'Lucky' 13th last man at Neuve Chapelle


The "lucky" 13th sole survivor of a section of men who fought at the battle of Neuve Chapelle wrote to a relative in Luton about his horrific experiences.

"I can tell you I think myself lucky to get through five days of fighting such as that, and I hope I shall be just as lucky in the next attack," wrote Pte F. W. Smith, 16939, King's Company, 1st Battalion, Grenadier Guards, in his letter to Mr Harry Smith at 66 Highbury Road, Luton. His letter went on to detail his involvement in the battle.

We had to wait in a field at ----- while the first line of trenches were taken. In the afternoon we marched off, and were in waiting that night just behind the line that our troops were occupying.

"About three o'clock the following morning we had to go into the trenches. It was given out that we were to advance about 7 o'clock to reinforce the Bedfords, who were in the captured trenches about 60 or 70 yards from the Germans. We were ready to spring over the parapet of out trenches at the word of command.

Our Company Officer shouted, "King's Company advance!" Over the top we went, and were immediately greeted by a storm of bullets. The enemy were rapid firing all the time we were advancing. We had almost reached the first line of captured German trenches and out Captain was was shouting, "Come on the King's Company, come on lads," when he was killed.

German shells were bursting all round us and scores of our fellows were being wiped out as we went on. We had to jump over the trenches that the Borderers were occupying in reserve, and keep on going.

We had to go through ditches, and in one about nine feet wide I went up to my neck in ice-cold water, so you can tell what I felt like after I had scrambled out and started running again. At this period we were about 400 yards from the trenches the Bedfords were occupying. We had to advance about 100 yards, drop down, then on again for another 100 yards, and then drop down again.

All this time it was absolutely raining shrapnel and bullets. We were enfiladed from left and right, and it seemed as though every one of the Germans had a machine gun, so rapid were the bullets coming. When we got down into the trenches with the Bedfords, the other companies had to dig themselves in at the rear, as there was no room for them in the trenches.

We stayed there during the day, and many of our fellows were put out of action, as the shrapnel from the enemy's guns was bursting all over us. At night we were relieved, and had to go into reserve trenches in the rear.

The next day they started shelling us again. At midday our battalion started advancing in platoons across the fields to a different position on the left, and it seemed as thought the German gunners could see us, so accurately were they aiming. The shells were bursting over us and our men falling fast.

After describing how the battalion reached some captured trenches to support other troops, as counter-attacks were threatened, the movements continued all through the night till dawn, the writer went on:

Suddenly a light went up from the German trenches, which were only about 40 yards away, and they greeted us with a most almighty fusilade of bullets. We had to drop down where we were. Our acting CO was killed instantaneously, as was the officer in charge of our company.

Quite a third of the battalion were killed during the day, and at night, when we gathered together again, we found that we had two officers left in the battalion, while out of a section of 12 men and our NCO who started out, I'm the only one that's left.

We left the trenches altogether that night, and from the trenches to the roadway the sights were awful - nothing but stepping over dead bodies, and the groans of from the wounded were awful to hear. After marching until about 4 am, we reached ----, where we were billeted for three days.

[The Luton News, April 15th, 1915]