Captain Arthur Donald Thornton Smith D.S.O.

Letter to his father 25th April 1917

Portrait of Donald
Rev Edward Thornton Smith

Donald (as he preferred to be known) was born on 16th November 1891, in Anerley, the fourth child of Rev Edward Thornton Smith and Anne (nee Wood). The Rev Edward Thornton Smith was a Wesleyan minister and came to Bromley in 1915, as Superintendent, from the Sydenham Circuit. They lived at 63 Clarence Road, Bickley.

Donald’s siblings were :-  Alfred Ernest Stanley born 1883 in Lowestoft, Suffolk  Hilda Winifred born 1886 in Sunderland, Co Durham  Edith Marion born 1889 in Streatham, Surrey

On 22nd September 1902, aged 10, Donald became a pupil at the Whitgift Grammar School. His family were living at 100 Christchurch Road, Russell Park, Brixton. He left in July 1906, when his father moved to Hampstead, and then attended University College School until 1909. After leaving U.C.S. he worked for Glanvill, Enthoven & Co. (Lloyd’s underwriters).

Donald enlisted in the Inns of Court Officer Training Corps on 30th November 1915 and was appointed to a commission in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps on 15th September 1916. He was killed in action on 16th August 1917 during the attack on Langemark.

What follows is a transcription of the letter Donald wrote to his father on 25th April 1917 describing his latest tour. It was for this that he received his D.S.O.

Dear Dad

This has been the most interesting tour of the lot, and though it is only half over Battalion head quarters is really right behind the line and I have a chance to write, so I may as well tell you what’s happened.  We left the town Y that we were in when I last wrote, and marched through the place I’m now writing from and up to a village just outside the big wood I’ve spoken of, our line being in the wood and Head Quarters in the village.  We got settled in all right, and passed an uneventful night except for a bit of crumping near us.

It’s rather unpleasant being shelled when you’re in a village, as you can’t judge so well where the shell is going to fall, and also because there is so little protection.  In the open you can tell pretty well where it’s going, and if it’s coming straight at you you just flop down and the chances are that even if it falls quite near it goes some way in, in the light soil and then blows upwards so that you are safe unless you are on the edge of a crater.  If you can drop into a hole or a trench you are safer still.  Air crumps are the only thing you can’t time.  You hear the gun, then a whiz and a swish, and an enormous crash somewhere about you, and clouds of black smoke and chunks of iron flying about you all over the shop.  They’re beastly things.  Still the Bosch usually times them very badly.  To get back –

In the morning I went into the wood to make a plan and disposition report on our line.  It’s a thickish wood, and our little posts were dotted about all over the shop.  It took all day till about three o’clock, and after that I went searching for observation posts on the further edge of the wood.  We then retired and spent a peaceful night, and I began to think it wasn’t such a bad war after all.   Next morning the General sent into the C.O. saying we must send a patrol out the far side of the wood, and try and arrive at the enemy’s disposition.  There is a village which we will call T. the far side of the wood, about a mile or rather less from our line.  He said if possible the patrol would get to the edge of the village and see if it was occupied.  Germans had been seen there the previous day from aeroplanes.  I chose out six scouts and a lance corporal and made my arrangements.  Just as I was starting a message came through from Brigade saying T. was occupied, as some people on our right had been fired on from there by a machine gun that morning.

I stood by for a minute or two while the C.O. rang through to see if we were still to go out, and they told him to send the patrol out as far as possible, and when they came under machine gun fire they were to try and locate the gun and then return.  Cheery prospect!  I cut the patrol down to one man, the lance corporal, myself and my observer, and we started off.

There is a valley running along the east edge of the wood which forms the right of our battalion position.  We got across this and started along the bank of the road which runs about half way up the far side.  The lance corporal and man went first, one above and one below the road, then me about thirty yards behind, and my observer about thirty yards behind me.  We worked very slowly along this bank expecting to hear ‘pip-pip-pip-pip’ every minute.  However, we got half way to the village before we heard it, and when it did come the bullets flew right above our heads.  Then another machine fired, replying to it, and I realised that they were not firing at us at all, but the people on the ridge above us.  We had a particularly mouldy battalion on our right (whom I will not name) who had no idea of discipline and roamed about during the day round their posts.  Pleasing result – roamers machine gunned, posts located and crumped.  Anyhow as soon as I realised this I moved on again and the Bosches were so engaged with our friends on top that they never noticed us at all, although we were in full view, and it was a bright and sunny morning!

When we got to the edge of the village it was rather more difficult as the road was open to view, and the houses don’t give you such a good background as a grass and mud bank.  So we went right on, on our tummies and wriggled along (to the great detriment of our clothes) in the gutter.  However we didn’t go far, as there were only four of us and I didn’t want to run into any Germans.  We could see them moving about at the lower end of the village, and I didn’t know how near they were.  So I sent back my observer to bring up some more men and the three of us established a little post where we could watch the main street of the village and the surrounding country.  I sent for three more men only as I knew you couldn’t get a lot along the road, and by crawling they got along without being spotted.  I then established an O.P. in one of the first houses and a sentry at the crossroads near the entrance to the village, and the rest of us had some food and a bit of rest.  My messenger had brought back word that we should be relieved about dusk, and it was then about twelve noon, so we had about eight hours before us.

We located the machine gun – or at any rate – there was an unmistakeable emplacement at somewhere about the place the shots seemed to be coming from.  As a matter of fact it’s jolly difficult to tell where the sound is coming from, because as the bullets travel quicker than sound (muzzle velocity is just over 2400 feet a sec.) you hear the bullet go past you first and then the pop from the gun, and as the bullet travels so fast that it doesn’t make a ‘swish’ but simply a ‘crack’, very staccato like a revolver being fired and it is much louder than the actual explosion caused by the cartridge, it’s jolly difficult to tell where the thing comes from.  In fact the tendency, until you get used to it, is to think it is coming from behind, as the crack of the passing bullet seems behind rather than immediately beside you, and the initial explosion is so slight.  Anyhow, I spotted the emplacement and we took a bearing on it, calculated the distance, plotted on the map and thus fixed its position for the artillery to strafe.  I then handed over to my lance corporal and had a rest.

While he was examining the country he suddenly lit on a German officer in a little post about five hundred yards away looking at him through field glasses.  I got down, (the O.P. was on the ground level against the corner of a house, and you looked underneath a broken electricity standard which more or less hid you) and examined him.  There he was, sure enough, trying to conceal himself against the side of his trench which was end-on to us, and gazing through his glasses.  This was too much for me, so I got a sniper’s rifle with a telescopic sight and fired at him.  I don’t know whether I hit him or not, but he vanished, either dropping into the trench or disappearing down his dugout with amazing celerity.  After a bit of rest the L.C. and I crawled along the other branch of the cross roads to explore.  We got about 200 yards along, to the top of the village, where there is an enormous mine crater at the second cross roads.  After this it was absolutely open to view and we were getting too far from our base, so we went back.  Then what I had expected happened.  The officer in the post must have seen us and been giving artillery directions for our position. They fired in salves of four shells at a time, and just whizzed over the top of our wall and burst in the field about 150 yards away. No-one dared show his face in the German post, to correct the fire, so they all went over.  But it was very uncomfortable so I took all the men out and put them against a grass bank near the cross roads which gave them protection.  A brick wall is worse than useless against the lightest artillery, but an earth bank or cutting is safe against anything.

After this we had a quiet time, and just lay on the grass bank sunning ourselves, with one sentry each end and the O.P on the top of the bank. They crumped the wood a good bit and we just lay there and lazed.

I went to sleep part of the time, and smoked, and felt very pleased with life that we weren’t in the wood, and thanked our lucky stars that we were scouts.

About seven o’clock the machine gun got to work again, having spotted the people who were coming up to relieve us, and they had to lie there in the road for two hours waiting until it was dark before they could move.  However, they arrived finally and took over my sentries and posts, pending the arrival of a company which was to occupy that part of the village which I had explored.  I may mention that after the three extra men came up we fired at everything we saw down the bottom edge of the village.

When we arrived at Battalion Head Quarters I was astounded at being greeted by the C.O. as a sort of hero!!  We had spent a very pleasant day on the whole – exciting but not particularly dangerous – and it certainly came as a surprise when I was congratulated all round.

By the way – it was reported at one part of the day that I was killed – and at another than I had been wounded and captured!  We went back to the village and spent another night, rather disturbed by the Bosch planting heavies alternately in our back garden and our cook’s houses.

Next morning I got orders from Brigade to clear the rest of the village.  The friends on our right had managed to advance a little in the night – so that side was fairly safe – so I hugged the near side of the valley this time and again got through – this time with twelve men, without being spotted.  The LC., myself and my orderly again did the exploring – and working as before got right through the village bringing up scouts to form a post where we had gone – and as we got further on replacing these scout posts by company pickets from the company in occupation.  We worked on until we had occupied all the village except one little group of farms on the crest of the hill a short distance from the village.  We crawled up towards these, up the side of the road, and had just got to within fifty yards of the near wall when my lance corporal discovered two Germans within fifteen yards of him digging a new trench!  We crept back to the first house without being spotted and reconnoitred from there. The trench was fairly well held so we posted a sentry group and went back.

In the ordinary way I handed this post over to company sentries but the corporal in charge received an order to report with his men to Company Commander – and the silly ass went away without letting us know.  Pleasing result – Hun gets wind of our moving about, comes out of his trench, occupies our post and the house on the edge of the village – and the first I know is the crackle of rifle fire and a poor ass who was looking for souvenirs or something, between us and where the sentry group ought to have been, comes streaking for his life round the corner, with Bosch after him.  We got a firing line out across the side of the road and as soon as they saw us the Bosches streaked for their home and filtered back to their trench.  Meanwhile, from the other corner of the cross roads scouts were engaging a post they had located – and the machine gun emplacement at long range – so I had my scouts spread all round the cross roads firing in all directions.  A regular top hole little scrap.  Exactly like the sham fights at Berkhamsted except that it was a bit more exciting – and also there were no officers strolling about with white bands round their arms telling you that you were “occupying an impossible position” and that you were “all scuppered”!  However, we were evidently annoying them as they began to shell us.  I don’t mind rifle fire – or machine gun, if you have got a bit of cover and the chance of hitting back – but I don’t like being shelled a bit.  So I got as many of the men as I could under cover and sat tight.  Luckily a message arrived to hand over to the company and return to Battalion Headquarters with the scouts, so I gratefully handed over and went down to the entrance of the town, reported to the C.O. and led off.

However, our luck changed this time.  We were getting careless through not having been spotted, and as we were crossing two belts of wire entanglements that run between the village and the bottom of the valley, the beastly machine gun got us.  I was just over the second band of wire but most of the men were between the two, and I had most colossal wind up that they’d get hit. Why we didn’t get hit I can’t conceive – or rather I do know perfectly well.  It wasn’t our fault or the Germans.  It was Someone else whom I had asked before we started out to take care of my men.

Anyhow, there we were on a forward slope, plumb in view of Fritz and his machine gun chucking lead about all over the shop.  And then he started to shell and the bits of shell flew about and got mixed up with machine gun bullets and the row was deafening.

We crawled on our tummies very slowly and laboriously until we got to the gully in the bottom of the valley where we could crouch on our haunches all right without being seen and were in comparative safety.

As each crump burst and you heard the ‘whiz-flipp’ of the bits all about you I looked round fearing to see someone laid out, but each time they all started moving up again as soon as the bits stopped falling.  I can tell you we were all jolly glad to get into the gully and we soon got down along there to the wood and back to B.H.Q. and not one of us had a scratch.  The only ‘casualty’ was a haversack left in one of the wire entanglements!

The General arrived soon after I got back and he congratulated me too, and said I’d done jolly good work and probably saved a good few lives by obviating the necessity of a proper frontal attack on the place.  I also gave him the plans I had made of the approaches and defences of the farms as far as I could get them.  They occupy the top of the ridge, and command the country for some distance round.  Last night three companies went over the top and stormed the farms.  There wasn’t much resistance and we took several prisoners.  Our casualties were one man killed and two officers and thirty other ranks wounded.  I am sorry to say Pedley was one of the officers wounded, but it is only a slight one in the leg – a proper ‘Blighty’, so it isn’t much to worry about.

This morning I came here (reserve battalion H.Q.).  I was acting as liaison officer and ‘lines of communication’ last night so didn’t get any sleep.  I’ve had a slack day and shall go to bed early.  I believe they are going to leave me here for a bit of a rest with my scouts.

That brings me up to date.  It’s fine now, although still rather cold and the trees haven’t begun to show a sign of green yet.  I suppose summer will come eventually.

Love to all


With thanks to Donald’s family for permission to reproduce his letter and photographs.

see also Bromley Methodist Church

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