Robert Smith was born in Yarn, Yorkshire. Little is known of his early life; but as recalled by Nan Simmons, who is related to the Hale’s family, Robert was befriended by Arthur Kington who was the son of Mrs Sarah Ann Hale by her first marriage to Arthur Ashe Kington of Kington St Michael. Sarah Ann in 1911 was living with her second Husband, Henry Hale in Ogbourne St George along with his children and her’s from her previous marriage to Arthur Kington. The supposition is that Arthur Kington junior had met Robert Smith in the Army, which eventually lead to strong ties with the Hale Family and Sarah Anne’s later ‘adoption’ of Robert as a son which was acknowledged in St. Aubert British Cemetery index of names.
Robert enlisted into the army originally into the Labour Corps with the serial number of 391989 and then later reenlisted at Devizes. Following basic training he arrived in France, joining the 2nd Battalion (Duke of Edinburgh’s) Wiltshire Regiment which in 1918 was attached to the 58 th Brigade of the 19 th (Western) Division. In October of 1918 the Division was operating in the River Selle area of the Western Front.
After the Battle of Cambrai, the allies advanced almost two miles and liberated the French towns of Naves and Thun-Saint-Martin. Although the capture of Cambrai was achieved significantly quicker than expected and with moderately low casualties, German resistance northeast of the town stiffened. By 11th October, The British Fourth Army had closed up upon the retreating Germans near Le Cateau, with the German Army taking up a new position immediately to the east of the Selle River. General Henry Rawlinson was faced with three problems: crossing the river itself; the railway embankment on the far side; and the ridge above the embankment. The decision was made to commence the assault at night and, as the river was not so very wide at this point, planks would be used for the soldiers to cross in single file. Later, pontoons would be required for the artillery to cross the river. Field Marshal Douglas Haig, sensing the enemy’s near exhaustion, initiated a series of operations designed to get British troops in strength across the river, and clear a way for a move against the Sambre-Oise Canal, a further five miles to the east.
After a six-day halt for preparations and artillery bombardments Fourth Army troops attacked at 5.20am on Thursday 17th October; infantry and tanks, preceded by a creeping barrage, moved forward on a ten mile wide front south of Le Cateau. The centre and left of the Fourth Army forced crossings of the river despite unexpectedly strong German resistance and much uncut barbed wire. Fighting was particularly fierce along the line of the Le Cateau – Wassigny railway. The right of the attack, across the upland watershed of the Selle, made most progress and by nightfall enemy defences had been broken and Le Cateau captured. Severe fighting continued on 18 and 19 October, by which time Fourth Army, much assisted by the French First Army on its right, and advanced over five miles, harrying the Germans back towards the Sambre-Oise Canal.
The British Third and First Armies, immediately to the north of Fourth Army, maintained the offensive pressure the following day. In a surprise joint night attack in the early morning of 20 October Third Army formations secured the high ground east of the Selle. The Wiltshire War diary for the 20 October 1918 States:
Regiment. 2nd Wiltshire
Location France, St Aubert
Entry At 0200 hours the barrage opened 200 yards in front of the Railway Embankment, where it remained for 44 minutes to synchronise with the lifts in the barrage of Brigade on the right. Several of these shells burst short with the result that the Battalion suffered several casualties from our own barrage. Lieut JHF RAMSDEN being wounded, 2nd Lieut PJ SIMMONS being killed and Capt SA PAKEMAN MC being wounded. The night was dull and very wet. Companies reached the final objective at 0730 hours - 'A' and 'C' companies in front, 'D' company in support, 'B' company in Reserve. Little opposition was met with. Our casualties were 3 officers and 119 Other Ranks. About 1700 hours orders were received to advance the front line about 1000 yards. This was done after dusk and completed by 0200 without any opposition.
Private Robert Smith was killed in this action on the 20 October 1918 aged 30, he was buried at St. Aubert British Cemetery, France at Grave reference V.C.11 alongside 435 fellow soldiers, 41 of the burials are unidentified but there is a special memorial to one casualty believed to be buried among them.
After the Battle of the Selle, Haig instructed his army commanders to prepare for the next attack, which to be known as the Battle of the Sambre, this was to be the last offensive before the Armistice in November 1918.