The graves of Lieutenant (Lt) Harold Rymer Smith and Second Lieutenant (2ndLt) Wilfred John Massey Lynch, who were killed on the Western Front in the spring of 1918, have finally been marked with headstones which now bear their name more than a hundred years after they died.

2nd Lt Richard Langley of 1st Battalion The Mercian Regiment presents a Union Flag to Sarah Rockliff, the great niece of Lt Smith.

The services, which were organised by the MOD’s Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre (JCCC), also known as the ‘MOD War Detectives’, were held at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s (CWGC) Ecoust Military Cemetery near Arras and at Crucifix Corner Cemetery at Villers-Bretonneux, France yesterday (23 March 2023).

Rosie Barron, JCCC case lead said:

It has been a privilege to have contributed to the identification of these two Officers and to have organised these rededication services. Had the German Spring Offensive of 1918, in which they fell, been successful then the outcome of the First World War could have been very different. It is thanks to men such as Lt Smith and 2nd Lt Massey Lynch, who paid the ultimate sacrifice during such fierce fighting, that the Allies were able to stem the German advance and bring the war to a conclusion later that year.

The graves of both men were identified after researchers provided the CWGC with evidence suggesting they had been found. Further research conducted by the National Army Museum and JCCC confirmed their findings.

Lt Smith and 2ndLt Massey Lynch were killed at the beginning and end respectively of Operation Michael which lasted from 21 March to 5 April 1918. Operation Michael was the first of three phases of the German Spring Offensive or Kaiserschlacht, which did not conclude until July 1918.

In 1917 Russia had surrendered, releasing German troops from the Eastern Front, and the Americans had joined the war on the Allied side. The aim of the Spring Offensive was to use the advantage of Germany’s newly released troops to force a victory in the west before the Americans could deploy their forces in strength. The offensive was initially successful and the Germans retook most of the ground that they had lost in the fighting of previous years. However, the attack overstretched their resources and eventually faultered.

Lt Harold Rymer Smith

Lt Smith, from Barnet, Middlesex, was 23 years old when he died of wounds on 21 March 1918, the first day of Operation Michael. On 19 March 1918, 2/6th Battalion The North Staffordshire, to which Lt Smith belonged, moved into the Bullecourt Sector and took up positions in support around Ecoust-Saint-Mein. Two days later the Germans attacked in force making three attacks on Ecoust-Saint-Mein that day. British forces were eventually overwhelmed.

Lt Smith was wounded in the back by a shell and taken to the Regimental Aid Post (RAP) on the north western edge of the village near the Croisilles to Ecoust Road. As casualties mounted, the RAP, the tunnel under the embankment and Battalion Headquarters were filled with wounded in the space of a few minutes. Captain G Adams later reported that Lt Smith had been lying on the stretcher next to him and that he had died. Having captured Ecoust-Saint-Mein the Germans set about clearing the village and created a mass grave close to the location of the RAP. Lt Smith was buried there, and his death and burial were reported through the Red Cross.

In September 1920 the mass grave was exhumed, and the soldiers buried there were moved into Plot II, Row B in Ecoust Military Cemetery. As he was missing Lt Smith was commemorated on the Arras Memorial. He is now known to be buried in Ecoust Military Cemetery alongside other men of 2/6th Battalion The North Staffordshire Regiment killed that day.

The service was attended by members of Lt Smith’s family who gave an emotional tribute to him and his brother, 2ndLt Ralph Pritchard Smith, who was also killed during the Great War.

Sarah Rockliff, the great niece of Lt Smith, said:

We are deeply grateful to all those who helped find our Great Uncle Harold Rymer Smith. This has been profound for our family. Choosing the wording on the headstone and attending the service of rededication allows us to do what Harold’s parents and siblings never could. This brings peace in our hearts to the family past, present and future.

The new headstone over 2nd Lt Massey Lynch’s grave in Crucifix Corner Cemetery, Villers-Bretonneux.

2ndLt Wilfred John Massey Lynch

25 year old 2ndLt Massey Lynch, from West Derby, Liverpool, was killed on 4 April 1918 in the latter stages of Operation Michael. The Germans attacked with the aim of forcing the British Fourth Army back towards Amiens and the First French Army away from its ally. Seizing this ground would allow the Germans to move heavy howitzers in range of Amiens, where vital railway junctions were key to the resupply of Allied forces. The final aim of the German plan was to take the city itself.

At 07:00hrs 3rd Dragoon Guards, to which 2ndLt Massey Lynch was attached, were sent to operate on the right flank of 43rd Brigade north of the Villers-Bretonneux to Warfusee Road as the 14th Division was being forced back. At 09:15hrs they carried out reconnaissance and filled in any gaps they found in the line. A new line was dug, and the situation stabilised. They remained around this location throughout the day as the enemy attacked. It was during this fighting that 2ndLt Massey Lynch lost his life. The German attack ultimately failed to take the ground needed to launch their attack on Amiens and Operation Michael came to a close the following day with the strategic city still in Allied hands.

After the war 2nd Lt Massey Lynch’s body was recovered and he was buried as an unknown Officer of 3rd Dragoon Guards in Crucifix Corner Cemetery, in Villers- Bretonneux. Because he was missing, he was commemorated on the Pozières Memorial to the missing.

Capt Alexander Gale of The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards lays a wreath at the graveside of 2nd Lt Massey Lynch.

2ndLt Massey Lynch’s great niece, Ann Massey Lynch said:

Growing up, it was my parent’s stories of service in the Second World War that formed the backdrop to conversations. Older relatives, like my grandfathers, were either dead or did not speak of their experiences, or of the relatives who had died as young men in the First World War. So, my great uncle Wilfred was a shadow, who was known through a family photo of 1916, and through his daughter Lisle. I am deeply moved that both JCCC and CWGC, should take the time to create such a beautiful rededication service, and to erect and care for a new headstone. Lisle would have been so grateful. It gives dignity to such an early death and has re-awakened his young life story for me. I shall mark 23 March as a special day to remember both Wilfred and all those who gave their lives in the Great War.

The services were conducted by the Reverend Daniel Njuguna CF, Chaplain to 1st Battalion The Mercian Regiment and were attended by serving soldiers of 1st Battalion The Mercian Regiment and the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards.

The Reverend Njuguna said:

The tribute paid by Lt Smith’s family, sums up beautifully the significance of these rededication services to families such as those of Lt Smith and 2ndLt Massey Lynch. It brings us all peace in our hearts today to finally stand at your grave and offer you our blessings, our love and the care you deserve. We feel so fortunate this can happen when so many more still lie unrecognised. This is truly a moment to treasure and a special place of wonder.

The headstones over their graves have been replaced by the CWGC.

Director General of the CWGC, Claire Horton, said:

We are honoured to be able to mark the graves of these two brave men with headstones bearing their name at our cemeteries in France this week. They paid the ultimate price whilst fighting on the Western Front, more than 100 years ago. And now, it is our privilege and duty to care for their graves in perpetuity, along with their comrades.

Published 24 March 2023