Ted & Annie
These pages were written by Dorothy Bremner for the
The War Years
Bert wrote home describing the Landing at Gallipoli on the first day also life at the front, and many of his letters were published in the Jerilderie Herald and in city papers. In spite of Bert's lack of formal education the editor felt "they were descriptive letters... cleverly written too." His unique sense of humour was evident, his style being very different from Percy's.
I was feeling as right as rain until I saw my first sight of the harvest of war. I saw blood oozing from beneath a tarpaulin and a sailor told me there were four dead men under it...killed by shrapnel on the destroyer before they even landed.
When the boats got into 3 ft of water, we all jumped out & waded ashore feeling mighty thankful that we'd got so far...after a short spell we marched off. Hills! They're awful. We simply had to pull ourselves up hand by hand, & to improve matters we had 50 rounds of extra ammunition, three days rations, & some firewood. Presently we got to a plateau with a lovely trench in it that the Turks, with commendable foresight had provided for us.
By the end of April he was injured in the arm and evacuated to the First Southern Central Hospital in England. This was referred to as a "Blighty", an injury serious enough to be sent to England, The Motherland, not immediately home to Australia. It gave the men a chance to see something of another country. On 3rd May he wrote in a very shaky hand,
Dear Mum & Dad & brothers & sisters
I've been wounded in the right shoulder & am progressing finely. Vernie is O.K., saw him just before they took me away. Had been in the firing line 4 days before they got me. On the morning of the fifth day the Tommies releived (sic) us & they got me as we were retiring to the rear for a days rest so now I'm going to have more than a days rest. Its hard work writing & makes me tired, so will you please tell Clytie etc.
We are very comfy here. Nice soft bed and attendants that spoil you
I suppose that you'll see the casualty) lists long before you get this
I've lost every mortal thing I own except the clothes I used to stand in & my great coat. Had four different rifles during the fighting. The beggars never gave us a moments peace the whole time I was there
Love to all from your loving son & brother
Anxiously the family awaited news from the front. At last they heard from Vern that Bert's wound was only a flesh wound and he would soon be all right, while Vern was comparatively safe at headquarters, fifty yards behind the lines. Although the youngest of the four brothers in the AIF, Vern was the first to get promoted beyond lance corporal, becoming a second lieutenant in May.
Bert’s skill as a sniper stood in the way of promotion. While recuperating, he wrote about his experiences and the Jerilderie Herald published his account in two long articles.
Bert heliographing in Egypt
Among his comments:
We landed in a bad place, and it's just as well. The Turks were expecting us at another place, and had we gone there we would never have got ashore. They had guns and machine guns, splendid trenches, obstacles, and even barbed wire entanglements and mines in the water to welcome us with. Where we actually did land was not very strongly guarded and we sort of surprised them, and we had got ashore and established ourselves before they could bring sufficient troops to prevent us. Once we got ashore it was just a matter of holding on...Finally we got on top of a hill with a pretty good trench in it. The fact that it was a Turkish trench didn't worry our consciences in the least. We just took possession of it and inwardly thanked the Turks for saving us the trouble of digging one... Every few seconds a shell burst, sometimes near us and sometimes a bit off, and they kept our nerves on edge all the time. Shrapnel looks very pretty. The shell bursts up in the air and makes a pretty cloud of white smoke, and when several burst near each other at the same time the effect is very striking. But when the shooting is good it is very nerve racking. The shell can be heard some distance off coming with half a scream and half a hiss, culminating in a deafening report as the charge in the shell explodes, and drives 300 bullets in a steep angle to the ground with great velocity... The Turks will go to any length to gain their ends. Several were shot dressed in the NZ uniform. Some of them were very brave and actually got into our trenches and were giving orders as cool as cucumbers: but they invariably got discovered and paid the penalty. They'd get up and order us to charge, and all sorts of other dodges...A concussion shrapnel landed right in the trench fair opposite us and buried us up to our necks in dirt. I scrambled to my feet to see if I was hurt and was mighty thankful to find I wasn't... Whilst having tea a bit after dark I had to take an officer to a trench he did not know! Only expected to be away 10 minutes so I left haversack, water bottle, rifle and all behind me. While away the enemy suddenly threatened us with a bayonet charge so we all rushed to the front line. I grabbed a rifle - a broken one too - fixed the bayonet and hopped in with them...Later we had to cross over about a hundred yards under fire to reach safety at the rear of a hill so we rushed over. About ten yards from the safety trench I stopped to walk when I got a knock in the shoulder like the kick of a 12-inch gun. I didn't want another, and tumbled into the trench mighty quick. Got the wound dressed and was led back to the rear. I'm hanged if I know where the beggar could have been. He must have been almost under me, and the valley beneath us was full of our own boys. The bullet went in at the back of my armpit and came out near the top of my shoulder in front. Had the good luck to see Vernie near the Ambulance Hospital. He was O.K. and made me a cup of tea and it quite put me in a good humour. I then had to report to the ambulance and they shipped me off to the hospital ship before I knew what was doing. Did not get another chance to see Vernie and haven't heard word since, so I am rather anxious about him... Had a fairly good time on the hospital ship on the way to Alexandria, but got a bad dose of fever of some sort, but I am pretty right now though the fever took a lot of the flesh off me. My wounds are healed externally, but I can't for the life of me lift my arm up sideways yet... We arrived at Southampton, Sunday 16th May. They put us in a lovely hospital train. You ought to see the English scenery. In Spring- well words can't describe it. Lovely green fields fringed in almost every case by either beautiful hedges or trees... We got a great reception at Birmingham. As soon as we got off the platform there was a long line of motors waiting for us, and an enormous crowd and they cheered us all a treat. It was the same all the way to the hospital. Everybody we passed waved to us and gave us a smile of welcome. It was particularly cheerful after being outside of civilisation since we left dear old Australia.
But this hospital takes the bun. Why it's a blooming gaol. The things we mustn't do that we want to do are only exceeded by the things we must do that we don't want to do. Practically all of us have been kept in bed though we are all able to potter round. Lights are out at 8 pm. We all have to get up at 5 o'clock so that the beds can be made, and then we have to get back into bed. There are 44 beds in this ward, which is known as "B4". I asked the nurse if we'd be put in the "after" Ward next week, but she didn't even smile. That's the worst of these nurses. They don't smile enough. They all get about as sober as a captured spy. I've been working overtime making them smile whenever they come near. Drew absolute blanks at first, but things are improving now. Got one of them to look quite happy for 10 secs. It makes me feel quite desperate. Good news! The quack has just been around and he says that I can get up, so when they bring me my gaol suit-coat and trousers of blue fleece lined material- I'll do so. They have all my other clothes so of course I HAVE to stay in bed. The regulations only allow us to wander in certain parts of the grounds so even our liberty outside is curtailed. As for getting out and looking over Birmingham, I believe the nurses would have a seizure if you mentioned it to them.
I haven't had a shave for a month. You ought to see me. I lost everything but what I stood up in when I was shot including my razor etc.
Birmingham was a very old city about a hundred miles north of London. In early times it had been an important market town. Open-air markets were held in the heart of the city in an area known as the Bull Ring*. Upon his discharge Bert was given leave in London before going back to Gallipoli. Bert met one of his signallers, Percy Morgan, who was also wounded. Percy, an Englishman aged 21, was working as a rural labourer in Australia when the war broke out, so he joined AIF. In London he took Bert to meet his family which made Bert feel homesick. Mrs Morgan became a friend to all the Smythe boys and thought she might visit Australia after the war with her son if he was expected to return to his job for another six months. She wrote to Annie "I find with Bert the more you know him the more you like him. I love the way he speaks of you and all family ties."* A modern supermarket there is called the Bull Ring Centre
A letter came to Annie from the girls at North Winton with a bank draught for £100. Their sister Lydia also received the money owed her. It was nine years since their father had died. Percy noted in his diary "There was the money which Pater left to Mum paid at last, though she had never expected to receive it. It will come in handy just now in paying off Schnacker's mortgage on our cottage." To help their parents meet the commitments for the house the boys made allotments out of their pay. Of course Viv also made one to Clytie.Eric, Ida, Rita, Annie, Ted, Gordon. Koppin Yarratt, Kogarah ca 1915
As suggested by Percy, they called the house "Koppin Yarratt" or KY for short. In time they found to their dismay that the builder had omitted the dampcourse (a strip of lead used between the brick courses to prevent dampness rising into the walls) as a cost-cutting measure. Apart from that they were very pleased to be in a house that they would own one day, their first. Next door lived Frank Jones who was to be their neighbour for many years.
One day while at Ramsgate Beach Annie said "Why didn't we come here before instead of going to Jerilderie?"
After a period of convalescing in "Blighty" (England), Bert was back to the fighting and after a couple of months he was sent, sick, to the nearby island of Lemnos and again to England. While in England for the second time, Bert again wrote of his experiences in the trenches and again the Jerilderie Herald published them. He had applied to become an instructor of signalling in England. He saw a “mackintosh”, a rubbered silk coat, light and showerproof, which Mrs Morgan had bought for her son. Bert bought one for his brother Percy, but the parcel did not arrive before the troops left for France.
It is about 6 o'clock in the morning, and we are in the rest trenches due to go into the firing line for four hours...You turn over, and in so doing dislodge some dirt in your dugout which of course falls into your ear and mouth. Further sleep out of the question by the time you have emptied your mouth, so you get up but do not bother dressing as the situation demands that you sleep fully dressed. Being in charge of a platoon you look up your orderly roster and find who is orderly for the day. You should have done this last night, only the excitement of writing to the "one and only" caused you to forget... Breakfast comes up... a kerosene tin full of tea and tea leaves floating about on top, and a swarm of flies buzzing about. On examination the tea leaves prove to be flies, and you get seven with your share of tea, and a dixie with fried bacon and bully beef which is very salt. It's your platoon's turn for cookhouse fatigue. This is very hard and disagreeable fatigue. A large quantity of water has to be carried half a mile from the tanks in Shrapnel Gully up to the cookhouse and wood has to be hunted for to cook it with, so it's an all day job. It falls to James and Brown... Always growling, but they get there all the same. The finest regiment in the world wouldn't have done more than the wild, undisciplined mob did in the landing, and again at Lone Pine; and an intelligent officer can get anything out of the men if he himself is a man.
Nine am arrives and we move off along the communication trenches to our position in the newly captured Lone Pine. We are a wild-looking mob. Dusty faces, unshaved--about six weeks to three months growth... In looking along a ridge, my optics discern an Abdul [a Turk] on the slope. I put up 575 and squint, but immediately seventeen flies make a frontal attack on my eye and nose, while two further bodies attack my ears. To save myself from choking I swallow four flies alive. Retire temporarily to put on a fly veil and again squint along the sights. This time seven flies are fighting over some jam on my backsight, whilst another one is preening himself on my fore-sight... Eventually our midday and chief meal arrives. Bully beef stew, with preserved spuds for vegetables. Very good too only it's horribly salt. The tea is also very acceptable after you skim the flies off.
"There's Abdul again blarst him," someone says as a heavy explosion occurs and the peculiar pungent smell that comes from a bomb [hand grenade] reaches us... The day passes without further incident until our tea arrives. Boiled rice and raisins and tins of tea, both of which are liberally flavoured with flies; also bread and jam. Hold an inquest on the rice and raisins, and then bury it decently by throwing it over to Abdul. Eat my bread and jam thoughtfully.
The night passes very slowly. About midnight a Turkish machine-gun viciously spits out about 100 rounds in about 17 seconds, and then their whole line springs into life. Peer over the top. Little jets of flame are appearing and disappearing everywhere along our front. Slip along to the bombs. The throwers are there ready, so return with an easy mind. There is a steady steady stream of bullets flying overhead or striking the parapets. Above the rifle fire you can hear the incessant crackle of the machine guns. Further along you hear bombs. We do not reply to the rifle fire, and our machine guns keep silent. We just sit tight and wait. There are no points in disclosing your M.G's possys [machine gun positions] just to get them shelled next morning. If Abdul climbed out of his trenches, then there'd be something doing, but until he does we just wait. After an hour or so the firing died down and there was only an occasional shot. We had to keep very wakeful all night, or else risk being shot for sleeping at our posts, or perhaps get blown up through a bomb settling nearby without one's knowledge. In unprotected parts of our trenches where bombs are frequent, we have blanket men stationed at each post. They have a double blanket folded into quarters, which they throw over any bomb that comes into their domain. We get roused up thoroughly every morning an hour before daybreak and everyone "stands to" in readiness till daylight. This happens every morning. After the stand to we are relieved and retire into the shelters. After brecker [breakfast] the 75's or pip-squeaks start again.
Viv and Percy were at Liverpool Camp with time on their hands in between non-com classes, drill and various duties. At night Percy knelt and said his prayers, believing it to be the right thing to do and thankful for being given the strength to ignore the jibes which soon stopped. Percy knew that he was thought of as "straitlaced". Percy wrote letters and continued his diary, also sketched and studied. Both boys were soon promoted to sergeant, the third rank. When they were given leave Percy went to Taree to say goodbye to friends there and Viv and Clytie went to Kiama for a week's honeymoon.
At last there was some musketry practice and they both did fairly well. At 500 yards [450m] with a nasty wind blowing Viv got a score of sixteen, and Percy got seventeen, the best score at the range. In his diary Percy wrote:
About 4 pm I was sent to take Viv's place on the isolation guard, as he was wanted. I was the only non-com [non-commissioned officer] and the men I had were not much chop. We had three prisoners and had to keep the inmates from breaking out. The prisoners' language was vile. Viv came along and said the exam results were out. Both now serjeants (sic). Left Drain in charge of the guard and took patients to be treated for VD, the due reward of their misdeeds. Got back with prisoners in time to take out 7.30 relief. Two MP's [military police] arrived with another prisoner who had tried to escape. When the rounds had come, Drain didn't go forward when they called for the man in charge. Someone said that the serjeant of the guard had gone away somewhere. The serjeant-major came to the conclusion that nobody was in charge. This however I didn't know until later. I was to appear before the court at 8.45am in the morning with the men against whom the charges would be made. I would not fall in over it
Took the men down to the court. The case was nearly the last to come off. When our case came on, the charges were read to me. I was charged with (1) neglect of duty, and (2) allowing a prisoner to escape while in charge of isolation guard. I stated I had distinctly warned Drain to be in charge of the guard while I was at the "irrigation". When asked for witnesses to corroborate my statements, I had none as I had acted on the advice of the police and didn't expect this turn of events. I was reduced to the ranks and fined a week's pay. I was thunderstruck. It was a very severe blow to me. The rank injustice of the whole thing stirred up my wrath and indignation. I asked Tyson if I could appeal or get a trial by court martial. He would make enquiries. Saw our old officer in command and he said he would look up the regulations. Went to bed early being tired and worried. Felt dreadfully downhearted and miserable. Today's turn of events was the hardest knock I've had for a long time. Asked Viv to doss in with me, and we put both blankets together, and thus cheated the cold.
July, Tues 1. Tyson dictated a letter for me to write asking for my case to be re-opened, as I considered I had been unjustly dealt with, and hadn't been given the option for a court martial. Looked up 'King's Regs' [Regulations] to see if they have the right to reduce a non-com to the ranks.
The next day Percy went back to the ranks without waiting for orders, feeling indignant about irrational behaviour. While Percy was on guard duty, Tyson sent for him to go with him to the orderly tent, to see about the case being reopened. They were taken to Kirkland who was very uncivil and piggish in his manner. I asked if there was any chance of getting a court martial, to which he replied that I was not entitled to one. He then told me that I was not a serjeant at the time of the trouble [It was not yet gazetted.] He said that putting in the application for retrial was an act of unsubordination, and showed that I was flouting his judgment...The case could be re-opened a few days before we leave.
A few days later they were awoken at half past three at night by someone rapping along the corrugated iron walls of the hut to go and re-enact the landing at Gallipoli for a picture film company. The Minister for Defence gave support to films being made, calculated to attract volunteers. A previous attempt had been a failure, because when the operator called out for every fourth man to fall dead, "the whole crowd went down to it." After breakfast they marched to Liverpool and took a special train.
As we neared Sydney day began to dawn. The train was blocked at one place and a few people in the houses below saw the troops and started waving at us. Another train somewhere nearby was whistling its inside out with a variety of spasmodic blasts and I wondered what was wrong with it. Then we moved on and soon another engine seemed to go mad and started demonstrating its whistling powers. Then I tumbled to it. They were cheering us. More trains came by and almost blew their whistles off, while our boys answered with cheers and shouts. Soon we approached the engine sheds at Redfern, and engine after engine joined in the mad chorus, shrieking and screeching, till the hundreds of engines and even the old steam cranes contributed their share towards the general din. As we rumbled through Redfern, men quickly gathered on the platform to cheer and wave to us, sharing in the general delusion that we were leaving Australia.
We marched from the station down through College St, up William St and out past Rushcutters Bay to some Navy place, where we had sausages left by the sailors and plenty of bread and jam and tea with milk in it.
About 9am we fell in again and were put into boats and taken in tow by motor launches to Middle Head. After some time we were landed on the tiny beach at Obelisk Bay. A company of men there were dressed in the Turkish uniform. Some land mines were placed in the sand on the beach and connected up by wires, to be exploded by electricity. After a while we got into the boats again. We put off a bit and got ready for the great event. The Turks were placed, some on the beach and some further up the hill. The cinema camera was placed on a rock. When everything was ready, we got the command to fix bayonets. Things began to get exciting. The troops on shore opened fire and some bombs began to explode, and for some time there was quite a respectable din. As our boat ran up on the sand, we sprang out and charged up the hill with bayonets fixed. A lot of men and some Turks had fallen dead on the beach. I charged up the hill till the whistle blew without noticing myself getting particularly tired. But when we stopped I was almost exhausted, although it was only quite a short distance. We had full kit on and the hill was steep.
A couple of chaps acted a struggle on the cliff between an Australian and a Turk. A brief struggle followed and the Turk lay helpless. He got up and a stuffed dummy was put in his place. The brave Australian then picked up the dummy and shot him over the cliff with truly wonderful ease. That ended the play. It didn't appear to me to be too well done, but might look alright on the pictures.
Percy had arranged for a sewing machine he had used in tailoring, to be sold in Dungog, and his father had used the money to make a start in his new shop at Kogarah. Percy also arranged for ten shillings every month out of his pay to go to Foreign Missions. Rita gave him a face cloth she had knitted, wrapped in brown paper on which all sorts of messages for Bert and Vernie were written. He had got Viola to get him paints and brushes. He approached Tyson for help with his demotion and loss of thirty-five shillings fine from his pay, but it was now too late, they were leaving in the morning.
The next day he was up again at half past three. He said goodbye to Viv who was staying for further training. They all had flags for the ends of their rifles, and black and gold ribbons. As before, the engines woke up and worked their whistles overtime.
When we arrived at Sydney there was a large crowd waiting. I kept a sharp lookout for Mum and the others, but couldn't see them. Many of the onlookers broke into the ranks, and came along with their friends and relatives... We walked along any old how. Met Dad at Rawson Place. He had sent the others on by tram to Fort MacQuarrie, thinking they had missed us. Came across Mum and the children near Fort MacQuarrie. Poor old Mum seemed to be rather cut up. The big "Orsova" was alongside the wharf, waiting. I hung back until the last, and then said Goodbye to them all. It was rather a trying time. People were crying everywhere. Gave my flag to Mum to keep till we come back from the war. Viola gave me a small bouquet of wattle. We were at last sent on board and had our quarters allotted to us. Then we were allowed out on deck. The side of the ship was lined with soldiers waiting for their friends and relatives to be allowed in on the wharf. At last the big iron gates swung open and the crowd came pouring in. Almost at the same time the great vessel began to throb, and to move slowly, ever so slowly... In vain I looked for Mum and the others... Packets and parcels were thrown to friends on the ship, streamer reels of all colours were tossed on board. The wharf soon became packed and a fantastic maze of many coloured streamers connected the slow-moving leviathan with the throng below. Further and further out we got, while I kept searching anxiously among the thousands of upturned faces. How I longed for a last glance at the familiar faces - to be able to wave them a last farewell, but it was all in vain. The distance increased, and streamer after streamer reached its limit and broke asunder. I felt bitterly disappointed, and could not help crying a bit. On the wharf hundreds of flags and handkerchiefs were fluttering and waving, and the air vibrated with the continuous cheering. It was a pretty scene, yet solemn and awful. Slowly the distance increased, and the network of gay streamers dwindled away, till at last a solitary purple ribbon stretched from the stern to the wharf, a distance of about two hundred yards. Gradually our pace increased, and the crowds left the wharf and followed us along the shores of the bay, still cheering and waving.
The great ship moved on down the harbour for a while and then came to a stop. A few motor launches followed us with passengers, and I scanned them eagerly as they came past. At last I thought I spotted Mum. Yes it was her alright. She and Dad were standing at the stern of a pretty crowded launch. I got in a prominent position and waved and waved till at last I attracted their attention. The three girls and Gordon were there too, on the top of the launch. By-and-bye it came so close that we could talk to each other. The girls asked me to send them postcards of France if we go there. Rita tossed up a flag for me to keep. The launch kept about for over half an hour, and then began to move off. We kept on waving till she disappeared past the stern of the ship. I was glad the parting was over, and happy that I had been able to see them again in the launch.
As soon as possible after arriving in Egypt he took a train to Cairo to see the lists of killed and wounded in case Bert or Vern was on it. For weeks he continued to watch, not sure whether his brothers were at Gallipoli or "Blighty".
A number of their cousins and second cousins had enlisted to fight for their grandfathers' and great grandfathers' "Motherland". On 7th August their second cousin corporal Hubert Roulstone Clifford Currie (grandson of James) of the 8th Light Horse Regiment was killed in action at Gallipoli. Even the boys in the “Billabong” books joined up.
Tyson said he intended to put Percy into the first vacancy for sergeant. A week later Percy went to see the pyramids, then was sent to Lemnos and to Gallipoli, landing at Anzac Cove while the Lone Pine Campaign was under way. The day after Percy's arrival, Bert, back from Blighty, found him sitting in his trench writing his diary. The three brothers met in the dugouts at Shrapnel Gully. Percy thought Bert looked a bit unkempt and Vern a bit pale. As none of them smoked they gave their cigarette allowance to friends from home.
Vern had been mentioned in despatches, which was incorrectly reported as a Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) and later by Bean, the official historian as a Military Cross (MC). It was for repairing a phone line across the territory between enemy fire. The line was vital because Lone Pine was in a commanding position on a ridge where the Turks had underground trenches with logs on top for protection. A few days later Vern's officer was hit in the throat and taken out of the trenches with no-one available to replace him. Vern aged twenty took over in the emergency. General Hamilton mentioned him in despatches and in spite of his youth he was again promoted. He was a lieutenant, the fifth rank and was described as "short in stature, trim of build and dapper in appearance. His face had the frank open expression of a healthy schoolboy." He liked to carry a baton and always looked tidy. He was well liked and known as a very quick-witted person, even jocular.
When Percy saw Vern he suggested that Vern should send more money home in the light of his promotion. Vern said that he didn't know his parents needed any more but he would allot an extra six shillings a day. Bert also made a similar arrangement.
One day during September Percy saw that Bert was not well so he cooked him some rice with sugar and milk, which his brother managed to eat. Soon afterwards Bert and Vern left the peninsula for a spell. Bert was re-admitted to hospital, then to the Australia Depot in England and later to the 1st Training Battalion. In the next few days both his brothers and their mother would be celebrating birthdays so Percy wrote to them.
A postcard, which Rita sent to her oldest brother said:
Dear Bertie, I wish you many happy returns of the day (Sat). I wish you were here so I could give your hair a big long pull. Would not it be lovely if we could go to this spot for a day. I mean all of us for a party. I will be writing a letter to you shortly, and a big long letter it will be. I cannot send you a present as you know but I will be able to some day, all of my own too. I must close now, I am your LOVING sister, Rita. I am sending you some kisses in return for those you sent me in the letter.
And she covered every available spot with crosses (kisses).
It was a picture of Cockatoo Island painted a hundred years earlier, when the island had been in its natural state, "32 acres of rock infested by snakes", not even considered worthy to be named on the official maps. Since then it had become a place to send convicts, a female reformatory and later a part had become a dry dock. In 1910 the shipyards were expanded and during the war destroyers and cruisers were built there, the cruiser "Brisbane" being the most recent. Rita chose the postcard because she had seen the island often when they lived at Gladesville and thought it looked a lovely place for a picnic.
Percy, now a corporal, was growing a moustache. It was thought that a moustache gave an air of authority. A week or so later he went to the doctor feeling sick. He was not believed and had to parade with the malingerers on extra fatigue duty. But the officers saw that he really was ill. Finally he was taken to the Island of Malta by hospital ship. Although he had suffered a lot from diarrhoea and headaches from the noise of the shelling, he was healthy enough to survive double pneumonia. He hoped to get to England to convalesce, a "Blighty".
While convalescing he began to try writing short stories to help fill in time, also did some sketching and even started teaching himself French and shorthand, which he used in later stories. Although some of the men ridiculed him he did exercises regularly to help him get his strength back. Even though he wrote frequent letters home to his family and friends, few of the eagerly awaited letters to him arrived. During this time he went for long walks and was able to enjoy some of the sights of the island, and the town of Valetta with its interesting palace-museum. When finally he was due to be released there was an outbreak of diphtheria causing quarantine until after the evacuation of Gallipoli.
In his diary on 30th December he wrote:
Well here ends the year 1915, in warfare, sorrow & misery. Am getting very unhappy for dreadful possibilities are beginning to force themselves upon my mind in regard to Bert & Viv. If only I could get some news of them. The suspense is the worst part of it.
At times the inactivity was depressing. He wrote:
I felt blue. The hopes & dreams of my younger days seemed to rise up & mock me. What advance had I made towards the perfection I used to dream of? I had thought by this age to have overcome all the faults in my nature that were of any consequence, & not only that, but to have also become a powerful influence for good. And what advance had I made? Not much I'm afraid. Am I to go on through life to the grave as just an ordinary man, living more or less for himself, & doing no particular good in the world? I felt very discouraged, & even the thought of the success of others only seemed to accentuate my incapability. I believe I have brains enough to make some use of but qualities of will-power & stick-at-it-iveness are sadly lacking.
Ramsgate to Egypt
Before leaving Australia, Viv made allotments to his mother and Clytie. As he qualified as a second lieutenant, earning fifteen shillings a day on 2nd September he could readily afford two allotments. As part of his training he did some boxing and at times refereed boxing matches. Clytie was working one day a week at five different schools giving her parents' address at Pennant Hills where they had moved before she and Viv married. Married women were obliged to resign, so she began demonstrations of gas cooking at town halls and other venues for the Gaslight Company. At the end of the year Viv sailed with the 17th battalion for Egypt for further training. By this time Clytie was pregnant. This would be the first Smythe grandchild.
Meantime at college Viola failed in setting words to music, Ida failed mathematics and Rita aged thirteen had come top of her class at Fort Street. Rita had always done well at school until one day at the school sports, which she always enjoyed, she felt that she "overdid" it. The next week she became ill with chorea. There was no treatment except complete rest for a long period, good food and no worries or stress. It was usually not fatal, but often resulted in a rheumatic heart condition, damage to the valves of the heart. Her mother, limping on her bad leg had to half carry her to the tram to visit the doctor. After one year at high school Rita fervently regretted it but felt unable to continue.
At Ramsgate, the lawn which Percy had planted was coming on well and a number of ducklings had hatched. Very proud and elated, the Smythes had heard that Vern had been awarded an MC (Military Cross), which was premature*.* In the Jerilderie Herald there was a roll of honour in June including the names Erle Vernon DCM, Herbert (wounded), Percy, Vivian
They had photos taken to send to each of the boys at the front, one of Ted and Annie, one of the two younger boys in their Scout uniforms, one of the three girls together as well as the girls separately.
Annie was fifty-five, Ted fifty-seven. Annie wore glasses, was very dressed up and still had a full head of dark hair, cut short in the fashion of the times. Ted wore a dark suit and waistcoat and watch chain, his hairline was receding but he had grown a large moustache.
On the back of a photo of their parents was the whimsical message (possibly in answer to a similar one from him)
To my dear son Vern from his loving Mumsie and To Dear old Vernie with best love and wishing him God Speed back home, Dad.
On the back of their photo Eric aged eleven and Gordon nine wrote:
Dear Vern, Glad to hear you are recommended for a captaincy. Mind when you come back you'll have to tell me how you got the M.C. In the next letter tell us how many turks you killed. You'll be killing germans soon. You'll know our frontispiece with best love from Eric. XXX
Dear Vern, Have you made an end to any Turks yet? Do you chase them with a dead cat or with gun and bayonet? I don't care what you chase them with as long as you kill them. XXX from Gordon XX.
Returning to Egypt after his illness, Percy was near Vern and Viv. He thought Vern looked "some style in his officer's uniform". The youngest of the brothers was making remarkable progress in his military career. Vern allowed Percy to read his letters. Percy had written many but had still received very few. Mail was very important; news from home was only surpassed by new socks, hand-knitted of course.
As there was trouble with Arabs, Viv was transferred to Tel-El-Kebir so Percy did not see him. They heard that Bert had chronic bronchitis and might be sent home.
Just after his twenty-third birthday and before he left Egypt, Percy received two large packets containing fifty letters, including belated Christmas cards, returned short stories, some mail from friends and many from his family including the photos. He thought his father looked thin but his mother looked better than he had ever seen her.
After further training in Egypt, Viv as a second lieutenant was posted to the 24th Battalion, just before the embarkation of this unit for France. He was one of several youthful officers promoted on ability, unlike their British counterparts.
In March Percy rejoined his unit at Tel-el-Kebir, was promoted to lance corporal. In preparation for embarkation for France he sent home another diary and sketches he had done. Edward the Prince of Wales came to inspect the AIF and Percy thought he looked very young and shy, although he was only a year younger than Percy.
At last they were away from the heat and sand of Egypt. The chances of being sent to "Blighty" if injured were thought to be greater from France than from the Middle East; an added appeal.
The AIF began to move the troops from Egypt to Marseilles and then by train to the north coast area of France to protect the ports and to distract attention from the Somme ("The Western Front") where the main offensive would be. On the way Percy made sketches and tried out his French but could not understand the answer.
In the nearby villages were shops and people and even children. Peasants continued to tend their fields while the soldiers could have baths and disinfect their clothes and bodies against lice and other vermin. Tension was less than at Gallipoli and sniping less keen, but there was little protection from shells as the trenches in the north were not very deep in the naturally water-logged ground and any excavation immediately filled with water.
In France the soldiers were issued with tin hats and gas masks and were given drill in using the respirators. They had to breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth so that air passed through material saturated with chemicals to purify it. There were several gas alarms, which were a "frost" or false alarm. Gas caused watering and burning of the eyes, blindness, bronchitis. Use of gas depended on wind direction, which could change and blow it back.
At every opportunity Percy went to the nearby towns and was especially interested in the cathedrals, admiring the stonework and paintings. Once, not knowing it was forbidden to leave the billets, Percy went sightseeing, was caught and again demoted.
In early 1916 Viv, Percy and Vern were all in this area of France, near the Belgium border, northwest of Armentières, and they managed to see each other. Finally the showerproof overcoat which Bert had sent in early February, reach Percy who found it "bonzer". Mail was most unreliable. One parcel from Annie to Bert had gone from Egypt to France where Percy re-addressed it to Mrs Morgan. Mrs Morgan wrote to Annie "You see my address for Bert is most safe. I send his letter on for my Percy to read & tell him to let yr Percy know."
Percy Smythe wrote that Viv had a Charlie Chaplin moustache "like mine". He bought a book of French and continued to teach himself, often writing a few French sentences in his diary or a letter to Ida who was learning French at school. He also sent home money for a gift for "the expected newcomer". News came through that Clytie had a two-month premature stillborn baby girl. Stillborn babies could not be buried in a consecrated cemetery as they had never lived and could not be christened or have a religious ceremony. Previously they would have been buried on a family property in a private cemetery, such as on the farm at Winton, Victoria.
In May Vern aged twenty-one, became a captain. He was reputed to be a good officer, well respected by his men. He said he would never ask them to do something which he would not.
On one occasion two staff officers came to Vern's trench to discuss plans. They left in daylight against Vern's advice. When they did not arrive back at their own trenches a telephone message, sent by the officers seeking assistance, came to Vern, who still refused to send men out into exposed positions before dark. One of the officers, quite exhausted, eventually arrived at headquarters, the other was finally found in a shell-hole up to his waist in mud, sinking further if he struggled. They got stretcher-poles under his arms and four men lifted out the brigade major, caked in mud but minus his boots and pants.
Percy had volunteered to learn the use of the recently available Lewis machine gun. Classes were five hours a day for several days, after which Percy got a First Class pass. Lewis Guns at 28 pounds were comparatively light. Sometimes they had to be carried as well as the regular kit.
He wrote that he had met his cousins from Tasmania, Ern Graham aged twenty-four, a lance corporal in Transport and his nineteen-year old brother Alf who was small and thin. They had enlisted in August the year before.
The first major battle in France involving Australian troops occurred at this time involving enormous loss of life and many casualties being left for the German’s to bury in a huge common grave. In July, during the battle of Fromelles, which was regarded as a great blunder, some troops had advanced north and were cut off and awaiting the order to withdraw. The Australians had no grenades and their rifle ammunition was running low. They felt they were deserted without hope of rescue, as the real offensive had begun in the Somme area. Some were captured. Vern called for volunteers to dig trenches four to six feet deep across no-man's-land and duckboard them without being seen. At first the response was nil. To encourage them he stood with assumed nonchalance on the parapet of the trench, and when a machine-gun began firing still did not jump down to take cover. He insisted that the gun could not traverse quickly, as the belt had to be kept straight. He counted and knew exactly when he should retreat. It was calculated and not foolhardy; intended to reassure nervous men. An artillery barrage, usually a prelude to advancing, was arranged to provide covering fire and when the order came, the men were able to retreat. Vern won an MC. This time it was awarded.
Bert had done a special course in instructing and became part of the First Training Battalion. He was now teaching signalling, regarded as an expert in semaphore and got 299.5 out of 300 in signalling, beating everyone including the officers. After some time he began to feel that his younger brothers were getting promotions and decorations. Vern had been promoted at a very young age, and had been decorated, while he, Bert, was twenty-six and still only a sergeant.
The Somme was a sluggish stream, which rose near St Quentin, France and split into numerous swampy waterways passing between chalk plains, where it was difficult to dig trenches that were not very obvious to the enemy.
Pozières had been a small neat village near Albert in the Somme area, amid the roses and poppies of Picardy. Percy's impression of Picardy was of beautiful fields resplendent with a wealth of glorious colour, fire-red poppies blazing up from the rich green of lucerne or bordering the crops of wheat or rye, numberless cornflowers adding their beautiful blue to the colour scheme, and various other flowers of heliotrope, yellow or white, gracing the countryside with their presence. But the poppies were the most beautiful of all. Their silky petals looked like so many flakes of fire. It is such a beautiful country, and the weather has been so delightful, and everything so calm and peaceful that one can scarcely realise that a death struggle between the nations is going on only a few miles away.
Many battalions were sent to the area. While billeted near Amiens, Percy made some unauthorised visits to the city, which greatly impressed him, especially the cathedral.
Gas was used and was at first thought to be shells striking soft mud with a distinctive muted thud. Those men who wore gas masks suffered from a lack of air and sickness, which caused them to tear off the mask, their eyes streaming from the effects of the gas. In mid 1916 Percy's battalion was sent to the Somme. Percy had also been able to meet and speak to Perce Morgan. After the Battle of Fromelles Vern and the 56th battalion were marched there. Viv and the 24th battalion also arrived.
Both sides were determined to take the strategic village of Pozières. It was intensely fought over in mid 1916 and obliterated to a heap of rubble and shell holes by German artillery as they retreated. The officers wondered whether they should allow the dead to lie unburied, which was demoralising, or risk more deaths to bury them. For an hour each day Red Cross flags were used by stretcher-bearers of both sides.
Post traumatic stress was commonly called shell shock. Perce Morgan was buried to his neck and while they were digging him out another shell came and blew his head off. In desperation Percy tried a cigarette and rum to get through the horrors, but apparently it did not help; he never did become a smoker or drinker. He wrote to Mrs Morgan sending his condolences and she replied asking for details of her son's death. Percy replied as well as he could.
On the eve of a battle Viv wrote to Clytie
My Sweetheart and Wife,
How are you keeping both in health and spirits? Well and happy I hope. But I would so like to go home and make sure. I would just give anything to see that look of love and joy spring to your dear eyes again as it used to do in those short but sweet days so many age-long months ago...
For nearly two years the war had raged in that area with little advance on either side. Viv felt ill inside having to send out patrols, knowing that many men would not return. While in France he also suffered from severe hay fever.
The fighting around Pozières continued. After a tiring march from the Brickfields west of Albert, the sixth brigade arrived at nine o'clock at night. On arrival they had passed through an artillery barrage, then had settled with half the men in the front line and half in close support, mainly along "K" trench. Two battalions in the rear were in reserve, acting as carriers of food and supplies to the lines. The units were at full strength and the trenches were consequently crowded when a bombardment began. At first most of the shells passed over the front line, but as the day went on, the aim was corrected and by the afternoon trench mortar bombs and shells were bursting in the trenches. Without deep dugouts, only small recesses, Viv's battalion, the 24th in "K" trench was murderously hit. The dead could not be buried. The survivors could do nothing but wait. They waited to be either killed or else buried by collapsing banks. Tormented by lice in hair, socks and clothing in the trenches they sat for hour after hour. To help keep up morale Viv passed along "K" trench and saw four men playing cards. According to Bean, the official historian:
The officer passing along the trench in the afternoon, sickened by the sight of the dead and wounded, saw the body of a sergeant which had been lifted out of the trench above the spot where four men were dealing their cards. "You've lost your sergeant I see," remarked the officer to the group. "Yes" replied one of the men in a voice which failed in its attempt to conceal the speaker's emotion. "He was playing cards here with us a few minutes ago when he was hit." Another man had taken the sergeant's hand, brave men played on hardly knowing what cards they dealt, struggling against their feelings, trying by a display of apparent coolness to steady the nerves of others.
When Viv came back fifteen minutes later they were all dead. Viv said this was his worst experience of the war. He had not been at Gallipoli but those who were, said that in this single battle, divisions were subjected to greater stress than the whole of the Gallipoli campaign, with greater loss of life. But this struggle enabled the Allies to advance to the next position.
The next month Viv was involved in fighting at Mouquet Farm, a mile away. It was reported that the Germans were attacking from the farm and north of it. The Germans had built a reinforced blockhouse, half underground with walls four feet thick. It was frequently hit by shells of light calibre, which didn't cause worthwhile damage. It could only be put out of action by a direct shell. Isolated troops were in a desperate position. Brigadier Gellibrand ordered the 24th Battalion to suppress the enemy in the farm by two bombing attacks from the south and southeast.
This perilous duty was accepted by Lieutenant Smythe [Viv] and parties were organised: but as the artillery could not be employed for fear of hitting the isolated troops, and the available trench-mortars were in positions from which the objective could not be hit, the order was at the last minute cancelled. The abandonment was fortunate. It is unbelievable that it had any chance of success. (Bean)
However it inspired someone to write a piece of doggerel "How the Farm took Mookay Bill” and Viv acquired the nickname Mouquet Bill. He had souvenired a German helmet as a memento of the event. There could never be another such war and souvenirs would be of great curiosity value. Although the Germans attempted a similar attack to assist their troops, they were easily driven back by Stokes mortar and Lewis guns. This was one of a number of salient points on a wide front. Casualties were the greatest ever suffered by the Anzacs. In seven weeks there were 23,000 AIF casualties. By now the whole area was nothing but craters with no sign of the farm or village. The strain of the battle required a new approach to discipline.
Percy wrote an account of his experiences which was published in the Jerilderie Herald:
A week ago I was one of a machine-gun crew of nine men, and now am the only one left. Five were killed, one wounded, and two missing (probably killed) and even the gun was blown up. We went into action just after midnight on Sunday morning. Our battalion was in support to the 1st, which made the charge, and I was in the reserve machine-gunners - a rotten job, as the reserves generally get the worst of the shelling. Soon after the fray started we got a false order to fall back, causing no end of confusion. Two of my crew were killed about this time, and two were not seen since. We had nothing to do but put up with the shelling and wait until we should be required in the firing line. Went to sleep in a bit of a hole, which was supposed to be a dugout and awoke later to find myself buried to the armpits. A shell had blown my dugout in. Got my head out and called for someone to come and dig me out, after which I went to the dugout of another chap of my crew. A few minutes later a shrapnel shell wounded him in the leg and killed another fellow alongside. Bandaged his leg up, and as he was suffering a good deal of pain I let him have the dug-out to himself, and as accommodation was difficult to find, had to share a dug-out with a corpse, and in spite of the grim presence slept soundly. Things were comparatively quiet all Sunday, in the afternoon I suddenly awoke under the impression that something was biting my leg, and found a small piece of shrapnel sticking into it through the puttees, she stung some too. In the evening two of my gun crew and I got together in a bit of a trench which was not much used. As it afforded a little protection we collected haversacks and water bottles left behind by wounded men, and fared well, our victuals including sweet biscuits, bread, butter, jam, cheese bacon, sardines and chocolates. We slept there and stayed there together all Monday morning. On Monday Fritz [the Germans] bombarded the village of Pozières where our front line was, and he was using some big shells too, sometimes, and we could see great branches of trees go hurtling skywards... During that night the remaining three of my gun crew were either blown up or buried, I stood the nervous strain well, and came through smiling until I took a hand in digging out some buried men, which is the most heart-breaking task I've ever had. Four men were buried in the communication trench and I went to their assistance and worked for dear life. Am not strong physically, and it played up with me a treat. Rescued one chap who was completely buried except his face and the fingers of one hand. While we were working a big shell landed near by knocking two of the workers, one beside me staggered back and fell, and I thought he was killed, but fortunately it was only a wound in the face. Two of the buried men were got out alright, but the other two were deeply covered, and it took nearly an hours solid work to get them out. The other chaps were for giving them for lost, but I urged them on hoping it might be possible to effect resuscitation. Could not bear to let them go while there was any hope of saving them. Tried to set up artificial respiration with one of them, but could not manage it so went and called up the doctor. Left the job to him and went back to the firing line. Have not heard how he got on with them... It was a relief to us when daylight came, especially as we were to be relieved in the morning. A Coy [Company] was without officers and practically devoid of non-coms, and a number of the men breaking down under the nerve strain left and went back to the rear. Every man wounded was regarded as being very lucky. I saw a madman rambling down the communication trench trying to catch hold of something he could see in the air, and I envied him. A prisoner was brought in and his face was thin and pale and drawn and we pitied him the poor beggar. A sergeant wanted to kill him, but we would not hear of it. In our own affliction we could well sympathise even with our enemies. At some time after daybreak there was a lull, and we began to hope Fritz had taken a tumble to himself... The bombardment up till this time is reckoned to be equal to anything known at Verdun, but one could not describe what followed. It was the lull before the storm. A salvo of four big shells came over, and then the place was converted into an absolute HELL. It was awful. It seemed as if the whole face of the earth was being churned up. Clouds of earth and branches of trees were hurled skywards, while clods and lumps of chalk were falling all round. When a shell came near the dense clouds of black smoke converted daylight into darkness, and the smell and the smuts were vile, but worst of all was the terrifying nerve-racking roar of the explosion, which was indescribable. Out in front the same storm of shells raged... we ran forward through the heaps of smashed brick and splintered timber, which had once been Pozières. Found some more of the gunners and stowed ourselves in shell craters, but the place was untenable... There were remnants of a hedge, and beyond that open fields, where no shells were falling. We got out into the fields and made for the narrow strip of wood about three or four hundred yards away, and then Fritz spotted us and bullets came flying all around. His shooting was very erratic, however, for we all got safely into the belt of timber. Our own artillery which for some reason had been silent all the morning, at last opened out and to our exasperation began landing shells all round us. The mistake must have been reported by our aeroplanes, for after a while they left us in peace. Our nerves were considerably affected, and we would get jumpy if a shell lobbed 50 yards away. We stayed in the wood all day, and got back to the 3rd line trench under cover of darkness, stayed there for a night and next day the battalion was withdrawn from the trenches and we came right out to beyond Albert.
This experience inspired him later to put his thoughts into a poem called:
The flautist played: and music, sweet and low,
With soft caresses old-time memories woke,
And long past scenes from bonds of lethe broke.
And I beheld red poppies all aglow
Like fiery mantle drape the earth below:
I heard a heaven-rending sound that broke
The still of dawn, while sable clouds of smoke
Plunged dark and reeking round a scene of woe.
Men cower trembling in a shattered trench,
Unnerved with noise and blood and foul smoke-gust,
While shrieking shreds of steel through soft flesh tear.
Brains frenzied reel: stark hands in death-throes clench.
The whole creation's blasted into dust.
Hell's fury falls on shuddering Pozières.
Viv and Clytie 1916
Viv still anticipated being home in a few months when Clytie on maternity leave, had given birth to a two-month premature baby girl who was stillborn, there was a family conspiracy to keep the news from Viv for fear of distracting him in a time of danger. Of course he was aware of some problem and expressed disappointment that they did not trust him to cope with the news. Single-mindedly Clytie was negotiating to build a house on land that she had bought near her parents at Pennant Hills, Sydney. Viv's military pay allotments and her own earnings had been faithfully dedicated to her dream - to build a safe refuge for her hero-husband when he returned. Her parents were also building in the same street. Determined and well-organised Clytie went ahead with her building plans. When her house at Pennant Hills was finished she intended to call it "The Haven" and await the day when Viv would find it a haven from the trenches. Although the sewer was not available and would not be for another sixty years she was required to build a room for a flush toilet as part of the house!
Viv's parents had also been able to make an addition to KY at Ramsgate by hiring a builder to put on a bathroom with rough plastered walls, cement tubs and copper, at a total cost of £27 for labour and materials. They paid a deposit of £15 and made final payments within weeks. It cost them £4.7.0. to have the back veranda boarded up as the boys' bedroom. In front of the house they planted a vine, which grew prolifically. They planted two little camphor laurel trees in the tiny front garden and a tree fern near the back veranda, and planned to get the name “Koppin Yarratt” made. At the same time Ida and Viola were having pianoforte tuition, which cost £1.17.6. per quarter.
After months of rest Rita was, according to Percy's diary "almost well again", but they were aware of possible damage to her heart. In June she had left school "through illness." Percy also noted that his Uncle Arthur aged forty-five from North Winton was anxious to get away to the war. It might arouse his interest & ambition a bit if he did. He is only wasting his life stuck there on that old farm.
Extremely proud of having four sons fighting for the Motherland but also apprehensive about their safety, Ted was still seeking comfort in a little too much alcohol. He was still a tease, gave his younger children little lectures on manners and behaviour and was openly admiring of their successes and efforts. He was strong on family ties, having lost his mother as a little boy and his father as a youth.
The population of Australia had now grown to five million. From Rocky Point, (Sans Souci) a ferry service began from the end of the tramline across the George's River to Taren Point, a beautiful bushy area. While Rita was away from school due to her long illness, Fort Street Boys' School was completed at Petersham. The gates of the old school went with them, and the historic fountain was moved nearer to the old building as roadwork encroached in preparation for Bradfield Highway and the Harbour Bridge.
In August in the "Sun", photos of Annie and three other women had been published with a caption about the mothers of soldiers and the achievements of their sons. Annie received a letter from Thompson, their family dentist at Gladesville, eulogising over the achievements of the Smythe boys at the front.
A little later Clytie had a letter from Viv,
My Darling Sweetheart,
Was greatly pleased to get the cutting from the "Sun". Do you know, that cutting is the only photo I have in my possession now. You can make up for me if you like, a Xmas box of a pocket wallet containing photos of both families, and I can promise you, it will give me as much pleasure as anything bar being home with you again.
Several times Percy had a drink of rum to warm him and help him sleep. As a form of relaxation he sketched churches or ruins he had seen. He continued to write short stories and at last found a literary agency in Britain who accepted one and agreed to handle his work, for a fee.
During this period Percy possibly first saw Corbie cathedral, which he later sketched. From memory he drew a sketch of Mt Comboyne, near Koppin Yarratt Creek, Australia.
After a period of fierce fighting, troops including the Smythe brothers were sent from the main front back to Flanders and others brought in to Picardy.
At Windsor Castle King George V decided to change his name from Saxe-Coburg by royal proclamation to the House of Windsor to remove the German connotation and sound more British.
During the year Percy also decided to change to Viv's battalion and succeeded in October. As with everything else he was conscientious and acted only after due consideration. Viv assured Percy he would get promoted again and could "put up a bar". Indeed he soon became a temporary corporal. It was already getting cold and there were overnight frosts, when they were returned to the Somme. The three brothers were again in this area and tried to see each other. Their cousins Ernie and Alf Graham were also nearby. When Vern was injured he went back to England. Many soldiers were given a week of riding lessons. Others did courses in climbing telegraph poles and repairing communication lines. At riding school he and two others had their photographs taken on horseback. Although Vern looked very assured and polished, he admitted that none of them could ride. Then he was assigned to the number one Command Depot in England. Vern got leave and went to Ireland to see his grandfather’s homelands and visit the family of Rene Hanna, Viola’s friend from Jerilderie, now nineteen and recently married. In Ireland the Hannas introduced Vern to Mary Hyndman, a cousin of Rene. Mary, in a pretty dress of blue and pink shot silk met Vern in a motorcar. He thought she looked a picture, which he would never forget.
Winter was approaching, water froze in the shell-holes, mud was frozen which made it easier for the men to walk on. Not long after, Percy contracted bronchitis. He was sent to the tent hospital near Amiens, then via Corbie to Rouen hospital and later to England, arriving just at Christmas. At last a "Blighty", but he was disappointed that his chance of further promotion would be reduced.
He sent cards to his brothers, his parents and to the widow Mrs Morgan. He had already been in correspondence with Mrs Morgan after the death of her son Percy on the Somme. Annie and Mrs Morgan were also writing to each other, and her address was used for mail as it was easier to keep changes up to date. After a couple of weeks in Birmingham hospital he was transferred nearer to London and Mrs Morgan invited him to visit. When he did so he found her to be young-looking, although grey and still very distressed over the loss of her son. Percy accepted invitations to see the sights of London and to go to the theatre.
Still instructing in England, Bert was now agitating to get back to the front as he felt he was not pulling his weight for the Motherland, but Percy thought that ranked as a "sjt mjr [he] was not doing too bad". Bert felt that his younger brothers were facing all the risks and winning recognition. His captain stated “He has always carried out his duties in a most capable and efficient manner, and I have much pleasure in recommending him as a suitable candidate for a commission”. This was more likely if he was with his own battalion. He was to be included in the next group but an outbreak of measles delayed this. He wrote “My guardian angel must be trying to protect me.” He wrote to his cousins at Myrrhee saying he was eager to get to France. He had heard that Uncle Robert had built a grand house at Myrrhee, and asked for a photo of it with the family.
On the next occasion when the Myrrhee Curries were all together they planned to get a photograph taken.
While at school young Bobby worked for his father. Having completed eighth grade he left school at the normal leaving age of fourteen, and had a dispute with his father. As they both had strong personalities and individual ideas they did not always see eye-to-eye. Bobby had grown some tobacco. When it was ready for sale his father had said, "There is only one boss here." The tobacco was sold and the money went into farm funds prompting Bobby to leave home. At first he took what he owned and went over the hill where he built a shack and grew millet; he also had sheep and sixteen beehives. Sometimes he went to the Evans house next door for dinner. It was suggested that he was calling on one of the Evans girls. He talked about ideas he wanted to try when he could go out on his own. After a while he went away to work for a sawmill.
Aunt Lyd, now over fifty, had received the £100 from her father's estate, which she had put into an interest-bearing deposit. This at last gave her some independence.
Now working in the city Ted had a habit of getting off the tram on the wrong side if it suited him; he also hated waiting for trams and would walk on to the next stop, even at the risk of having to rush when the tram came. Too much of his pay was spent on drink.
In order to invest in the Starr-Bowkett Society, the older boys had all contributed and continued to do so to meet the repayments. Annie was now able to put some of their allotments into an account for them and already had £80.
Viola, now a pretty young woman of twenty with big brown eyes and very fair wavy hair, had started dating a young man who had recently joined up. In her final year, now fifth year, at school Ida was, as always easily worried and upset. After her long absence due to illness, which had left her with a rheumatic heart, Rita had gone back to school but was quickly exhausted after any exercise and always felt tired and weak. At the end of primary school Eric had passed the entry exam and although he had not gained a bursary, had started at Fort Street Boys’ High School, which had been built at Petersham - a large three-storey building with arches along the balconies. He enjoyed it, especially French.
Gordon aged eleven said “I’m going to marry Nellie Potter when I grow up”. Because of her mother’s illness, Nellie aged twelve had had to leave school. Her two older sisters were not available to help, being married. There was an older brother Tom and three younger brothers.
That winter was the worst in European history. The mud was so deep that wounded men drowned in it. “Trench feet” was a major problem.
Viv, Percy and Vern were able to see each other near the Somme. In February Vern went to Ireland to marry Mary J. Hanna Hyndman by special licence at "Trentagh House". Her family was very wealthy and owned five estates in the area. Mary's mother Margaret was a regal-looking woman. Mary went to the city and bought £300 worth of clothes and furs for her trousseau. At the wedding Mary had a bridal dress and veil (unlike Clytie). On the certificate it stated that Vern's father, Albert Edward Smythe was a "merchant" instead of "boot maker" and Mary's father George Hyndman was a "farmer". Among the wedding presents were paintings of Mt Mugish in Donegal near "Trentagh", the artist belonging to a local renowned art school. Vern's brothers were pleased to have another sister-in-law, especially such a pretty one.
Finally in 1917 Bert was successful in getting back into the action. In doing so he reverted to the rank of corporal, but hoped to get promotion soon. Before leaving England he had his portrait taken to send home to his family and to Elsie Maloney. He had an enigmatic teasing half-smile, had grown a moustache and his hair was slightly wavy. He was twenty-seven. Expecting Elsie to send him a photo and write to him via Mrs Morgan he suggested she open the letter and look at the photograph before redirecting it.
There had been little movement in the war in the Somme area of the western front in over two years, although the Germans did withdraw in some places to previously strong defensive positions, known as the Hindenburg Line. It was a network of trenches, protected by barbed wire up to a hundred yards wide with many machine-gun posts and strong points, regarded as impregnable.
A beautiful and ancient tower in Coucy, France, was blown up by Germans in case it gave cover to the French Army. At the same time Russia began to crumble under the Revolution and eventually signed a truce with Germany.
According to his diary Bert left Amesbury at half past two at night on 13th March and arrived at Folkestone the next morning, embarked for Boulogne and arrived at Etaples by train. This was a base depot where men going from England to their units were "finished off" or prepared for the trenches. At first he had to undergo the "bullring" to get back into peak condition. It was an area about three miles [4.8km] from the camp where the men had to do circuits and various exercises. He was disgusted at having to do this. He was still a crack shot and believed he was fit.
SUNDAY 18th: Went to church this morning & heard a splendid & powerful sermon. The preacher was very good indeed - one of the best I've heard. Splendid news from the front. Our boys are pushing on fine.
MONDAY 19th: Went out and did a bit of shooting today. My rifle throws 1 inch left in 30 yds. In the afternoon went for a route march.
TUESDAY 20th: Bullring today with a vengeance. Had a very strenuous day of it, mostly Bayonet fighting. More good news from the front. Rec'd a letter from Mrs M [Morgan]
WEDNESDAY 21st: Wrote to E.M. [Elsie Maloney] Streak of rare luck this arvo, a letter from Elsie dated 31/12/16 the last one was 5/12/16 which came to light some considerable time ago. Funny how ones mail is messed about.
TUESDAY 22nd: No Bullring for me today as I've to go on guard this arvo. Had a lazy time of it during the day. Didnt leave my warm and comfy couch until brecker was nearly over. Rec'd one English letter during day from Brumm [Birmingham]. Was congratulated on the fact that I could not get to France for 3 months - & here Im in it the day it was written. Mounted guard at 5pm. Reproved cos my brass wasn't polished. (contrary to AIF orders, they want the brasswork polished in this joint, & even go to the extent of supplying the guard with a tin of Brasso) Congratulated on my pack. Only two "birds" [prisoners] in the Klink & they are fairly safe with a sentry on each of the four corners of the compound. [The Klink was a barbed wire open enclosure with a sentry at each corner so there is no great chance of any one escaping.]
FRIDAY 23rd: Dull day for the most part, but a little diversion introduced throu an officer on marching an armed party past the guard without saluting us, & the same officer on coming back gave the command "Eyes Right" instead of "Eyes Left" & then when the men looked away from the guard instead of towards us roared out "Dont be a lot of *-*-* fools cos Im one." Relieved about 5pm. Bed early - nowhere to go and no passes to go there.
SATURDAY 24th: Bullring this morning. Blarsted Company drill all the morning. The platoon officers rather shaky on their drill. Lewis gun lecture in the afternoon. Lecturing offr knows his job I suppose but he cant lecture. To bed early again, only place one can keep warm in. The mess is dopey - the dopiest Ive ever struck, no comforts of any sort. Tucker up to putty too. Stew stew stew - What's the use of worrying? P.E.S. [wrote to Percy]
SUNDAY 25th: Been having a glorious loaf during the day. Intended to write letters but had no writing paper & the canteens were closed to 5 pip emma [5pm], so I couldnt get any. Have been warned for guard tomorrow. By Jingo they are slinging it into me pretty hot. However guard is better than the Bullring. I can sleep in till 8 tomorrow. Laziness - Im the superessence of it. Have pratted my frame in for a pass to Etaples on Tuesday night. Have to be out by about 8. Guard doesnt finish till 5 so Ill have quite a long time in there. By Jingo the military is hot. They have the infernal hide to offer a miserable 5% leave to Etaples from after parade until 8pm which gives about three hours in town. Ill bet the gentlemen who made those restrictions go out oftener than once in 20 days & stay away longer than 3 hours. Went to bed very early - only place where one can keep warm.
THURSDAY 29th Have a nasty toothache - the blanky thing objected to me indulging in my passion for sweets. Mounted guard OK about 5. Four birds in the cage. Received a letter from Elsie dated early November. Altho it was plainly addressed to the 3rd, it had been all over the place but not to the 3rd. It was refused with thanks by the Sig Engrs [Signal Engineers] & the 22nd Bn; plastered all over it "NOT 22nd BN" - By Jingo no wonder ones mail doesnt turn up when letters plainly addressed to the 3rd go to the Sig Engrs & the 22nd.
FRIDAY 30th: Complimented by CO [Commanding Officer] on having the smartest & best turned out guard that had ever been mounted here. Warned that Im on draft leaving the following morning. Releived off guard 3.30 so that I could get equipped. Relieved so suddenly that I had no warning & so things were not as tidy as they might have been. Got straffed. Got everything fixed up to leave. Gee my pack is heavy. Ill dump something before I lump it many miles.
SATY 31st: Left early this morning. Pack too heavy to carry far. Loaded into luggage truck. Placed i/c [in charge of] rations with four men. Went through my pack & dumped my boot polishing gear. Couldnt dump anything else. Drank a tin of unsweetened milk. Train moved off about 8am Arr'd at some ungodly hole about 4.30 & after unloading rations joined my mob. Marched off for Albert an hour later & fixed up in tents. Got a bit wet marching. Coat and cape in my pack & didnt get a chance to get them out. Fixed up comfy for the night. Raining like H. Great if we were sleeping out.
In April there was a big offensive towards the German Hindenburg Line at Bullecourt north of Pozières. The Australians were to attack from the east, the British from the west. Viv was awarded a MC on 3rd April "for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He organised a strong patrol and maintained his position under very heavy fire until relieved. He set a splendid example of courage and determination throughout." The notification was sent to "Bonny Doon", Cleary St, Hamilton, Newcastle where Clytie was working at the time. Viv then headed further north. Bert was heading for the same district via a circuitous route
Bert's diary continues:
SUNDAY April 1st: Left Albert this morning & marched to the gas depot & then after being issued with a box respirator each & going through tear gas had dinner and Marched to this joint - Ribemont, some march too, arriving very tired about 4.30pm. Ribemont is a pretty big town with no apparent damage by Fritz. Big review tomorrow so I hear & the line on Tuesday. Have met quite a lot of old mates.
MONDAY 2nd: Big inspection of the Bde this mng by Divisional Cmdr. Marched out about two miles to do the job. Had the afternoon free to get ready to leave tomorrow. Got paid too & it came in very handy. Bought some sox 7 candles & something tasty to eat. Was told by RSM [Regimental Sergeant Major] that Vernie had been killed, but do not place any credence on it as rumours are so unreliable. Possibly he is wounded.
Bert's surmise about Vern was correct. He had been wounded in the leg while fighting at Armentières, was sent to hospital and was able to go to Ireland to convalesce. Viv and Bert were now very close to each other.
TUESDAY 3rd: Saw Paul White & he saw Vernie two days previously so he must be OK. Moved off this morning & marched to Montaban [Montauban?] or some such place. rotten march too. Heavy pack and very sore heels. Arrived tired and put up in comfy tin huts. Can see the flares & gun flashes but can hear nothing as yet so must be a long way off. Am still a spare part with nothing to do except assist generally.
WEDNESDAY 4th: Oh we had a lovely march today 12½ mls to Fremincourt or some such name. Had my first good taste of mud & got a glimpse of debris & waste of the Somme battle. For a good way we moved on a track of duckboards laid over the mud, & then we had to plough our way through it. lovely. Beautiful. Saw a solitary tank on our way over. it snowed heavily most of the way, but our capes kept us fairly dry. Stopped in a little place for half an hour for dinner & then moved on to fremincourt. As we passed Bapaume on our right Fritz was dumping a few heavies into it. Got fixed up in billets such as they were after Fritzs work on them, & not satisfied with our quarters, a party of 7 of us scouted round and found a nice roomy place with a fireplace rigged up. Got it cleared up great & a lovely fire going, when some officer with a large party shoved us off. So we had to go back to our old place. Got a fire going & things as comfy as possible. One of my feet quite dry & the other was having a boot bath in a cup full of water. Changed my sox & burnt one of my boots quite hard trying to dry it. Fairly close to the line here.
THURSDAY 5th: After dinner was warned as platoon guide so moved off with the other guides to our respective positions. A Coys possy [A Company's position] is skirting the edge of a wood. There is or was a lovely chateau in the woods but it has been reduced to a heap of broken masonry by Fritz before he left. He was probably using it as a hospital as there is a pretty cemetery quite close. As we guides were moving on to the line he dumped a few H.E.s [high explosives] around. Guided our respective mobs in near sundown. Cold frosty night & there not being enough dugouts had to sleep out. Cold feet all night.
FRIDAY 6th: (Good Friday) Fritz dumped quite a number of H.E.s probably 4.5s into the wood during the night. Lovely day but spent an uncomfortable night. The Archies [anti aircraft guns] having great practise keep fritz's planes away. EAS EM Mrs M [wrote to Eric, Elsie, Mrs Morgan]
SATURDAY 7th: The weather changed after dinner & it came up cold & wet. Orders to move to a position about 400 yds in front & relieve a platoon there came through about tea time. shortly after dark took a ration party to HQ [Headquarters] & drew Coy's rations and mail. No mail for me worse luck. The Coy QM [Quartermaster] has got each ptns [platoon's] rations in separate bundles, but tho we passed some of the ptns on our way, we had to carry every blanky thing up to Coy Hqrs & redistribute from there. Men growling like H. Dont blame. Make anyone growl. That done was warned for outpost. Guided to a possy [position] about 1 mile out, in touch with a Tommy possy & was promised releif in two hours. Where we had to stay was a short length of an old german post trench with pools in the bottom & between the pools 6 inches of soft mud. Commenced to rain & snow. No shelter at all. When my feet began to lose feeling Id get up & walk to the Tommys post, chat awhile & then come back. Wind driven sleet too bitter to walk about in so couldnt keep walking.
SUN?? Left the outpost possy about quarter past 5, frozen, sore & amazed at not being relieved. Must have been lovely targets for any germans about as we stumbled over the white ground. Too cold & miserable to care. Nothing fired at us. It appears the reliefs couldnt find us so they let us stay. Breakfast stone cold but enjoyed it all the same. Havent even a possy in our new trench. — dug out a space in the bank, lined the floor & back & got overhead cover & made it rain proof. Still raining. — floor not long enough to lie stretched out, but it shields us from the elements & we think it a Heaven.
MONDAY 9th: About 3.30 in the mng, all of us - the crews for 3 guns & my lot, moved off by a long circuitous route to get into position. - As we passed down a sunken road 3 ft deep single file just out of sight of the enemy, he opened a fierce rifle fire the bullets of which swept right across the road & we had to take shelter for a while by sitting down. Fritz either had "the wind up" very badly, or else was expecting an attack. When the fire subsided a little we pushed on & we'd gone 1/4 mile before I remembered that Id left my rifle behind! - Was so loaded up with MG ammn [machine gun ammunition] that I never noticed its absence before, couldnt go back for it so had to push on without it. About ½ mile further we turned sharp to the right. Fritz by now was thoroughly alarmed. Everything was made as bright as day by the continual flares & his MGs were working overtime....
The guns were placed near the parapet pointing to where I thought our chaps must be & I couldnt make it out at all & told the gunners but they were positive they were facing Fritz... just then Fritz heavies opened on us from the opposite side to where they reckoned Fritz was... The heavy gun fire increased to the heaviest Ive experienced the shells dropping all around us & quite close. We were ordered into a dugout nearby & in it we dropped. The shells got nearer & nearer & it seemed as if he knew we were sheltering there. They were coming over one every 4 or 5 secs. We then got the order to leave the dugouts & enter the village. I waited until a shell exploded - flaming close too - & then clambered out & ran before the next arrived. One cant run far with full equipment & two boxes of ammn so I soon steadied into a floundering walk. Passed one of our boys outed, so I stopped & took the unfortunate chaps rifle & bayonet & then on again, feeling ever so much better now I had a weapon... Was very hungry & tired, & meeting one of our chaps who was filling his face with cake, asked for some, he pointed to a dugout "Plenty in there" Went in & found a box of nice cake — some of Fritz, which I promptly made look foolish. Looking around, commandeered a handkerchief & a pr of sox... Over 500 prisoners were taken during the stunt & quite a large number of them had parcels from home unopened. Most of our boys who made prisoners, calmly relieved them of everything they fancied, so gold watches, automatic pistols are quite common now. Its surprising the number of Fritzs who have automatics.
WEDNESDAY 11th: No sleep at all during the night. Fritz shelling nearby road & village off and on all day and night. Uptodate nothing dropped on our little lot tho some pretty close. Slept most of the day — even missed dinner to my intense disgust. After dark and it was snowing heavily, was told to take 6 men out and dig an outpost position & stay there all night. Strongly objected. First, cos to me it seemed unnecessary, second, the newly turned up earth would draw "crabs", [attract artillery fire] third, cos a continuous patrol would answer the purpose & would not have the men exposed all night in a bitter snow storm. The outpost idea finally abandoned in favour of a continuous patrol. Was on the job all night got an hours sleep. Owing to some error no tea yet arrived.
THURSDAY 12th: Wednesdays tea of stew & tea did not arrive until 2 in the mng, & of course it was not exactly hot. Slept all day only getting up for meals. Fritz shelling the road near us & the village pretty constantly. Owing to the men not standing to smartly this afternoon everybody is up on duty all night — no reliefs of "off duty" at all. H of a lot of grumbling. Weather vile wind, snow, rain & very occasionally sun.
Everything in a vile condition. Mud from head to sole. Our new dugout which we built pretty good except one gets horribly muddy coming in & getting out & every time we come in, bring enough mud on our boots to start a brick kiln... Splendid luck this arvo. 8 letters & one from the "one and only" Bonzer one too. it seriously interfered with my efficiency on patrol cos i was thinking thinks as we prowled about, instead of keeping my mind on the most serious job. Everything seems quite rosy - Havent been able to post the letters I wrote some time ago.
MONDAY 16th: Improved our position as far as comfort was concerned. Hollowed out the side of the trench enough to allow two to sit in it & then bring the w p [waterproof] sheet over it & so tho we couldnt get much sleep, we were able to keep dry - at least we prevented ourselves getting any wetter our overcoats already being soaking and very heavy. Fritz did some accurate shooting on our position during day, but our little section was lucky. our artillery also did some good shooting at one of his strongholds, tho one or two low shots were very close to our own men. Fritz in shooting at a platoon of ours near his stronghold, Kindly dumped 3 or 4 of his H.E.s into his own barbed wire. relieved about 11pm in almost total darkness & steady rain. Pitied the poor beggars taking over from us cos trench in a horrible mess.
TUESDAY 17th: Reached our old positions where our packs were early in the mng. Some of them had been "ratted" tho mine was OK. We then set out for our resting place. it was a march Ill never forget. firstly we had had no dinner or tea the previous day & were tired and weak. It was pitch dark - one could not see anyone 4 yds in front, & our road lay for a long way along a railway embankment which was blown up at intervals & everywhere pitted with holes, rocks, logs etc which we were unable to see. There was also plenty of barb wire strewn about. We were continually falling over into the mud & then we'd get more covered trying to get up. everybody was cursing & swearing something awful. My right boot hurt like H at the ankle & of course I seemed to step on something which would throw my ankle over at every step. Finally we left the line & went along a so called road. Had a halt for a rest & myself & others moved to the right to rest on the side & all fell in a deep ditch which we couldnt see. The ditch was thick with mud and curses. A little later one of my section fell on the side of the road dead beat & wouldnt get up. He was done right in. Just lay on his back in the mud & didnt care what happened. Stopped back with him. After he'd rested a while we both pushed on... & we lost the road, so we sat down in the rain until dawn, when we drifted into a village & slept in the first shelter we could find. found the mob after we'd had some sleep. Billetted in a comfy place as such things go...
WEDNESDAY 18th: On guard today but a soft cop writing letters most of the time. Rumoured that the building that Bn Hq [battalion headquarters] is in is mined so they are building a dugout in the sunken road. Some part of the chateau where we were a few days ago has been blown up with a few casualties. They today discovered in a hidden cellar in the town a german equipped with telephone & listening apparatus & six months rations! some nerve eh. Only discovered by accident. Some chap floundering about fell through the roof on top of him.
THURSDAY 25th: Anzac Day. Marched about 5 or 6 miles to some camp in tents. After dinner was put on guard. Wrote letters most of the time.
FRIDAY 26th: Up the line again. fine spell they are giving us. took over from the 18th. about 3 miles behind the line but still had to patrol. fine weather luckily.
SATY 27th: Back again to the tents, but we are going up again tmw [tomorrow] so they say. If they want us in & out the line like rabbits going into & out of their burrows why the devil dont they keep us handy instead of marching us about so much. No pay yet but rec'd a letter from Viv...
Loss of a Son
Many were now despondent about the war ever ending. Any progress was so slow and cost so many lives. All the battalions were terribly depleted. They looked forward to the end of the battle rather than the end of the war. A big allied offensive began. Inch by inch the allies were advancing towards Bullecourt.
In the same area were two of their second cousins, Ordo Clarke thirty-one and Lionel Clarke, twenty-one, who had enlisted in August the year before, both in the 19th Battalion. So far the four Smythe boys and their Graham cousins and Clarke second cousins had survived.
Viv, a lieutenant was involved in action very close to where Bert was fighting. Viv and Bert had not seen each other since Bert had enlisted, but planned to do so as soon as possible.
This was late spring but it was still unusually cold. Troops waited in the snow all night, but tanks to smash the barbed wire had not arrived. The tanks were sent out again the next night but almost all of them broke down. Australians achieved what seemed impossible - they broke into the Hindenburg Line and siezed a double line of German trenches without the cover of an artillery barrage. This meant that the fourth division was cut off from supplies and reinforcements. When they ran out of ammunition they ran back to their own lines for replenishments. There were several days of attack and counter-attack until the Australians refused to be dislodged. On 3rd May the 2nd division seized and held their section of the Hindenburg Line although there were frequent counter-attacks.
Viv and the 24th battalion were involved in this action. According to Bean:
Everyone knew the plans and objectives, and so, as a matter of course, Lieutenant Smythe of the leading company of the 24th, after capturing O.G.1 (Old German Line 1) in his own sector, led a party into that trench on the 5th Brigade's side of the road, bombing the dugouts as he went. He met no opposition until, when 200 yards along the trench, he came close upon some German machine-gunners who were busily firing towards the Australian Lines. As Smythe had insufficient force for attacking them he had to be content with exchanging a few bombs and revolver shots, and then stationed a post two bays further back to block the trench and safeguard the flank. Two trench-mortars of the 5th Brigade which had come up under cover of the Central Road bank gave protection by firing along O.G.1 over the head of the guard.
This battle was won with great loss of life. It was understood that it was largely the 24th Battalion that was responsible for the eventual taking of the position. Flying very low over the headquarters of the brigade a British airman dropped a message "Well done Australia". It was one of the few successes at the time.
Australian soldiers were considered less disciplined on parade, their uniforms were less polished, but they had more initiative in the field. They had learnt their own worth and the weaknesses of the British army system.
Viv wrote home to his father:
The stunt has "been and went" as we used to say and still I am whole & undamaged. It was the stiffest fight my battalion has had yet and our losses were proportionate but the men were splendid... After seeing that the men were in position and knew their direction we lay down and waited for the moment to advance. Five minutes before time word was passed down the line to get ready, almost before it reached the last man the sky, low down, behind us burst suddenly into a flickering blaze of light as the guns behind us woke suddenly to life. In a few seconds a torrent of shells screamed overhead and burst like a sparkle of jewels in front. We rose and moved slowly forward, fixing bayonets as we went... We overtook the barrage near the wire, but within a few seconds it shifted on and was concentrated on the famous Hindenburg Line, a hundred yards ahead. Before this the slowly advancing waves had been seen by the defenders and a continuous crackle of machine gun bullets whipped & tore the air around us. But not for that would the advance stop. Calmly and coolly the men picked their way through the blasted wire, and absolutely ignored the frantic machine guns. Once through the wire we were supposed to lie down and wait until the barrage lifted, but with the enemy so close in front, few thought of anything but getting at him and so they pressed on through our own barrage and were fighting in the front line three minutes before the barrage lifted... On our right and left partial success only had resulted. On our right the attack was twice renewed but each time it wilted and failed at the wire... During the night Bert's lot came in and relieved us. I didn't see him but my C.O. did and told him I was O.K. We moved back to support & then to reserve and are now on our way out for a spell (we hope). Bert was O.K. the day after we were relieved, as I heard from the Q.M.S. [Quartermaster-sergeant] of his company. As soon as I get time I'll hunt him up, but that won't be until we get to a place where we can stay a day or two. The Heads are particularly pleased with the fact that we got in and held on and the Bde and Batt have been congratulated from very high up... Various honours will be flying... Well I must close this scrawl now. Hoping that the account has not been too meagre, but we must respect the censor... I am in the best of health and am no more miserable than I have ever been at home. In fact I'm getting so callous now that very little is able to affect me. Didn't think I could become so cold-blooded. Still it's necessary here or one would go mad. Goodnight & good luck to you all Your loving son, Viv.
In fact Bert had been hit by a “whiz bang” – a very fast shell which had a distinctive sound as it travelled. About a week later Viv went to see Bert, but learnt that he had “crossed over”. His captain said they could retrieve nothing, so had buried him in the trench*. The brothers had not been able to make contact since Bert had enlisted. Viv cabled Clytie at “The Haven” at Pennant Hills and she had the task of going to Ramsgate by two steam trains and the steam tram to break the terrible news before the minister from Gladesville came with the official statement. Viv also had the duty of informing Percy and Vern. Mrs Morgan to whom Bert was like a son, wrote to Annie and a correspondence began between the two women. Two years earlier Vern had last seen Bert swimming at Gallipoli. Viv was now the oldest son.* After the war while awaiting repatriation, men were employed digging up the remains from the fields and ditches. Remains from Bullecourt were reburied at Maricourt Wood, many unidentified. Four thousand dead had “no known grave”.
Bert's effects were collected, including his diary and the postcard of Cockatoo Island from Rita, suggesting they should all go there for a picnic. Bert’s last letter had been written to Mrs Morgan, addressing her playfully as “Mumsey”. The previous letter was to Vern teasing him for not visiting him (Bert) in England but going instead to Ireland to get married and telling him not to do it again, also advising him to take a staff job in Blighty.
Ordo Clarke, grandson of Annie Currie who had arrived in Australia in 1842, was killed in the same battle and his brother Lionel Clarke died the next day of wounds from the same battle.
Percy, still in England recovering from bronchitis, got the news on the 22nd that Bert had died on the 3rd. He wrote in his diary about the sorrow caused to those left behind but believed they would all be reunited in the afterlife. He thought that Bert was “always kind and thoughtful with bonny blue eyes and a cheerful smile”. He knew that Bert was universally recognised for his sense of humour.
Percy did a drawing for his parents -
In the top right hand corner being a clouded sky with rays of light slanting down upon the centre, where a vacant circle is represented as surrounded by a frame. Opposite in the bottom left hand corner is a group of three angels flying in mid-air and holding up toward the centre a basket of flowers. In the top left and bottom right are a rose bush in bloom and a landscape respectively. The centre circle I have left vacant to receive an enlarged photo of Bert... Dear old Bert, if only we could have kept him, but then, God knows what is best.
Viola, now a pretty young woman had completed her two-year course at Teachers' College, and had been appointed to Marrickville, where she had a very large Kindergarten class and which she found difficult to reach by tram and two trains. She was able to get a transfer to Rockdale, going by tram. Later after her brother's death she was sent to Broken Hill but wanted to be with her mother. She was never one to accept such things without question, so she went to see the person in charge of appointments, who listened impassively. As she left the office, she stamped her foot and said he was unreasonable. He called her back, realising it was really important to her, and she was able to explain the family circumstances, and got a posting to Newcastle, much closer to home. She had said she was going to be married soon and intended to resign. Ida was the only girl still at the old school. As she worried about everything she found it a great strain and had a breakdown, but was persuaded to go on and try to be more relaxed.
After her long absence Rita had gone back to school and went into second year but all her friends were now a year ahead of her, and she found it difficult and depressing after her illness. She had always loved school and had done well, but was now easily tired, so when her brother was killed she decided to leave "for home duties", keep her mother company for a while, help with the housework and later go to Business College. At fifteen she had enjoyed far more schooling than the older boys.
Poor kid, it must be a big sacrifice for her to make, but it is necessary, for there is too much for Mum to do alone, though hitherto she has gone on doing it uncomplaining. But now that such a load of sorrow has settled on the home, Mum can no longer go on as before. She has had a hard life, my dear old mother, but has always battled bravely through everything. God bless and keep her.
Clytie wrote to Annie's sister Lydia at Myrrhee about Bert's death. Lydia replied with an affectionate supportive letter. They had all loved Bert. Lydia had photos of the boys and had recently had a letter from Bert from England, expressing eagerness to get to France. He had wanted a photo of their new house with all the family and Lydia had written to him, ready for the next mail. She was sorry the girls (Fanny and Ally?) had not been writing to Annie and Ted. She sent the news to them.
Perhaps it will touch their hearts. They seemed to think a lot of Bert. Flora and Eileen felt sad at the news. They seemed to know him better than the others, as he was here the last.
Your affectionate sister Lydia.
Thirteen-year-old Flora wrote a caring letter and included the information that she had got a merit certificate for school attendance, having not missed a day for three years in spite of bad flooding. Letters of condolence and consolation came from Jerilderie, Gladesville and many other places, but not from North Winton. The estrangement was final.
A Chance Encounter
Life went on and so did the war. At terrible sacrifice, Bullecourt, now a heap of rubble, had been captured, the first breakthrough against the "impregnable" Hindenburg Line and the main action moved north to Flanders.
After his discharge from hospital because of bronchitis, Percy was sent to the camp at Perham Downs near Salisbury, in southern England although his cough persisted. Among other things he gave instruction in Lewis guns. In July the "Daily Telegraph" in Sydney published a composite photograph of the four Smythe boys and Clytie's brother with the heading "The Fighting Smythes of Kogarah". The caption stated:
Four soldier sons. One has given his life, two have won the Military Cross: This is the fine record of the family of Mr and Mrs E.A. Smythe, of Kogarah.
In the summer Percy was waiting for the London train which was late and very crowded, intending to meet Viv and stay with Mrs Morgan, when he saw two girls standing nearby, one a brunette, the other a vivacious redhead, with a warm and friendly nature. He asked her the time of the train and by coincidence found himself sitting near her on the train for the few miles to her stop. She was not very tall, but very sociable and lively which encouraged the reticent young man. He accidentally left his coat on the seat and she picked it up and returned it to him later at the camp.
According to his diary:
THURSDAY 23rd; AUGUST..."Met a nice girl while waiting at the station and travelled with her as far as Andover where she lives. She works for the Canteen Board at Ludgershall, and I arranged to meet her there on Monday evening....
FRIDAY 24th: Viv was to send a wire when coming back from Ireland, but none came this morning. Borrowed £1 to get the replicas taken of my picture [of Bert]. Took the picture in to London and found a place which seemed quite up to the mark. Ordered half a dozen replicas which would cost altogether £2.10. Rather expensive but it is as well to get good work done.
He was staying with Mrs Morgan who was very fond of him especially after she lost her own son and she thought of Bert as a son. Her son, also Percy, had been killed at Pozières a year earlier. After sightseeing in London Percy returned to camp.
SATURDAY; No word from Viv so it looks as if I shall not see him after all.
SUN; Walked down to Ludgershall this evening and had a brief talk with Dorothy Jewell. She was very busy working overtime at stocktaking, but I am to meet her tomorrow, when she will accidentally miss the 5.30 train and go by the 8.15 instead. She seems a bonnie little lass, lively and innocent.
MONDAY; Wet all day. ..It was still raining persistently when I went over to Ludgershall. Dorothy was busy working overtime, and anyway she could not come out as her father was there. Stayed there for some time talking to her. She asked me shyly if I were married and I showed her my pay-book with the entry "next of kin" mother. Arranged to come again on Wednesday, when she hoped to be able to escape her father's vigilant eye. Got rather wet returning to camp. There were four letters awaiting me, three from Mum and one from Viola, written in the end of May and the first part of June. Mum's first letter after the news of Bert's death was a mixture of deep grief and a brave struggle to be cheerful. I could hardly keep from crying as I read it. Poor Mum, it must have been a terrible blow to her, but she is a very brave and good mother, and her faith in our God and our Saviour will bear her up through the time of trial. They will not wear black, just a piece of purple ribbon in memory of our dear old boy who has given all in the cause of justice and liberty. Mum will probably get a pension as Bert was the oldest son, unmarried and helping to support her before enlisting. Viola says Mum feels it very keenly, but is bearing up wonderfully. Clytie has been a great help and comfort to Mum. The bad news came as a knockout blow to poor Elsie Maloney.
Dad has been very ill suffering with acute dyspepsia, and the doctor says he must give up the trade, otherwise it will be impossible to cure him.
On Wednesday when she recognised him, Dorothy's face lit up. Then aged seventeen she had been born at Dartmouth and had grown up in Exeter, Devon, the oldest of three children, her brother Wilf was eight, her sister Betty was five. Gifted musically, Dorothy enjoyed playing the piano and singing, and was not inhibited about entertaining people. She was as outgoing as he was reserved.
Her father was an inspector of The Navy and Army Canteen Board where she worked. His trade as a grocer had made respectability very important to him as his success depended on it. He had wanted to be a sign writer but was affected by lead in paint. He was proud to trace his ancestry to John Jewell, bishop of Salisbury in the reign of Elizabeth I.
As she was only seventeen and her father regarded Australian soldiers as a wild irresponsible lot, and Percy in particular as an unsuitable companion for his young daughter, the friendship was not encouraged so they left notes for each other at YMCA (Young Men's Christian Association) and managed to meet for walks or outings with friends. Some early parts of Percy's diary were written in code, parts of which were decoded later, parts in French (especially the romantic references) and a number of pages were removed altogether much later, leaving gaps in the record infuriating to family historians! The missing pages may have contained derogatory remarks about her father.
Dorothy's manner reminded him of his sister Viola who was "roguish, loving and loveable".
Captain E.V. Smythe
Viv was mentioned in despatches by General Sir Douglas Haig and promoted to captain. There were now two Captain Smythes, with the same initials, (Edward Vivian now the eldest son aged 26 and Erle Vernon, four years younger) and this caused some confusion. Viv was called Mouquet Bill by his friends after the struggle for control of Mouquet Farm.
Slowly the German retreat proceeded. Vern won another MC (and MC and Bar) in June when the 56th passed the Flanders Line and were fired on by machine-guns from two pillboxes beyond. Vern with some of his men captured one of these together with 15 Germans. This for a time ended serious resistance. The AIF with characteristic nonchalance, roamed over the plateau. Captured German officers noted and admired the Australian careless attitude under fire.
In a letter to Vern, General Birdwood, commander of the Australian Corp in France, wrote:
Dear Smythe, 3rd November 1917. Congratulations on the M.C. at Polygon Wood between 26th September-1st October 1917. Skill, leadership, always in front line of advance, and on attaining objective, you organised the consolidation of the left sector and supervised construction of posts under heavy rifle and machine-gun fire.
Later Williams wrote in "Comrades of the Great Adventure":
The raconteur praised the dapper Captain Smythe, A Co's commander. He had charge of the battle line in the Battalion (after the colonel was killed) and in a most able manner, supervised the consolidation of the position... He was an inspiration to all. Good leaders are assessed by such qualities. For his excellent work during the battle Smythe was again decorated.
Later he was praised for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty and skill and leadership of a high order. After the capture of the final objective, he organised the defence. He showed fine soldierly qualities, and inspired confidence by his cheerfulness and disregard of danger. It was chiefly owing to his efforts that a strong counter attack was beaten off.
In October Viv won a bar to the MC at Daisy Wood, Passchendaele (Ypres), as the war edged north.
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in supervising the whole battalion front at great personal risk, after all other company commanders and many platoon officers had become casualties. His personal reconnaissance materially aided the clearing of a wood.
Official notification of the decoration was sent to Clytie now at "The Haven", Pennant Hills. Viv became Company Commander and temporary Major. Percy was back at the Front in Viv's battalion. He still had a cough from bronchitis a year ago and another winter was approaching. He wrote regularly to Dorothy and keenly awaited her letters. Short story writing was completely neglected.
Once again the three brothers were near each other during a big build-up of men in the area. Percy wrote in his diary
Sunday 11th ...they [Germans] plastered our front line with gas shells. The pungent reek of gas floated down our way, but we gave it little heed... The next moment a strong smell of gas rushed in. "Get your respirator on!" I yelled, making a grab for my own. I held my breath, but the powerful fumes got into my eyes, and the tears poured from them in streams. The tapes of my respirator were twisted up with the mouthpiece somehow, and there was I struggling to get them free. Had to open my eyes several times and endure a fresh flow of tears, and it soon became impossible to hold my breath any longer. However, just as I got a good deep breath of poisonous gas, the mouthpiece came free of the tapes and I got it into my mouth.
He was to suffer from sneezing gas "some acute pains in the nose, throat and top of the chest for some time".
It was not long before he was notified that he was accepted for a four-month Officers' Training Course (OTC) so it was back to England. Before the course he was given leave so he visited Dorothy and managed to make a rushed trip to Ireland to meet his sister-in-law, Mary. When he arrived at "Trentagh" after an exhausting journey he found that Vern was also there on leave. Percy was astonished when the next morning the maid brought him breakfast in bed! Then Mary, Vern and Percy went by Irish jaunting car (a unique horse-drawn light two-wheeled vehicle with seats along each side, facing outwards) and train to Londonderry to go shopping. Percy bought a Christmas present for Dorothy of a delicate porcelain basket, very thin, almost transparent with an opalescent glaze made in the Belleek pottery near Enniskillen, which was rumoured to be closing down*.
Dorothy was delighted with the gift. They began to call each other Perce and Dorrie. Often their walks took them to a juniper wood and he proposed by a juniper tree, later buying and paying off an engagement ring. He and Dorrie decided to marry in June 1919 with or without consent.* The Belleek basket still survives in 2011 (almost intact) and so does the pottery as a maker of exquisite articles, its specialty being baskets.
Perce then attended Pembroke College Cambridge where he was "Taken on strength of the Officers Cadet Battalion". He also took drawing lessons in the evening at his own expense. During this time he frequently visited Dorrie and continued to write almost daily.
Another winter had arrived. Another Christmas. Another New Year. It was 1918. In February Viv was given leave to attend Buckingham Palace to be invested. Percy waited at the gates to meet his brother. This time they succeeded in making contact.
In Australia it was summer. The Smythes had begun to come to terms with the loss of Bert. Ted had begun going "fairly regularly" to the City Temple, which pleased church-going members of the family. Annie went mainly to the Presbyterian church at Kogarah. She found some solace in activity, as she was a "doer" in contrast to Ted who was more introspective and analytical. They often walked to Ramsgate Beach for picnics or a swim. On the way they passed the house where the Potters lived, Scarborough Park with huge Norfolk Island pines and a creek. Or they sometimes walked to Kogarah Bay in the other direction, where a recent causeway made a short cut to Hurstville. The tram-line ended at Rocky Point, Sans Souci which was another beautiful spot to visit. From there they could now take a ferry across to Taren Point, a lovely bushy place.
When Annie got Bert's insurance money she paid off a large amount of the house mortgage. She continued to save some of the boys' allotments to her, and bank it on their behalf.
They had planted a loquat tree down near the back shed, and a fig tree, as well as nasturtiums, maiden hair and violets. The house was nearly covered in passion vines.
Ida, the only one of the Smythes to sit for the Leaving Certificate, had finished school with First Class Honours in English, an A in History, and Bs in French, Botany, Art and Needlework, but failed in Maths. She had struggled through a mild nervous breakdown. Ted took her on a trip to Tasmania, visiting his relatives whom he had not seen for many years. His sister Clara and his Aunt Isabella each had large families. Clara and her daughters Daisy a few months older than Ida, Ella and Nona ten and twelve years older, gave Ida a soft pure gold brooch and two to take home for Viola and Rita. The two older Graham boys had gone to the war and met Percy in France in 1916. Clara was finding it very difficult to manage the farm without them. Over the years the house had grown with the family until it was ten rooms. There was also a large orchard to maintain.
On Ida's return, Viola, although appreciative of the gift, was reproachful and unreconciled at not having been taken and lamented, "After all I'm the oldest of the girls."
Ida did a typing course, entered the public service and later got a job working for the Red Cross as a clerical typist. The year before, Rita aged fifteen, had left school "for home duties", and was helping in the house, while her mother was able to spend more time in the garden growing flowers. Rita then finished a Business College course and was working as a stenographer. Although she had never fully recovered from her illness, she always put on a brave front and went with her sisters to Scottish dances and other events. She began to take piano lessons, joined the Presbyterian Church choir at Kogarah and enjoyed music.
Eric was attending Fort Street Boys' High School at Petersham. The Smythes hoped for a better education for the younger boys than the older ones had had. Both boys were active in the Scouts. Gordon, the youngest, at twelve thought he would like to take up Electrical Engineering. Like Bert he had very blue eyes, a special sense of humour and plenty of charm and was always good company. Like Percy he was fond of sketching; his drawings were often humorous. His friend Nellie Potter’s mother died, also one of her older sisters leaving her husband with their little daughter, Joyce. They also came to the Ramsgate household and young Nellie kept house for them all.
They heard that another new church had been opened at Winton, the first having had a near-catastrophe with run-away bullocks, then consumed by white ants, the second having been demolished by a cyclone in 1917.
In March 1918, at very great cost, Germany launched the first major offensive since 1914, a determined attack on a forty-four mile [70km] front, having been reinforced by many divisions released from the Russian front. They used gas to silence artillery batteries and advanced under cover of the fog. This was the greatest advance of the whole war - fourteen miles [22km] in four days. It lasted a month until the advance was halted.
The Smythe brothers were now widely separated, and were for the present, away from the Front. Percy was at Cambridge. As part of his course he gave a lecture to the other students. He wrote “Gave my lecture on Wireless Telegraphy this afternoon and managed alright. The rest of the platoon had agreed among themselves to bombard me with questions at the end of the lecture and they carried it out with a vengence. Fortunately I was able to answer all the questions except one, which was rather irrelevant.”
Vern had been taken out of the lines and made staff officer at rear headquarters, considered by rank and file to be a cushy job. His Company Sergeant Major said that he had begun to take unnecessary risks. It was of course an essential job and Vern soon became staff captain and later understudy to the brigade major. Viv was in southern England on a six-month instructional job. For a month in June he was in Sutton Veny Hospital after an operation on his nose for severe hay fever. Several times in 1918 and 1919 he was to be invalided to this hospital. When Australia House was opened in August, he was in England and was invited to attend the ceremony. The main entrance of the building was crowned by the bronze figure of the sun god, with a team of horses. The figures were said to have an association with the Australian military emblem of the rising sun and with Australian mounted soldiers.
In May, having finished his Officer Training Course Percy proceeded to France, back to the 24th Battalion in Picardy where the poppies and cornflowers were again blooming in the fields. He was soon able to demonstrate his leadership ability when the Allied offensive began. Constant bombardment in the fields had destroyed the drainage systems of the Somme River, designed to keep the land from flooding. Unusually heavy rain turned the ground into a sea of mud worse than ever.
Before a major attack Percy had some free time. He was so impressed when he saw the ruins of Corbie Cathedral that he went back the next day and spent all day making sketches.Corbie Cathedral
Mont St Quentin was considered by the Germans to be just about impregnable, but the speed and success of the Australian attack surprised even the Allied Commander. Their efforts are still remembered by the French. In September Percy was awarded an MC for good and gallant work in an operation at Mont St Quentin. The advance was held up by machine-gun fire, you displayed great courage and initiative in rushing forward to the flank of the post, which you then rushed under heavy fire from artillery and machine-guns, and captured the machine-gun and three of the crew. The success of your gallant action enabled the advance to be continued.
Percy said it was not exactly like that. When he came around a corner suddenly, surprising the enemy as well as himself, he pulled out his gun quickly, confronted them and three surrendered. Many of the German soldiers were mere youths.
He wrote no more short stories but almost daily wrote letters to Dorrie who had promised to marry him the following June. Her parents still did not approve unless Percy agreed to stay in England indefinitely and Perce and Dorrie agreed to wait at least until the end of the war. At times he felt despondent that her family would put pressure on her to break the engagement. For the next six months until he got back to England, he and Dorrie wrote frequently but his mail did not always reach him promptly, causing him a great deal of anxiety that she would not keep her promise to him, in opposition to her father.
He got another promotion to lieutenant. He saw this as enabling him to earn enough to be able to afford a small cottage in Australia for himself and his fiancée and began to allot an extra 10/- a day to his mother to be banked for him.
There was a proposal to send home on leave those men who had enlisted in 1914, which would have included Vern. The war ended just over a month later. Repatriation would not be complete until September of the following year. By that time Viv had completed his instructional course, had won another medal for boxing, having kept up his training and returned to the Continent just after the armistice, helping to organise repatriation. The fighting had been virtually stationary for four years. That part of France bears scars over ninety years later.
The Smythes had always brought their children up never to argue and brawl, but to discuss problems and use reason. Good manners and consideration showed good breeding. It was ironic how proud they were of the four boys, how they had conducted themselves during the war, of their promotions and decorations, and like most people of the time did not see any contradiction. The boys’ names were on Honour Rolls at the school at Winton and in the churches at Jerilderie and Gladesville. It gave some consolation, knowing that Bert was recorded among thousands of men whose bodies could never be identified, on the Memorial Wall at Villers-Bretonneux in France, also in gold lettering on a marble slab in the GPO building in Martin Place Sydney as an employee of PMG who had lost his life during service with AIF. The family kept in touch with Bert's sweetheart, Elsie Maloney and her brother Lorrie, who were still in Jerilderie. Later Elsie took on the care of her niece and nephew whose mother had died. She loved them dearly and treated them like the children she would never have.