Monday, June 3, 2013

Uncle Robert Smith: Questions Remain

As all good Smiths know, Jack, Tom and their youngest brother, Robert – as well as sister Betty – all served overseas during WWII. Jack, Tom and Betty came home, Robert was killed.

Private Robert William Smith
Uncle Robert was not talked about a lot when I was growing up, but we all knew the key elements of his story, that he enlisted at 17, lying about his age, and that he was killed in Italy.

The best historical minds in the family, including Pat and Mike Morden, Sue Cornelius and Toby Albertson, have all had a go at figuring out where exactly he died and how, and where he was buried, and they have probably nailed it. But at the risk of flogging a dead…um, uncle, a few nagging questions remain.

We know that his full name was Robert William Smith because Sue Cornelius at some point dug out this death notice from the The London Free Press: “Private Robert William Smith, 19, killed in action in Italy August 26, of 2 Horn Street, London. Joined the forces in July 1941. Went overseas October 1942.”

Two Horn was a known Smith residence. Vernon’s Directory has Edith (our grandmother) and various adult Smith children living there from 1942 until at least 1946. I would expect as well that the Freeps would check the facts of Robert’s death with the family – but maybe not.

Mike Morden spotted this listing for a Robert William Smith in the federal government’s online Canadian Armed Forces War Dead database. Mike also found thisrecord of Robert William’s burial at Montecchio War Cemetery, which gives us a pretty good idea of where in Italy he died, and how - at least in which action.

This would seem to clinch it, except for a couple of minor inconsistencies.

First, the newspaper notice says he was 19 when he died, which sounds about right. The War Dead record, however, says he was born in 1922, which would make him 22 in 1944.

Of course, he did lie to the army about his age. But why would you add three (four?) years to your age when you only had to be one year older to enlist. Especially when you had a baby face (see photo above) that would make it difficult to pass even for 18.

The second anomaly is that he fought with the Seaforth Highlanders, which was and is a Vancouver-based regiment. Perhaps, he couldn’t fool the local enlistment office, so he went further afield? But why all the way to Vancouver? Or were they enlisting elsewhere than Vancouver at the time? Possible. Or was Robert already in Vancouver for some other reason? Seems unlikely.

Robert has been on my mind because he always seemed a bit of a murky figure when I was growing up. I wasn’t even sure what he looked like. I must have seen the old pictures of him that I’ve been scanning lately – and have posted here – but I evidently didn’t take them in. When seen on screen in a larger size, his character shines through. He looks a gentle, cheerful lad.

I think this one (see below) of Kay, Edith, Barbara and Robert on the front steps of a house (2 Horn?) speaks volumes.

Rear: Kay Yull, Edith Smith. Front: Barbara and Robert Smith
It’s inscribed on the back, presumably in Kay’s hand: “Mother and I, Barbara, and Robert on his last leave.” Robert looks impossibly young to be a fighting soldier. He also looks enormously gleeful, as does Barbara. Kay and Edith: not so much. Theyre the adults, they know how serious this is. Robert perhaps still think it’s a game.

This one is also striking, in context. It’s a class picture, dated (on the blackboard) 1938. Robert, looking not a lot different than he does in the later pictures of him in uniform, is sitting front and centre. He was apparently in the Senior Advancement Class (sign on blackboard again) that year. I’m assuming this was a Grade 8 picture. (Probably at Lord Roberts Public School, which was only a few blocks from 598 Princess Ave., where the Smiths lived in 1938.)

What’s striking about the picture? Just three years later, according to the Free Press notice, he was in the army. Less than a year after that, he went overseas. Childhood went fast for Robert.

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