Leonard Mark Smith was born and brought up in Moulsham, one of ten children. He worked as a grocer’s errand boy before joining the army. He was killed in action in March 1918 at the start of Germany’s final big offensive. His home was in New Writtle Street.
SMITH, LEONARD MARK,
Private, 2nd Battalion, Essex Regiment
Leonard’s nine siblings, all Chelmsford-born, included Percy Nathan Smith (born on 20th October 1884, died in 1972), Arthur Augustus Smith (born in 1885, baptised at St. John’s Church, Moulsham on 6th March 1886, died in 1966), Miriam Smith (born and died in 1889, and baptised at St. John’s Church, Moulsham on 19th April 1889), Walter Smith (born in 1890), Lilian May Smith (born in 1893), Daisy Rosina Smith (born on 12th December 1897, baptised at St. John’s Church, Moulsham on 7th February 1900), Violet Mary Smith (born in 1900, also baptised at St. John’s Church, Moulsham on 7th February 1900 and died in 1965) and Olive Nerine Smith (born on 15th December 1900, baptised at St. John’s Church, Moulsham on 20th March 1901 and died in 2004).
Leonard was educated at Moulsham Infants School in Moulsham Street, Chelmsford between 3rd September 1900 and 24th January 1902.
The 1901 census found him living with his parents, six siblings and a boarder at 7 Belle Vue Cottages, off Upper Bridge Road in Chelmsford. At the time his father was an armature winder (electrical engineer), probably at Crompton’s factory nearby. His brother Percy was an electrical apprentice and his brother Arthur was house boy.
A decade later the 1911 census recorded 15 year-old Leonard living with his mother, five siblings, a sister-in-law and a niece at 11 New Writtle Street, Chelmsford (pictured). Leonard was a grocer’s errand boy. His brother Percy was a metal turner for Gisby’s Motors Ltd.; and brother Walter was a fitter at Crompton’s electrical works.
Leonard lived enlisted at Warley and served as Private 10353 in the 2nd Battalion of the Essex Regiment, nicknamed ‘the Pompadours’. His battalion, a regular unit of the army and part of the 12th Brigade of the 4th Division, had been in England at the
outbreak of war and crossed to France in August 1914. Leonard joined later on, landing in France on 24th March 1915. At that time his battalion was in the line near Ploegsteert in Belgium. Later that year the battalion participated in the Second Battle of Ypres and in 1916 fought in the First Battle of the Somme.
On 21st March 1918 the Germans launched their last major offensive of the war, an all out attempt to break through the Allied lines. Although much ground was gained, the attempt failed, in the process exhausting the German army, and in turn this helped lead to the Allied victory later in the year.
At the start of the German offensive Leonard’s battalion had been near Roeux near Arras in France and over the following weeks it suffered heavy losses as it faced the German onslaught. Among the many dead from the 2nd Battalion of the Essex Regiment in that period was Leonard, killed in action on 28th March 1918 east of Arras near Fampoux. A post war history of the battalion reported:
“The first four days were relatively quiet, but on the night of March 27th there was an expectation that the storm would break early on the morrow. At that time 'A' Company (Captain J. H. V. Willmott), left, 'C' Company (Captain H. L. Hughes) and 'D' Company (Capt. G. B. Arnold), right, occupied the forward positions. The sentries were in the front line trenches, the remainder of the Companies being placed in close support. 'B' Company (Capt. Basil Willmott) was in support, Company headquarters being in Chalk Reserve. The left flank of 'B' Company's position was defended by one platoon, whilst another was similarly posted along Calf Reserve on the right. The remainder of the Company was with Company headquarters. 'A'. 'C' and 'D' Companies were to hold on to the front line as long as possIble and then to fall back on 'B' Company, along whose trenches further resistance was expected to be made.
During the night signallers put an extra telephone cable from Battalion headquarters to 'D' Company, then along to the companies on the left, thus providing auxiliary means of communication, 'I do not recall anyone being windy' wrote a signaller. The conversation certainly betrayed signs of suppressed excitement and with the usual Tommy's humour under all circumstances, various of them surmised as to how far towards Berlin or Blighty they would be twenty-four hours later. I remember one youthful orderly who emptied his pockets of everything except his paybook, quoting meanwhile from a signalling manual that orderlies should travel as lightly equipped as possible. We obtained what sleep we possibly could and some of the soundest sleepers had to be awakened when the enemy guns began!'
At 3 a.m. on March 28th a fierce artillery bombardment of all calibres was directed upon the forward trenches. There were four separate barrages - one falling upon the front line, one upon the support and one upon the back areas, the fourth moving at will over the whole ground. This fire was augmented at 5 a.m. by the trench mortars which cut the wire entanglements and searched the front and support lines. The advanced trenches afforded inadequate shelter from this fire because of the lack of dug-outs, and the front companies suffered heavy losses. Yet there was no yielding of ground. Lieut. Pulfer, with two men of 'A' Company was on patrol in 'No Man's Land' and when he got back to Company headquarters he found the commander, Captain Willmott, was wounded. The telephone lines were cut one by one and communication with Brigade was destroyed at an early hour. The line put under the trench boards on the previous evening survived, however, and 'D' Company was in touch until a signaler was ordered to disconnect his instrument.
The bombardment was so heavy and the resulting smoke so dense that it was impossible for those at Battalion headquarters to ascertain what was happening forward and they could only conjecture the enemy was advancing as the barrage moved towards them. At 7 a.m. the fire increased in fury and intensity and five minutes later the first movement was observed among the Germans massed in large numbers in their front system. Then at 7.15 a.m. line after line of the enemy advanced across "No Man's Land" and the ground was thick with field grey uniforms. As arranged, the S.O.S. went up from all companies. Every survivor fired rifle or Lewis gun as rapidly as he could get ammunition in the breach or drum into position, the wounded men helping them by bringing up ammunition. Two Lewis guns posted in Civil Avenue did excellent work until they were put out of action.
The first wave was checked, but thousands more poured forward working round the flanks and creeping along from shellhole to shellhole. They then broke through the gap of 300 yards between the Essex and the 56th Division. The remains of the three companies fought on until ammunition and bombs were completely exhausted. It was at this time that an endeavor was made to take Capt. Willmott to the rear above ground, owing to the enemy threatening the communication trenches, but that officer was again hit and, unfortunately, killed. Lieut. Pulfer resisted until the enemy rushed his position and then he knew no more for he fell unconscious with a blow on the head. 'The Essex' wrote a surviving officer, 'heId on until they were surrounded, for the enemy had broken through our ranks. Our orders were to stick to our posts, which we did until we were taken prisoners.' 'As I watched the attack,' wrote a member of D Company 'it put me in mind of a crowd coming from a professional football match in massed formation. I particularly noticed the method of the German machine gunners. One man walked in a stooping position with a gun fastened to his back, whilst another rotated and fired. I am sure this accounted for a large number of our casualties, as the bullets were skimming the tops of our trenches. I have in mind two who received head wounds which could only have been caused by these machine guns.'
The position on the right soon became very critical. When the German advance began 'stand-to' was given and Lance-Corporal C. J. Webb, at the telephone, was told to send up the S.O.S., then to disconnect and move up the trench. The Company's trenches had been subjected to a terrific bombardment in the early hours. The two dug-out entrances to headquarters were blown in, one after the other, and it was not possible for those imprisoned within to get out until a shell blew a hole In the top, when further digging enabled the survivors to escape. With the enemy working round the flanks, Captain Arnold withdrew to the communication trench (Chili) and formed a flank defence.
Dense smoke considerably obscured the view, but it was ascertained that the Germans were making greater progress on the Ieft than on the right. Captain Arnold then asked if any man knew where Battalion headquarters were, and, seeing Webb, he told him to take a message to the Colonel, telling him to send up as many men as he could as quickly as possible with bombs and ammunition . The message was delivered, but it was too late to despatch the munitions, as the enemy outflanking movement had proceeded too far.
Whilst 'A', 'C' and 'D' Companies were thus most gallantly upholding the honour of the Pompadours and. indeed, materially assisting to preserve an important section of the British line, 'B' Company were also experiencing the rigours of bombardment. When the German infantry moved forward the artillery range was lengthened on to the support line and the main positions were shelled with pitiless accuracy, continued direct hits being obtained on company and platoon headquarters, the machine gun stations and the water tank. Communication with battalion headquarters also was severed.
The platoons on either flank were overwhelmed after a desperate struggle, the survivors of the platoon on the left attaching themselves to another unit and continuing the fight. The two centre platoons remained in their original positions.
By 7.40 the remnants of the leading companies, as arranged, commenced to dribble back to 'B' Company line and small parties of German infantry were observed crossing 'No Man's Land'. This frontal attack, which was not heavily pressed, was kept in check, but the artillery fire, though less strenuous, continued to search the support line. A Lewis gun was hit and put out of action, whilst the machine gun station on the right flank was wiped out, with the exception of one man. Signals sent up by the enemy gave warning that they were moving up by Chalk Reserve and Cadiz Avenue, the right and left flanks, and retention of the position was made more difficult by machine gun fire from a German aeroplane.
Reduced almost to a handful - all that remained of the four companies - it was decided to withdraw two men at a time down 'Chili' communication trench in an endeavor to get in touch with Battalion headquarters. The movement was undertaken by means of a pre-arranged code word and the trench was blocked with such material as was at hand to delay the enemy as much as possible. The first party had not proceeded far before the Germans were seen to be advancing again and were discovered to be in possession of Caledonian Avenue.
The survivors, when the withdrawal from the support position was complete, faced the new threat by lining 'Chili'
communication trench and were successful in holding up the hostile advance for some time, being materially assisted by indirect machine gun fire from the batteries to the rear. As this movement was being carried out a runner returned with the information that the Germans were in possession of Battalion headquarters in Chili Avenue. It was later ascertained that Lieut.-Colonel Thompson and the headquarters staff had only just time to escape, leaving a bonfire of papers and maps, for as they left one end of the trench the enemy appeared at the other.
The German offensive was stilI pressed and the Essex men found themselves being gradually hemmed in on either flank by parties of infantry who had entered 'Chili' trench from Caledonian Avenue and on the right via Calf Reserve and Chalk Reserve. Then came another enemy aeroplane flying low and firing a machine gun. The men clung to their position and it was not until all ammunition was expended that the Germans were able to rush the position in Chili communication trench. Some thirty survivors of the front companies rallied round Captain G. B. Arnold at a dump of ammunition and bombs in the forward section of Chili Avenue and held up the enemy until 10.30 a.m., when then ammunition was exhausted and they were completely surrounded.
The Germans were but a few feet away when Captain Arnold told me to report to the Colonel' he would hold out to to the last,' and I left him firing his revolver', wrote the man who received the order. Splendid work was done by quite a number of people,' said Captain Arnold . 'Orders were to delay the enemy and it was a very difficult job for a company commander to decide exactly when all effective delaying action had been accomplished. The enemy worked round the survivors' point of resistance in Chili trench and were only 15 ft. away when the ammunition of the defenders gave out. The trench was fairly deep, but in places the enemy were able to drop their bombs over the parapet, causing further casualties amongst the weary Essex men, who were unable to retaliate. It was obvious that nothing further could be done to delay the enemy,who had the little party of survivors completely at their mercy.
Captain Arnold was full of praise for the splendid support given by the Machine Gun Corps. This opinion was endorsed by C.S.M. Hart ('B' Company), who stated one machine gunner was the only survivor of a team whose gun was worked to the last possible round. The corporal then smashed the gun, burying one of the vital parts, and carried on to the end with a rifle. 'This corporal deserved a V.C. as big as St. Paul 's Cathedral', added the Sergeant-Major.
At 7.40 a.m. enemy pressure on Chili Trench caused the Battalion headquarters to be evacuated as already stated. 'The scene in the communications trench', wrote a signaller, 'was almost indescribable. The well-kept, neat and tidy 'Chili', up which we had come on the 24th was battered all to pieces and scarcely recognizable. But we scrambled over the mountains of debris - pieces of duckboard, wire, iron stakes and earth inextricably mixed up. Then we came across men of the Battalion in support, and it was here (at the junction of Chili, Harry and Hussar trenches) that a strong defence line existed. Less that a score of details comprising battalion headquarters - orderlies, police, signallers, servants and others more usually associated with the administration of the Battalion - with survivors, in all about 35 other ranks, were put into position on fire steps, whilst others were posted on the sucken road which ran from the riverside village of Fampoux: towards Gavrelle. By that time the barrage seemed to have passed over the rood and there was a little more time for reflection. Various items of information - and rumour - began to reach us.
'Jerry is coming down the road towards us from Gavrelle.'
'Our companies have been practically wiped out.'
'The remnants of 'D' Company have sent a message down by so and so saying that they are nearly surrounded, but that they will hang on to the last.'
‘Judging by the stories told by wounded men and others who managed to get back, deeds of heroism were performed by the dozen that morning and there was no doubt large numbers of Pompadours died fighting gamely to the last. There is the incident of two cooks who, having made the breakfast tea for 'B' Company, found themselves forced to vacate the position before the tea was issued, but who stopped by their fire long enough to mix chalk and other rubbish with the tea in order that Jerry might have a tasty drop if he reached that spot.'
These two then made their way down the communication trench, stopping every few yards to mount upon the side of the trench and take a pot·shot or two at the advancing enemy. If, as they walked, a shell burst unpleasantly close to them, they again stopped and, as one of them put it 'knocked another couple over to teach 'em to be quiet.'
As the morning went on it was apparent that the enemy were being held and as the barrage had moved farther towards our rear it seemed certain that his plans had gone wrong somewhere. A low-flying enemy aeroplane which came along close over the sunken road was brought down by a Lewis gunner's action in facing our rear on top of the bank and firing at short range. All that day heavy firing went on. The enemy had advanced simply weighed down with blankets, extra boots. several days' rations and quantities of ammunition, and when they emerged from cover at any time during the day their slow progress made them easy targets for machine gunners and riflemen.'
The remnants of the Battalion were later attached to the Lancashire Fusiliers, but by this time the enemy could go no farther. In this section of the line, in his mighty effort to capture Arras, he was only able to advance a distance of less than 2,000 yards in the Brigade battle zone.
It was a glorious episode in the history of the Pompadours, and with them were associated, of course, officers and men of the Machine Gun Corps. That same night the Battalion was moved back to Athies - dazed with the shellfire and wondering why they were alive - and spent the hours of darkness in transporting bombs and ammunition to the front line battalion.
On March 30th five officers and 75 other ranks, the remnant of 500 stout fighting men, marched out of the railway cutting at Atheis to Haute-Avesnes. There they were quickly recruited by reinforcements and thirteen days later were moved to the Ypres Salient to assist in staying the enemy's advance in that quarter.
Thirteen officers were killed, wounded and taken prisoner, of whom Captain J. H. V. Willmott, M.C. was killed. Of other ranks 418 were returned as casualties of whom 342 were reported missing, over eighty were later gazetted as killed and of the remainder, the majority were wounded and taken prisoner, the rapid advance of the Germans having prevented their removal.”
Leonard has no known grave and is commemorated on the Arras Memorial, Pas de Calais in France and on the Civic Centre Memorial, Chelmsford. The Arras Memorial, situated within Faubourg-d'Amiens Cemetery in the western part of the town of Arras commemorates almost 35,000 servicemen from the United Kingdom, South Africa and New Zealand who died in the Arras sector between the spring of 1916 and 7th August 1918, the eve of the Advance to Victory, and have no known grave. Leonard was not commemorated by the war memorial at St. John’s Church, Moulsham.
Leonard was entitled to the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal, and Victory Medal.
The 1918 register of electors listed his parents still at 11 New Writtle Street. His father died in 1940, aged 77.