would have been an Auxiliary Hospital at Dollis Hill House, used for soldier's convalescence in open air surroundings.

With no letters surviving and as Ernest's record details are missing it is not known how or when Elsie and Ernest would have been able to meet subsequently although they did finally marry in 1920. There are however a set of embroidered silk postcards sent from Ernest to Elsie during the War which in a few words on each, show how their relationship evolved.

Silk Postcard signed: "To Elsie....From Ernest"

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After a lengthy and distant courtship, Elsie and Ernest were married in the summer of 1920, on 23rd August, in Willesden, N. London.

1920 Wedding Photograph - Elsie and Ernest Smith, With His Father Alfred

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