THE grim reality of life on the front line during the First World War is being brought to life through a series of letters a father sent home to his family.
Brothers Paul Smith, 81, and David, 84, who both live in Witney, worked with the trustees of Witney Museum to create the display of letters Sidney Smith sent home from the trenches between 1914 and 1918.
The letters capture poignant stories about life on the front line, touching on the horrific loss of life, the poor living conditions and the pain of being cut off from loved ones.
Sidney Smith joined the 4th Batallion of the Ox & Bucks Light Infantry regiment in 1914 along with a group of bright-eyed, mostly teenage volunteers from the town.
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Buoyed by a desire to serve their country along with thousands of others, they were oblivious to the horrors that awaited them.
Sidney distinguished himself in fighting around Ploegsteert in Belgium.
He moved through the ranks from Lance Corporal to Sergeant to Second Lieutenant, ending as a Captain.
In 1916 he was wounded during heavy fighting after being shot through the left arm at Pozieres on July 23.
A very large number of his company were killed during fierce fighting.
- Sidney Smith, second from left above, with colleagues at the Gas Training Station in 1916
Paul, who typed up the letters with his brother, said his father was told he would never use his arm again but amazingly attached a garden rake to it while recuperating at a London hospital and managed to eventually regain its full use.
Sidney was spared returning to the trenches and was instead posted into one of the first gas training stations in the British Army in England, teaching troops and officers how to deal with the dangerous new chemical weapons and the preventative gas masks. He was promoted to Captain towards the end of the conflict.
Paul said of the exhibition: “Most of this stuff has been held in the family for a long time ever since we were youngsters, so it was just a matter of sorting it out.
“It’s special to us and perhaps because we think it’s special maybe other people will be interested in it as well.”
- Sidney Smith, front right above, at Witney Aerodrome when he was at home after being wounded in 1916
Ian Petty, chairman of Witney Museum and Historical Society which runs the museum, said: “We’ve been very lucky to have a local family who had a father who was eloquent enough and keen enough to write letters home, sometimes more than once a day. It has worked extremely well as far as the exhibition is concerned.”
Sidney never talked about his war experiences after returning home in 1918.
He returned to work as managing director at Bridge Street Mill in Witney, which his family part-owned.
Perhaps encouraged by the need for a military defence against foreign enemies, he also set up the town’s Territorial Army unit and helped found the drill hall, now the Langdale Hall, in 1927.
He also set up Witney Rifle Club, which used the range at Langdale Hall, before moving to a new building in Burford Road.
Paul and David continued in the family’s military traditions, both completing National Service in the 1950s.
Sidney’s two cousins, Neville and Jack Smith, served in the British Army during the Second World War in Germany and the Far East respectively, both in the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry.
Sidney passed away in 1953 leaving behind his three children: David, Paul, their sister Susan and his wife Dorothy.
Paul said: “We’re not a military family but just do our duty when called upon, like anybody should.”
The museum in Gloucester Court Mews, off the High Street, is paid for by fundraising and grants from Witney Town Council and is staffed by volunteers.
The museum is currently closed for the winter but will reopen to the public with the First World War display on the first floor in March.
ONE OF THE LETTERS
From Sidney Smith
My dear Dad and Mum, 25/07/16
You will have had my pc and also Rev Meek promised to write, but I know you will be anxious to get a line from me.
At present I am in the Duchess of Westminster Hospital at Etaples and am quite fit everywhere but my left arm, which is out of action with a bullet hole through, and the bullet evidently had something to say to one of the bones on the way.
My arm was operated on yesterday and today it was X rays. It is quite a clean hit and will be only a matter of time for things to join up and then all will be in working order again. So I am considering myself a very lucky fellow. It will only be a matter of few more days here & then they will push me off to Blighty where I shall see you all & have no trenches to bother about for some time.
You have seen that Territorials and Anzacs were in action at Pozieres. Well, we were some of those Territorials and did our job but I am sadly afraid our poor old Battn suffered very heavily.
I was hit very early in the attack so don’t know much about things except from others. We got our trench & stuck to it. That’s the chief thing & the boys were splendid. Will be able to tell you all later on.
This is a ripping place & everything that can be done is done. I feel very sad for other people and for our poor old Battn, but feel very happy for myself.
Something like locking up after a week’s work you know.
With my fondest love,
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