These pages were written by Margaret Johnston with help from her family and friends.
BULLECOURT 3rd Battalion
Herbert Andrew SMYTHE No. 1175, 3rd Battalion, 1st Infantry Brigade AIF, kept a diary from the time that he left England in 1917 for the French Battlefields, until just a few days before his death. Spelling and abbreviations are as they were written. From memory, all the entries were written in pencil, and in most cases I can assume, under very difficult conditions. Also, please make allowances for the person who had to decipher the writing and type it up. Initials usually refer to letters written orreceived.
After Bert was evacuated from Gallipoli and while at the Signalling School at Perham Downs, he applied to be accepted for Officer training. The original application was not among his letters. I believe he would have proved to be a very valuable officer. He returned to his Battalion and was sadly killed a few weeks later.
30 October 1916
No 7 camp
Lt – Col – Price
C.O. 3rd Bn A.I.F.
Regarding my recent application to you, asking for your recommendation for a commission, I am enclosing a copy of a recommendation which I have received from Capt Winter who is the Signal Officer of this Training Centre. I am quite willing Sir, to return to the Bn immediately, or to go to an O.T.C. just as you desire, should you see your way clear to recommend me I am Sir
H.Smythe Cpl (A / Sgt A Group Signal School)
This is to certify that I have known Sergt H.A. Smythe 3rd Bn (1st Training Bn) A.I.F. for some months and that he has served under me as an Assistant Instructor in Signalling.
He has always carried out his duties in a most capable & efficient manner, and I have much pleasure in recommending him as a suitable candidate for a commission.
4th Bn North Staffordshire Reg.
Signalling officer attached
A.I.F. Training Centre.
Perham Downs. No 7 Camp
Your letter has been received and your best way of getting the promotion you desire is by being with your own Battalion, as those men, who do well here, received consideration before any others, and while away from your unit you are likely to miss an opportunity which might otherwise offer. You can use this as a recommendation for entrance to an O.T.C should you have an opportunity of gaining selection.
Tuesday: (13th March 1917) Fell in to move overseas 11.30 pm Mon night & marched off shortly after 12 midnight. Left Amesbury about 2.30a.am. arriving at Folkstone about 9 am. Put up in barracks till 1.50 a then fell in marched to boat & embarked. Arrived at Boulougne at 5 pm and at our camp about 7.30 where we were put in tents & given a glorious meal of bully & biscuit.
Wednesday 14th: Left Boulougne for Etaples about 2.30 but owing to delay in departure of the train didn't arrive until 7.30 pm.
Thursday 15th: Etaples camp is a pretty big joint where quite a lot of divisions both Austn & British have their base depots & men from Eng to their units pass throu this camp to be finished off. It didn’t take them long to find me something to do for they’ve stuck me on guard. Fairly soft cop --- the Klink is a barbed wire enclosure with a sentry at each corner, so there is no great chance of any one escaping. No sign of pay yet.
Friday 16th: Learn to my disgust that I’ve to go through the “Bull ring”. Came off guard this arvo about 4.30 p.m. Got to go to the Bull ring tmw. Wrote to Mrs. M. EVS. & CB.
Saty 17th: Went to the Bullring early this morning about 3 miles, returning about 11.30. (BULL RING: British army training establishment such as those base camps at Rouen, Harfleur, Havre and Etaples. Men were posted here from the front line for refresher training, and to "inculcate the offensive spirit". The Bull Ring at Etaples was infamous for its severe discipline.)
Rifle Practice at Bull Ring, Etaples. AWM
Went out again in the afternoon at 3 & did a bit of trench routine working, getting back at 8.30 p.m. The powers that be took pity on our condition & paid us at 9 pm. Got 20 francs.
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 yards. 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. dated the day I left Blighty.
Bayonet Practice at Bull Ring, Etaples
Wednesday 21st: EM. EG. KD. Bumped into a picket job today. 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. (Elsie Maloney was Bert’s girlfriend and he often referred to her as TOO - 'the one and only') Funny how ones mail is messed about. Bill Howitt who was in the sig School at A group Hqrs turned up bright and smiling. He will probably get away about the same time as I do.
Thursday 22nd: No Bullring for me today as I’ve to go on guard this arvo. Had a lazy time of it during the day. Didn’t leave my warm & comfy couch until brecker was nearly over. Rec’d one English letter during the day – from Brumm. Was congratulated on the fact that I could not get to France for 3 months _ _ _. & here I’m in it the day it was written. Mounted guard at 5 pm. Reproved cos my brass wasn’t polished. (Contrary to AIF orders, they want the brass work 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” in the Klink & they are fairly safe with a sentry on each four corners of the compound. The blanky orderly officer didn’t come round until about 11.30 bust him but otherwise things OK. Wrote to EM and TP.
Friday 23rd: Dull day for the most part, but a little diversion introduced throu an officer 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 “Don’t be a lot of _ _ _ fools cos I’m one”. Relieved OK about 5 pm. Bed early – nowhere to go & and no passes to go there.
Saturday 24th: Bullring this morning. Blasted Company drill all the morning. The platoon officers rather shaky on their drill. Lewis gun lecture in the afternoon. Lecturing officer 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 I’ve eve r struck, no comforts of any sort. Tucker up to putty too. Stew.. Stew.. stew.. _ _ _. What’s the use of worrying? PES. (Wrote to Percy)
Sunday 25th: Been having a glorious loaf during pip emma (p.m.) so couldn’t 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 – I’m the super essence of it. Have pratted my frame in for a pass to Etaples on Tuesday night. Have to be out by 8. Guard doesn’t 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 8 pm. Which gives about 3 hours in town? I'll bet the gentlemen who made those restrictions go oftener than once in 20 days & stay away longer than three hours. Went to bed very early – only place where one can keep warm. Wrote letters N & EG. Mrs. M.KD.
Monday 26th: Mounted guard at 5 pm. Blanky orderly officer didn’t come round until 11.30 & half the men were dopey in turning out. One chap who doesn’t seem quite right in his top piece has to be brought to the C.O.
Tuesday 27th: Off guard about 5 pm. got paid during the day & as soon as we had tea Bill Howitt and I mizzled into Etaples on pass. It’s a deadly hole. Only went in to get a few things that were not procurable in the camp canteens.
Wednesday 28th: Bullring again today. Lewis gun lecture in the morning & a bit of a scheme of attack in the afternoon. Tired when I got back. Went to a picture show and saw a decent picture. Have been warned for guard on Thursday. This putting me on guard seems to have become a habit with them. Wrote to P. (brother Perce) & sent him 10 francs – he’s sure to be a bit short. It won’t come amiss even if he isn’t. Also wrote to HMC. No sign of any mail.
Thursday 29th: Have a nasty toose-ache - 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. Although it was plainly addressed to the 3rd, it has been all over the place but not the 3rd. It was
refused with thanks by Sig Engrs & the 22 Bn. plastered all over it "NOT 22nd BN" _ _ _. By Jingo no wonder ones mail doesn’t turn up when letters plainly addressed to the 3rd go to Sig Engs & the 22nd.
Friday 30th: Complimented by CO on having the smartest & best turned out guard that had ever been mounted here. Warned that I'm on draft leaving the following morning. Relieved off guard at 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 every thing fixed up to leave. Gee my pack is heavy. I'll dump something before I lump it many miles.
Sat 31st: Left early this morning. Pack too heavy to carry far. Loaded into luggage truck. Placed i/c (in charge) rations with 4 men. Went through my pack & dumped my boot polishing gear. Couldn’t dump anything else. Drank a tin of unsweetened milk. Train moved off about 8 am. 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 & cape in my pack & didn’t get a chance to get them out. Fixed up comfy for night. Raining like H. Great if we were sleeping out.
Sunday April 1st: Left Albert this morning & marched to the gas depot and 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 4.30 p.m. ‘From Albert to Ribemont about 5 miles’. Am attached to No 2 Platoon A Coy. Fixed up in comfortable billets. 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. Be a OL (On Leave) now.
The street of the station, Ribemont-sur-L'Ancre, Somme. AWM
Monday 2nd: Big inspection of the Bde this mng by the 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 socks and 7 candles & something tasty to eat. Was told by RSM that Vernie (his younger brother) had been killed, but do not place any credence on it as rumours are so unreliable. Possibly he has been wounded.
Tuesday Apl 3rd: Received 2 letters this morning – one from Vernie dated 20/3/16 & one from Brumm. Saw Paul White & he saw Vernie two days previously so he must be OK. Moved off this morning & marched to Montauban or some such place, rotten march too. Heavy pack & very sore heels. Arrived tired & 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 help generally
Wednesday 4th: Oh we had a lovely march today 12 ½ mls to Fremicourt 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 Fremicourt. 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 & 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 with a cup full of water. Changed my socks & burnt one of my boots quite hard trying to dry it. Fairly close to the line here.
Thursday 5th: Pottered round in the morning. Whilst waiting in the water queue ran across Norman Elliot. He’s in the 53rd & his mob were having a spell after a rather lively time of it. Hardly knew him. Just out of the line covered with mud and whiskers, mostly whiskers too. The day has turned lovely plenty of nice general sunshine. After dinner was warned a platoon guide so moved off with the other guides to our respective positions. A Coys possy is skirting the edge of the 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 explosive shells) around. Guided our respective mobs in near sundown. Cold frosty night & there not being enough dugouts had to sleep out. Cold feet all night.
Fremicourt 1917 AWM
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. (Eric, Elsie, Mrs. Maloney) A few more H.E.s dumped on our left by Fritz during dinner. Clarke an old hand killed this mng whilst out scouting in front. Ran into a German M.G. possy. His mate got away.
4.5 Rapid fire gun
Saturday 7th: The weather changed after dinner & it came up cold & wet. Orders to move to a position about 400 yards in front and relieve a platoon there came through about tea time. Shortly after dark took a ration party to HQ & drew Coy’s rations & mail. No mail for me worse luck. The Coy QM had got each ptns 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. Don’t blame them. Make anyone growl. That done warned for outpost. Guided to a possy about a mile out, in touch with a Tommy possy & was promised relief 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 and snow. No shelter at all. When my feet began to lose feeling I’d get up and walk to the Tommy's post, chat a while and then come back. Wind driven sleet too bitter to walk about in so couldn’t keep walking.
Saty (probably Sunday) Left outpost possy about quarter past 5, frozen, sore and amazed at not being relieved. Must have made lovely targets for any Germans about as we stumbled over white ground. Too cold and miserable to care. Nothing fired at us. It appears the reliefs couldn’t find us so they let us stay. Breakfast stone cold but enjoyed it all the same. Haven't even a possy in our trench, but Cpl Seccome & I, mostly he tho, as I was so chilled, dug out a space in the bank, lined the floor & back & got overhead cover & made it rain proof. Still raining. Possy just wide enough for two & we got covered with mud where we touched the sides, floor not long enough to lie stretched out but it shields us from the elements & we think it is Heaven. A lot of our Artillery has moved up & is now in front of us. No 2 ptn is in a sunken rd, the rest of the coy some distance in front. Cold and miserable all day. The bed of the road is a morass. Warned to prepare to move after we had tea & we then went back & carried more ammn to the MG dump.
Monday 9th: About 3.30 in the mng, all of us – the crews for 3 guns and my lot, left the dump & moved off by a long circuitous route to get into position on the left flank of the village to be taken. The 2nd Bn had to take the village & C & D coys of the 3rd were to storm the flanks. A & B of the 3rd were in reserve. As we passed down the 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 & and we’d gone ¼ mile before I remembered that I’d left my rifle behind! _ _ _. Was so loaded up with MG ammn that I never noticed its absence before, couldn’t go back for it so had to push on without it. About ½ a 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. Another qtr of a mile & we passed a coy of the 2nd lying down waiting to charge & a little further entered a deep sunken road. The guns were placed near the parapet pointing to where I thought our chaps must be & I couldn’t make it out at all & told the gunners but they were positive they were facing Fritz.
There were a lot of dugouts in the side of the road & just then Fritz heavies opened on us from the opposite side to where they reckoned Friz was. (More about dugouts later.) The H.E. began stirring us up so the Officer went on ahead to find a fire possy. Returned in a few minutes & led us across a hollow, someone shooting at us as we went, from the opposite side to where the gunners said Fritz was. The heavy gunfire increased to the heaviest I’d experienced the shells dropping all around us & quite close. We were ordered into a dugout nearby & and in it we dropped. The shells got nearer and nearer & and 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 and enter the village. I waited until a shell exploded – flaming close too - & then clambered out and ran before the next arrived. One can’t run far with heavy equipment & 2 boxes of ammn so I soon steadied into a floundering walk. Passed one of our boys outed, so I stopped and took the unfortunate chaps rifle & bayonet & then on again, feeling ever so much better now I had a weapon. Ran into a few of the 2nds who told us the village was clear of Fritz except for prisoners.
Later saw several dead and wounded Fritzs, one of the latter of whom begged me to shoot him. He had been bayoneted in the stomach & was in a horrible state. The village was absolutely wrecked from end to end & as our artillery hardly ever shelled it, Fritz must have done it himself. On being relieved by the MG officer, wended my way out of the village to rejoin my platoon. Entered the sunken road which was lined with dugouts before mentioned. Was hungry & tired, & meeting one of our chaps who was filling his face with cake, asked for some, he pointed to the 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 socks. All the dugouts along the sunken road, where we’d strolled into casually earlier in the mng, were Fritzs. If we’d been a little earlier what a reception we’d got. All loaded up as we were they’d have shot us down before we could have done anything. He must have had “the wind up” badly & bolted at the first sign of trouble. Little later made for the open & eventually found my platoon in reserves, dog tired. Went & helped construct a dugout & slept the rest of the day and night. 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. It’s surprising the number of Fritzs who have automatics.
Tuesday 10th: Easy time of it during the day, but weather rotten, snow and sleet falling heavily & making us all uncomfortable. Had a lovely job in the evening taking their tea to 3 other platoons. Didn't know where they were & had a H of a job finding one of them. Got back just in time to bolt my tea – stone cold of course & then get ready to move up to the line. Arrived in position late at night & was put on one of the posts. We are in an excavation 100 yards long + 50 wide and 5 feet deep. The side towards our chaps is lined with Fritzs dugouts & the side facing Fritz is lined with our newer ones. Things in a horrible muddle with continual rain and snow. Floundering about everywhere – mud from foot sole to breakfast time.
Wednesday 11th: No sleep at all during the night. Fritz shelling road & village off & on all day and night. Up to date 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”, 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: Wednesday’s tea of stew and tea did not arrive until 2 in the morning, & of course it was not actually hot. Slept all day only getting up for meals. Fritz shelling the road nears us & the village pretty constantly. Owing to the men not standing to smartly this afternoon everybody is up on duty tonight – 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 “Sec” & I 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. Luckily we had a rough board floor & do not have to bed down at night & always clean it out well every mng before going to bed. Splendid luck this arvo. 8 letters one from “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 - Haven't been able to post the letters I wrote some time ago.
Friday 13th: Bed shortly after brecker & slept all day except for meals. Fritz threw a lot of whizz-bangs at us just sweeping the surface also a few heavies. His balloons up all day. Several in front quite close & two on our right fairly close. This position must be a big a big salient for he seems to be in front & on both sides of us. Water issue today – first issue I’ve had since leaving billets. Still one doesn’t require very much as we get tea twice a day to drink. Just about six received word that we were to push forward 800 yards. Bit of a bustle getting ready. Had to take out a patrol to prevent the mob being surprised. Went forward a good way keeping in a hollow until we were quite close to a huge mound of earth which was apparently bristling with MG’s. Couldn’t establish communication without flank platoons so we all lay down while the Officer went of to the flank searching for them. There were two patrols out, other chaps & mine. (3rd Btn. action mentioned Volume 4, Ch. 10, Pages 361-363 Bean’s History)
Fritz, tho he had the wind up badly, couldn’t see us in spite of his almost continual flares, but still the cow kept playing a beastly MG down the valley which had a level bed for nearly 1000 yards & his bullets were too jolly thick & close to be pleasant. From where we were, if he really had discovered our presence he could have wiped us out. While my patrol were lying out in front, the rest of the mob retired, leaving us all on our own, sent one of the men back to find out what they were doing, reported back that they were retiring so I brought my mob back also. Eventually linked up with the flank platoon & dug in about 400 yards in front of the old position. With a man on patrol in front until they dug in. More men couldn’t be spared.
Saturday 14th: Our last nights supper arrived about 4 am this morning cold, but nevertheless enjoyable. We all dug in a rough line each section by itself. Fine day so far thank goodness. Re-read all my letters again. Things not too dusty. Expecting to be relieved tonight. Later. Came the proverbial G_ _ _ about being relieved. We have all to advance further & dig in. We made a further advance of about a qtr of a mile & dug in, each section in a little trench by itself & about 24 to 30 yards from the next section so it was a pretty weak thin line. Weather still fine but looks like rain. It’s too dark to see where or how we are. My section all hard at work scraping out a hole for protection tmw. Came the proverbial G_ _ _ on our tea, none arrived yet.
Sunday 15th: The ants nest properly stirred up this morning an hour or so before daybreak Fritz started a hellish bombardment, throwing a lot of iron at us & putting a barrage behind us. Our guns also added to the row. Received word that out line was broken & we were surrounded. Was sent over to No 4 Ptn – ¼ mile away – to find them and see about putting in a few intermediate posts. Was patrolling all night between the two Ptns to check any attempt to sneak through. No 4 established two posts on their left & we did the same on our right. Came back. Our men cursing like H at attempting to hold Fritz with such a thin line, but all were determined to give him a warm reception. The bombardment continued like mad, & every man stood to his post with bombs and rifles ready. Just at daybreak a line of Fritzs appeared coming towards us at about 200. Couldn’t see the sights but aligned on one by the barrel & got him. (See Bean Volume 4, Ch. 10, Page 364 - where there is a notation at the bottom of the page stating that the Btn. was said to have missed out on breakfast.)
The others too plugged into them & a Lewis gun on our left dropped 40 odd. They didn’t reply to our fire – just faded off. It appears that they were trying to get round to the right flank to Mr. Taylor’s No 1 Ptn & not knowing we were there ran right into us. (See Bean Volume 4, Ch. 10, Page 367) The bombardment died down after daylight; or rather the barrage did, & settled into a continuous, methodical bombardment of our position. The only thing that saved us was the softness of the ground. I gave up counting the number of big HE’s which landed very close to us without exploding. The day was horribly wet & we had no protection. 3 of us in a little section with only two w.p. (waterproof sheets). Couldn’t stand up without getting sniped. We were cold & miserable. Breakfast which came up before daylight was of course cold. Everything was muddy. Couldn’t get our usual sleep owing to the rain & consequently were tired and sleepy when daylight at last left us & and we had to carry on. Was on patrol work again all night. The rumour that our line was broken was wrong. Fritz strongly attacked on our left but came the proverbial G.
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 & and then bring the w p sheet over it & so tho we couldn’t get much sleep, we were able to keep dry - at least we prevented ourselves getting any wetter our overcoats already being soaking wet and very heavy. Fritz did some accurate shooting on our position during the 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 11 pm 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 I’ll 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 and everywhere pitted with holes, rocks, logs etc which we were unable to see. (See Bean Volume 4, Ch. 10, Page 361 and Laffin’s Map Page 115) 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 and 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 and others moved to the right to rest on the side & all fell into a deep ditch which we couldn’t 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 & wouldn’t get up. He was done right in. Just lay on his back in the mud and didn’t care what happened. Stopped back with him. After he’d rested a while we both pushed on, but it was pitch dark. We had no idea where the others were, & 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. Billeted in a comfy place & such things go Fritz shells this place off & on, so we had to buzz off & quarter ourselves in a sunken road just out of the town. A mate and I got into a tiny brick room in the outskirts of the village. Quite dry which is the chief thing; Fritz shelled the town pretty heavily for a while. Two or three casualties.
Wednesday 18th: On guard today but a soft cop writing letters most of the time. Rumoured that the building that Bn Hq 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 19th: Things fairly quite. Having an easy time. Had to stand to prepare to move this arvo but nothing came of it.
Friday 20th: Informed that we are going into the line tomorrow for a few days to relieve the 4th. Wrote to Mrs. M. KD. C & D McP. E & N G. L.A.F. Fell in after dark to do digging fatigue. Two of our pns marched out about 3000 yds & dug trenches already marked out by the Engrs. Dug until 1.30 a.m. & then came back. Reported that our chaps are using gas shortly.
Saturday 21st: Slept till near dinner & also nearly all the afternoon. Haven’t been able to get the letters I wrote censored yet. Rec’d two letters today, one from Charlie, & Ernie. Moving up the line sometime tonight for a few days.
Wednesday 24th: Four quiet days in the line with no excitement & plenty of work. The cookers do not like Fritz & we have to go jolly nearly 2 miles for our rations. Relieved late at night by the Y & L Infnty & marched to the chateau in the woods mentioned earlier where we put up for the night.
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. Marched 8 or 9 Ks & 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 & go in & out the line like rabbits going into & out of their burrows why the devil don’t they keep us handy instead of marching us about so much. No pay yet but rec’d a reg letter from Viv with money for Cook but as cannot do anything with it yet am drawing my pay on it. Troops mustered writing letters . . . .
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So Bert’s entries in his diary finished and he was killed a few days later.
He wrote a letter dated the day before he died (located June 2008) to a Mrs. Morgan (a friend of the boys in England – he called her Mumsie) requesting her to open and read any letters from his mother and girlfriend Elsie. On 3rd May, Bert’s 3rd Battalion moved up and relieved the 24th Battalion (2nd Battle of Bullecourt) and he was killed that morning.
Bert had written a short letter to Perce on 28-3-17 from Etaples and another written on 1-5-17 to Vern was discovered in January 2010. Vern would have learned of Bert’s death before he received this and as he had not seen him since Gallipoli, would possibly have been very distressed at missing him while he was in England. These letters are very precious to the family.
* * *
Bert wrote to many friends while he was away and one recipient of his mail was a Mrs. Lily Fox (and her family). She is mentioned in some of his other letters. He boarded with the family, when he was working in Sydney, before the Smythes moved to Gladesville.
The Fox Home 'Trevallyn' renamed 'Gwandalan'.
This building has been demolished and a block of
Harbert Hall occupy the area.
Jean became intrigued and contacted the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for more details about this "stranger" and visited the Australian War Memorial to look at his service documents. She wanted to share what she had with his relations, so advertised in the Society of Australian Genealogists “Descent Journal”, hoping she would get some response.
We are extremely grateful to have received a copy of this precious letter and although it contained most of the details that were already documented from Bert’s letters and the report published in the newspapers, there were some additional interesting items and a more descriptive writing about others.
It is interesting to note that the letter had been treasured for so long by people that the Smythes (of my generation) only knew about from correspondence. Bert became very close to their family, much more so than just a boarder or lodger. This was no surprise to us.
* * *
A distant cousin on the Curry (maternal) side of the family, Julius Ordo Clarke was also killed and his brother Hercules died the next day from wounds in a British Hospital that were received in the same battle. Both were from the 19th Bn. The names of Bert and Julius are commemorated on the walls at Villers Brettoneaux and Hercules was buried in Grevillers British Cemetery.
Hercules Clarke Julius Clarke
Another brother, William Reginald Quintus Clarke, 2nd Battalion was also probably fighting in the 2nd Battle of Bullecourt around those dates.
* * *
Elsie with her twin brother Lorrie
I only know about Bert from his sisters and brothers and get a lump in my throat, every time I read this diary. He was described to me as a handsome, fun loving person with a delightful sense of humour, a great tease and had pet names for most of his siblings. I wish I had been given the chance to know him.
His girlfriend, Elsie Maloney never married and devoted her life to caring for the children of one of her brothers. She kept in touch with the Smythe family over the years.
The small figure in dark blue is the approximate place where Bert was reported to be initially buried. It is on the right hand side of the Bullecourt Petite Cross Memorial towards Riencourt-les-Cagnicourt. The Cross is between the two tall trees in the background. A tour guide advised me that about three decades ago about 30 bodies had been removed from that area and reburied in the H.A.C. (Honourable Artillery Company) Cemetery (Ecoust St. Mein)
Larger copy of the map shown in photograph above. The red X marks the approximate position of Bert's grave on the battlefield.
My Uncle Bert was killed by a whizz bang (a 77mm German shell) fired from a battery near Hendecourt about 1 km. away). His brother Percy wrote in his diary dated 12 June 1917 "Short letter from Captain White, of 3rd. Bn. He says he saw Bert after he was killed, a whizz bang having burst right on top of him. They tried to get what things he had in his pockets, but could not do so. Cpn. White and Bert were old friends, having both been in the same section at Mena. I suppose it was foolish of me, but I had still hoped that there might have been some mistake. But this letter now removes all shadow of doubt."
In 2007, Maricourt Community Cemetery (near Maricourt Village in Picardy/Picardie) was visited and there was no sign of soldiers’ graves there. My son and I were very curious about some markings that looked like grave spaces on the large lawn at the back and pictures were taken. Maricourt Wood itself covers a large area and “in the vicinity of” is very vague. I hoped that sometime in the future the mystery of where the remains of his body are buried can be solved.
Maricourt Wood in Picardy/Picardie on the right of map
On the back of a card that was located in April 2008, (sent home by Viv, after his letter about the battle – see Chapter 7) was the following additional information:
OG2. Hindenburg Line E. of Bullecourt. Buried in trench 3rd bay to left of dugout to L of Sap leading to OG1 next to T.M. (Trench Mortar) position. Map reference. France 51B SW 1/20,000
U23C 4 ¼. 2 ½.
Clyde (Viv’s son) advised me that his father told him that Bert died in the 2nd German trench between 3 a.m. – 3.45 a.m.
When I was able to obtain a copy of Bert’s service documents from the National Archives of Australia, I noted at the end of the movements (on the typewritten copy) of AFB 103 written in Red Ink were the words “Buried in the vicinity of Maricourt Wood”. This, after the data above, raised a query and it was the first time this information was known. At the time of writing about this previously, the co-ordinate details in Viv’s card could not be verified, until further investigation could be carried out by the Army History Unit. I determined to try to find out as much as I could to satisfy myself that all his history was as exact as I could make it.
I spent over two and a half years researching and sending many emails with details that I had found to the Unit in Canberra with little result. I had located the names of 65 men in the 3rd Battalion, who were killed in the 2nd Battle of Bullecourt between 3rd and 7th of May. Of those, 62 (including Bert) had the same information written on the same form on their papers. I also researched many documents of men in other battalions killed over that period and NONE had that notation. This seemed unusual to me and a real mystery as to why this group, killed over those days were all possibly sent there.
A contact in France, advised me early in 2010 that he had located another Maricourt Wood a few km from Bullecourt in Pas de Calais and this is the likely place where he was reburied. It is much closer to the battlefield.
Eventually, I contacted the C.W.G.C. in England and received some interesting information that I passed on to the Unit in Canberra but I received a very unsatisfactory final email from that unit, after that very long waiting period. I was still not willing to accept this and was given the name of an officer from C.W.G.C. in the A.C.T. who agreed to look into all my information and queries.
After a few weeks, I was contacted with answers to my questions and explanations and I so was grateful that this officer had really taken the time to assess all the data that I had sent. Of course, I was very disappointed with the result. At this time all leads have been examined and no further information is available. However, at last I felt that someone had taken the time and effort to examine my research seriously.
I was advised that there could be valuable information in British Battalion reports in Archives in Kew, England, as the British took over after the 3rd Battalion pulled out. These records would have to be manually searched, as they are not digitised. So, for now, I will accept that these 62 men were possibly reburied “in the vicinity of Maricourt Wood” not far from Bulllecourt but the exact place of burial is not known and would probably have been obliterated in later battles. Sometime in the future, something might be found to warrant further investigation.
The 2nd Maricourt Wood located in Pas de Calais.
Tim Whitford, a contact in FFFAIF, offered to take a laminated copy of my Uncle's photograph and locate it in that wood when he was visiting France for the Dedication of the Fromelles Memorial at Pheasant Wood. He kindly had it framed and with his wife and daughter, placed the picture against a post in the wood and scattered poppies around it. He sent photographs to me and it is hard to put into words how grateful the Smythe family is for his work on our behalf.
The ivy in the photo disguises the depth and dimensions but it is very large. If indeed Bert and the other sixty-one men were reburied in the vicinity of that Maricourt Wood, it is likely that there is absolutely no trace of them now. Any graves that were there were destroyed many times over, before the recovery teams ever arrived.
Most of the wording in the paragraphs below was provided by Tim Whitford in his emails to me.
The wood was found with some difficulty and it appears to have been virtually untouched since the war. The ground is covered by a century of leaf-litter and a light cover of forest ivy. It is a deeply shaded, cool place and seems to be rarely visited except by wood-cutters.
It is a beautiful place, where it would be a nice to spend an eternity. Birds sing there and the wind is cooling and soft. It's softly sloping down toward the old frontline and that means it doesn't get the strong sun or wind up the valley.
Its closeness to the 1918 front line is very evident. Under the canopy of re-grown trees, the ground is a virtual moonscape of shell craters and smaller holes, hundreds of them. Some of them are big enough for a person about six feet tall to disappear below ground level. The result is that the ground there had been turned over many times over during the war.
Early in October 2010, a contact in France drove my son, grand-daughter and me to a memorial placed by the family of a missing British soldier near to where they believed he had been killed during W.W.I. Whilst this was interesting in its own right, I suddenly realised that the picture described above was actually now directly in front of me (minus frame), partly hidden by groundcover in front of this memorial and not where I believed it to be i.e. inside Maricourt Wood as described by Tim.
Though I could not immediately understand why it was here and not in the wood, I remained silent and then we proceeded into Maricourt Wood nearby, to find the site where Tim had originally placed the picture. The poppy petals, the frame (broken in two) and the unbroken glass were still there in the old shell hole though it became obvious that there had been considerable water in the shell hole in the interim period between Tim's placement and the present time.
It became clear to me that because of what had befallen the photo and frame, most likely due to the very heavy rain that some unknown, kindly person had moved the picture to its present position. This person probably did not understand why this picture was a shell hole in the middle of a wood. We had been advised that about a week previously, there had been a period of very heavy rain and I believe that the inundation in the shell hole made the picture frame disintegrate, due to the immersion. The photograph is still "in the vicinity of Maricourt Wood" as described in Bert's Service Documents and I hope now that this photo may continue to lie undisturbed.
In 2010, a very kind English lady whom I met briefly at Varlet Farm in Belgium in 2010, offered to go to the Archives in Kew and conduct some research for me. My son and I would only have spoken to her for about 20 minutes there but later, when she read the pages on the Smythe Family Site, she emailed me and it went from there.
She became a ‘kindred spirit’ she is in the search for data on our War History and I am so very grateful to her, even if there are no answers and perhaps even more questions. She has gone “Above and Beyond” to assist with my queries. The amount of time and effort and travel that she has put into this because she wanted to help is very much appreciated and if I was awarding medals, she would be first on the list.
So far, she has spent untold hours at the Archives, where she has contacts and has sent me many long emails, copies of trench maps and Official War Diary pages on a regular basis until late in 2011. Initially, she was of the opinion that it was possible that the 3rd Battalion soldiers KIA were buried by men of that Battalion, because the circumstances were unusual, as I had thought.
However, this opinion was not shared by those with whom I have previously been in contact trying to get answers. I had asked her to finish this work, when she felt that she could do no more but she continued. Further research ruled out our ideas about the 3rd Battalion and it is possible that any burials took place about 17th May by the 11th Battalion.
She continued with this daunting effort until the end of 2011, when she was involved in a very serious car accident and is still recovering and needing a further operation. She hopes at sometime in the future to return to her research. However, I totally understand that she may not be able to do so but my appreciation for her efforts is hard to put into words. (December 2012)
December 2013: I was very surprised to receive the following information from this dedicated researcher into “What Happened to Bert?” With this report were copies of many maps and confidential reports from the 3rd Battalion and the 1st Division. How she was able to do all this with her many operations and other problems, I have no idea. There was so much work and time put into what she sent to me. The mystery of where Bert is resting continues:
What Happened to Bert?
Corporal Herbert Andrew SMYTHE 1178 3rd Battalion AIF
The CWGC states that Bert died on the 3rd May 1917 and is commemorated on the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial. However, on the back of a card sent home by his brother Viv giving his place of death, is the date of the 5th May 1917. The date is in a different coloured ink and has probably been added at a later date. (I had not noticed this.) So which is the correct date?
Looking at the 3rd Battalion War Diary it shows that Bert’s unit did not go up into the line until the night of the 4th/5th May. The 3rd Battalion were to relieve the 6th Brigade in OG2 at U.23.C.85.05 to U23.C.00.35. Relief was complete at 0400 on the 4th. Heavy bombing then followed. The times are not quite right but it would seem that Bert died either 04.30 hours on 4tj May or after 01.00 on the 6th. The 2nd Battalion then relieved the 3rd Battalion by 20.00 6th May.
On 7th May the 9th Battalion moved into their positions on the road and the 3rd Battalion moved back to occupy the right sector of the Vaulx defences (see A1 map marked in purple). They stayed in these positions until 9th May when they were relieved by the 29th Australian Battalion.
If you read the paragraph titled “Co-operation of artillery and infantry, it seems possible that of the 4 dead Bert could have been one of them although we do not know how much shelling took place.
There were many wounded in the trenches and carrying parties were entitled to carrying them back. No mention of the dead.
Bert’s unit moved out of the front and rested in Reincourt les Bapaume before moving onto Bazentin and then Buires. I do not believe that they moved down to Reincourt via Maricourt Wood but his unit was so close in those days following the battle. However, we know that Bert’s brother visited a couple of days after Bert went into battle which means they did not bring his body out or he would have been told.
What is interesting is the account of number of men in the report page 7 which states that between 2 April and 9th May 1917 there were 8 men missing! Captain TYSON who died on 3 may was buried at Vaulx Vraucort.
8th Australian Infantry Brigade were, until 16 May, positioned on the road behind Bois de Maricourt (War Diary actually says Bois de Maricourt). No mention of dead or burials.
At this time, the 2nd Gordon Highlanders were in the line at Bullecourt and resting at Mory between 10th May and the end of August when they moved to Flanders. Although they made mention of repairing trenches it is not known which trenches. There is no mention of finding bodies or of burial parties.
Scroll From British Government Sympathy from King George
In Loving Memory of Herbert Andrew Smythe 1890-1917
Artwork by brother Percy as a tribute to Bert.
The Memorial Wall at Villers Brettoneaux
The Memorial Wall in the Australian War Memorial Canberra
Smythe boys names in Jerilderie Public School and Presbyterian Church
Plaque in the G.P.O Sydney and close up of Bert’s name.
This is a picture of a wooden sign that is on the wall above the book and is opposite to the Roll of Honor Board at the General Post Office Building in Martin Place in Sydney.
The writing at the bottom states: This book is in memory of the officers of the Postmaster Generals Department who died in the cause of freedom.
This facsimile* has been created to preserve the original item. The original volume is now in storage at Australia Post headquarters in Victoria. To protect the volume and its inscription from further deterioration and to insure its survival into the future.
*Facsimile produced by Conservation Access, State Library of New South Wales, February 2000.
* * *
After my son and I returned from the battlefields in 2007, we tried for over 2 and a half years to determine the burial place of the sixty two 3rd Battalion A.I.F. soldiers. Despite our best efforts, we had little success. We have found out some more information since then and decided that until some more evidence becomes available, we would seek permission from Bullecourt to have a bronze plaque made and placed on La Petite Croix in memory of Bert.
I contacted the former Mayor of Bullecourt and owner of the widely known Bullecourt War Museum, Monsieur Jean Letaille O.A.M, whom we had the pleasure of meeting in 2007 and have remained in contact with since then. We sought permission for the placement of our plaque and were advised by a close and mutual friend of Jean's that he was very touched by our request and was only too happy for this happen. He was concerned that it had been many years since any previous plaques had been placed there.
From his perspective, he felt that interest was waning as to the sacrifices of soldiers and their families of those whom had fought and for far too many, who died here during W.W.I. Stephen and I designed the plaque and after seeking permission from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to use the rising sun badge on it, we ordered it from a firm in Newcastle NSW, to make it for the family and more importantly - Bert. We so dearly wanted it to be in France before we arrived there in October 2010 and when it was completed, it was immediately mailed to Jean.
It arrived at Jean's address only a few weeks before our arrival in France and we were overjoyed to see it already installed, as we had requested. We were advised that there had been some difficulty in attaching it without damaging the original stone of La Petite Croix, so a new stone was prepared by a neighbour and stone mason friend of Jean's and this new placement stone was erected next to the memorial. We were happy with this arrangement and are very grateful to Jean and other people from the Bulllecourt area, who were responsible for this work. Bert's plaque is the nearest one to the original memorial. There are two other plaques there now and room for more.
In fact, the stone mason who had completed this work ensured that he was there to meet us and photograph the moment when we viewed the plaque on the memorial for the first time. I might add that we were also very happy to meet and be able to thank those who had assisted in its placement.
Plaque on New Stone 2010 White Cross near Steps 2012
La Petite Croix, Bullecourt, Map
Bert, like many soldiers, has no known grave, however it is with great pride and satisfaction that we have been able to give the members of the Smythe family a special place for them to pay their respects and remember his sacrifice; and indeed the sacrifice of all the soldiers who died on this battlefield.
Cpl. Herbert Andrew (Bert) SMYTHE will never be forgotten
Australian War Memorial Last Post ceremony 11 May 2016
This photo of Bert was one of those shown on the Australian War Memorial at Villers Bretonneux, France at the Dawn Service in 2017.
The Australian War Memorial displays the names of soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice.