Remembering Jacob Hardy Smith

Like many universities, Nottingham was touched by the Great War. In this guest post, Emma Thorne looks at the story of one young man whose journey took him from Nottingham to the battlefields of Europe.

For almost 100 years, the name Captain Jacob Hardy Smith has been on permanent display on the marbled corridors of the University’s Trent Building. If you’re a member of staff or a student, chances are you’ve probably walked past it countless times without ever giving it a second glance.

Jacob Hardy Smith
Jacob Hardy Smith

Jacob is one of more than 200 officers and cadets from the University who gave their lives in service to their country during the First World War and whose sacrifice is commemorated in a special memorial plaque.

His name may have endured for almost a century but until recently it appeared that the details of Jacob’s life and heroic actions during the conflict, like those of his fellow servicemen, had been largely lost to history.University’s WW1 memorial plaque

That was until a chance enquiry to the University’s Centre for Hidden Histories led to Jacob being commemorated as part of an online initiative by the Imperial War Museum.

Prudie Robins, Jacob’s great niece got in touch with Michael Noble, Community Liaison Officer at the centre after discovering that Jacob had been a member of the Officer Training Corps (OTC) at University College Nottingham in April 1909 through an entry in the London Gazette.

Prudie, who lives in Lincolnshire, had been researching her family history in an effort to shed light on the story of her great uncle — her grandmother’s youngest brother — but the details were rather sketchy. However, she had discovered that Leicestershire-born Jacob, the son of a leather merchant, had joined the OTC at the University College Nottingham while studying the chemistry of tanning.

Researching the past

Michael Noble, Community Liaison Officer at the centre, was able to confirm that Jacob had been among the members of the college’s OTC and that his name is among those on the University’s First World War memorial. Colleague Professor John Beckett has been researching the OTC at University College as part of a wider history of The University of Nottingham which he is currently writing.

Even more excitingly, the academics were able to dig up some further information through the University’s Department of Manuscripts and Special Collections. Among the records related to the OTC were documents that made mention of Jacob Hardy Smith as a former OTC ‘old boy, done good’ — he got his commission into the Connaught Rangers, a regiment with affiliations to the Rifle Brigade, in 1914 and there is reference to the medals which he was awarded later in his career.Jacob Hardy Smith

Additionally, they uncovered a photograph of the OTC around the time when Jacob was a member, led by commanding officer Sam Trotman, although they were unable to identify his face among the crowd due to the quality of the image. Michael said:

“I sent a copy of the photograph to Prudie and she was delighted that we were able to confirm that there was a record of Jacob here. This started a dialogue between us and it was nice that we were able to support her in the research she had been doing into her own family history.”

Between them, they have been able to piece together the story of Jacob’s military service, starting with his training on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent as part of the 6th Battalion. Information from the Royal Green Jackets Museum shows he later joined the 3rd Battalion and was among the first wave of soldiers to arrive on French soil, landing on 10th September 1914, just over a month after Britain declared war on Germany.

An extract from the Rifle Brigade Chronicles reveals that Jacob led an attack on German trenches on the 25th September with great courage and determination and in which the Brits suffered heavy losses. The war record from the 3rd Battalion Rifle Brigade talks of how in October, 2nd Lieutenant JH Smith was mentioned in despatches and received the Military Cross for his part in the bold capture of an enemy officer in a separate skirmish.

Meritorious service

The memorial to the fallen of the OTC, Nottingham
The memorial to the fallen of the OTC, Nottingham

Jacob died in No 2 Stationary Hospital on the Somme on 29th August 1916 from serious wounds sustained through fighting two enemy officers in hand to hand combat at Guillemont — both of whom he killed — and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order medal posthumously for his meritorious service.Jacob’s medals.

In recommending him for the DSO, Jacob’s commanding Colonel wrote:

“He was the best Company Commander by far that I have seen out here. Absolutely fearless on all occasions, he was a very fine example of what an officer should be. He had trained his Company to perfection and the way in which his Company behaved, after all the officers had been hit, was entirely due to him.”

Prudie has since made a special visit to his grave in the Abbeville Communal Cemetery on the Somme and she honoured his memory by planting a ceramic poppy at the recent WW1 memorial at The Tower of London. Through her research she was even able to uncover distant cousins who she hadn’t known existed. A big moment was the discovery that they too had some cherished possessions belonging to Jacob — most notably his original medals which Prudie had feared lost.

“The research really took over my life,” she said. “It was like a giant jigsaw puzzle and it has taken me the length and breadth of the country chasing leads. I would spend hours scanning the internet before finding another potential clue and then off I’d go again.”

The Centre for Hidden Histories is part of a partnership with the Imperial War Museum, which has uploaded many thousands of records of those who served to a searchable online resource through an initiative called Lives of the First World War. The initial data was taken from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission but has now expanded to include records from other sources including the British Merchant Navy and the British Women’s Royal Air Force Service Records.

The idea behind the initiative is to preserve these old records for posterity and to champion the men and women who gave their lives during the First World War.

“It’s like Facebook for dead people,” Michael added irreverently. “You can also upload images and documents and it produces a personal timeline from birth to death. Importantly, it also encourages other people such as family members to get involved in remembering them and telling their story by uploading their own materials.”

Preserving the past for future generations

The centre has worked with the museum to promote the resource but also to test it and, with Prudie’s permission, Michael used Jacob Hardy Smith as a test case and means of exploring the effectiveness of the site.

Between them they have posted everything they could find about Jacob, including old family photographs, images of surviving artefacts belonging to Jacob including a pocket watch, an engraved silver wallet and moving letters that Jacob sent home to family from the trenches — in one he includes a touching hand drawn sketch of his dugout for his five-year-old niece Joan.Jacob’s drawing of his dugoutJacob’s pocket watch

Prudie has found the resource to be a fantastic way of ensuring that Jacob’s story is preserved for future generations of her family, while enjoying the ability to contribute to building a fuller picture of his life and gallant actions. She added:

“I would recommend this type of family research to anyone, it really has been quite an adventure. Before I began on this journey I really knew very little about my grandmother’s side of our family. Previously, Jacob had been little more than an anonymous face in a photograph and a small collection of his surviving possessions. Now I feel I know more of the man and can be proud to be a part of his family.”

If Jacob’s tale has inspired you to dig into your own family’s history, why not come along to the Centre for Hidden History’s free Family History Day on University Park campus on Tuesday July 21? The event will offer the opportunity to learn how to go about uncovering clues to your ancestry and researching your family tree. There will also be the chance for members of the public to use the University’s specialist technology to make high quality scans of their photographs and documents. Representatives of the Lives of the First World War project will be there encouraging people to use the site to remember their families.

From Bombay to the Western Front

On Tuesday evening, I attended a commemorative event at the Imperial War Museum North. It had been organised to reflect on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, which was the first major offensive to involve the British Indian Army.

Among the speakers at the event was Dr Santanu Das, of the English department at Kings College London. Dr Das, who is an expert in the culture and literature of the First World War, made the argument that while the First World War is often defined as the ‘clash of empires’, it could equally be defined as a watershed event in the history of cultural encounters in Europe.

Dr Das has been leading an international and interdisciplinary team of researchers and a number of cultural institutions across Europe to illuminate and examine this question during the centennial years of the war’s commemoration.

In this film we see how Dr Das has partnered with Imperial War Museum, London, In Flanders Fields Museum, Ypres, and the Museum of European Culture, Berlin to scour their (and many other) vast archives for letters, photographs, literary texts, sketches, artefacts, newspapers, and audio recordings. We see how all these sources are being brought together to be examined side-by-side, in order to piece together a fuller picture of the experience of the Indian troops and labourers, and the Europeans who they came into contact with.

The Battle of Neuve Chapelle, March 1915

The Battle of Neuve Chapelle was the first of the British spring offensives in 1915, when the Allied commanders were keen to escape the static conditions that had emerged and break through the German lines. They had planned simultaneous French and British attacks but when the British commander, Sir John French, requested reinforcements he was given territorials rather than regulars. This, and a sense that they were already over committed, prompted the French commander to call off his troops’ involvement, leaving the British on their own. Sir John decided to press on in any case (partly to impress the French following British failures to take ground in December 1914) and announced that the attack would take place at the ruined village of Neuve Chapelle in the Artois region of northern France and that Sir Douglas Haig would lead troops from the First Army (the IV Corps and the Indian Corps) in an effort to break through at Neuve Chapelle and capture the village of Aubers.

British and Indian wounded at Neuve Chapelle, on the way to the hospital base, 1915. One of the British is wearing a German helmet. Shows a group of wounded Germans, British and Indians next to a hospital train. (National Army Museum)
British and Indian wounded at Neuve Chapelle, on the way to the hospital base, 1915. One of the British is wearing a German helmet. Shows a group of wounded Germans, British and Indians next to a hospital train. (National Army Museum)

The German lines at Neuve Chapelle formed a salient, upon which Haig intended to converge his troops, the IV Corps (commanded by Lt. Gen Sir Henry Rawlinson) on one side, the Meerut and Lahore Divisions of the Indian Corps (commanded by Lt. Gen Sir James Willcocks) on the other. It would also be one of the first examples of the use of air power in warfare, with eighty-five aircraft conducting aerial reconnaissance, photography and cartography to aid the artillery bombardment.

On the morning of the 10th March 1915, following a thirty-five minute bombardment from hundreds of guns, the infantry launched their attack. A further barrage of artillery fire was committed behind the German trenches to prevent reinforcements from joining after the British attack. Sepoys of the Garhwal Brigade rushed across no-mans-land to seize Neuve Chapelle, taking 200 German soldiers prisoner. The village itself being taken less than an hour after the start of the assault and five of the eight assault battalions achieved their objectives with minimal losses. Many battalions were almost unscathed. In some areas the fighting was hand-to-hand. In the initial phase of the attack, everything seemed to be going in the British favour.

However, the commanders were unable to secure the breaches they had made in the German lines and were hampered by poor communications and the loss of field commanders, leaving poorly-briefed NCOs in charge of some units. Further progress and made the remaining push difficult and uneven. In particular, the northern sector, closest to Aubers itself, had managed to escape the British bombardment and the German lines remained intact. Every one of the thousand troops that advanced towards it was killed. Two German machine guns managed to kill hundreds of soldiers of the 2nd Scottish Rifles and the 2nd Middlesex, while other British troops lost their way in the confusion. Poor communication meant that the artillery couldn’t be informed of the situation in the front and were unable to respond, leaving the advancing troops to the mercy of the German guns. The battle went on for several days. On the fourth day, many of the surviving troops had to be roused ‘by force’ from sleep, a task made all the more difficult because they lay among corpses, indistinguishable at first glance from the sleepers.

Several problems emerged from the battle. The push took the infantry further away from their supply lines, isolating them and pushing the Germans further into their own territory. The more the British pushed, the worse they found things and, in terms of supply, the better things were for the Germans. Crucially, the push towards German lines took the British away from their lines of communication. They could lay telephone cables as they went, but these were easily cut by bombardment. Pigeons, flags and runners were ineffective and easily cut down. Relaying information to command, five miles behind the front, and back again to the advancing troops took eight or nine hours, meaning that effective, fluid commands were impossible. In addition, the men who led the attack were exhausted by the time they got to the German lines, making follow-throughs difficult. Reinforcements were difficult to supply, not least because of the poor communications.

The Outcome

A small salient, 2,000 yards wide by 1,200 yards deep had been taken and 1,200 German soldiers captured. 40,000 Allied troops took part during the battle and suffered 7,000 British and 4,200 Indian casualties. Similar losses were suffered by the Germans, setting the pattern for the slow, attritional nature of trench warfare.

  • The 7th Division had 2,791 casualties
  • the 8th Division 4,814 casualties
  • the Meerut Division 2,353 casualties
  • the Lahore Division 1,694 casualties

Ten Victoria Crosses were awarded for conspicuous bravery in the battler. Among the recipients was Gabar Singh Negi of the 2nd/39th Gharwal Rifles. His entry in the London Gazette reads: For most conspicuous bravery on 10 March, 1915, at Neuve Chapelle. During our attack on the German position he was one of a bayonet party with bombs who entered their [the German] main trench, and was the first man to go round each traverse, driving back the enemy until they were eventually forced to surrender. He was killed during this engagement’. His name is among those recorded on the memorial at Neuve Chapelle. He was nineteen.

The Aftermath

Had the aim of the battle simple been to restore the British reputation in the eyes of the French, it would be considered a success. Perhaps even more coldly, the experience exposed the British commanders to some of the realities of trench warfare, giving them information that they could use in the development of new strategies and tactics. Reviewing the battle in his despatch to the Secretary of State for War, Sir John French attributed the success to ‘the magnificent bearing and indomitable courage[of] the troops of the 4th and Indian Corps’. Willcocks, who had served for many years in India and could speak several Indian languages, wrote that the Garhwalis ‘suddenly sprang into the very front rank of our best fighting men’. However, the impact of the losses took its toll, breaking up long-established units and, in some cases, killing officers who had worked with Indian troops and who knew and understood them, and leaving them to the care of men to whom the Indians were alien. In proportional terms, the Meerut Division lost 19 percent of its Indian soldiers d 27 percent of its British officers, while, with 575 casualties, the 47 Sikhs lost 80 percent of their fighting strength. These losses meant that, although not the last time that Indian troops would see action, Neuve Chapelle would be the last time that they were used as a striking force. It set the template for much of what was to follow. General Charteris wrote of the experience ‘I am afraid that England will have to accustom herself to far greater losses than those of Neuve Chapelle before we finally crush the German Army’.

Letter from a wounded survivor from the Meerut Division, recovering at hospital in Brighton, describing the battle (Subterranean Sepoys)
Letter from a wounded survivor from the Meerut Division, recovering at hospital in Brighton, describing the battle (Subterranean Sepoys)

The personal impact of the battle was recorded by the survivors in letters home. The historian David Ommissi has collected some of the letters sent by Indian soldiers. Their comments testify to the almost indescribable bloodshed:

  • ‘The death of a human being has become as of much account here as the death of an insect’ -Nanak Singh, 6 Cavalry, France to Gaur Singh, Jhelum district, 6th March 1917
  • ‘God has made them fowls of the air, dragons of the earth and poisonous crocodiles of the sea and he has given them such skill that when we encounter their deceitful bayonets they set light to some substance which causes a suffocating vapour and then they attack. How can I describe this?’ South Indian Muslim, hospital ship to friend, India, 9th February 1915
  • This is not war. It is the ending of the world.-Wounded Rajput to relative, India, 24th January 1915

The Memorial

The memorial at Neuve Chapelle was erected by the Imperial War Graves Commission (now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission) in 1927. It is especially dedicated to the Indian soldiers who died in the battle and was designed with Indian culture and architecture in mind.

The Neuve Chappelle Memorial. 4703 names are inscribed on it. (Commonwealth War Graves Commission)
The Neuve Chappelle Memorial. 4703 names are inscribed on it. (Commonwealth War Graves Commission)

Mutinies and Death Sentences in the Foresters, 1914-18

Foresters
The Sherwood Foresters, pictured here in 1916

Now this looks like an interesting project. The Nottingham Radical History Group have used their long-standing experience of investigating and remembering radical moments from history to examine the cases of the 103 Sherwood Foresters who were sentenced to death or sentenced on mutiny charges during the First World War.

The project was deliberately chosen because of the high profile nature of the centenary. The group’s researchers soon realised the scale of their task and that their investigations would require them to familiarise themselves with the often arcane legal and organisational landscape of the military.

They have documented their approach in a brilliantly detailed initial pamphlet, which covers their work and the pattern of their investigations. It’s a fascinating example of the historical process and is written in an engaging and, at times, necessarily angry manner with footnotes that are as lively as they are informative.

The second in the series of pamphlets is also available. This begins the case study approach that the group has selected and focuses on the story of Private W. Harvey, who was sentenced to death for desertion in February 2015 (a sentence later commuted to two years’ hard labour).

As with the best works of history, this core story expands to examine the situation and context that surrounds it. Consequently, the pamphlet includes material on the lives that the soldiers left behind when they went to war and the experiences that the regiment offered once they had done so.

More information, and copies of both pamphlets, can be found on the People’s Histreh site