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Trooper Albert ‘Smiler’ Marshall, 1/1st Essex Yeomanry
The Last Cavalryman
Was nicknamed after he threw a snowball at a drill sergeant who threatened to give the young recruit ‘something to smile about’; Albert Marshall remained ‘Smiler’ to all who knew him.
Born in March 1897 in Elmstead Market, Essex, Smiler worked as a groom. A self-proclaimed rough diamond, he got into many scrapes in and out of school before war gave him a chance of adventure. Brought up in the countryside, Smiler and his friends could all ride and so the Yeomanry was an obvious choice.
He enlisted in January 1915 (he wanted Christmas at home first) telling the recruitment sergeant his true age, seventeen, before being advised to think again and replied, when asked again, that he was nineteen. After training for eleven months he finally embarked for France and served in the 1/1st Essex Yeomanry.
He served continuously in France and Belgium, and was present on the Somme on the calamitous first day of the battle when 20,000 British soldiers died and 40,000 were wounded. He served at Arras, Ypres, Cambrai and during the German March offensive.
In the summer and autumn of 1918, serving with the cavalry machine gun corps, he helped attack and chase the Germans across the old battlefields and into open country. After the Armistice he served in Germany in the Army of Occupation.
Smiler married in 1921 and had five children. He died aged 108, and was the last British cavalryman of the Great War.
Their sap and our sap were about eighteen yards apart and between was an old communication trench which was full of barbed wire and jam tins that would rattle when anyone approached. One day, the Germans sent a stick grenade over, to which they had tied a couple of cigarettes. After a bit I went to the bomb, and my mate Sunny Caines was saying:
‘For God’s sake, don’t touch it.”
He thought the bomb would go off and blow me up. But I went and smoked one of the cigarettes and it was all right, so we actually sent back the same stick bomb with a whole packet attached. I hope they enjoyed them.
Avoiding trench foot
There were plenty of lads who’d give me their rum ration for one or two cigarettes, and so my water bottle was always a third or a quarter full of neat rum.
When we were in the front line, the orderly officer and orderly sergeant used to come round twice during the night, once just before twelve and once between five and six in the morning, to see things were all right.
When they’d gone past, I knew they’d got a good distance to go along the front line. So, quick as lightening, I unwrapped my puttee and took my book and sock off and poured some rum into my hand, taking a little lick myself, then rubbed it into my toes for five minutes and then put my boot and puttee back on.
When they went by next time, I did the same to the other one and my feet were as good as anything. You are not allowed to take off any clothes of any description in the front line, but I managed to do that for all three days we were there.
Our intelligence could tell that the Germans were ready to blow a mine and we were told to evacuate the trenches but we didn’t go far enough. They made a bloody great crater; hundreds of ton of dirt blew up into the air.
Two of our fellows were almost completely buried, another was caught up to his legs, and I had my feet trapped. The weight was so great, I tried to pull myself out but couldn’t. One chap had just his head sticking out of the earth and a message was passed round from this man:
‘Is Smiler all right?’ That came round to me and I said, ‘Yes, but I can’t move, I’ll have to wait until our lads come to dig us out’. ‘Well, for Christ’s sake will you sing ‘Nearer, my God, to thee’.
My Sunday school teacher went down with the Titanic and we had grown up hearing that that was the hymn they sang in great peril, and when in trouble I have always sung it. So I sang this hymn until they dug us out.
“Nearer, my God, to thee
Nearer to thee
Just like the wanderer
When the sun goes down
Darkness comes over me
When my rest was a stone
Yet in my dreams I’ll be
Nearer, my God, to thee
Nearer, my God, to thee
Nearer to thee.”
The end of the war
I thought this was smashing, we’d got them beat. I can’t tell you any dates, but we noticed the last lot of Germans that held us up were young boys and they hadn’t got the fight in them that the old ones had. If they saw the cavalry coming with their swords drawn, they’d scamper. They kept putting their hands up:
The Germans would stand their ground if they’d got to, but if there was a chance to get away, they would.
Just before the Armistice, the Germans started throwing their rifles away. They weren’t going to fight any more, they told us that. One or two spoke English, one had been a pork butcher from York before the war, another had been a hairdresser in London, and they’d had enough. They were ambling along, without their rifles, walking towards Germany, accepting defeat. We believed we could go all the way to Berlin.
We were angry when we heard there was a ceasefire. We thought if we could have a scrap there in Germany, show ‘em what war was like, because they never knew what war was like, we wanted to kill a few of them, let them lie about the streets, as they did the French. It would have given us some satisfaction. Now we’re beating them on their own ground, you see my meaning?