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Serjeant Edwin Edward Smith, No. 558038

A soldier in the Royal Engineers in The Great War, killed at Cambrai in November 1917 and buried at Gouzeaucourt in France.


This web page site is by way of tribute to my Great Uncle on my father's side, Edwin Edward (Ted) Smith. My father Frank Edwin Smith was named for him.

Ted was the son of my Great-grandparents, George and Clara Smith, who at the time of his death lived at 21 Moring Road, Tooting Bec, London.

Ted enlisted in 1914 and with 29th Division fought through major battles at Gallipoli and on the Western Front before being killed in 1917 at Cambrai, in the course of a surprise German counter-attack.

Researching Ted

Preliminary searches have been made regarding Ted's life and war record and the following material is available:

Early and Pre-war Years

Ted came from a large family who lived in Camberwell, SE London in the early 1900's. His father, George Smith, was a warehouseman in the printing trade and his mother was Clara Smith (nee Lambert). The family had roots in London and the Black Country.

The birth of Edwin Edward Smith was registered in Lambeth, London between August and September 1880. Parish registers record that he was baptised on 31 October 1881 in the parish of Southwark St Agnes, his parents being George Smith and Clara Smith.

Smith family members early 1900's
Back row, left-to-right: Willoughby, Ted, William?, Ollie

At the time of the 1911 census Ted was employed as a sorter (ie with the GPO), aged 30, being single and living with his widowed mother and most of his brothers and sisters at 36 Flaxman Road, Camberwell. The household at that time comprised:

The name of the boarder seems to have been mis-transcribed and is possibly Marshal Simon. Ted also had two further brothers and a sister, who seem to have left home by 1911:

Ted's younger brother Willoughby was a private in the First Surrey Rifles (21 & 22 Battalions London Regiment TF) in World War one, whilst Oliver (my grandfather) was a storeman in the Royal Air Force.

Past-times and a Post Card

The Smith boys past-times variously included bicycling, model aircraft and motorcycling. Ted refers to cycling in a postcard to his future sister-in-law Edith Spear from Norway whilst he was holidaying there in 1907. The postmark dates the card to 6th July 1907. The Norge stamp is of the Posthorn type with the Knudsen layout of figures of value, which together with the perforation patterns enable it to be dated to 1907-8. The address on the card is the home of Edie's parents, Mary and Hezekiah Spear, in Blackfriars.

Ted's holiday postcard to Edith Spear from Norway dated 1907

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Ted's RE Territorial Force Service

Ted appears to have joined up in 1914, as this was the time when divisional signals personnel were removed and organised as part of the Royal Engineers Signal Service. He is only recorded serving in the latter organisation.

His medal card records him as having been in the Royal Engineers throughout this service. Photographs show him in the uniform of a Signaller in the RE Territorial Force and also as part of 29th Division. From his service number it has been possible to establish which regiment he served in.

Ted's medal card contains two numbers: the first is 1054 and the second is 558038, as per the 1917 renumbering discussed below. This confirms that he was in a Territorial unit. The second number falls within the detailed allocation of numbers 558001 to 560000 for 1st London Divisional Signal Company, TF Royal Engineers.

Photographs of Ted show him wearing the Imperial Service Brooch on his tunic in the appropriate place and being eligible for Foreign Service. This places him in the first line unit i.e. 1/1st London Division Signal Company etc, which then became 29th Division Signal Company when the 29th Division was formed in the UK early in 1915. The 29th Division saw extensive action in WW1 - at Gallipoli in 1915 and then on the Western Front from 1916-1918.

The medal card shows Ted's rank during much of his Territorial service to be that of Lance-Corporal, with him having the rank of Acting Serjeant at the time of his death, when he was killed in action on 30 November 1917.

The Territorial Force and Renumbering

The Territorial Force (TF) arose out of the 1908 Haldane army reforms and continued the tradition of local part-time military units. The stated role was home defence and men were not obliged to serve overseas, although they could agree to do so.

When TF troops agreed to overseas service, they signed the "Imperial Service Obligation" and this entitled them to wear the characteristic "Imperial Service Brooch" on their right breast.

Territorial Force Imperial Service Brooch
(public domain attribution: Wikipedia, author: Yorkist, file: ImperialServiceClasp.jpg)

The TF was mobilised for full-time war service immediately war was declared in 1914. Those who had volunteered to serve overseas were assigned to "Foreign Service" or "First Line" units and the remainder in to "Home Service" or "Second Line" units.

In 1915, the First and Second Line units were each given a new designation to reflect their particular status.

In 1917, the men serving in the Territorial Force were given new individual six figure numbers according to their unit, from which the latter can be confirmed. These replaced the previous numbers, typically of four figures.

Royal Engineer Field and Signal Companies

The Royal Engineers provided Field and Signal Companies to undertake specialist support work to army units, variously at divisional, corps and army levels. The construction and communication requirements of trench warfare required considerable support by specialist trades. In November 1914 the RE officers and other ranks came to over 350,000 men.

An infantry division would have several field companies in support and a signals company. The latter was organised as: a Company HQ, a section to support Divisional HQ communications and several sections assigned to individual infantry brigades. In this way, signallers were deeply embedded across the battlefield and rear areas. At full strength in 1914 an RE signals company comprised around 350 men, using horse-drawn transport, bicycles and motorbikes.

Signallers were armed as infantrymen, with the Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE) rifle and expected to fight, if necessary, with their host brigades. Their main role though was running, maintaining and replacing a telephone system under battle-field conditions, plus providing message carrying alternatives on foot, horseback or by motorcycle despatch riders.

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With 1st London Divisional Signal Company RE in 1914

The headquarters of the 1st London Divisional Signal Company RE was at 10 Victoria Park Square, Bethnal Green. A group photograph shows seven despatch riders in Territorial Force uniform, all wearing the Imperial Service Brooch. In 1914 the notional number of despatch riders in a signal company was nine. The solo motorcycles appear to be Triumph, possibly the 550cc Model A roadster.

Those individuals standing are all Lance-Corporals, with a single chevron on their right sleeve. This is the lowest non-commissioned officer rank in the British Army, normally reporting to a Corporal. Reputedly, all despatch riders were made Lance-Corporals so that they could speak directly to officers (unlike sappers or drivers who could not).

Territorial Force RE Signal Company despatch riders, possibly at Bethnal Green.
Ted Smith second from left.

A full-length photograph below of Ted in his TF uniform shows a number of characteristic details:

Ted Smith - Territorial Force RE Signal Company Lance-Corporal

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Gallipoli 1915 with 29th Division Signal Company

29th Division was the final regular division, formed in early 1915, which mainly comprised the eleven British regular infantry battalions that were left at the end of 1914, these being mostly returned from pre-war service served in the Far East. The field companies of Royal Engineers, pioneers, signals and Royal Army medical Corps were territorial units.

The landings on the Gallipoli Peninsular in the Dardanelles in April 1915 by Commonwealth forces were heavily opposed by the Turks from the outset. 29th Division was below half-strength and inadequately supported by artillery during the campaign, owing to a shortage of ammunition. The troops in transit had also been used on heavy fatigues in Egypt so lacked training. Nevertheless, despite suffering about 34,000 total casualties at Gallipoli, by the time of the successful evacuations of December 1915 and January 1916, a Divisional spirit had been developed that carried the 29th through the remainder of World War 1 on the Western Front. The eventual human cost though was enormous, as the Division suffered total casualties of approximately 94,000 over the whole war.

Ted's medal card records that his entry in to the Mediterranean theatre of war took place on 30th March 1915 in Egypt and qualified him for the 15-Star medal. Alexandria in Egypt was a major transit port for the troops who took part in the Gallipoli campaign.

The posed photograph of Ted below was probably taken in an impromptu army "studio" set up. It shows him with a motorbike carrying the Divisional identifier. He is wearing a lighter service tunic without shoulder patches, with a lanyard at his left shoulder, and he has lance-corporal's single "stripes", these being narrow, possibly of wire on cloth backing. Just above each elbow is the characteristic blue-and-white armband (brassard) worn by the RE Signal Service despatch riders. His footwear is ammunition boots, hob-nailed, worn with laced leather gaiters.

Ted Smith - Lance-Corporal, 29th Divisional Signal Company, RE TF

The motorbike is equipped with an oxy-acetylene generator and front lamp. It appears to be a Triumph Model H, with belt-drive and a 499cc air cooled four stroke single-cylinder engine. It was fitted with a Sturmey-Archer three speed gearbox, operated by a hand gear change lever. More than 30,000 Triumph Model H motorcycles had been produced by the end of the war.

Aside from the bucolic "studio" backdrop, given his rumpled look, the overall impression is that this was taken on active service, possibly en route to / from the the Dardanelles.

In addition to the postcard from Ted from Norway above, my grandmother Edith Spear kept an embroidered silk postcard which possibly relates to the Gallipoli campaign. The postcard design commemorates the Australian Commonwealth Forces that fought in the Dardanelles, on the Western Front and in the Middle East. There is no handwriting on the reverse of the card, so we don't know if it was from her brother-in-law Ted.

Embroidered WW1 silk postcard kept by Ted's sister-in-law, Edie

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29th Division on the Western Front November 1917

Note - this summary information is based on the book by Stair Gillon, The Story of the 29th Division. Pub. 1925.

The 29th Division moved from Gallipoli to France via Eqypt in early 1916. During 1916 the Division took part in the Battles of the Somme. During the first part of 1917 the Division took part in the various Phases of the Arras Offensive. In mid-1917, the Division took part in the various phases of the Third Battle of Ypres. This takes us up to the Battle of Cambrai in late 1917.

The Division's Role at Cambrai

In November 1917, to the south-west of Cambrai, the British front line to the east of Gouzeaucourt ran close to and parallel to the main German Hindenberg Line. The respective trench systems ran NW-SE in the vicinity of the villages of: Havrincourt, Tresault, Villiers Plouich, La Vaquerie, Gonnelieu and Honnecourt.

The German second line of defence, the Hindenberg Support Line, was a mile or two to the east, running through Flesquieres and Bonavis. A third German defence line was located three miles further to the east, quite close to Cambrai, on the slopes overlooking the Bois de Neuf, Marcoing, Masnieres, Les Rues Vertes and the canal that linked them. it was referred to as the Masnieres-Beaurevoir Line.

The plan was for two British Army Corps, III and V, comprising six Divisions, to assault the Hindenberg Line with the assistance of massed tanks, the first such use of this tactic. The role of 29th Division was as a reserve, to come forward once the Hindenberg Line and the support line behind had been taken. It's particular objectives were to capture Masnieres, Marcoing and Bois de Neuf, then cross the canal and occupy the Masnieres-Beaurevoir Line.

Map of Cambrai 1917 - Gouzeaucourt-Masnieres area
(attribution: Wiki Commons, original: Schlacht von Cambrai.png,
self-made by W.Wolny, retouched by: Uv1234)

Following heavy casualties at Arras and Ypres, 29th Division arrived in the Basseux area in mid-October 1917 for rest and training before joining III Corps. The first ten days were spent in platoon and company drill, before entraining for III Corps at Peronne. A second period of ten days then followed, allotted to company and battalion manoeuvre combined with long marches across country in full fighting equipment.

The plans for the Cambrai attack required concentration in secret, requiring 29th Division to march on three consecutive nights, then a further march on 20th November to assemble, followed by the advance in attack. There was an expectation that the 29th Division would hold it's ground until the evening of of the 21st November, the day after the attack.

The testament to the 29th Division's powers of endurance is that in practice they were not relieved until 5th December, fourteen days longer than expected. During this time they experienced bitter fighting to consolidate the British position after the Masnieres-Beaurevoir Line remained in German hands. The Division then acted as a bulwark against the major German counter-attack of 30th November, during which Ted Smith was killed along with many other casualties, including seven members of 29th Divisional Signals Company.

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29th Division and the Cambrai Attack 20th November 1917

On the 19th November, 29th Division Headquarters moved to a quarry by Quentin Mill, on the road to Villiers Guislain, about a mile east of Gouzeaucourt. The infantry brigades, numbers 86th, 87th and 88th, arrived at the assembly point before dawn against the sound of the 378 tanks allotted to III Corps. A barrage against the German line started at 6.20an and the three British Divisions followed it in assault.

About 10.30am, the 29th Division was ordered follow up and push beyond the Hindeberg Line. The 88th Brigade on the right moved against Masnieres, the 87th Brigade in the centre moved against Marcoing and the 86th Brigade further north moved against the Bois de Neuf. There was no Divisional reserve. This would be telling, and others have attributed the failure to take full-advantage at Cambrai to the want of "weight behind the spear".

Over the 20th and 21st November, the Brigades of the 29th Division took Noyelles, Marcoing and Masnieres but failed to progress against the Masnieres-Beaurevoir Line. There were insufficient tanks, artillery and bridge crossings left intact to make this feasible, also 29th Division had no reserve. It was however, able to hand over the Noyelles sector to 6th Division and so occupied a two-brigade front from Marcoing to Masnieres-Les Rues Vertes with one brigade in reserve.

An interlude of a week followed during which time the 29th Division developed it's fortifications. Three miles or so of new trenches were dug and fitted out, railway construction pushed forward and accomodation begun for the reserve brigade in development at Gouzeaucourt.

German Counter-attack 30th November 1917

The War Diary from the 29th Divisional Commander, Royal Engineers, pithily summarises the relationship of 29th Division and its associates under the German counter-attack:

"Quentin Mill 30/11 - Heavy German attack on III and V Corps fronts this morning. The 55th Division in front of VILLIERS-GUISLAIN broke; 12th Div in front of GONNELIEU stood in places; 20th Div on left of 12 Div broke. 29th Div at MASNIERES & MARCOING held its ground in the face of fierce attacks and heaviest bombardments. Owing to the breaking of right flank of our front 29th D.H.Q. dugouts were captured at 9.0am. Staff just escaped, the only notice received being the sight of infantry running away front HQ.....Owing to 20th Div breaking without any warning, MASNIERES was surrounded and 497th Kent Field Co. (which had returned from night work and was in bed) was captured in its dug-outs in RUES VERTES; the dug-outs being captured from the rear."

German counter-attack at Cambrai 1917
(attribution: Wiki Commons, source: Milgesch - gescannt aus Georg von Moser (1860-1931),
"Die W├╝rttemberger im Weltkrieg", Seite 70)

Shells had fallen that morning in the quarry at Quentin Mill amongst troop billets. On the southern edge of its sector, the 29th Division HQ staff at Quentin Mill had to flee westwards through a creeping-barrage, under German machine gun and rifle fire, including attack by aircraft. Gouzeaucourt was mostly taken by the Germans, although it was subsequently re-taken in a memorable action by the Guards. The fighting units of 29th Division in Masnieres and Marcoing were defending themselves against heavy frontal attack and from German incursions on the southern flank.

Ted Smith's role as a 29th Division Signaller would have put him very much in harm's way, whether in the vicnity of Quentin Mill, Gouzeaucourt or the Brigade's Headquarters at the front at Marcoing & Masnieres. Although German attacks continued on 1st and 2nd December, we can do no better than to present words from the official despatches (after Stair-Gillon) to set the scene on 30th November 1917:

"On the Masnieres front the 29th Division, composed of English, Scottish, Welsh, Guernsey, and Newfoundland battalions, although seriously threatened as the day wore on by the progress made by the enemy farther south, where their battery positions had been taken in reverse, most gallantly beat off a succession of powerful assaults and maintained their line intact."

Ted's Burial Near Quentin Mill, Re-burial at Gouzeaucourt New Cemetery

29th Divisional Signal Company RE TF, lost seven members on 30th November 1917. Three, including Ted, are buried at Gouzeaucourt New Cemetery, one has a special memorial (but no grave) at Marcoing Communal Cemetery, whilst four are recorded as missing on the Cambrai memorial, Louverval. Several thousand British troops lost their lives on that day in the Cambrai area and only a few percent of these have a known grave.

Tag reads: "558038 SGT. E.E. SMITH, 29 SIGNAL COY"

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Ted was initially buried in a marked war grave along with others. In 1919 exhumation and re-burial took place in a formal process referred to as Concentration of British Graves. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission records give a military grid reference for the original grave site which has been georeferenced using an on-line coordinates converter.

Geo-referencing Ted's original cemetery location

The location is near to the quarry just west of Quentin Mill, the former 29th Division HQ. It appears to have been an extension to the original Gouzeaucourt British Cemetery, which records describe as: "located a little East of the railway line on the road to Villers-Guislain, near a quarry", having been begun by the 2nd Rifle Brigade in April 1917.

The Grave Register entry for Ted at New Gouzeaucourt Cemetery reads:

"SMITH, Serjt. E.E., 558038. Signal Coy. Royal Engineers. 30th Nov., 1917. Age 37.
Son of George and Clara Smith, of 21, Moring Rd., Tooting Bec, London. VIII. F. 1."

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