'Smiler' Marshall, last of the cavalrymen, dies at 108
Published in the Telegraph May 2005
By Amy Iggulden
Albert "Smiler" Marshall, who survived the brutal campaigns at Loos and the Somme, was one of only about a dozen remaining survivors of the First World War.
With his passing this week, at home in Ashstead, Surrey, goes the memory of British soldiers riding to war on horseback.
Mr Marshall served with the Essex Yeomanry, and is thought to have been the last English cavalryman to have charged with a drawn sword.
"He had a long and marvellous life," said Dennis Goodwin, the chairman of the First World War Veterans' Association.
"Like so many men of his generation he had a huge sense of loyalty and adventure, and he just wanted to ride horses. He had a real natural aptitude for it."
Mr Marshall joined up in 1915, aged 17, after lying about his age. He was nicknamed Smiler after he threw a snowball at a drill sergeant who threatened to "give him something to smile about". He took part in his first major battle the same year, at Loos. In 1916, at Cambrai, his regiment came across advancing Germans.
"They were a bit surprised to see us," he recalled in an interview with Legion magazine. "They were advancing and scattered as we charged. We drew our swords and cut them down. It was cut and thrust at the gallop. They stood no chance."
In the First World War the cavalry were meant to await a breakthrough before exploiting the breach in enemy lines. But the breakthroughs rarely came, and more often the horsemen functioned as mounted infantry. Mr Marshall spent long months in the trenches, until in March 1917 he was shot in the hand and sent back to "Blighty".
When the wound healed, he volunteered to rejoin the fray and returned to the Western Front with the Machine Gun Corps.
In 1918 he lost his best friend to a sniper at Bethune, northern France. "I told my best mate: 'Don't worry, Lenny, you've got a Blighty [a pass back home]'," he told The Daily Telegraph in 1998.
"I sang Nearer My God to Thee to him. He died after three days.
"I used to think how useless it was that all those young fellows were getting killed and there was nothing you could do about it."
Later, he was captured by the Germans, and then freed because they were short of rations.
After the war he volunteered for duty in an increasingly violent Ireland, and was stationed near Dublin as the Anglo-Irish conflict got under way. He was demobbed in 1921 and married his childhood sweetheart, Florence, with whom he had five children.
Now only John Marshall, his youngest son at 73, survives, although 12 grandchildren, 24 great-grandchildren and four great-great-grandchildren will ensure the family keeps growing.
"His nickname, Smiler, tells you what you need to know about my father," said John Marshall.
"He was always ready with a smile, and liked to say: 'If you can't do someone a good deed, please don't do them a bad one.' " Mr Marshall turned 100 in 1997. In his last decade he was awarded the Legion d'Honneur, appeared on at least five television shows, attended the veterans' garden party at Buckingham Palace and, after much persuasion, took part in three battlefield pilgrimages, one to mark the 80th anniversary of Passchendaele.
"It took so much to persuade him to go," recalled Mr Goodwin. "He had such terrible memories."