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 by Charles Abel Smith

Lieutenant Colonel Wilfrid Abel Smith was Commanding Officer of 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards, one of the finest battalions of the original British Expeditionary Force that crossed over to France in August 1914. The battalion war diary recorded fourteen officers and 375 NCOs and men killed or wounded in the first nineteen days of September. German shelling was taking its toll when Wilfrid took over command on 19th September in trenches at La Cour de Soupir Farm in the Aisne Valley. Using his letters home and diaries woven into a background narrative, accompanied by numerous excellent photographs and maps, his great-grandson, Charles Abel Smith, has written a vivid and deeply moving account of his eight months in command.  His book, From Eton to Ypres - The Letters and Diaries of Lt Col Wilfrid Abel Smith, Grenadier Guards 1914-15 covers the dark desperate days of First Ypres. By the end of the battle the Battalion had lost 959 men killed, wounded and missing, practically its entire strength. On 10th November, Wilfrid noted in a letter to his wife, Violet, ‘One of the saddest days of my life. I have lost over 300 men in this wood and we have been at it for ten days, day and night’. Major Lord Bernard Gordon Lennox was one of five officers killed.

There is nothing more heartrending than the summary of the four ‘rest days’ given to the battalion between the 11th to 15th November. It was meant to have been a quiet time, but, under four Generals with different orders from each, in reality they spent three of the nights marching about and each day were moved up to different parts of the line under heavy shelling. The narrative continues describing the horrors of trench warfare in the first winter on the Western Front, with bitter cold, rain and snow in water-logged trenches. Christmas brought its own problems for Wilfrid who wrote in a letter to his wife: ‘I am told the rations of the Army are to be held up for twenty-four hours to allow Princess Mary’s presents to come up, and I have reams of orders as to their distribution’. On Christmas Day, Princess Mary’s present of a box containing a pipe, tobacco and cigarettes was distributed to every man and Wilfrid wrote: ‘I am sending home my Christmas present from Princess Mary. Bless her - she has been a nuisance’.

The penultimate chapter describes how Wilfrid was mortally wounded in the head at the battle of Festubert on 18th May 1915. In his Foreword, Lord Carrington, who was a cousin of Wilfrid, writes: ‘He must have been an outstanding commanding officer and a very brave man, as manifested by the moving tributes to him from his colleagues and battalion’. These tributes in the last chapter of the book begin with this description in the Regiment’s official history of Wilfrid’s exceptional qualities: ‘Never was a Commanding Officer more mourned by his men; he had endeared himself to them by his soldier-like qualities and constant care for their welfare. He was a gallant and distinguished soldier, imperturbable in action, never flurried or disconcerted in perilous situations, a strict disciplinarian, but the kindest and best of friends and his loss is keenly felt by all ranks of the Regiment.’

A fly leaf note about the author mentions his hope that, as his generation of the family is the first to have failed to serve in the Grenadiers in over 100 years, his book will provide some amends to the Regiment by reminding readers of the role it played in defending the nation during the Great War. He can rest assured that he has done a singular service to the Household Division and in particular to the Grenadier Guards by his painstaking research and comprehensive account of his great-grandfather. It will serve as a permanent record of Wilfrid’s distinguished service and be keenly read by previous Commanding Officers and all those still aspiring to the post, as well as with great pleasure by everyone with an interest in the history of those turbulent times.

Philip Wright

From Eton to Ypres - The Letters and Diaries of Lt Col Wilfrid Abel Smith, Grenadier Guards 1914-15. Published by The History Press. £20.00


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