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Remember When: Joan Leach 'called for memorial' for Major Smith
LAST week the Guardian took a look at the colourful life of ‘Balaclava hero’ and Knutsford resident Trumpet Major William Smith.
With the help of historian and writer, John Howard, we delved into Smith’s past as orderly trumpeter to Lord Cardigan at the Battle of Balaclava and later years as an active member of the mid 19th-century Knutsford community.
In the second instalment of the two-part series, we discover how depression and addiction led to the tragic downfall of a war hero and why it took 120 years for his final resting place to be formally marked.
William Smith moved to Knutsford in 1862 after retiring from the army, aged 40.
Smith saw more than his fair share of action on the battlefield and was one of the survivors of the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava, where 409 out of his 607 comrades were gunned down by the Russians.
After moving to Knutsford, Smith, a talented poet, became a prominent and much-loved character in the town. The military continued to play a part in his life and, along with his friend and former Balaclava comrade Sergeant Tom Mullin, he joined the Cheshire Yeomanry.
However, underneath his confident exterior, Smith suffered from a heavy heart.
“It was fairly clear that Smith, though so thoroughly outgoing and convivial, suffered from depression, caused partly because of an addiction to laudanum combined with a drinking habit,” said John.
One fateful afternoon in 1879, Smith, then aged 57, whilst at the Tatton Gentleman’s Club sent out for a portion of laudanum from Mr Sylvester’s King Street chemist’s shop. He then excused himself to go to the Red Cow in Canute Square and returned later in an emotionally-distressed condition.
Shortly before, Smith declared to Tom Williamson, the inn landlord, that he had taken something with his drink ‘that will finish me off’. He died the following morning.
John said: “He was buried in St John’s parish churchyard, probably at the kindness of the vicar the Reverend Henry Barnacle – a sad end for a Balaclava hero.”
Enter the late Knutsfordian historian Joan Leach MBE. Joan wrote of Smith’s rise and demise in her essay entitled Trumpet Major Smith and the Charge of the Light Brigade. The essay concludes with the words, ‘there seems to be no headstone, a sad end indeed for a Balaklava hero.’
John added: “I have very good reason to believe that the lack of a headstone was something that Joan found very difficult to comprehend and that her sense of injustice was profoundly affected.”
Fast forward some years and now, among the ancient graves of Knutsfordian predecessors, stands a modern Imperial War Graves Commission headstone. The engraving reads ‘Buried in this Churchyard Trumpet Major William Smith of the 11th Hussars and Earl of Chester’s Yeomanry Cavalry’.
So why did it take 120 years for Smith’s regiment to pay tribute to their former trumpet major?
“Someone had obviously drawn their attention to the situation. This somebody just has to be Joan Leach MBE,” John added.
“The sad reflection on the lack of a headstone in her essay says it all. It is painfully obvious that, in the tradition of heaven knows when, suicide victims were buried in an unmarked grave. But this was a man of heroic substance and character, not a common criminal.”
John suspects that Joan, knowing very little of military matters, would have contacted the 11th Hussars and possibly the Imperial War Graves Commission to advise them of the situation. Another fact pointing to Joan as instigator of the deed is the carefully-chosen location of the headstone.
John said: “Though it is not known in which part of the churchyard Smith is buried, the military headstone has been placed immediately in front of that of Sergeant Tom Mullin and his family.
“She quite deliberately arranged for those former comrades in arms and Balaklava veterans to be reunited. A woman’s touch indeed.”
Out of the 198 men who survived the celebrated disaster that was ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, two are forever resting in a Knutsford churchyard – but now both have the fitting tributes they deserve.
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