Chapter Three

Those Trenches (What a Bloody Nightmare!)

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Tom had been an Apprentice Engineer when war with Germany was declared and he was amongst the first to enlist. Having signed an attestation form, giving his age, height, hair colour, religion and next of kin, he passed a medical and swore an allegiance to the King.

Four years further on Tom would return home with a maturity accelerated by his new experiences and a perspective that could never be tolerated by his father’s stagnant idealism.

While thousands of others would share Tom’s journey, quite inimitably, during this period he would lose his anti-Catholic prejudice.

In October 1914, the army organised trains to take Tom and the other enlistees to Newcastle, County Down. Having just turned 16, and fearing the wrath of her father and her heavily pregnant mother, Florrie confided in Tom that she too was pregnant. In an effort to smooth things over, Tom met with the father to be, a Grocers assistant from Ballymena who had been living in Egmont Street and firmly ordered him to marry his sister. James Mark complied and married Florrie in November. The following June, their son Cecil was born however, only survived 3 months.

It was in these circumstances that Tom eventually arrived at Donard Lodge, his training camp for the next 8 months. Numbers of the first wave of volunteers distended to 17,000 from Belfast alone. The 107th Brigade was initially formed with the 4 Belfast Battalions of the Royal Irish Rifles.

  • 8th Battalion (East Belfast) Royal Irish Rifles
  • 9th Battalion (West Belfast) Royal Irish Rifles
  • 10th Battalion (South Belfast) Royal Irish Rifles –Tom’s company
  • 15th Battalion (North Belfast) Royal Irish Rifles

One month before Tom’s 19th birthday, and full of pride the newly trained soldiers paraded the streets of Belfast. At every turn the colourful patriotic spectacle of bunting and union flags was visible and the pavements were lined with thousands of cheering well wishers. The following morning the four Belfast battalions paraded in their respective districts. Tom like others took this opportunity to stay over and say his goodbyes. He was also introduced to his new sister Isobel, who had been born whilst he was away in training. This would be the last time Tom could call Egmont Street) his home. For now however, it was back Donard Lodge to complete 2 more months of training.

Belfast Battalion Parade
Belfast Battalion Parade

On 15th September 1915, King George V inspected the Belfast battalions at their stop gap in Seaford, Sussex and declared them ready for war. On 10th October they arrived in Hédauville, France, a village 2 miles from Albert in the area now known as the Somme. Their journey brought them across the English Channel from Folkestone, landing in Boulogne before travelling inland by train and on foot.

During the first week it was routine training, but to gradually ease the men into fighting they were sent to the trenches in batches for experience. The first thing Tom would notice was the stench of rotting bodies in shallow graves, men who hadn’t washed in weeks, the overflowing cess pits, and creosote or chloride of lime, used to stave off the constant threat of disease and infection. For the first time, he would witness the noise and effect of the bombardments of German shells, trench mortars and their heavy artillery. He saw the wounded, bloodied from battle being tended to and the slain being taken away by mule carts. It was during one of these exercises to the trenches that Tom lost his close friend Frank Savage from Canada Street, Belfast.

The Belfast Evening Telegraph of 26th February carried a notice placed by two soldiers of the 10th Battalion under the column “Our Heroes – In Memory”

In loving memory of our dearly-beloved chum, Rifleman Frank Savage, A Coy., 10th Batt. R.I. Rifles, who died of wounds received in action in France on 15th February, 1916. –‘Gone, but not forgotten.’ Inserted by his sorrowing chums, 15950, Scout Tom Smith and 15766, Rifleman Sam PattersonBelfast Evening Telegraph - 29th February 1916

By March 1915 the Belfast battalions had been living with heavy snow, and soon suffered the consequences of the thaw as the trenches filled with water. In early May they moved closer to Theipval Wood in preparation to engage the enemy.

In the trenches men were often bored, tired and uncomfortable having to occupy themselves during the lull, waiting for attacks that didn’t always come. At first light they would aimlessly fire some rounds at the German trenches just to relieve the tension. Daily chores included the refilling of sandbags, the repair of the duckboards on the floor of the trench and preparing latrines. Rats provided regular sport, and would normally be tackled with the back of a shovel. The task of pumping water out of the trenches became impossible as it always returned faster than they could get rid of it. In later life Tom rarely spoke of the war, but when quizzed by his curious daughter, he always gave the same reply. After a deep sigh, his eyes would lower and in a sombre, reflective frame of mind he’d say “the trenches, those awful trenches, what a bloody nightmare”. By then his daughter knew not to pursue the topic any further.

The Somme Offensive

July 1st, 1916 will forever be remembered as the bloodiest day in Britain’s history. The British alone had almost 60,000 casualties and 20,000 dead, and the 4 Belfast Battalions of 107th Brigade suffered 5,550 casualties with over 2,000 dead.

The battle plan involved a British attack of the 15 mile front north of the Somme with French divisions attacking an 8 mile front to the south. In preparation, the British had bombarded German lines with heavy artillery in a week-long effort to make a safe passage for foot soldiers of Tom’s Infantry battalions. British Generals were confident that such a pounding would destroy the Germans lines however; they did not take their deep bomb proof shelters into account. When the bombardment stopped, that was the signal for the protected Germans to man their machine guns, knowing the Infantry shortly follow. The next few hours were total carnage, a catastrophe on an overwhelming scale.

Weather-wise, the day began warm and pleasant with an early morning mist. Expectation of success was high for Tom’s company as they gathered at the trenches of Aveluy Wood to receive their orders. His brigade’s specific plan was to advance 3 kilometres north-east of Theipval Wood and take the German lines at Schwaben Redoubt.

Each man carried a heavy load; a waterproof sheet, a woollen waistcoat, 2 mill grenades, 170 rounds of ammunition, 2 sandbags, 2 smoke helmets, goggles, rations and their standard issue Lee-Enfield Mk III rifle. With the heavy artillery now silent, the whistles blew, and the four Belfast battalions of the 107th Brigade entered the war..

Just north of Tom’s position the 108th Brigade came under a fearsome attack by German machine gunners. This was the first evidence that the week-long barrage of heavy artillery had under-achieved as it quickly became apparent that the German lines had retained its great strength. The 108th Brigade’s inability to advance left Tom’s company vulnerable, however, they managed steady progress, partially protected by the cover of the trees.

As casualties began to mount, communication lines between the companies were breaking down and any who made an attempt to repair telegraph lines met their end as vigilant German snipers waited to take them out. Hundreds of bodies littered the path of advancing infantry. Those whose fall had been prevented having been snagged on the barbed wire, looked like they died praying on their knees.

With so many officers now killed, the foot soldier found seeking instruction impossible. Strategically, the failure to take the nearby village of Theipval earlier in the campaign had become an issue resulting in the advancing Belfast battalions (107th Brigade) being surrounded on 3 sides on approach to the German lines. For Tom’s group, the massacre began. Those who were surviving the onslaught made limited progress, however, each time they were able to hold their position, despite being pushed back many times.

To help consolidate the small gains made, remnants of the 107th Brigade assembled early in the evening as reinforcements were needed. Those able to report for duty numbered 360 of which only 60 were available from Tom’s 10th Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles. Against the odds, Schwaben Redoubt was taken from the Germans at 8pm and Ulster Division achieved its objective.

In the following days the stark realities began to reach the streets of Belfast as the Evening Telegraph published lists of those who had fallen. Not surprisingly the annual 12th of July parade was cancelled as the subdued population of Belfast, in mourning had no stomach to celebrate it. Although the carnage of the 1st July would never be repeated, the largest single loss in one day, casualties continued to rise throughout the remainder of the war at a staggering rate. It took the British and their allies a further four months to finally achieve the Somme objective.

Royal Engineers

In the autumn of 1916, while on leave, Tom re-enlisted into the Royal Engineers 121st Field Company and returned to France. His new battalion engaged in the strategic battles of Cambrai and St Quentin. Compared to the small gains made at the Somme, 350 tanks supported by air cover and infantry would break the trusted German defensive positions at an astonishing rate. Despite this casualties continued to mount in substantial numbers. As the end of the war approached, 121st Field Company played a vital role in the final advance on Flanders in Belgium. The 5th Battle of Ypres (as it became known), resulted in the massive advance of 18 miles and the capture of approximately 10,000 enemy soldiers. This succeeded to demoralise the Germans. In the Ypres aftermath, the Battle of Courtrai saw the German army finally defeated by which time the Armistice had already been signed. For Tom and the others it was soon time to go home.

Tom's Medal Card
Tom’s Medal Card

It is difficult today to contemplate this victory not sparking a jubilant home coming in Belfast. In these close knit communities, how does one family celebrate the safe return of a son when a neighbour still mourns the death of theirs? On their homecoming some men had felt unappreciated which often led to depression. Others who returned had been afflicted with a range of health problems such as shell shock and heart disease, not to mention the physically wounded. Tom had survived and returned home safely.

Long after the Armistice the Smiths did suffered their own casualty of war. In October 1918, four months after their 9th child was born, Tom’s eldest sister Florrie died of Spanish flu. This worldwide epidemic became responsible for the deaths of many more people than the war itself. In Belfast it was described as “trench fever” as it coincided with the return of discharged soldiers. While still in mourning, Tom’s father had been reduced without earnings for 6 months as a result of crashing his train near Dunmurry in icy conditions. He had failed to act on a signal and crashed into a goods locomotive resulting in the hospitalisation of 7 passengers.

The Aftermath

After the horrors of the trenches, Tom remained unquestionably patriotic but his mindset had changed, and this began to alienate him from his family. Quarrels with his father became a regular occurrence on matters he considered insignificant in comparison to those life and death situations he had experienced.

If his intention was to deliberately antagonise his father further, then he probably succeeded, as Tom sought temporary refuge with his uncle Arthur and his catholic wife and step-children. Arthur was a larger than life character with a happy-go-lucky attitude and perhaps it was their common disposition with the Smith’s but his door was always open to his nephew. It is from here that Tom stepped onto the first run of the ladder that would shape the rest of his life.

Belfast Corporation did little for the ex-soldier in terms of housing and jobs, an obvious priority for those who returned. At the turn of the century there was a rapid increase in demand for scientifically trained Mechanical Engineers along with the emergence of the new Electrical Engineer. The demands of the shipyards and other industries in Belfast led to the opening of the Belfast Municipal Technical Institute in October 1907. Tom was considered too old for the 21 month cadet-ship course, designed to supply junior officers for the Corps of Royal Engineers. Instead he attended an intensive six month course funded by Belfast Corporation that required a lower level of academic attainment, or minimum of 2 years apprenticeship service. Tom emerged as a fully qualified Electrical and Mechanical Engineer with membership of various associate institutions.

David Calvert Silcock was an apprentice moulder in an engineering company at the start of the war. He was too young for the initial enlistment however in 1915 he managed to join the 17th Royal Irish Rifles Battalion by lying about his age. David also attended the Belfast Municipal Technical Institute and became good friends with Tom on discovery they lived a few streets from each other. Despite coming from a Presbyterian background he shared Tom’s liberal views as well as having similar parental issues. Like many of his generation, his only ambition was to leave Ireland, preferably for America. His sister Elizabeth and her new husband Edward McConnell had set new roots in Philadelphia in 1920. David’s young sister Evelyn Charlotte showed a keen interest in Tom and after a while the pair started courting.

A Divided Family

While ostracised from Egmont Street, Tom kept good relations with his brother Bobby. Until he married in 1925, Tom’s official documentation always bore Bobby’s name as next of Kin, in lieu of his father. One evening in May 1921 the brothers arranged to meet in Sandy Row. Close by, and in their sights, a small IRA delegation was attempting to rob the local post office by the brewery at Boyne Square. Unknowing to the perpetrators, they were also under the gaze of a gathering mob. Tom watched curiously, and sensing something was up he followed the subsequent chase onto Great Victoria Street by which time one of the robbers had been seized and beaten within an inch of his life. Tom by his interruption had saved the robber from the final blow as the mob dispersed in different directions. Recognised on a return visit to the area, Tom was warned in no uncertain terms he was no longer welcome.

Given the new intensity of the Belfast troubles, Broadband Street had become no place for a mixed marriage. Taunts and threats targeted at Arthur and his family had driven him to drink and forced into a corner, it was time for the Hendry’s to move on. Perhaps it was this or the revelation that Pat Tobin Arthur’s stepson had joined the IRA that forced Tom to keep his distance. If so, one can only describe this ironic as Tobin would serve under IRA Commandant Sean Cunningham. The very same Sean Cunningham who 14 years later would stand shoulder to shoulder with Tom ready to fight for Franco’s Pro-nationalist cause in Spain. Adding to the Hendry’s woes, Arthurs’s own son of the same name was jailed in 1924. He had bigamously married Martha McKillen while his wife Margaret was still alive.

Whatever the reason, Tom had lost all connections that tied him to Belfast and a desire grew to leave the city. He was never one to act in haste and by 1925 had sufficient funding that gave him options. By instinct, he had grown into a meticulous planner which was often a source of frustration for those who knew him, especially his wife to be, Evelyn. In his own mind however, these were the virtues demanded of a successful engineer with firsthand experience of war, where acting in haste can get you killed.

By achieving his desire to immigrate to Philadelphia, USA in 1922, David Silcock in all probability had planted the seed of thought in his sister’s head to do the same. Tom having proposed marriage to Evelyn had different ideas and by his nature was proving difficult to convince. The ultimatum came in August 1925, when she left him in a quandary by sailing across the Atlantic to visit her brother.

Farewell Belfast

With a one way ticket as evidence of her long-term intent, Evelyn could never have imagined at the time that a series of three chance meetings would determine their destiny for the next 15 years. The first at the British Empire Exhibition in 1924 resulting in their move to South America. The second in London with an English business man based in Ireland, resulting in a permanent move to Dublin in 1931. Finally, and probably the most bizarre was the meeting in 1936 with a cinema proprietor from County Cork who probably influenced Tom to enlist and fight in the Spanish Civil War serving in an Irish Brigade.

Before he followed Evelyn to America, Tom visited the Great Empire Exhibition at Wembley Park in North London. The exhibition was designed to celebrate the achievements of an empire recently expanded with territories acquired as a result of the Great War. Its centre piece was the construction of a multi-purpose stadium and entertainment centre. Originally referred to as the “Empire Stadium” it became known as Wembley and hosted its first event in 1923, the Football Association (FA) Cup final.

He spent hours navigating this vast site of buildings and pavilions, railway lines and roads, all built from the new modern material, concrete. Tom was attracted by the indigenous people, or ‘races in residence’ as they were called, demonstrating local crafts and skills as well as the grand spectacles of military tattoos and re-enactments of First World War battles.

British Empire Exhibition 1924
British Empire Exhibition 1924

From a dominion and colonial perspective, the exhibition offered an opportunity to develop and expand as well as attract new investment. In the West Indies and Atlantic Pavilion, Tom became acquainted with British Guiana. He learned that this little known, capital starved colony of such promise, had potential to produce enough quality sugar and coffee to supply the whole empire. As well as financial investment the Government of British Guiana sought labour and expertise for major projects that included experienced engineers like Tom Smith. By all accounts they were prepared to pay a handsome salary for his service. Tom came away impressed and enthused with a fist full of calling cards.

Evelyn was delighted to find Tom on her doorstep some 7 weeks after her own arrival in Philadelphia. David had been working long hours as a Construction engineer on the new Broad Street subway and had little time to pay host to his sister. She spent her free time wandering the city, window shopping and dreaming, to the point of planning her future. Tom hardly had time to catch his breath before being bombarded with the potential this city had to offer. Properties and their large dimensions had been boasted, comparative to those in Belfast. She expressed in wonderment, the excess of affordable new electric appliances available, many of which she had never seen the like.

America’s economy had boomed after the Great War and its people became acculturated in consumerism. Evelyn was completely taken in by this prosperity and turned her efforts to persuade Tom of its prospects as well as the wealth of jobs available. In Philadelphia itself, new subway expansions were being planned, the biggest bridge that she had ever set eyes on which spanned the Delaware River to Camden, New Jersey was close to completion. To add to her excitement she had marveled at some of the preparations for 1926 world fair that was coming to town to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. “What was there not to like?” she implored. Tom remained sceptical the cost of prosperity only enjoyed by some in the aftermath of the Great War would come at a high a price, and it was time to keep their feet on the ground. He declared…

“You don’t get something for nothing in this world, besides even if you did, what is the point of having wealth in this country where it’s illegal to have a drink and enjoy it?”Paraphrased by Tom's daughter Alma when I interviewed her 2012

British Guiana

Georgetown 1927
Georgetown 1927

Despite Evelyn’s aggravation at Tom’s obvious reluctance to live in America, she had confidence he could mellow in the fullness of time. Everything was put on hold as wedding plans took over and they married on 25th November at a small ceremony at the Parish of Darby in Philadelphia. In the New Year after a cold Christmas, letters began to arrive from Georgetown, British Guiana, she started to realise that to conceit to her new husband’s tenacity was going to be her only option.

Although financially lucrative, their 2 year venture in British Guiana was a mixture of success and failure. Tom had been in charge of building a pier in the dock area at mouth of the River Rupununi. The framework was made from local hard wood timber gathered in the local rainforests. The British Governor and other local dignitaries were invited to lay the first stone. Tom signalled to the crane driver who hit and the wooden framework and the whole lot disappeared below the water. Inland, fresh water was very scarce and Tom arranged for an old abandoned ship with no engine to be filled with fresh water and transported 32 miles down river. This feat made all the greater as this big old wreck was pulled by hundreds of locals at a rate of 1 mile per week.

Tom and Evelyn had settled on the outskirts of Georgetown (the principle city of British Guiana) but already their marriage was showing signs of strain. Evelyn had been less than enthused to be living there and Tom would dissapear for weeks at a time hunting big game. He befriended an Irish Jesuit priest spending hours having great discussions and debates about religion and politics. Shirking the responsibilities of a conventional marital relationship would become his trait and something he only showed some remorse for close to the end of his life. Their venture in the British colony came to an abrupt end in the late spring of 1928 when Evelyn contracted malaria and the couple returned to Philidelphia.

Tom never truly settled at Marconi’s after Marconi himself threatened to fire him after not been in attendance for a test signal that came from his yacht off the coast of Nova Scotia. Tom sent Evelyn and Alma to stay at her brother Matthews in Belfast while he returned to London to reside at the Royal Empire Society in Northumberland Street while he searched for work. It was there he met Thomas Robinson an entrepeneur with connections in the new Irish Free State. Robinson had a business plan to set up a business in Dublin with an aspiration to convert all the cinemas in Ireland to accommodate the new “talkie” movies. At the time most cinemas in Ireland were only showing silent movies. Tom managed to convince Robinson to give him a Directors position in his new company and moved to Booterstown just south of the city of Dublin.


Alma Florence Smith (1930)
Alma Florence Smith (1930)

Records show on 30th April 1929, that Tom and Evelyn crossed the USA/Canadian border documenting that they had not been in Canada before. Evelyn was 7 months pregnant at the time. Tom declared $2,000 at customs (equivilant to $75,000). For the short time they stayed in Canada Tom was employed by the Canadian Marconi Company.

On 3rd June 1929, their daughter (and only child) Florence Alma Smith was born in Drummondville County in the Provence of Quebec in Canada. She was baptised 29th October 1929 in the Drummondville (Church of England United). The baptism was witnessed by David Silcock and his fiancé Bella Liston.

Border Crossing Register /Alma's Birth Records

In some corner of your life, you know more about something than anyone else on earth. The true measure of your education is not what you know, but how you share what you know with others.Ken Nerburn

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