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World War 1 Strafing And Stream Stood Between Sikhs And Victory


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Strafing and stream stood between Sikhs and victory

Commemorative paving stones are to be laid in the home towns of servicemen from Cornwall and Devon who were awarded the Victoria Cross in the First World War. In the ninth of his series, Simon Parker relates the exploits of John Smyth from Teignmouth.

John Smyth was several thousand miles from his birthplace in Devon when war broke out and his services were required on the Western Front.

A 21-year-old career soldier, he was serving as a lieutenant in the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs, 3rd (Lahore) Division of the Indian Army when hostilities began in August 1914.

Born in a large Victorian house in Ferndale Road, East Teignmouth, on October 25, 1893, John's future was mapped out at an early age when his father left Devon to work for the Indian Civil Service in Burma. Educated at the Dragon School in Oxford, and at Repton, he went on to train at Sandhurst Royal Military College.

In the autumn of 1914, John and his company of Sikh soldiers were transported from India to M{censored}illes for action in Europe. Military critics expressed doubts at the time as to whether Indian soldiers would be capable of withstanding battle conditions so different from those they were used to. However, such doubts were completely dispelled when John and 10 of his men went on to carry out one of the most gallant episodes of the whole war.

On May 18, 1915, the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs were engaged in fierce fighting near the village of Richebourg L'Avoue in the Pas-de-Calais region of France. Determined to take an enemy position, John led a bombing party of 10 after the attempts of two other groups had failed. Weighed down by crates containing around 100 bombs, they stormed the enemy lines over exceptionally dangerous ground.

Despite eight of his comrades being killed or wounded in the attempt, John and two others swam a stream, dodging howitzer, machine gun and rifle fire to reach their target. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for conspicuous bravery and later presented with the Russian Order of St George Fourth Class.

After the war, in September 1920, he was promoted to the rank of brigade major in the 43rd Indian Infantry Brigade and awarded the Military Cross for distinguished service in the field at Waziristan. His military service continued during the Second World War when, as Brigadier John Smyth, he commanded the Indian 17th Infantry Division as acting major-general.

Entering politics as a Conservative, he stood unsuccessfully against Ernest Bevin in Wandsworth at the 1945 general election, then defeated the sitting Labour MP for Norwood in 1950. He was made a baronet in 1956, taking the title Sir John George Smyth VC MC, 1st Baronet Smyth of Teignmouth.

Away from the military and politics, he was an author, playwright, journalist and broadcaster. He died on April 26, 1983, and is buried at Golders Green in London.

Brigadier John Smyth's Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces, is displayed at the Imperial War Museum in London.

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