Today marks the 100th anniversary of an entry in a First World War autograph book.
In 2014, I was given an autograph book for the Archives. It belonged to Sister Strang, who was a nurse at the First Eastern General Hospital, (FEGH), which was a hutted hospital built just before the First World War on ground where the University Library is now. The autograph book has poems, cartoons, drawings and messages of thanks to Sister Strang written by wounded First World War soldiers. One of the entries was a piece of music written by Cadet J S Smith.
The Addenbrooke’s Choir were singing carols sung in the famous Christmas Truce at the annual Christmas Service in 2014 and they thought it would be fitting to sing this Vesper Hymn and to also find the soldier and invite his descendants to come and listen.
BUT how do you go about tracing a young soldier from a hundred years ago, armed merely with initials and one of the most common British surnames? But Lizzie Hart, the Choir Committee Chair, volunteered to take on this daunting task! Here are her findings!
Under Cadet Smith’s signature he wrote No. 22 GOCB which stood for Garrison Officer Cadet Battalion, and No. 22 was based at Jesus College, unfortunately no records of the battalion survived at Jesus College, and neither do the medical records of the FEGH.
Then came a breakthrough, as we found in the Rare Books Department of Cambridge University Library a Chronicle – a souvenir book – for the relevant Cadet Battalion, dated 1917 to 1919. It contains a humble reference to ‘J.S.Smith’ and an address in Stroud, Gloucestershire. The first tantalising piece of the jigsaw.
We used the 1911 censuses, to search for a J S Smith and emerged a match; ‘John Sidney Smith’, born, raised and married in Stroud, complete with details of his family, various homes, and even his father’s ironmongery business.
We then reached out to local residents, societies, museums, libraries, newspapers and churches for information. Two local history books mentioned John (known as Jack) Sidney Smith from Stroud, organist for 50 years at the local church.
We then took a trip to the The National Archives in Kew to search the Army service records, we produced a shortlist of six possible soldiers. The Stroud address leapt off the pages of Second Lieutenant J.S.Smith’s record. Our search had come full circle; we had found both the soldier, and the man.
The final stage was to find a living relative. Such was Jack’s legacy many people knew him, and his children. Then a simple Google search led us to his grandchildren and great grandchildren who I am thrilled to say came to the service to listen to their grandfathers composition.