BALLYMENA 1914-1918

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Words to Reflect On

Captain Robert Stewart Smylie

Captain Robert Stewart Smylie, Royal Scots Fusiliers, killed in action, was a son of the late Mrs. R. Smylie, Bridge End, Ballymena. He was educated at Ballymena Model School and Mr. T. Ferguson's Intermediate School, Ballymena,  and he took his degree at the University of London. Before the war he was head master of the County Grammar School, Sudbury, Suffolk. His wife and three children reside at Sudbury. 

Ballymena Observer, July 1916.

© IWM Q 4417

Bazentin Ridge, July 1916

Robert Smylie in 1914
Captain Robert Stewart Smylie, 7th Royal Scots Fusiliers, attached 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers, killed in action on the 14th July 1916, was born in England but lived most of his early years near Ballymena, the son of the late Mrs. R. Smylie, Bridge End, Galgorm. He had been born on the 7th April 1874. He was raised by his mother, his father having died when the boy was very young.  
He was educated at Ballymena Model School and Mr. T. Ferguson’s Intermediate School, Ballymena,  and he subsequently graduated with an MA in 1903 from the University of London. He became a teacher of Mathematics, English and Latin and was, having taught at Daventry Grammar School, Lewisham House School, and the King Edward VI Grammar School in Chelmsford, for four years Headmaster of the County Grammar School, Sudbury, Suffolk. His wife Beatrice and three children, Moll, Bids and 'Little Pat’, resided at Sudbury.
It was there in Sudbury that, having served as a Lieutenant in the Cadet Force at Chelmsford, he volunteered in 1914 for military service.  By 1915 he was in France with the 7th Battalion, Royal Scots Fusiliers; by September that year he was attached to the 1st Battalion and on the front line.
Robert Stewart Smylie was killed in action during the Battle of the Somme in an action near Longueval Ridge on 14 July 1916, reportedly by a single wound in the chest - some reports refer to shrapnel, others to a bullet.
His C.O. wrote to his widow and told her that, Acting Captain (hence his headstone says Lieutenant) Robert Stewart Smylie ‘was killed instantaneously while charging at the head of his company and setting a fine example to his men. His loss is very greatly deplored by all of us; he was one of the best company commanders in the battalion and endeared us all by his cheerful endurance of hardships and his kindly disposition'. It was the same lines he no doubt wrote to many wives, but there was truth in what he said.  An NCO also wrote to Mrs Smylie and said his death was 'painless and sudden'. He told her further that 'He made me promise that if I returned home I would write to you stating that his last thoughts were of you. He died happy and doing his duty'.
Another letter gave an even better insight into the man. The soldier said she had the sympathy of the whole regiment because ‘nobody was more popular than ‘Old Smylie’, as he was affectionately called …’ and the men had ‘spent many days discussing and lamenting over old Stewart’s (sic) little eccentricities and innumerable acts of kindness’.
Chaplain F J Rae, 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers, also wrote to the family and his letter gives  us additional information about the man. He knew her husband well he said and admitted that ‘there was no man in the army out here for whom I had higher respect and regard. He was a gallant gentleman’. He relayed that the men had said in conversation amongst themselves before the attack that ‘if that ridge over there had to be taken, and Smylie knew it meant his death he would go straight for it.’ Smylie, in earlier conversation with his Colonel, had confirmed their view when he said, ‘I would rather be here now, Sir, than on any spot on God’s earth’. The Chaplain marvelled that Smylie ‘went to face danger like a bridegroom to his wedding’.
Montauban, the start point, is seen in the centre at the bottom.
The 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers had arrived on the Somme by 5 July 1916. They were in the 8th Brigade of 3rd Division, their unit having joined from 9th Brigade on the 5 April 1916.
To capitalise on the most successful part of the Somme battle's opening phase after the 1st July, an advance was ordered on the German positions between Bazentin and Longueval. The objective was to capture the low ridge line that ran from the village of Bazentin le Petit to Bazentin Le Grand and ended at Longueval, this latter close to Delville Wood. The assaulting troops would then continue from the ridge uphill to High Wood.
The troops were to move up during the night and attack at dawn, commanders being told that assaulting battalions should into no man's land, some 1,200 yards wide in places, during the darkness and be ready to rush the enemy trenches when the barrage lifted.
A short hurricane bombardment was used, and the artillery opened fire as planned at 3:20, five minutes before the men went ‘over the top’. Neil Fraser-Tytler, a Royal Artillery observer, described the moment his guns opened up: “It was a stupendous spectacle! The darkness lit up by thousands of gun flashes. The flicker of countless bursting shells along the northern skyline, [was] followed by a few minutes later by a succession of frantic SOS rockets and the glare of burning Hun ammunition dumps”.
The initial action was in the main a success, gaining ground and taking the Germans by surprise. The 3rd Division, deployed in a sunken road, had the 8th Brigade in the front line, i.e. the 8th East Yorks, the 7th Shropshire Light Infantry. Smylie had taken his 'C' Company of the 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers into a position near a quarry to the north of Montauban during the night; they were in support and did not advance until around 7am.
The attack was described by Philip Gibb in his book entitled The Battles of the Somme (Published by George H Doran Company, New York, 1917). He described it thus: Before the light of dawn came, and when our guns lifted forward, they rose from the ground just north of Montauban and went forward across No Man's Land towards the German trenches. They had to make a distance of 1,200 yards over open ground and came at once under heavy shell-fire and an enfilade fire from machine-guns.
The enemy also used smoke bombs, and the ground was ploughed with high explosives. A number of men fell, but the others went forward shouting and reached the German line. In some parts the wire had not been cut by our bombardment, but the Highlanders hurled themselves upon it and beat their way. Machine-guns were pattering bullets upon their ranks, but not for long. The men poured through and surged in waves into and across the German trenches.
Every man among them was a grenadier, provided with bombs and with supplies coming up behind. It was with the bomb, the most deadly weapon of this murderous war for close combat, that the men fought their way through.
The German soldiers defended themselves with their own hand grenades when their machine-guns had been knocked out in the first line trenches, but as they sprang out of their dug-outs when the bombardment lifted and our men were upon them they had but a poor chance of life unless they were quick to surrender. I hear that these trenches in the second German line were not deeply dug, and that the dugouts themselves were hardly bomb-proof.
It is not an entirely accurate account but it does convey something of the intensity of the opening action of the three day battle which began on July 14th.
Smylie’s advance with the 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers in the centre section of the 3rd Division advance had not gone well – these men were attacking from Montauban towards Bazentin le Grand. The German wire was not cut by the barrage at this point and the defenders were vigilant and ready to respond, not trapped in bunkers or buried in trenches as they were elsewhere. Moreover, the German counter-barrage laid down on no man's land missed the leading units but caught the supporting waves. The Royal Scots Fusiliers lost five officers killed, one being Smylie.
The dead were buried initially close to the nearby road but the graves were later moved to Flatiron Copse Cemetery.

Smylie is remembered in St Gregory's Church, Sudbury and on the Scottish National War Memorial in Edinburgh Castle.

IWM: © Paul Goodwin (WMR-80686)

This large wooden cross was erected by the Royal Scots Fusiliers on the site of the battle and was later moved to Auld Kirk, Blackfriars Walk, Ayr, Kyle And Carrick, Strathclyde, Scotland. The text on the brass reads:



No. 10 Casualty Clearing Station

A bed at last, in a long low-roofed hall,

Full of soft footfalls, moans and sharper cries.

At intervals now I can see it all -

White beds, red nurses, khaki orderlies.

Then nightmare: dying, crushed by the victor Hun;

Or struggling madly, shoulder-deep in mire,

Or straining demon horses until one

Rolls over me with breath and eyes of fire.

I waken from these horrors and thank heaven.

Finding myself all safe in bed, but then

The real grows more clear and fearful,

Even equals the dream.

Beside me lie two men

One young and fragile, with the bubbling cough

Of men shot through the lungs and dying slow;

A nurse is bending over to wipe off 

The red foam from the quivering lips below.

The other, huge, grim, silent save for rare

Expostulation: "Why the hell can't he keep quiet like the rest of us."

And there I almost break in to reprove him too

But just refrain, and later in the night

Someone steals gently to the strong man's bed

And peers into his face in the dim light

And brings the bearers to remove the dead.

Lieutenant (Acting Captain) Robert Stewart Smylie, Royal Scots Fusiliers

'Believed to be Buried in this Cemetery'

Acting Captain Robert S Smylie's Jacket.
Note the bullet or shrapnel damage to the right shoulder

Smylie's Effects were kept after the Great War

I am writing this tonight, My three kids 

By a little candle-light, My three kids 

And the candlestick's a tin 

With some dry tobacco in 

And so that's how I begin, To three kids 

Now I wonder what you're at, My three kids 

Moll and Bids and little Pat, My three kids 

Why of course there's two asleep 

But perhaps Moll's thinking deep 

Watching little stars that peep, At my kids 

Since I left you long ago, My three kids 

There's a lot you'd like to know, My three kids 

That has happened to your dad 

In the varied luck he's had 

In adventures good and bad, My three kids 

I have soldiered in a trench, My three kids 

Serving under Marshall French, My three kids 

Once a shell dropped with a thud 

Quite close, covered me with mud 

And its lucky 'twas a dud, For my kids 

And I've crossed the ground outside, My three kids 

It's at night that's chiefly tried, My three kids 

And the bullets sang all round 

Overhead, or struck the ground 

But your daddy none has found, No my kids 

I have mapped our trenches new, My three kids 

And some German trenches too, My three kids 

I have sprinted past a wood 

Counting steps, for so I could 

Judge the distance, as I should, My three kids 

I have placed our snipers where, My three kids 

On the Germans they could stare, My three kids 

And they killed their share of men 

Quite a lot for snipers ten 

From their little hidden den, My three kids 

And I've slept in bed quite warm, My three kids 

But I haven't taken harm, My three kids 

When upon the ground I lay 

Without even straw or hay 

In the same clothes night and day, My three kids 

When they sent us back to rest, My three kids 

Then they seemed to think it best, My three kids 

To send on your dad ahead 

To discover where a bed 

Could be found, or some old shed, My three kids 

And new officers were trained, My three kids 

And the men we've lately gained, My three kids 

And while that work was in hand 

I was second in command 

of 'B' Coy and that was grand, My three kids 

But it didn't last all through, My three kids 

There was other work to do, My three kids 

When they made me adjutant 

I was busy as an ant 

And its not much catch, I grant, My three kids 

I have ridden on a horse, My three kids 

Captured from a German force, My three kids 

And I've marched and crawled and run Night and day in rain and sun 

And shall do it till we've won, My three kids 

And I'd rather be with you, My three kids 

Yet you know I'm lucky too, My three kids 

Lots of men I used to know 

Now are killed or wounded, though 

I remain, and back I'll go, To my kids 

And I hope you'll all keep well, My three kids 

Just as sound as any bell, My three kids 

And when this long war is done 

We shall have some glorious fun 

Moll and Bids and little son, 

My three kids

Beatrice Mary Comfort was born in Weston Super Mare, Somerset, England in December 1871 and she married Robert Stewart Smylie in Axbridge, Somerset in September 1903. He later became headmaster of Sudbury Grammar School, Suffolk. He enlisted in 1914 and he was killed in action at Bazentin Ridge, part of the battle around Longueval, on 14th July 1914. By then the couple had three children: Mary Stewart Smylie, Elizabeth Stewart Smylie and Patrick Stewart Smylie.
Beatrice died aged 89 in March 1961 and her husband is named on her headstone in Swaffham Bulbeck Cemetery, Cambridgeshire, England. It is difficult to read but says: In Memory of Beatrice Mary Smylie of Weston Super Mare who died here on March 31st 1961, and of her husband Robert Stewart Smylie, Ballymena, Co Antrim who was killed on the Somme on July 14th 1916. Robert Stewart Smylie was, no matter where he was born, a Ballymena man through and through!
It seems that Beatrice went to South Africa at some time after her husband’s death and records suggest that she did not return to England until the end of the Second World War. She is recorded as having left Cape Town aboard ‘Andes’, a Royal Mail Lines Ltd ship, and was in Liverpool, England on the 22 May 1945.