Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, September 4, 2023

Remembering a Veteran: Maj. Gen. Merton Beckwith-Smith, DSO, MC—Leader of the First British Trench Raid


First World War Lieutenant Beckwith-Smith

By James Patton

Born into a wealthy family in 1890, Merton Beckwith-Smith went to Eton, then to Christ Church College, Oxford, leaving after a year because he had secured a commission in the Coldstream Guards. Later, Oxford would award him an honorary degree.

On 4 October 1914, serving at the River Aisne, Beckwith-Smith was chosen by Brigadier Charles FitzClarence VC (of Gheluvelt Chateau fame) to carry out a night raid on "Fish Hook Trench." This was the first British trench raid of the war. From the official record:

 “On the front of the 1/Coldstream, just east of the Troyon factory road, the Germans had run out a sap, and it was decided to fill it in. At 8 P.M. a platoon of the battalion, led by 2/Lieut. M. Beckwith-Smith (who was wounded …), crossing the hundred yards of No Man's Land, rushed the trench with the bayonet.” 

In addition to the Distinguished Service Order for the raid, he later received the Military Cross and was Mentioned in Dispatches (MiD) twice. Promotions flowed his way and he joined the Guards Brigade staff as a brevet Lt. Colonel.

Second World War: Major General Beckwith-Smith

On 14 March 1918 he married Honor Dorothy Leigh (later C.St.J. and OBE), whose mother was Lady Rose Nevill, a daughter of the 1st Marquess of Abergavenny, and by her second marriage the 4th Countess of Cottenham. In 1931, the Beckwith-Smiths picked up a family manor house in Oxfordshire. Thus, by marriage Beckwith-Smith had advanced into the fringes of the Peerage; their granddaughter, Anne Beckwith-Smith LVO, would be the Assistant Private Secretary and Lady-in-Waiting to Diana, Princess of Wales, from 1981 to 1997.

In 1938, he was promoted to brigadier and given the Lahore Brigade in India, then took over the 1st Guards Brigade in 1940. Upon the transfer of then-Maj. Gen. Harold Alexander, Beckwith-Smith became the major general commanding the 1st Division in France.  

He was an informal and jovial man known to all as "Becky." In 1940, he told his officers, perhaps sarcastically, "We have been given the supreme honour of being the rearguard at Dunkirk. Go and tell your platoons the good news!’

He also briefed his men on the Ju-87 Stukas that were harassing them: "Stand up to them. Shoot at them with a Bren gun from the shoulder. Take them like a high pheasant. Give them plenty of lead. £5 to any man who brings one down." It is doubtful that any of his soldiers had any experience with the aristocratic sport of pheasant shooting.

His division was among the last British troops to be evacuated, and Beckwith-Smith got his third MiD.

Beckwith-Smith on Right with King George VI Prior to Departure for Singapore

He was then given command of the newly formed 18th (East Anglian) Division, made up of second-line territorials. In late 1941 the 18th sailed for India, but at Cape Town a brigade was diverted to Malaya. Beckwith-Smith and the remainder were later rushed to reinforce Singapore, arriving on 20  January 1942. 

The Japanese landed on Singapore Island on 8th February 1942. Although not outnumbered, Lt. General Arthur Percival surrendered his forces a week later.

In August 1942, Beckwith-Smith was moved to Taiwan (then Formosa). Before leaving he sent this message to his men:

On my departure for Japan I wish to take what may be my last chance to thank all ranks of the 18th Division for their cheerful service and loyal support on many shores and seas during the two years I have had the honour to command the Division. I regret I have been unable to lead you to the success in battle to which your cause and sacrifice is entitled, and although I leave you with a heavy heart, I carry with me many precious memories and a sense of comradeship such as could only have been inspired by the trials and disappointments which we have shared in the last few months. Difficult days may still be ahead, but I know that the spirit which today animates all ranks of the Division will prevail and will form the corner-stone on which one day a just and lasting peace will be found. God grant that day may not be long delayed and that we may soon meet again. Meanwhile GOOD LUCK, HEADS UP, KEEP SMILING.

Indeed, difficult days were ahead for his men; they were sent to work on the infamous Burma Railway. As a result, over a third of them died. They would not meet again; he died on 11 November 1942. He was the highest-ranking Allied officer to die in the Taiwan camps.

In 1946, the Taiwan POW remains were re-buried in the Sai Wan Bay War Cemetery, Hong Kong. Beckwith-Smith’s memorial at his family’s parish church has this inscription:

And so it befell that when the hour of trial came, these men gave an example of courage and devotion the memory of which will never perish.

Michael Snape has written a new biography of Merton Beckwith-Smith entitled Forgotten Warrior, which is available from Amazon.

Sources: Christ Church College, Oxford

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