The First A.I.F.
Citations & Awards
Life in the Trenches
Bullecourt - Bert’s death
Stories from the Front
More Stories from the Front
Extracts from C.E.W. Bean
Extracts from H.R. Williams
"Red & White Diamond"
Capt. V.E. Smythe notes
Royal Australian Navy
Family who served our country
Letters, cards, papers
Conclusion - Post War
The Next Generations
These pages were written by Margaret Johnston with help from her family and friends.
Chapter 5: POZIERES - 3rd Bn. PERCE’S LETTER
LETTER FROM PERCE SMYTHE THAT WAS PUBLISHED IN THE JERILDERIE HERALD AND URANA ADVERTISER – the first part on Friday, March 30th 1917.
THE BATTLE OF POZIERES
FORMER JERILDERIE BOY’S EXPERIENCES
The following letter was written from France by an old Jerilderie boy in the person of Private Percy Smythe to his parents who now reside in Sydney. The writer is one of four brothers at the front.
Well, we have been through the battle, and you will have read all about it long before you get this. We beat Fritz, beat him easy, he would not stand up and fight like a man, but fled before us, and then turned and tore us to pieces with his artillery. Nearly all my mates are gone. Mrs. Morgan’s son Percy is amongst the fallen. He was buried to the neck, and while someone was digging him out another shell came and blew his head off. Do you remember Sgt. Woods of the 7th Refcts, who used to do fancy jumping? He was killed, so was Eric Connelly, who was my dug-out mate on the Peninsula. A and B Companies lost all their officers. Howie, who was our Sgt. Major at Liverpool, is now the O.C. of A Company, and Tyson is the O.C. of B. He and I went through Hell together. A week ago I was one of a machine gun crew of nine men and now I 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. The machine gunners and A and B Companies got in a rare mix up. 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 till we should be required in the firing line.
Went to sleep in a bit of a hole which was supposed to be a dug-out and awoke later to find myself buried to the armpits. A shell had blown my dug-out 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 dugout 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 putties, 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 bombarded the village of Pozieres where our front line was, and he was using some big shells too, sometimes, and we would see great branches of trees go hurling skywards. On Monday afternoon I was told off with a couple of other chaps to reinforce the guns in the firing line, that night the bombardment became more intense, and it was no fun I can tell you.
A and B companies relieved C and D, and one after another, I began to hear of my old mates going. There were two pathetic messages going up and down the trench all night:- “Stretcher bearers on the right,” – the word would go from mouth to mouth. The other message was even more touching:– “B shovels wanted on the left, more shovels on the left” and so on. A man came staggering along the parapet calling for the O.C. He collapsed exhausted and struggled to his feet, only to fall again. Two of us helped him down into the trench and with choking words he gasped, in grim exaggeration “There’s a battalion buried on the left”.
During that night the remaining three of my gun crew were either blown up or buried. I stood the nerve 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 too 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.
Was sent back to second line trench to fetch up the last of the reserve gunners and while there met a company of ---- making a charge on us. They had lost their way and arriving at the trench I could hear some of them saying, “Is this them? Are these the Germans?” We didn’t half roar on them either! It was a relief to us when daylight came, especially as we were to be relieved in the morning. A Co. 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 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 sometime 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 cloud 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.
Conclusion of this letter appeared in the next issue of the newspaper 6 April, 1917
The following is the continuation of the letter written from France by Private Percy Smythe, an old Jerilderie boy, whose parents now reside in Sydney. The first part of this letter appeared in our last issue:-
Out in front the same storm of shells raged, Tyson left the trench at this time, and together we ran forward through the heaps of smashed bricks and splintered timber which had once been Pozieres. Found some more of the gunners and stowed ourselves in shell craters, but place was untenable so we decided to try and get to the 8th Battalion who were somewhere in front on the right, having crept out at night and established themselves in shell holes, in order to give Fritz a surprise when he should counter attack. However we were unable to locate them, so made over to the left to get away from the shelled locality, on the edge of where the village had been, there were the remnants of a hedge and beyond that open fields, where no shells were falling, we got out into the fields and made for a 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 or other had been silent all the morning, at last opened out and to our exasperation began landing shells all round us, it was very discouraging, the mistake, however, must have been reported by our aeroplanes, for after a while they left us in peace, save for an occasional visitor from Fritz.
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 the next day the battalion was withdrawn from the trenches and we came right out to beyond Albert. There were three men whom I admired specially for their bravery during the trying period when we were shelled out, they were no braver really than the others, but they kept so cool and calm through it all. One was our C.O. Colonel Price, who though I have said hard things about his treatment of his men, will live in my memory as a hero, he was the only man I saw smile during that awful bombardment, he stayed in the trench until everybody else had gone out in front, and when at last we took a refuge in the wood, he took his handful of men, less than a dozen of them digging a trench there to prepare a line of defence until the 6th Battalion came up and reinforced us, in the end though the Germans practically obliterated our firing line trench, we finished up with another newly made trench farther advanced though a little to the left. The other two men were Lieut. Buckley, our scout officer, who seemed to go through it all without flinching, and Cpl. Jagow our M.G. corporal, who though his ready wit and pleasant smile had vanished, yet kept quite cool and acted deliberately, and stuck to his gun and his men until he was killed later in the day.
The English papers are giving a rather incorrect version of the battle of Pozieres, making out that it was only after terrible fierce hand to hand fighting that the village was taken. All the men I have spoken to who were the charge said it was a walk over for them, Fritz making no attempt to put up a strong resistance. On Sunday morning the charge took place. Monday morning they began worrying us with artillery and on Tuesday morning they gave us Hell. During the whole of the action the majority of us never fired a single shot, or saw a German, save those who were taken prisoner. English war correspondents, speaking of the bombardment on the Monday say it was equal to anything seen at Verdun.
His experiences in this battle led Perce to write a poem about it some time later. This is included here with the permission of his daughter Betty. She believes that he would be pleased that it could be read by so many people, as computers and the World Wide Web would have been beyond his comprehension. In his personal diary he mentions many of the men by name and how and where some of them were killed. This information would be of great interest to researchers.
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 Pozieres.
The 1st Division Memorial on the site of the old “K” trench and the now peaceful “Killing Fields of Pozieres”. Thiepval Memorial is on the distant horizon.
The following is an excerpt from a copy of part of a British Newspaper. The copy that I have does not show the name of the paper or the date. It was written by a wounded British officer, home from Pozieres.
I don't know that we are allowed to speak much about the manner in which we assaulted Pozieres. The Anzacs bore the brunt of the gruelling, but we also had a fair share in this terrifying battle. We were always in line with the Australians, who, without offence, seemed to be like lions at large.
Great fellows, these Anzacs! Their example spurred us on at every turn, even in the face of the most deadly machine-gun fire, which the enemy poured on us from concealed positions.
(Later in the article) It was a sight to stir the blood of the people at home to see the Anzacs and Londoners stand up to the Kaiser's elite regiments.