It was impossible for any man enlisting as a soldier in the Great War to imagine what experiences he was to have. Not just in terms of the horrors that many of them witnessed – or suffered – at the front, but also in the wide array of things that servicemen did in the war. An example of both is Londoner Len Smith, artist, infantryman, sniper, and camouflage designer.
Arthur Leonard Smith was born in 1892 and grew up in Walthamstow. On 19 September 1914, during the ‘rush to the colours’ following the news of the Retreat from Mons, he joined the London Regiment – in the ‘Shiny Seventh’ battalion. After the war, he wrote his fascinating experiences up in a book, based on his wartime diaries, accompanied by wonderful little illustrations.
Len’s wartime experiences were basically divided into three blocks.
From his arrival in France in March 1915, Smith served as an ordinary infantryman in the 7th Londons. He fought through Festubert and Loos in 1915, the latter being a particularly harrowing experience and a fatal one for many in the Shiny Seventh. He describes the scenes simply, not hiding the horror of the scene but sometimes using understated language, he tries to keep a sense of the narrative of the events. At the slag heaps at Loos:
“They [the Germans} put up a really murderous machine gun barrage – it sounded like very heavy rain on a window – and their shelling was lively and accurate. The distance to our objective was quite 600 yards – and it is extraordinary what drill and discipline can make of men. Although without the slightest means of cover, we got over the ground as if at drill. Men were toppling over on either hand riddled with bullets – yet none wavered or dreamed of hanging back – but kept on steadily until the enemy’s barbed wire was reached. This was unhappily not sufficiently well smashed by our guns, and caused a hold up – the high coal crassiers were lined along the top with snipers and so they had us just where they wanted us – and it was only by sheer luck that any of us got down into the German trench; it was slow, perilous work gingerly picking one’s way through the mesh of wire and then there came the short rush with the bayonet. This is just where everyone who is left finds himself fogged in trying to recollect exactly what did happen in that first mad minute.”
In 1916, he became a sniper for his Brigade, and an official front-line war artist and observer. He made drawings and maps of enemy positions from carefully-chosen vantage-points in no-man’s land (although he was never – as a bizarre claim on the book’s sleeve, from a Telegraph article, claims – working ‘behind enemy lines’).
Following an illness in 1917, he ended as one of a small number of British soldiers directing French women working in the construction of camouflage to disguise all sorts of installations – such as artillery batteries – hiding them from the view of German observers and aviators. Although generally a cushy job, he still had to go and visit the units and hardware he was disguising, which could be a dangerous-enough job (hence the need for camouflage!). He was also in charge of groups of Chinese labourers – about whom he is not wholly complimentary.
In late 1918, he entered newly-liberated Lille and helped the Belgians to erect new roadsigns, replacing the German wartime ones. He also saw women who had consorted with the enemy being punished by their compatriots, a scene that would be repeated across Western Europe in 1945.
Smith’s book is a fascinating read, I thoroughly recommend it – it is available for download online, or as a published book entitled ‘Drawing Fire’. It neither avoids nor dwells on the horrors of war and it shows the sheer variety of experiences that an individual – albeit a lucky individual to survive virtually unscathed at the front from 1915 to 1917 – could have in the British Army on the Western Front.