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Harry Smith

HARRY SMITH M.M.

Harry Smith was born in Great Haseley on 2nd January 1881, the youngest of seven children. His parents were Edward and Mary Smith (nee Manners), both of whom had also been born in the village. The 1891 population census return gave Edward’s occupation as “labourer/carter.”

On leaving Great Haseley Endowed School Harry initially found work as an agricultural labourer but soon turned his hand to building and bricklaying. In 1908 Harry met and married Sarah Tame who came from Great Milton, and whose father was employed as a groom.

In January 1909, in their cottage at 10, Mill Lane, Great Haseley Sarah gave birth to a daughter Ethel, followed by a second daughter Ann in August 1913. The couple then settled to the quiet routines and concerns of family and village life.

In August 1914 Britain declared war on Germany. Harry Smith, a man with a fine and considered sense of duty, volunteered to serve “King and Country”. On 9th December 1915 he said his goodbyes to Sarah, Ethel and Ann and travelled by train to Chatham in Kent, where he enlisted in 289 Army Troop Company of the Royal Engineers.

The Corp of Royal Engineers, commonly referred to as “Sappers”, had been founded in 1717. Over 300,000 sappers served in the First World War, the majority doing so in France and Belgium.

The Royal Engineers were crucial to the success of the British war effort on the Western Front. They were responsible for the construction and maintenance of roads, railways, bridges and army camps, the fortification of trenches and pillboxes and for communications and tunnelling. Without their endeavours the transport of troops and materiel to and from the front line would have been subject to a continuous, and at times catastrophic, dislocation and disruption.

289 Army Troop Company, at full strength a unit of 200 men, had specialist responsibility for the building of bridges and the maintenance of trenches, rivers and canals. As a builder, and as a man who had spent his life working with horses, Harry Smith had a natural fit of skills and personal qualities required by 289 Company.

Following an initial period of training in the United Kingdom Harry Smith was posted to the Western Front, and served with 289 Company at Ypres in Belgium.

From the outset of the war each Army Troop Company on the Western Front was required to keep a daily account of its “actions in the field” in a war diary. The war diary of 289 Company was kept by the Commanding Officer, Captain W.H.Ansell. The following extract, written by him during the German spring offensive of April 1918, describes in an understated military idiom the extreme and constant danger of the world in which Harry Smith and his comrades carried out their work as engineers.

“14th April 1918 – The company transport was moved across the canal to Reigersburg – as in the event of an attack, Bridge 4 (our way over) would probably be heavily shelled. Orders received to bring men in and hold in readiness for work.

!5th April 1918 – Company paraded at 3:45 am and proceeded to work in the trenches in YPRES ramparts, and work was carried out for 24 hours. Company moved [back] to new camp at Reigersberg.

16th April 1918 – Heavy shelling at night. Company continued to work in two shifts from 5 am to 9 pm on YPRES trenches, and on taking down huts.

17th and 18th April 1918 – Work continued, heavy shelling around Reigersberg. Transport lines moved [back] to ELVERDINGHE.

19th to 23rd April 1918 – Work continued on YPRES defences. On three nights a thousand gas shells were put in and near the ramparts, varied by HE [high explosive] shelling.

26th. April 1918 – Work on YPRES defences stopped.

27th April 1918 – Orders received at 6:30 am that company must move [back] to Proven, and man trenches at night.

So ends a strenuous and exciting month. It is notable that the battle casualties in twelve months are now 58 – more than half the working strength, an unusually high proportion for an army troops company R.E., but not high considering that for twelve months the company has lived and worked in a shelled area and has never been in a back area.”

By the end of April 1918 the German spring offensive had been halted by the Allies, who were by now engaging in a successful counter offensive. 289 Company were able to go about their normal business with only the occasional threat from German artillery. Between May and October 289 Company did not sustain a single casualty as a result of enemy action.

By the end of October 1918 the First World War was drawing to a close After nearly three years of active service on the Western Front Harry Smith and his comrades were looking forward to demobilisation and home.

The Armistice was finally declared at 11:00 am on the eleventh of November 1918. Captain Ansell wrote in the Company war diary:

“November 10th 1918 – News came through that Armistice conditions had been accepted by Germany.

November 11th 1918 – ARMISTICE DAY”

And then, prosaically:

“November 112th 1918 – Water stores brought to Harlebeke from 138 AT Co R.E.”

But Harry Smith and his comrades would not be going home yet. They were to be part of the Allied occupation of Germany, and they would be travelling there on foot.

The long march of 289 Company began at Harlebeke on 16th November 1918. By 1st December they had reached the (1815) battlefield at Waterloo and on 13th December they crossed into Germany near Eupen. On 17th December they reached the river Rhine at Cologne, and then on to their final destination, the German army barracks at Mulheim, where they were to be billeted “for the duration”.

Harry Smith finally returned home to his family in May 1919, his demobilisation certificate shows that he was finally transferred to the Army Reserve on May 18th1919.

The Military Medal was established in March 1916 and awarded to personnel below commissioned rank who committed acts of gallantry and devotion to duty under fire. The obverse of the medal bears the effigy of the monarch and the reverse the inscription:

“FOR BRAVERY IN THE FIELD”

On the 23rd April1918 an announcement appeared in The London Gazette which simply stated: “His Majesty the King has been graciously pleased to approve the award of the Military Medal for bravery in the Field to 179334 L/C H. Smith R.E. (Wallingford).”

The actual recommendation for the award, with the circumstances and date of Harry’s bravery, has not yet been found in family history. What will always be remembered is that the Military Medal is only ever presented to those who have demonstrated exceptional bravery during a time of war.

Harry Smith returned home from the war determined to rebuild a life and future for his family, and he worked assiduously to develop his business as a builder, taking work where and when he could find it. His initial good fortune came from Mr. and Mrs. Lionel Muirhead who lived at Haseley Court. Their son, Anthony John Muirhead, had also served with distinction on the Western Front during the war. In recognition of Harry’s excellence as a builder and his meritorious war service the Muirhead family contracted Harry to carry out maintenance work on the many cottages and other properties owned by the Haseley Court Estate.

Harry’s building business flourished and he was able to take over the tenancy of Glebe Farm in Rectory Road with its 90 acres of land. This he managed as a ’mixed’ farm; some arable, a milking herd of Friesians as well as pigs and turkeys.

Harry also kept two grey Percheron horses, Jane and Kit, which were a familiar sight in the village. He favoured this French draught horse for farm work over the traditional shires because of its gentle nature. He had become very fond of the breed, having worked alongside them during his time in France and Belgium, and where they were used for transport.

In July 1920 Sarah gave birth to a son Edward John,who was always known as John. In February 1928 a second son, Henry George, was born. Both sons worked for their father until 1952 when the three of them went into partnership together. By the end of the nineteen fifties John and Henry had taken ownership pf Glebe Farm.

Edward John attended Great Haseley Endowed School. He married Violet Coleraine and they had two daughters, Kathryn and Pauline.

Henry George attended Lord Williams School in Thame. He married Ruth Magerlein in Bavaria and they had two children, Elisabeth and Bernhard.

Ethel worked in London for a wine and tea importer. She married Reginald Spencer and they had a daughter, Veronica.

Ann won a scholarship to Thame Girls Grammar School and worked as a student teacher at Great Haseley School before studying at St. Katherine’s College, Tottenham, from 1932-4. She married Arthur Shrimpton in1940 and they had a daughter, Margaret, and a son, John.

Harry Smith was a Haseley man through and through and he cared deeply about the future of the parish, its people and the environment. In March 1931 he presented himself as a candidate for election to Great Haseley Parish Council. He was duly elected and served as a parish councillor for fifteen years.

The challenges facing the parish council in the 1930’s were considerable. The parish of Great Haseley had none of the amenities we now accept as an integral part of twenty first century life. There was a complete lack of mains electricity, water supply and sewage disposal; good quality public housing; household waste collection; paved roads and a public telephone service; and only a limited access to fire fighting equipment and personnel.

Harry Smith brought clarity of thought, organisational skill and a determination to get things done during in his time as a councillor. Parish council minutes from the nineteen thirties give example after example of the ways in which Harry and his parish council colleagues worked to promote the improvement of the lives and conditions of Haseley people.

Mains electricity was installed, via the National Grid, in 1932. In 1934 Harry initiated a village scheme for the for the collection and disposal of household waste. This was replaced in 1936 when the parish council negotiated an agreement by which Bullingdon Rural District Council would provide a fortnightly refuse collection service.

The lack of access to an effective fire fighting service had long been a concern for the parish council. Arrangements were very much ad hoc, with a ladder, water buckets, and a word of mouth ‘call out’ for volunteers to tackle fires.  When a public telephone was installed in the post office the parish council was able to look further afield and by 1938  had reached an agreement to use the fire fighting service of Thame Urban District Council.

Dealing with landowners who allowed footpaths to become overgrown or blocked was very much Harry’s forte, as was the repair and maintenance of styles.

The importance of providing good quality public housing was always a matter high on Harry’s agenda, and the post war construction of the houses in Horse Close also owes much to his drive and determination.

With the coming of war in September 1939 routine matters of parish council business were soon joined by more complex challenges. These included a requirement for all parish councils to design and implement appropriate measures for Air Raid Precautions, and to have ready a  supply of emergency accommodation sufficient for the resettlement of evacuees. These challenges tested the resolve and ingenuity of the parish council, (e.g. the first evacuee schoolchildren, twenty five in total, arrived at Great Haseley School just two weeks after the outbreak of war), but by early 1940 arrangements to deal with both of these issues had been set in train.

Harry Smith attended his last parish council meeting on February 28th 1946. During his fifteen years as a parish councillor he had only once been unable to attend a parish council meeting, a remarkable tribute to a man who believe passionately in the virtues of public service.

By the late nineteen forties Harry Smith had given over much of the day to day running of Glebe Farm and his other business interests to sons John and Henry. Harry developed diabetes and always had to carry insulin with him. His health deteriorated and he eventually lost his sight.

Harry Smith died on 26th March 1954 at the age of seventy three. He and Sarah had been married for forty six years. Sarah died in 1974. They are buried in the churchyard of St. Peter’s, Great Haseley.

Harry Smith is remembered by his family for many things. He is remembered as a man who cared passionately about horses, farming and the countryside. He is also remembered as a respected man of impeccable rectitude and integrity, who on occasion could be somewhat of a disciplinarian.  But most of all he is remembered as a jolly, kind and loving husband, father and grandfather, who brought joy to his family and was loved in return.

John Andrews  February 2019