Albert Marshall

First World War cavalryman and last survivor of the Battle of the Somme
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The Independent Online

Albert Marshall, groom and wartime soldier: born Elmstead Market, Essex 15 March 1897; married 1921 Florence Day (died 1984; one son, and two sons and two daughters deceased); died Ashtead, Surrey 16 May 2005.

Albert Marshall, who has died at the age of 108, was the last survivor of the Battle of the Somme. A dyed-in-the-wool countryman, he epitomised the Great War volunteer. A natural horseman, he was still riding in his early nineties.

Smiler, as he was affectionately known, was born in 1897 in a small village outside Colchester. When he was two his father put him on to a wooden cart drawn by a goat. He later put him on the goat's back - it bucked him off. His father put him back on facing the goat's tail and taught him how to hold on. From there he progressed to a pony and then to his great love, the horse. On Sundays his father would take him to the garrison town of Colchester to see the soldiers parade for church. He was excited by their red coats and that each regiment had their own march. He learned words of many of the marches and over a hundred years later in a robust voice would sing them and the songs he learned in the Great War.

When he was four his mother died. His brothers and sisters looked after him and pulled him to school on an orange box on wheels. He was happy at school and liked to recall that the teaching staff were a bit "fishy" - there was a Miss Herring and a Miss Salmon and the headmaster was Mr Whiting. After school he, along with other boys, would collect manure for the garden. The horse or pony was still the main form of transport - he did not see a motor car in the village until 1908.

A bit of a fighter at school, he recalled Mr Whiting asking him to give a good beating to a boy who was bullying the smaller ones. In those days the whole school took a day's holiday to lift potatoes or pick pears and the reward was sometimes a stick of liquorice, which cost a farthing. Every Boxing Day the villagers assembled with their pets for an unusual race - pigs, goats, ferrets, donkeys, cats, dogs, tame mice and even a cockerel - all wearing collars on a lead. The winning owner then had to climb a greasy pole to reach his prize, a dead duck.

On leaving school he became an apprentice carpenter in a shipyard for a wage of 2s 4d (12p). Trudging home one afternoon he was given a lift by the local milkman, who offered him a job. At the age of 14 he was delivering milk to the entire village.

His life changed when Lord Kitchener, accompanied by the world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, came to Colchester to recruit young men on the outbreak of the First World War. He volunteered for the Essex Yeomanry in Christmas week 1914. Asked his name and date of birth, he told the sergeant major he was born in 1897. He replied, "Too young. Go outside and think about it." He returned and when asked when he was born replied 1896. "That's perfect" came the reply. His military training began in the January snow of 1915. Doing physical jerks he bent down and made a quick snowball, which he threw at the man ahead of him. The drill sergeant spotted this and rebuked him, but Albert feigned innocence. "Yes, son, I'm talking to you, Smiler," roared the sergeant. From that moment on he was nicknamed Smiler.

He went to France in November 1915. He worked in a four-man section that would advance, then dig in to await the enemy, while one man looked after the horses. They would attempt to hold their position until the pioneers or engineers came to dig proper trenches. He experienced gas twice and recalled:

You couldn't stop crying - tears were running from my eyes. When we had the first lot, we had a piece of muslin, which we tied round the nose and mouth. But that gas is still with me today. My skin is all dry, it feels like a needle pricking you.

Marshall was to lose many friends during the war but it was the death of his best friend Lennie Passiful that deeply moved him. Passiful had his rifle through the smallest of holes aiming to kill a sniper when he was hit:

I saw him fall. I was in the trench close by him and put my arm out and caught him. His rifle stuck in the hole - but the sniper had got him, right through that tiny little hole. He later died of his wounds.

Marshall deeply resented that £1 was deducted from his final pay for the blanket in which Passiful was buried. Over 80 years later he was to return to France, where he laid a wreath on his grave. He was to recall, "I now know exactly where Lennie is. He was so very young."

On one occasion he witnessed a cavalry attack against a German patrol about 100 strong. They were surprised and quickly scattered but were cut down by sword. He also saw the Bengal Lancers charge:

They didn't hang about, they never bothered with saddles - they just jumped on and galloped off. It was the only time I saw a lance used. They were born horsemen - magnificent.

His worst experience was what he witnessed at the battle of the Somme at Mametz Wood, where the Essex Yeomanry had been held in the rear ready to exploit the advance of the infantry. After a two-day bombardment the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry fresh from England were ordered forward to capture the wood - few returned. That night Marshall and a burial party dug shallow graves into which they rolled the bodies and covered them with a little mud. They then had to walk back over the graves.

Marshall was wounded in the hand in this action and after his recovery the Army considered he would not be able to handle a horse, so he volunteered for the Machine Gun Corps and was posted to the Leicestershire Yeomanry. His 21st birthday was spent in a derelict farmhouse being shelled while his gun crew melted ice for tea. He was there on 21 March 1918 when the Germans launched their "Big Push":

Had that first day of their advance been a success, the war would have been over before - but it wasn't. We were up and down, along the side of the woods - in the woods, out of the woods - on the move all the time. Had a shell burst then you'd have been done for. The pieces that flew off were red-hot when they exploded and they cut your arm or your head off - take your face off, your nose or your ear - anything.

At one point a shell landed close to him and he found himself sinking in thick mud. He managed to attract a search party by singing "Nearer, My God, to Thee".

The night before the Armistice he was in a factory in Lille and recalled how those around him were angry as they felt they had the Germans on the run. However after the Armistice they moved off and had only gone a few hundred yards when the factory, which had been booby-trapped, blew up. As Marshall recalled with a wry grin, "That would have been bloody ironic being blown up on Armistice Day."

With the war over Marshall received £50 for signing on for one year in the army of occupation. But after eight months, because of the increasing trouble in Ireland, he was sent to Dublin.

On leaving the Army he married his sweetheart Florence and both worked together for the Essex and Suffolk Hunt at Great Bromley Hall. This was to be a full-time job either hunting or caring for the horses. In 1926 during the General Strike, as the local policeman had been sent to the North, he worked as a special constable for the village. On the death of his employer he joined the staff of a Captain Mumford and worked again with horses.

In 1939 while he was clipping a mare a hair pierced his eye, complications set in and his eye was removed. During the Second World War he was in the local Home Guard and in 1940 he went to work in Ashtead, Surrey, for the Maples family, who had lost two sons in the First World War. He moved into the cottage that was to be his for the remainder of his life. He worked as a general maintenance man and again with horses. A Victorian at heart, he described his occupation as "Private Servant".

All his life he was involved with horses. He seldom called a vet because he made all his own medicines. In his early life he rarely spoke of the war or of the impact it had upon him, but in his nineties he joined the World War One Veterans' Association and, with its chairman Dennis Goodwin and a party of 16 other veterans, returned to Passchendaele for the 80th anniversary of the battle. In the next year he was presented with the Légion d'honneur by the French government.

In fine voice, in 2000 he sang trench songs at a concert in Rochester Cathedral and received a three-minute standing ovation. A few months ago he appeared in the Channel 4 documentary Britain's Boy Soldiers and was delighted when it won an award for the best factual documentary of 2004.

Max Arthur