Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Fluke

William H. Smith
John C. Squire
John Collings Squire and William Hammond Smith met while at Blundell’s School when they were students in their mid-to-late teens, sometime between 1901 and 1903. Their friendship continued beyond their early school years; both men attended Cambridge University (Squire at St. John’s and Smith at Sidney Sussex). Smith went on to study art at the Slade School of Fine Art, while Squire assumed the duties of literary editor at the New Statesman. 

When the First World War broke out, Squire was exempted from military service due to poor eyesight, while Smith enlisted in the Royal Field Artillery. Stationed on the Western Front, Smith saw action at Festubert, Hohenzollen Redoubt, Hill 60, Zillebeke, Ploegsteert, the Somme (on 1 July1916, he was at Montauban) Longueval, Lorrette Ridge, High Wood, Butte de Warlancourt and Arras. 

Smith survived some of the most ferocious battles of the war, but was killed on 12 April 1917.  With his battery in a support position, William Smith was assigned to an observation post behind the lines. Leaving cover to gain a better view of the action, he was struck in the head by a stray shell splinter, carried back to the dressing station, and died within an hour.  He was thirty-one.

Smith’s friend J.C. Squire wrote a series of poems attempting to make sense of the senseless loss. The following excerpts are from Squire’s memorial poem for Smith “An Epilogue” (the full text appears in Squire’s Poems: Second Series, 1922). 

I. The Fluke

For two years you went
Through all the worst of it,
Men fell around you, but you did not fall.
Gassed and Wounded,  Eric Kennington
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 4744)
On the Somme when the air was a sea
Of contesting flashes and clouds of smoke,
Your gunners fell fast but you got never a scratch.
And once when you watched from a village tower
(At Longueval, was it?) between our guns and theirs
As men fought in the houses below,
A shell from an English battery came
And tore a hole in the tower below you,
But you were not hurt and remained observing.

And now,
A casual shell has come
And pierced your head,
And the men who were with you, uninjured,
Carried you back,
And you died on the way.

IV. The Landscape
Ypres Salient at Dawn, Edward Handley-Read 
You said, that first winter,
That the landscape around Ypres
Reminded you of Chinese paintings:
The green plain, striped with trenches,
The few trees on the plain,
And the puffs of smoke sprinkled over the plain.
You said, when the war was over,
That you would record that green desolation
In flat colours and lines
As a Chinese artist would.
That is what you were going to do.
The plain is still there.

William Hammond Smith is buried in the Athies Communal Cemetery Extension, Pas de Calais, France.  His commanding officer wrote, " I feel his loss very keenly, not only as the loss of a capable officer, but as the loss of a friend whose charming manners had endeared him to all of us, officers and men. No one could have thought less of personal danger than he did, and I cannot help wishing that he had been a little more careful of himself, even at the expense of the observation he was engaged in, for he had been exposing himself fearlessly in an attempt to locate the position reached by our infantry, and this undoubtedly drew the fire which was the cause of his death.” A Cambridge local paper reported, “His death will be deeply regretted by a wide circle of friends at Cambridge and elsewhere, for he was a man of a lovable disposition, combined with high intellectual attainments and lofty ideals."*

J.C. Squire and bulldog believed to be Mamie
c. 1917
(courtesy Squire family)
In addition to “An Epilogue,” Squire remembered his friend William Smith in “To a Bull-dog,” a poem addressed to Smith’s dog, Mamie. The poem has been criticized for its sentimentality, but the excerpt below exposes the grief of a friendship and a future that were stolen by the Great War:

But now I know what a dog doesn't know,
Though you'll thrust your head on my knee,
And try to draw me from the absent-mindedness
That you find so dull in me.

And all your life, you will never know
What I wouldn't tell you even if I could,
That the last time we waved him away
Willy went for good. 
I must sit, not speaking, on the sofa,
While you lie asleep on the floor;
For he's suffered a thing that dogs couldn't dream of,
And he won't be coming here any more.

*From the Tonbridge at War web site.


  1. 'The plain is still there' - ah, that hurts. Thanks for sharing these. The more famous and highly talented war poets are the ones we always go back to, but it's good (and sad) to be reminded that a lot of people were writing poetry and just trying to cope with very traumatic, abnormal situations.

    1. Nothing I could say about the poem is more apt than your comment, "ah, that hurts." Thanks for reading and commenting, Clarissa.

  2. Thank you, they speak so contemporarily to my ears...well, they should be as they were the first Moderns....

  3. I don't find the dog poem sentimental. The animal links the 2 men . They no doubt both loved it.
    The spareness of the Landscape poem is very effective

  4. "Spare" -- what a perfect description. Thanks for reading and commenting, Ian.

  5. William's father Charles was Master of Sidney Sussex so William spent his entire life in the wonderful atmosphere of Cambridge

    1. What a rich childhood that must have been....with Oliver Cromwell's head buried somewhere on the grounds of Sidney Sussex by that time? ;)