Nostalgia: Veteran took his own life because he could not live on his WW1 pension

Bucks Free Press: The ceremony to dedicate the Flackwell Heath War memorial, with the village's silver band behind the memorial, 1921 The ceremony to dedicate the Flackwell Heath War memorial, with the village's silver band behind the memorial, 1921

AS readers will know I am currently particularly interested to learn the stories of those servicemen who survived WWI.

Not all of whom returned home ‘safe and sound’. Many were scarred for the remainder of their lives, both mentally and physically. And the way in which these men, and a few women, were virtually forgotten outside their own communities, was quite frankly a national disgrace.

Their stories, some of which I shall be featuring over the coming months, are especially poignant.

We begin with Joseph Jeremiah Smith who lived in Chapel Road in Flackwell Heath. He was the youngest son of the large Smith family, whose parents George and Esther ran a fruiterers’ business in the village. Of the seven sons in the family, no less than three were described in the census of 1911as ‘cripples’.

Joseph worked as a Gardener and then enlisted in the Royal Garrison Artillery (RGA) on Nov 1st 1915. The RGA was a regiment which was armed with heavy, large-calibre guns and howitzers.

These had immense destructive power but although they were positioned some way behind the front line, they were an easy target for enemy guns.

Joseph underwent training as a Gunner at Fort Brockhurst in Gosport, near Portsmouth, until May 16th 1916. This was one of a number of forts built in the 1850s and 1860s to protect Portsmouth and its vital harbour against a French invasion.

It remains largely unaltered to this day, being maintained by English Heritage. The parade ground, gun ramps and moated keep can all be viewed. The fort also currently stores a treasure trove of objects from English Heritage's extensive reserve collections.

He sailed for France the next day and served on the Arras front. This was the first major attack by the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in 1917, being part of a massive offensive by the Allies. This was the first initiative by the new French Commander-in-Chief General Robert Nivelle, who had replaced Marshal Joseph Joffre in December 1917.

It was designed to end the war in 48 hours, according to the French, who had managed to persuade Prime Minister David Lloyd George to allow the Allied troops to be placed temporarily under French command. The battle lasted from April 9th to May 15th 1917 and began with a preliminary artillery bombardment which lasted for 5 days and utilized some 2,500 guns. J

oseph’s unit would have been involved in this. Despite some early British gains the battle did not lead to the decisive, war-winning victory envisaged by the French. One positive outcome was the capture of the famous Vimy Ridge, until then thought to be impregnable, by the BEF.

Against that success was the fact that the French Army was in total disarray, meaning that the BEF would have to shoulder the greater part of the Allied effort on the Western Front for much of the remainder of the war.

Joseph was wounded on April 21st 1917. His wounds were described as ‘Shell wound of thorax and abdomen, involving liver. Extensive abdominal adhesions and much pain’. In other words, he was wounded by shrapnel penetrating into his abdomen and passing into his liver.

He was eventually discharged on December 15th 1917 as being ‘physically unfit for further war service’. His discharge papers showed he was a ‘’sober, steady, and hard-working man’’. His degree of disability was initially classed as 30%, this was subsequently increased to 50%.

Joseph was awarded a ‘Silver War Badge’, which he was entitled to wear at all times when in civilian clothing. The importance of this was that it gave recognition that he had served in the Army and had been honourably discharged because of wounds.

This was to prevent him being branded a coward, because it had been the practice of some women to present white feathers to apparently able-bodied young men who were not wearing the King's uniform.

Back home Joseph was unable to work because of his injuries. He committed suicide on February 2nd 1919. His body was found by his elder brother Alfred in a field ‘’lying in the green broom [this is a type of small bush] in Pigeon House Park, with his throat cut and a razor laying nearby’’.

He was fully dressed with his cap on and it was possible to determine that he had sat down in the middle of the field before using the razor.

At the Inquest the Coroner returned a verdict of suicide while temporarily insane ‘’He thought what led to the deceased committing the act was that his pension was gradually decreasing, and being a disabled man, he could not see anything in front of him.’’

The Coroner went onto say that he would ‘’represent the facts of the case to the War Office, in the hope of it leading to something better being done for other poor lads who had fought for their King and country and been disabled.’’

After his discharge Joseph had apparently initially been granted a weekly pension of 27s. 6d. That only lasted for five or six weeks before the pension was reduced to 13s. 9d. per week until December 18th 1918, a year after his discharge.

Then it was further reduced to 11s. per week. His reaction to that had been to say ‘This is something for a man who has been and done his bit.’ Shortly before committing suicide Joseph had been to an Appeals Tribunal in Aylesbury, who had turned down hi application to have his pension increased.

What the coroner did not say, but which seems to be important, was that Joseph’s home circumstances must have had a bearing on his thinking. His father had recently died, and with three crippled brothers his elder brother Alfred already had a large family to support via the family’s fruiterer’s business.

Joseph must have seen himself as an additional and intolerable further burden on the family. And this together with his own sense of worthlessness led him to commit his final act of self-destruction.

Joseph was buried in Little Marlow Cemetery on 8th February 1919. For his service to his country Joseph was awarded with the Victory Medal and the British Medal. He is remembered on both the War Memorials at Flackwell Heath and Little Marlow.

He is also remembered on the Roll of Honour in St John the Baptist church in Little Marlow, but he is not remembered by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Feedback After seeing the story two weeks ago on Dexter’s engineering firm, reader Mike Gillett contacted us to say that his maternal grandmother Keziah (always known as Kitty) Palmer, nee Dean, is in the photograph.

She is the short lady in the middle of the second row from the back, between two taller men wearing caps. Kitty lived at 5 Castle Place, High Wycombe, which is where Mike was born.

Mike has told us that there was a shell case from Dexter’s in the front room, which was used as a door stop. He also remembers that during WWII his grandmother would take him up Castle Place, across the footbridge over the railway to sit on the top step, from where they could look east along the railway track and see the glow in the sky from fires in London resulting from German bombing raids.

Comments (1)

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4:56pm Sun 30 Mar 14

frackellgirl says...

We were very interested to read Mike Dewey's excellent article regarding Joseph Jeremiah Smith. My husband's family are decended from this branch of the Smith family and this story has been passed down the generations. It is said that when Joseph Smith appeared before the panel in Aylesbury they told him he would not get another penny from them and that he was "a disgrace". The family believe it was this cruel comment that tipped him over the edge and led him to commit suicide shortly after.

We didn't realise that he was buried in Little Marlow Cemetery as suicides were usually barred from internment in consecrated ground. Perhaps the church showed more compassion to Joseph than those "worthies"in Aylesbury who, in our opinion, weren't fit to lick his boots.
We were very interested to read Mike Dewey's excellent article regarding Joseph Jeremiah Smith. My husband's family are decended from this branch of the Smith family and this story has been passed down the generations. It is said that when Joseph Smith appeared before the panel in Aylesbury they told him he would not get another penny from them and that he was "a disgrace". The family believe it was this cruel comment that tipped him over the edge and led him to commit suicide shortly after. We didn't realise that he was buried in Little Marlow Cemetery as suicides were usually barred from internment in consecrated ground. Perhaps the church showed more compassion to Joseph than those "worthies"in Aylesbury who, in our opinion, weren't fit to lick his boots. frackellgirl
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