12:30pm Sunday 6th October 2013
By Cara Cunningham
IN a sleepy corner of a Knutsford churchyard proudly stands the headstone of William Smith, who was laid to rest in 1879.
At first glance, nothing appears out of the ordinary, but take a closer look and one sees the headstone is of modern Imperial War Graves Commission design.
So why did it take more than a century for a man, described as a ‘Balaclava hero’ and ‘much loved and admired town character’, to finally get the recognition he surely deserves?
Here, with the help of historian and writer John Howard, we look back at the heroic life and tragic downfall of Trumpet Major Smith.
Before coming to Knutsford to live out his autumn (or rather the winter) years, Smith spent his life as an active serviceman in the XIth Hussars.
He served in the Crimean War of 1845-55 and had ridden at the Battle of Balaclava in the celebrated disaster known as ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, made famous by Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem of the same name.
As orderly trumpeter to Lord Cardigan, who commanded the Light Brigade, it is almost certain that Smith sounded the charge.
Of the 607 men who charged the Russian guns only 198 returned – Smith among them.
John said: “During the battle Smith, after having his horse shot from under him and being injured by the animal on him, bound the thigh wound of a comrade and carried him to safety – a truly heroic act.”
Smith retired from the Army in 1862, aged 40, and arrived in Knutsford for reasons unknown, but it is suspected his friendship with Sergeant Major Tom Mullin played a part.
Mullin, late of the IVth Dragoon Guards, also fought at Balaclava. Smith and Mullan both joined the Cheshire Yeomanry, Smith becoming trumpet major.
John added: “Smith built a huge reputation in Knutsford for his ability to entertain the public, and was a star turn at concerts and penny readings, held at the Royal George Assembly Rooms, where he sang and recited poetry.
“Indeed, his own poem ‘The Balaklava Charge’ has a realism that, though obviously lacking Tennyson’s rhythmic elegance, is thrilling.”
Smith was heavily involved in the town’s activities, acting as Marshall in the 1867 May Day, a committee member for a time and a crier at the Court of Quarter Sessions.
However, it was not all plain sailing for the former soldier. Although Smith played an active role in the Knutsford community, a darkness bubbled underneath his confident exterior which ultimately lead to his demise.
John said: “It is fairly clear that Smith, though so thoroughly outgoing and convivial, suffered from depression, caused partly by an addiction to laudanum combined with a drinking habit.”
Next week in the Guardian find out how an addiction, a tragic death, religious superstition and the persuasion of a Knutsford gentlewoman lead to the erection of William Smith’s modern-day headstone.
© Copyright 2001-2013 Newsquest Media Group