Rifleman Gilbert Edgar Smith

Regiment: 1st Battalion, 21st London Regiment (Surrey Rifles).
Service No: 652155 (previously 5041)
Date & place of birth: 1st qtr. 1883, in Heyshott, Sussex
Date & place of death: 10 December 1917 (aged 34) near Arras, northern France

Gilbert Smith was a local man who had moved to northern Kent to work as a barber. He enlisted in 1916 and was killed 18 months later.

Family background

Gilbert Edgar Smith was born in Heyshott in early 1883, the sixth of eight children born to Charles William Smith (1852–1934) and his wife Mary Faith née Rogers (1852–1941). Charles had been born in Heyshott and married Mary from Selham in the spring of 1874. Their child, Mary, was born a year later followed by seven sons over the next 12 years.

At the time of the 1881 census, the family lived at Heyshott Green with Charles working as a builder, with one employee, and the four eldest children. Ten years later, the family (now complete) were still living at Heyshott Green. By 1901 however, the family had moved to London and were living at Loughborough Road, Lambeth, where Charles was employed as a bricklayer. Four of the sons were also working in the building trade. The eldest son was now married and living in East Ham; Gilbert had also left the family home, but cannot be traced on the 1901 census.

In 1911, Charles and Mary had returned to Heyshott and were living at Heyshott Street, with Charles again describing himself as an employer. Apart from Gilbert, the other sons had remained in London, while the daughter Mary was now married (to William Miles) and living at Heyshott Green. Gilbert was now living at High Street, Farnborough, near Bromley, Kent, where he described himself as a shopkeeper/hairdresser.

Military service

Gilbert enlisted at Camberwell, on 10 December 1915 when he gave his address as Lugard Road, Peckham and his occupation as a barber. He was called up the following March to join the 1st Battalion, 21st London Regiment (Surrey Rifles), with service number 5041 (later changed to 652155). The 1st/21st served on the western front throughout the war, suffering heavy casualties in the capture of High Wood on the Somme in September 1916.

On 23 November 1916, the West Sussex Gazette reported that Gilbert Smith had been wounded together with two other Heyshott men, Corporal Walter Stubbington and his brother William, both of whom were serving with the Royal Fusiliers. The paper reports that the three “were wounded at the same time as they were side by side charging the German trenches”.

The paper also reports that Gilbert’s father, Charles, was undertaking a collection “so that every soldier from the village may have a Christmas parcel”.

In 1917, the battalion were engaged in various battles around Ypres. Gilbert returned home on leave in early November, before returning to France, when his battalion were immediately engaged in the Battle of Cambrai from 20 November.

Death & commemoration

Gilbert Edgar Smith remembered on the Arras Memorial
Gilbert Edgar Smith remembered on the Arras Memorial

Gilbert Smith was killed by a sniper on 10 December 1917 during the retreat from Cambrai. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Arras Memorial in the Faubourg-d’Amiens Cemetery, in Arras in northern France, as well as on the war memorial window in St James’s church, Heyshott.

Other family members

Of his brothers, it is known that Ethelbert enlisted in The Middlesex Regiment two days after Gilbert, aged 36. He spent the last part of the war in India and was discharged in January 1920.

Midhurst U3A WW1 War Memorial Project