A soldier's story
Present day photo of veteran Smiler Marshall
World War One veteran Smiler Marshall
Veteran Albert 'Smiler' Marshall recalls only too well the terror of battle. The former Essex Yeomanry soldier, who was 105 in 2002, remembers one incident in 1917 as being even more horrifying than the Somme.
'One afternoon at about 4pm we learned that soldiers from the Oxford and Bucks regiment were to go over the top at 6pm. By nine o'clock every single one of them was dead.
'We went out with the Royal Army Medical Corps to bury them all. An officer held up a white stick as we went into No Man's Land. It was a sign to ask the enemy to stop firing, and they did. We could only dig down a few feet and cover them with a bit of soil, burying them where they lay. It was horrible.'
1915 photo of veteran Smiler Marshall on horseback
Smiler Marshall on horseback in 1915
But having lived through the terror, Smiler, now of Ashtead, Surrey, believes it would be wrong to pardon those who were shot at dawn. 'I didn't know anyone who was executed or who had anything to do with a firing squad but we all knew about the penalty. But it didn't occur to you not to fight. You didn't think about it, you just did it. And you just took what came your way.'
'...you regularly lost a friend, or someone near you. The thought never left you that you could be next.'
And Smiler saw only too well what came the way of many of his comrades. 'You lived in these trenches for days and days with nothing happening but bombardments, but you regularly lost a friend, or someone near you. The thought never left you that you could be next.'
But Smiler, believed to be the last surviving World War One veteran to have fought on horseback, did have some sympathy with at least one man who was punished. 'One day I was ordered to stand guard over a chap who had been tied to a wheel, without food or water, as a punishment for something. I can't remember what he'd done. But I felt sorry for him so I put my fag up to his lips so he could have a smoke. It was a very risky thing to do because if anyone had seen me they'd have tied me to the wheel as well!
'Years later I was walking down Oxford Street in London and I saw him. He recognised me immediately and thanked me. He said he'd never forgotten that fag.' (http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/war/wwone/shot_at_dawn_06.shtml, Shot at Dawn: Cowards, Traitors or Victims?
By Peter Taylor-Whiffen)
Fri 20 May 2005
Last Great War Cavalryman Dies at 108
By Tony Jones, PA
The last surviving British cavalryman from the First World War has died at
the age of 108.
Albert Marshall lied about his age to sign up for service in the Great War
and even volunteered to return to the front line after being injured and
sent home to convalesce.
In 1998, he was awarded the Legion dHonneur, Frances highest honour, in
recognition of his gallantry.
He was believed to be the second oldest man in England.
His son, John Marshall, 73, said his father died in his sleep on Monday at
his home in Ashtead, Surrey, from pneumonia and old age.
He added: He went to join up (in 1915) and the man behind the desk said
How old are you lad?.
My father replied 17, but the man said Would you leave the room. He went
outside then came back in after a bit and the man asked him again how old
he was. Eighteen, my father said, and was allowed to join up.
We as a family never knew a thing about his war experiences. We knew he
was in the First World War, obviously, but it was not a subject spoken
It was only when he joined the veterans association and all the media
attention he received after his 100th birthday that we learnt about what
Mr Marshall, known as Smiler, was born on March 15, 1897, the year of
Queen Victorias diamond jubilee, in Elmstead Market, a small Essex
He had a life-long passion for working with horses and in January 1915,
aged 17, joined the Essex Yeomanry.
His carer, Graham Stark, a volunteer from the World War One Veterans
Association, said: The young men that joined up didnt think they were
The old Victorian values just kicked in. People didnt put themselves first
it was a duty. We consider them heroes but they wouldnt consider
themselves in that way.
The soldier took part in his first major battle during the autumn of 1915
at Loos in northern France.
Mr Marshall once said: The cavalrys job in winter was to hold the front
line. There were three lines of trenches, mud and devastation.
Mr Stark said the old soldier told him he worked in small mounted units of
four. One man would hold the reins of the other three horses while his
comrades fought the enemy on foot.
While serving in Flanders he was shot through the hand and spent 1917
convalescing in a Newcastle hospital but volunteered to return to the
front and was back in position by spring 1918, now with the Machine Gun
After the Armistice he volunteered to serve again, this time in the
growing Anglo-Irish conflict.
Mr Marshall said years later: In battle your friends were getting wounded
and killed and then you had to bury them.
But you took it all in your stride.
He was demobbed in 1921 and married his childhood sweetheart, Florence.
After working for the Essex and Suffolk hunt he later became a country
estate worker in Surrey.
John, the only survivor of Mr Marshalls five children, said: He was a
bubbly character this sums up his nickname.
21 May 2005
LAST OF THE HORSEMEN
Incredible life of Great War cavalry hero 'Smiler' Marshall
By Gill Swain
AS he spotted the enemy, the memory of his comrades' suffering was as
fresh as new blood.
Fired with rage, Albert Marshall drew his sword, dug his spurs into his
horse's flanks and charged.
Galloping across that field in France in 1916, the steel flashing in his
hand, Albert was fighting like men had done against the Romans, against
the Normans in 1066, in the Crusades and in colonial wars.
His death this week at 108, the last British soldier ever to ride to war
or wield a sword in battle, marked the end of an era.
Not that Albert was a military man at heart. His nickname was "Smiler" and
he liked to live up to it. He was a country boy who spent his life in the
He was also a throwback to a more hierarchical age. He spent his life in
devoted service to people in "the big house" and, as he grew frail, they
in turn looked after him.
He never had a mortgage, never paid rent or tax and rarely took a holiday.
He owned little and coveted nothing. "His was a stress-free life. He
didn't have any worries," says his grandson, Alan.
Albert was born the son of an agricultural worker in the Essex village of
Elmstead Market, in 1897, an era when horses were still the only means of
getting about, apart from your own two feet.
At 6.30am on the day after his 13th birthday he started work as a
shipwright's apprentice but soon wriggled out of it to be a stable boy on
the local country house estate.
When Lord Kitchener came calling at Christmas in 1914, Albert answered,
even though he was still only 17 and had to pretend that he was a year
older to get into a cavalry division of the Essex Yeomanry.
"I thought nothing about the war. I just thought of riding horses and
being with my mates," he told the Daily Mirror in 1997.
Larking about on parade on his 18th birthday, he threw a snowball and was
ticked off by the sergeant major. "I'm talking to you, Smiler," he yelled.
The name stuck.
It's amazing to think that Albert was still only a teenager when he
confronted the Germans at the Battle of Loos in September 1915, which cost
50,000 British casualties.
When he was 101, Albert recalled the carnage with the matter-of-fact
attitude of the typical Tommy.
"It wasn't too bad when you got used to the shelling. If you were in the
front line, they couldn't shell because they were too close - though they
could get you with bullets, grenades and trench mortars."
H E remembered "being lousy all the time" and having only two baths in
three years. "It was pretty grim," he said.
But whenever he was in a sticky spot, Albert would sing his favourite
hymn, Nearer My God To Thee. It was a talisman he used all his life.
He didn't fear death. "When you lost a mate, you thought: 'Well, that
could be me tomorrow.' By accepting that, I wasn't afraid of it."
The cavalry's role was to break through enemy lines and hold the position
until the infantry arrived. "Sometimes we had to hold the line for two
days or more, dug into our holes and fighting off the enemy."
The worst thing he ever saw was a summer meadow choked with the bodies of
hundreds of boys from the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry, who had poured off
a train the previous evening wearing new uniforms with shiny buttons.
"By 9am, they were all dead. We had to bury them, one or two to each
grave. It was terrible. They looked beautiful - so young and clean and
smart. I can still see their faces."
Soon afterwards, at Camb-rai, Albert spied 100 Germans and thirsted for
revenge. He said: "When they saw us thundering towards them, they ran like
heck back to their trenches."
In March 1917, he was shot through the hand but, after recovering,
volunteered for the new Machine Gun Corps.
One day, a shell exploded nearby and buried him up to his waist in mud.
One of the men trapped with him called out that if Smiler was still alive,
he should sing his trademark hymn. "So I did. It gave us a bit of
Theirs was a comradeship too deep for words in peacetime. "We were all the
best of pals," was all Albert could find to say. After the Armistice, he
returned home to his childhood sweetheart, Flo. He landed a job as a groom
at Great Bromley Hall in Essex and married in 1921.
It was an age of innocence, even ignorance. "My wife wasn't interested in
anything intimate for months after we married, as her mother had
frightened her. Never mind, we went on to have five children."
They were Kathleen, Cyril, Geoff and twins Jean and John. Albert outlived
them all except John, now aged 71. He also leaves 12 grandchildren, 24
great grandchildren and five great, great grandchildren.
W HEN his employer moved to near Guildford in Surrey, Albert - a terrier
man with the Essex and Suffolk hunt - went with him.
Soon afterwards he lost his right eye when a clipping from a horse's mane
pierced the retina.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Albert volunteered for the Home
Guard and moved to a cottage in Ashtead, Surrey, to work for the Maples
He taught generations of children to ride, organised gymkhanas and became
a skilled amateur vet. Albert was regarded as one of the family and worked
in the greenhouses until he was over 100.
His beloved Flo, with whom he had "never a cross word", died in 1984. He'd
never taken her to France, having no desire to revisit the battlefields.
But TV crews increasingly came calling on him...
He was persuaded to go to Arras in 1998 for a Songs Of Praise special but
though glad to visit the grave of his best friend, Lenny Percival, who had
fallen dying into his arms, he thought the horror and the suffering were
He'd talk reluctantly and only to honour the memory of his mates. He
accepted the Legion d'Honneur, sang trench songs for TV and attended at
least 10 Palace garden parties.
In his final years he was prepared for the end. "He had a charmed life but
it was long enough and he was very tired," says his daughter-in-law,
Fittingly, the last cavalryman's body will be borne on a horse-drawn
carriage to his funeral on Tuesday.
And when the congregation sings Nearer My God To Thee, they will think of
a good man's life of service, well lived and content.
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