JOHN McGREGGOR SMITH
1st BATTALION, QUEEN’S (ROYAL WEST SURREY) REGIMENT
KILLED IN ACTION IN THE FIRST BATTLE OF YPRES
31st OCTOBER 1914, AGED 19
NO KNOWN GRAVE
COMMEMORATED ON THE YPRES (MENIN GATE) MEMORIAL
Menin Gate at night
JOHN McGREGGOR SMITH was born in Perth, Scotland in 1895, the son of James Kirk and Annie Malvina Smith and brother to Agnes H K Smith (born c1891), Susan M Smith (born c1892), Andrew R Smith (born c1898), Helen Christina G Smith (born 25/04/1900), Margaret Kirk Smith (born 02/11/1902) and David Gourlay Smith (born 06/09/1906).
John’s father, James was born in St Andrews, Fife, c1865 and had joined the British Army on 27th March 1882. He served as number 1230 with the Royal Highlanders (Black Watch) and re-enlisted for a further term of service whilst in Gibraltar in 1891. He had married Annie Malvina Coley in Chailey, Sussex on 27/12/1887. James had left the Army on 31st October 1900 having served in the Black Watch. Fourteen years later, to the day, his eldest son John would fall in action in Belgium.
In 1911 the family were living at 5 The Riddens, Tismans Common, and John was employed as a groom/gardener. In August 1913, John attested for service with the Regular Army, becoming Private L/10436, of the Queen's (Royal West Surrey) Regiment (the L prefix of his service number denotes that he was a regular soldier, serving with 1st Bn since before the commencement of hostilities). His term of service was as a soldier of the line for 7 years Army Service followed by 5 years in the Reserve. The First World War intervened, and 1st Bn Queen’s was one of the first Army units to move overseas to make up the British Expeditionary Force.
TO FRANCE WITH THE B.E.F, 1914
At the time of the declaration of war, the 1st Battalion The Queen's (Royal West Surrey) Regiment were based at Bordon Camp in Hampshire. They had been participating in a training camp at Rushmoor, near Aldershot when, on 1st August 1914, they suddenly received orders to return to Bordon. The order for General Mobilization arrived on the 4th and the unit began to receive Reserve soldiers the following day. The battalion was part of the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Division of the British Expeditionary Force.
Over the 5th and 6th August, the battalion received 580 reservists, and the mobilization was complete by the 7th August. The 8th and the 9th were spent preparing the reservists on the rifle range and practising attacks, and on the 12th the battalion paraded in two companies for the journey to France. They left Bordon by train, bound for Southampton, and embarked, 27 officers and 971 other ranks, on the S.S. ‘Braemar Castle’, which sailed at 8.15pm. They landed at Le Havre at 9am on 13th August 1914. The battalion was to remain on the Western Front for the duration of the war. John was therefore one of the first Rudgwick men to arrive to take part in the conflict.
On arrival in France the battalion first came under fire on the 24th August 1914, and on the same day engaged a small German cavalry group which approached their trenches. Following their involvement in the Battle of Mons on 23-24th Aug 1914, John and the battalion took part in the retreat from the advancing German armies. Over the next 13 days the men were to march over 200 miles and participated in a rearguard action at Etreux on 27th August 1914 before the retreat halted with the Battle of the Marne on 7-10th September 1914.
In England, John’s father James enlisted for service in Horsham on 14th September 1914, at the age of 49 joining the 9th Battalion Royal Highlanders (Black Watch) as a Colour Sergeant 3/4186. At this time the Smith family lived in ‘Hillview’, Tismans Common, Rudgwick.
With the British Expeditionary Force in France, the retreat had now been halted and the combined Allied forces began to advance north once again. John and 1st Battalion Queen’s participated in the Battle of the Aisne on 12-15th September 1914, the Actions of the Aisne Heights on 20th September 1914, the Action at Chivy on 26 Sep 1914 and then, having returned into Belgium and the Ypres area, the Battle of Langemarck on 21-24th October 1914.
THE FIRST BATTLE OF YPRES
On 29th October 1914 John and the men of the 1st Battalion became involved in an action that would later be known as the Battle of Gheluvelt. This was to continue until 31st October, and would become an element of the action which would in future be termed The First Battle of Ypres.
The British Positions before Ypres on October 29-31 1914
Oct 29 - A (2nd Division) B (1st Division) C (French detachment) D (7th Division)
Oct 30 - E (line to be defended at all costs)
Oct 31 - F (line to be defended at all costs after temporary withdrawal)
On the morning of 29th October 1914, the battalion were in the vicinity of Hooge, east of Ypres following their participation in an action to the north of this area near Langemark. The men left bivouacs in a field near Bellewaarde Farm to advance with 3rd Brigade and reinforce the front line near Gheluvelt, as a counter to a German advance to take the city of Ypres. Following a failed attempt to capture a portion of enemy front line to the south east of the village of Gheluvelt, the unit dug in on a ridge line running south east of the village towards a windmill (positioned approximately 500 yards south east of the village).
The following day the battalion covered the withdrawal of 22nd Brigade and repulsed various enemy attacks. On the 31st October , in heavy fighting, the Cavalry Corps was swept off the Messines Ridge to the south of Ypres. Sir Douglas Haig gave orders that the line from Gheluvelt to be held to the last man. Around the village of Gheluvelt, a heavy attack began to develop that would threaten the possession of Ypres with an advance along the Menin Road. The Germans had used the clear night and overcast early hours to move heavy reinforcements up to the area around Menin. The day began with a heavy barrage designed to keep the British defenders in their trenches, when in reality John and his comrades held hastily dug rifle pits with isolated stretches of shallow trench.
The Battalion War Diary describes the action of the 31st October, one of the worst days that the unit had experienced in the war thus far.
“Before dawn an attack was made on ‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies and the King’s Royal Rifles, but was repulsed, and the enemy dug in within 300 yards of our line and reoccupied the trenches vacated by the 22nd Brigade. At 7am our line was subjected to a very heavy bombardment, to which our guns were unable to reply. The enemy then worked their way into the orchard, and the platoon of the King’s Royal Rifles, supported by one platoon of The Queen’s under Lt Tanqueray, was driven out. Colonel Pell ordered a counter-attack, but the attempt by the [2nd Bn] King’s Royal Rifles failed, and thus the enemy was in possession of the orchard within 150 yards of our line. Major Watson went back for assistance, but none was available, and he then returned to find Colonel Pell wounded, and he assumed command. We were holding our own when, about 10am, ‘B’ Company was driven out of its trenches by machine-gun fire from both flanks, and the reserve (two platoons King’s Royal Rifles) was sent for, but could not be found.”
Village of Gheluvelt, with
1st Bn Queen’s RWSR position at the start of German attack of 31st October 1914
“Soon after this Captain Stanley Creek (1) sent a message to say that he had heard the Welsh had vacated their trenches, but that he was quite all right and could hold on. Major Watson (2) went to ‘A’ Company to arrange a counter-attack in the event of the enemy coming on, and himself moved up to the ridge to see how the left was faring. When there he met a second messenger from ‘D’ Company, from whose report the situation seemed to be as follows:- Germans were about ‘C’ Company’s trenches (no report was forthcoming from this company) ; ‘B’ Company’s trenches were evacuated and the men were retiring from the farm as the Germans were entering it ; orders were sent to ‘D’ Company to retire, but before the order arrived the Germans were seen to be in the village behind ‘D’ Company.”
Lt Boyd (3) one of the few officers that were to survive the day, later wrote “At about 11am we could see the enemy advancing at about 1,000 yards range. They advanced up the trench (formerly held by 2nd Bn Queen’s RWSR) under cover and mounted machine guns covering our road ; they commenced sapping this trench, and we could not get at them to stop it, as they remained under cover all the time. A further enemy machine gun was brought into action about 75 yards away from us . Meanwhile our ammunition in ‘B’ Company was running short, and Wood sent back two orderlies, each of whom we saw shot before they had run 20 yards. Regimental Sergeant-Major Elliott eventually came up with some, and stopped for two minutes for a breather ; he then started back for Battalion headquarters, zig-zagging as he ran, and we saw him pitch on the road after going a few yards, and I was certain he was killed as he lay quite still without a move. Fortunately the Germans thought the same, and to our relief he suddenly got up and ran on under cover without another shot being fired ; he had been hit in the arm when he fell, but otherwise was all right. It was about this time that Battalion headquarters was set on fire by incendiary shells.”
To the battalion’s north, the half a battalion of 2nd Battalion The Welsh Regiment were simply blown out of their trenches astride the Menin Road, exposing the left flank of ‘D’ Company.
Lt Boyd continued “Things now began to look pretty hopeless, as we were being plastered with machine-gun and rifle fire from the two flanks and front without being able to retaliate at any visible target. Wood ordered me to take what was left of the platoon at the roadside and report to Watson what was happening. It was not a cheery prospect having to double along the road for about 50 yards under heavy fire all the way. Three men were all I could muster from the platoon, and we all started together, but when I reached the farm I found the only survivor of the three who had started with me, together with Drummer Williams, who was able to tell me where Watson was, and I reported to the situation to him. We collected 11 men of ‘A’ Company and lined a hedgerow about 150 yards behind the Battalion headquarters farm [Tree House]. Here Watson received a report from our left that the Welsh had been forced back and that ‘D’ Company was being enfiladed from the north. Immediately following this message we saw the enemy coming over the hill in the rear of ‘D’ Company , having apparently come right round their flank. The Germans were already entering Gheluvelt from the north , so our small party fell back to the western side of the village and held a line of hedge immediately south of the Menin Road. Watson went back to report the situation to Brigade Headquarters while I took charge of a motley throng of various regiments, with Sergeant Butler and 13 men of The Queen’s amongst them.”
“Major Watson and Lt Boyd the reformed what men they could find about the houses, while the few men left of the King’s Royal Rifles went back to rally their own battalion. As the Germans were now in the village, the above rallying party moved towards the King’s Royal Rifles, who were then actually moving back owing, it is said, to a report that hostile machine guns were being brought up to enfilade them. There was thus nothing at hand to rally on. It was now about 11.30am, and Major Watson and Lt Boyd rallied what men they could find of different regiments and got them into the trenches.”
Lt Boyd commanded a mixed unit of approximately 200 men. 2nd Division pushed Germans back out of Gheluvelt at approximately 2.30pm and Boyd the moved his men across the road to the north, as the British artillery had become exposed and was now effectively in the front line. In doing so he straightened out the line to the east of the village and covered the guns for the remainder of the day.
Second Lieutenant Fowler of 1st Battalion Queen’s RWSR joined Lt Boyd in the afternoon with 8 men from hospital, whilst a very few more rejoined the unit from the trenches that had been held earlier in the day by The Welsh Regiment. Boyd and the remaining 32 men of The Queen’s then moved back to reinforce the King’s Royal Rifles to the south of the Gheluvelt chateau, where they remained in support for the next 24 hours.
On 1st November, the roll call of 1st Battalion The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment revealed the terrible cost of the defence of Gheluvelt:
‘A’ Company - 2 Corporals, 2 Lance Corporals, 20 Privates
‘B’ Company - 4 Privates
‘C’ Company - 2 Privates
‘D’ Company - 1 Lance Corporal, 1 Private
The battalion had lost 9 officers and more than 624 other ranks killed, wounded or missing, including Private John McGreggor Smith from Rudgwick. John’s body was not formally identified as recovered from the battlefield. He is, therefore, commemorated on the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial to the Missing as one of 140 men from the battalion who fell on the 31st October 1914 who have no known grave. John was posthumously awarded the 1914 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.
James, John’s father remained with 9th (Service) Battalion Royal Highlanders (Black Watch) as a Colour Sergeant until 26th December 1914, when he was posted to the 11th (Reserve) Battalion. He was promoted to Acting Company Sergeant Major on 1st July 1915, and confirmed in the rank on 1st September 1916, when the battalion became the 38th Training Reserve Battalion of the 9th Reserve Brigade. On 6th March 1917 James was posted to France, where he served with various Labour Companies before before being transferred to the Labour Corps on 7th May 1918 . He was discharged from service on 17th June 1920.
The Smith family maintained their links with Rudgwick. Annie died on 14th Febuary 1943 and James died on 14th January 1944 , both were laid to rest in the graveyard of the Holy Trinity Church, Rudgwick.
(1) Captain Stanley Creek was killed in action during the fighting around Gheluvelt on the 31st October 1914.
(2) Major Charles Frederick Watson, survived the First Worls War, awarded DSO.
(3) Lt John Dopping Boyd was subsequently awarded the DSO for his actions on the 31st October 1914. He was awarded a Bar to the DSO for his service in the Battle of the Somme 1916, and continued in the Army after the First World War. In 1932 he took command of 1st Battalion in North China, but was invalided home following a sports injury.