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 7: LETTERS HOME
Letters to Vern at Gallipoli
Eric aged eleven and Gordon aged nine (younger brothers) had sent a photo of themselves in their Scouts uniforms.
Dear Vern, Glad to hear that you are recommended for a captaincy. Mind when you come back you’ll have to tell me how you got the MC. In the next letter tell us how many Turks you killed. You’ll be killing Germans soon. You’ll know our frontpiece. With best love from Eric.
Dear Vern, Have you made an end to any Turks yet? Do you chase them with a dead cat or with a gun and bayonet? I don’t care what you chase them with as long as you kill them. From Gordon.
Viv’s letter to his wife
The following is part of a letter written by Viv to his wife Clytie dated 3 July 1916.
We are still hanging about the old address but for a short time are out of reach of all except the longest range guns of the enemy. The Push has started in the South and also we hear in the north. Soon we may be into it here. There is every prospect of driving the Huns back all along the line when we are all in and once we get them properly going will keep them at it. It seems strangely quiet her after a spell in the trenches, where there was a raid on our front every night with its attendant bombardment and retaliation.
The Germans didn’t cause us many casualties with their shells compared with the number fired but it is very trying on the nerves of the men who have to sit still and take it all without the power of effective reply. Well anyway, it will make us all appreciate home when we get back, and I, for one will require a great deal of shifting to make me leave it again. My mail is still arriving very irregularly. It is almost a month since I have had a letter from anyone.
It is hard to imagine how young men can stay at home. Do they know that there’s a war on? In France here one never sees a man married or single but he is in uniform. Every family has lost some of its members and some, all their men folk. One thinks of what France is doing and compares it with our own effort. Australia has no reason to be proud of the result.
One thing the men who can but won’t, can be assured of is the hearty contempt of the real men in the trenches when they read of the recruiting results. When they see it in the illustrated papers the crowds of apparently fit men still in mufti. What will happen when this two hundred odd thousand return home, after their long and intimate acquaintance with pain and death?
I wonder whether the crowds of shirkers will welcome them and I wonder what their response their welcome will get.
I haven’t heard from Bert or Vernie for quite a long while now and don’t know whether they are in France or not. In another few months I’ll be cabling the date of my return etc. Viv
A letter to the boys' mother
The following letter sent to Annie Smythe, the mother of Bert, Viv, Percy and Vern by an acquaintance – dated 10 August 1916 – that gives some insight into thoughts of civilians at home, at that time.
Dear Mrs. Smythe,
Happiest of mortals. How proud you must be of your sons’ records. If my mother could point to her boys and say this one is a DCM and this one won his commission on the field there would be no holding her. And how I envy these! I had ideas of going to the front once but since my illness I don’t seem to have the nerve to want to go. I suppose like many other cold footers, I will have to rest on the reflected glory from the fact that I have two brothers there. I was very glad indeed to hear that your sons had progressed so far and it is my wish that they may yet go farther. For the fame that they have won and for the mother they’ve got, may they go unscathed through this war and live long enough to enjoy the pleasure they will have earned.
Another letter from Viv to Clytie - 23rd September 1916
Since arriving here, we have been resting and have not yet been in the trenches, which are, I believe, in rather a battered condition, not having properly recovered from the third battle of Y- (Ypres) Was also 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, an Xmas box of a pocket wallet containing photos of both families, and I can promise you, it will give as much pleasure as anything bar being at home with you again.
The weather has been very cold and wet, but today is gloriously fine and so comes out our friend the Taube. We know he is about because we hear the anti-aircraft guns (“Archies”) and see the white puffs of the shells mottling the sky. Those who have strong sight can pick out the tiny speck that all the commotion is about, flying so high that, with the slight haze the heat has brought forth, any large objects below must be indistinguishable. Perhaps they are merely for “moral effect” to hearten their troops who must be disappointed to see so many of our machines flying so low while theirs hardly ever venture out. If so, the height they keep is inexplicable, and is regulated by the range of our “Archies”. The radius of the action of the Taubes is governed by the time it requires for one of our machines to reach their height. They take no chances. Our visit to the lines has been postponed, and disquietening rumours are afloat concerning an early revisit to the scene of our late activities. None of us are hankering after more of “that”.
Just had a message from Ernie Graham (Viv's cousin). He is in the 52nd, and I believe is within walking distance. He met one of our sigs. and enquired after me and sent a message that he was O.K. Believe he has a stripe and is in transport. If he has any sense he’ll stay there too.
(Afternoon) - Ernie has just been over to see me (8 July) and is camped within a few miles. He is looking well, but occasionally has trouble with his leg. Alfie (his younger brother Alfred) is with him, but could not come over to-day. “A” Company played the Transport cricket to-day, and got a hiding by six wickets but our boys won’t be satisfied with that, and if the weather holds up, there’ll be some keen contests. All our lads are keen on any sort of sport, and I think that it’s better for them to be playing than working until they get their dash back again. I sympathise with your feelings in regard to the “Stay-at-homes”. Stan, of course, has bad eyes, but even so could do some base work and release a fit man, as for the rest -- Well --
The papers are, or were full of the doings of the Australians at Pozieres and thereabouts. In the second stunt, many units went in under half strength, consequently the usual system of frequent reliefs for the front line was impossible, and the line became dangerously thin in places.
You may have read the story of Mouquet Farm and how it was won and lost. If the supporting, flanking, or even attacking units had been full strength, the gap in front would not have occurred, or would have been immediately filled and so the situation would have been saved. The wounded are being rushed back in indecent haste as soon as their wounds have closed. The few left in the line have usually to do, or attempt to do, the work of a full unit - so they are worked to a stand-still, and one finds it impossible to obtain any rest for them. In a couple of days they are useless for offensive purposes, although they are still as game as ever. This is, unfortunately, the reason why our operations were not as fully successful as the courage and spirit of the men deserved, and is also the direct cause of a great many casualties.
Two or more attempts at a position are always more costly in life than one successful attempt would be. The only reason why more than one attempt was necessary was not that we had to use tired men on almost every occasion, and not enough of them even had they been fresh.
Our base depot is empty, and we are still waiting for men we should have had a month ago! Where are they? Still walking the streets! You see them every time you go to town. How many of us will be left by the time they step in to give us a hand. I wonder?
By Lt.-General Sir W. R. Birdwood, K.C.S.I., K.C.M.G., C.B., C.I.E., D.S.O.
Commanding 1st ANZAC CORPS
HEADQUARTERS 10th MAY, 1917
The following telegram has been received by the 5th Army commander from
The field Commander in chief:-
"My warm congratulations to General Birdwood and 1st Anzac Corps for the fine work they have done and are doing. The capture of the HINDENBURG LINE East of Bullecourt and the gallant manner in which it has been held by the 2nd Australian Division and the troops associated with it under General SMYTH'S command, against such constant and desperate efforts to retake it, will rank high among the great deeds of war, and are helping very appreciably in wearing out the enemy. The fine initiative shown by all Commanders down to the lowest is admirable.."
J. G. McCONAGHY, Major D.A.A.G. 1st ANZAC
Letter from Viv to his father dated 8th May 1917
This is a letter to Ted Smythe. I have paragraphed it for easier reading. I believe he did not do this because of the amount of paper he had available. This describes the 2nd Battle of Bullecourt and it was during this battle that Bert and two of his second cousins were killed in action. When he wrote this, he was not aware that his brother had been killed.
Dear Dad, The stunt has “been and went” as we used to say and still I am whole and undamaged. It was the stiffest fight my battalion has had yet and our own losses were proportionate but our men were splendid. We went into No-Man’s Land in single file and formed up in a line 500 (? yards) from the Bosche Line. Fritzy expected us and showed it by numerous flares, the intermittent chatter of his machine guns as they searched for us and by two search-lights which played over the ground every now and again.
As we were in the lead we had to be out some little time to allow the rest to form up also, but this part of the operation went on smoothly and except for a little shelling without hindrance. 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 into 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, firing bayonets as we went. No one hurried as there was plenty of time before that deadly hail was shifted back behind the first line trench, our objective. We overtook the barrage near the wire, but within a few seconds it shifted on and was now concentrated on the famous Hindenburg line, a hundred yards ahead.
Before the slowly advancing waves had been seen by the defenders and a continuous crackle of machine gun bullets whipped and 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. As soon as the trench was cleared up we pushed along both flanks to connect up with or assist the people attacking on either side. We soon found that except for a certain distance to the left where part of a battalion had got in, we were the only part of the attack and in a few minutes bombing operations were in full swing on both sides. Meanwhile the waves had passed through and soon the success signal was seen from the second line. Following the slowly advancing barrage, the last wave of our battalion steadily advanced and at the scheduled time signalled its occupation of our furtherest objective. So we were completely successful while on our right and left partial success only resulted.
On our right the attack was twice renewed but each time it wilted and failed at the wire. The light had increased as daybreak approached and as the barrage had gone on advancing the Boche machine guns and automatic rifles were undisturbed, except on the extreme end of their defence where our bombers were at work. However, the attack had left us numerically weak for the length of line we held and we could do little more than hold our own. As the day advanced and it was seen that there was no chance of bringing the line up level with our furtherest advance, we had to withdraw and be content with holding both lines of trenches. This we did, bombing almost continuously and holding off his desperate efforts to nip us off. 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 and then to reserve and are now on our way out for a spell (we hope). Bert was OK the day after we were relieved, as I heard from the Q.M.S. 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 by very high up. The C.O. will probably get, as he deserves, both promotion and decoration out of it. Various other honours will be flying about too and not a few rises will take place. Well I must close this scrawl now. Hoping that the account has not been too meagre – but we must respect the censor. How are all at home and how are the siblings generally. I am in the best to 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 its necessary here or one would go mad. Goodnight and good luck to you all. Viv.
After Bert's death
From France on 14 May, 1917 Viv wrote to his brother
Dear Percy, I rode over to look Bert up the day before yesterday and was informed when I found his batt that he had been killed on 5th instant (it was actually the 3rd of May) in the Hindenburg Line E of B – (Bullecourt) where we had got in and where Bert’s lot had relieved us. The captured position was very heavily shelled and in this shelling Bert crossed over. Death was instantaneous, so he felt no pain and knew nothing of the terror approaching the brink. I am sending his few personal effects, very few, home registered to make sure. But now I can hardly realise the fact. It seems hard, but God’s ways are not to be read by us and we can only wait in patience the working out of his will.
He was buried in the trench where he fell. The map reference is France Sheet 51B SW 1/20,000 U23C 4 ¼. 2 ½.
I am writing to Vernie, Home, Elsie & Mrs. Morgan. Will you write to Mum as soon as you get this? I cabled Clytie and she will probably get it about the same time as the official notification gets home. This note is short & may seem strange but I can’t write any more just now. God’s Will be done. In deepest sorrow & sympathy. Viv.
Sydney Morning Herald - 30 May 1917
SMYTHE - Killed in Action in France May 5, 1917
Sergeant H.A. Smythe (Bert) beloved Son
of Mr. and Mr. E.A. Smythe, Macdonald street
Kogarah, and brother of Captain V., Lieut. E.V.
and L.-cpl. P. (on active service) and Viola,
Ida, Rita, Eric and Gordon.
Greater love hath no man.
It is probable these last words would have been placed on his grave if he had been buried.
Other notes after Bert's death
A letter received from The House of Representatives – The Parliament of the Commonwealth in Melbourne on May 21st, 1917 read as follows:-
Dear Mr. SMYTHE,
May I express my sincere sorrow for the wounding of your son on the battlefield. He fell gloriously, defending his country and institutions from the depredations of the enemy, who seek to destroy us. The memory of the services he rendered may help in some small measure to assuage the anxiety, which his suffering causes. Be assured there are numbers outside your home circle who sorrow with you and feel at the same time a thrill of pride at his patriotic and gallant behaviour. With kind wishes, Yours faithfully, Joseph Cook.”
I do not believe that using the word “gloriously” when referring to someone dying in battle would be of any comfort to a grieving family. I wonder how Members of Parliament would write/ compose a letter today to next of kin.
Melbourne, 22nd June,1917.
The Postmaster General desires to convey his sincere sympathy and that of the officers of this Department with you and your family in your bereavement through the death of your son, Corporal H. A. Smythe, formerly an officer of this Department in New South Wales, who it is reported was killed in action on the 3rd ultimo.
The Jerilderie Herald and Urana Advertiser published the following on 1 June 1917.
KILLED IN ACTION
SERGEANT BERT SMYTHE KILLED IN ACTION
SERGEANT BERT SMYTHE
On Saturday afternoon last news reached this town that Sergeant Bert SMYTHE had been killed in action in France on 5th May, a bursting Hun shell being the cause of the sad fatality. Poor Bert! The news of his death will be received with general regret by his many acquaintances here. Our readers may remember his descriptive letters – cleverly written too – which appeared in this journal, and which were copied in several other newspapers, including some in the Metropolitan journals. The first one was written from a hospital in Birmingham, England – where he was sent from Gallipoli to have his wounds attended to – and was a highly interesting narrative of life in Gallipoli’s trenches.
He is one of four brothers who have obeyed the Empire’s call. One of his brothers Vernon (Crumb as he was called by his school mates) has obtained the rank of Major (this is not correct – Vern was promoted to Lieut. and later Captain) another is a Lieutenant, whilst Vivian has just been awarded the Military Cross for conspicuous conduct. When the news was received here on Saturday afternoon, genuine expressions of regret were voiced by all, and a deep sympathy was felt with the bereaved parents and family in their affliction. The deceased hero was the eldest son of Mr. and Mrs. E. SMYTHE of Sydney, and for many years residents of Jerilderie.
Perce wrote in his diary dated Tuesday, 12th June 1917
Short letter from Captain White, of 3rd Bn. He says that he saw Bert after he was killed, a whiz bang having burst right on top of him. They tried to get what things that he had in his pocket 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 a mistake. But this letter now removes all shadow of doubt.
I was told that when troops went to recover Bert’s body, the area where it was, had been blown up, so it was not recovered and sadly there is no grave for him.
A friend wrote to my grandparents and it ended up – “his was a Noble life lived and he died a Noble death in defence of his King and Country -- etc”.
This phrase seems cold and hackneyed to me, though I believe it was written with the best of intention.
My grandmother’s sister Lydia wrote a long letter and included were such phrases as “but you must try to bear up for the rest of your children’s sake”, “our loss is his gain”, “he is not dead but gone before”. All of these were much used phrases, particularly in those times – they would not comfort me.
From L-R - Eric, Ida, Rita, Annie, Ted and Gordon.