The Southwark firefighter whose WWI death saw women mourning in the streets

News Desk (16 June, 2016)

Lance Corporal Oliver Smith died after receiving shrapnel wound to the head

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He rose through the ranks of what was the London Metropolitan Fire Brigade, and became a Lance Corporal in the beginning of the World War One campaign.

The memory of Lance Corporal Oliver John Smith, born in Thanet, Kent, and who settled and married in Southwark, will be overshadowed by the shock that his home town felt after learning his fate.

Oliver Smith, pictured here in his Metropolitan Fire Brigade uniform, was killed aged 28, days after suffering a head wound from shrapnel in the English retreat from north-east France.

He was struck during the battle of La Bassee, on the road from Bethune to Armentieres. Despite the injury, he made it back to England, and it was hoped he would recover at the third London General Hospital in Wandsworth.

Sadly, Oliver succumbed to his wounds on January 7, 1915. It was only after a short time in the conflict for him, and he left behind his wife of four years, Emma Grace Wrench, whom he had met in Camberwell, and his son John Oliver Smith.

His death came as a tremendous shock to the women of Thanet, for whom he was the first of their men who they witnessed return from war. He was the first WW1 soldier to be buried in Ramsgate.

His funeral procession was recorded in the Thanet Times, with descriptions of mourning and stunned women lining the high street. The prevailing expectation at the time was most husbands and sons would be likely to return victorious and in great numbers.

Lance Corporal Smith’s career as an old fire officer in Southwark Bridge Road, and his short career as a soldier, have been pieced together by Graham Jansen. Graham, who is 51 and works for the Ministry of Defence Police, said he came across the photo of Lance Corporal Oliver Smith thanks to a colleague at work, John Brunsden, who lives in Bromley.

He said: “We didn’t know his name was on the photo to begin with, but we found his initials with Smith on the back, hidden under the picture frame. From there I managed to locate him by putting his initials into the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.

“From there I have found out that he served with the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry.

“That might sound surprising for him to be put in a Yorkshire regiment, but I think at the time there were barracks in Thanet that regiments from all over the country would have visited before crossing the Channel. I think it was at the stage of the war when you were put in whatever regiment you were given.”

Indeed, in the lead up to Britain’s European campaign, many of the young countrymen who signed up did so on the promise that they would stay with their companions, and their regiments would be founded on their towns or cities – going shoulder to shoulder with their neighbours. And as conscription was not passed into law until January 2016, it would appear that this decorated fire fighter had also volunteered his life to the war.

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