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 8: LETTERS HOME part 2
EXTRACTS FR0M LETTERS SENT HOME FROM BERT & VERN
Bert’s letter to his sister Ida (my mother). 24 November 1924 (approaching Aden) “Just before we got to Columbo, the Sydney caught up to us, after her little dust up with the Emden. She had no outward appearance of having suffered in the said dust up. One of the Sydney’s men who came on board told us that what they saw on the Emden prevented some of the men from eating for two days. There was blood, bits of flesh & mutilated bodies lying all over the place. The fumes from the lyddite ## shells made the men half silly.”
(It is possible that the following TWO paragraphs were written as a “joke” about the men’s responses to the news that they were going to Egypt and not England. I find it hard to believe that Bert would write to his mother and family TWICE in this way within a couple of weeks.. However, he was a “joker” and had a great sense of humour but what I have read of his many letters there have not been any written like this. The 3rd Battalion History makes no mention of any explosion on this trip.)
Bert’s letter 3 December, 1914 addressed “Dear Girls”- Pages 12-13. “On Saty the 28 Nov. I am sorry that our voyage was on this date marred by a ghastly tragedy. We were all sitting down having dinner and not dreaming of any disaster, when suddenly an awful explosion took place right in our midst. As soon as the smoke had cleared away, we could see distorted figures lying about groaning in awful pain. The ship was rocking for awhile and we were afraid that we were sinking. Luckily, the explosion occurred with(in) 10 feet of us, neither Vernie or I were hurt, only a bit dazed. Two young fellows alongside of me & one right in front of me were lying half on & half off the table. The faces of some of them were working convulsively. While the face of the other was quite calm, curiously the table escaped injury. The most horrible part however, was a young fellow directly over the place where the explosion occurred. He was not killed but was badly hurt and was rolling about on the floor in awful pain and distress. It was pitiful to watch him. Luckily, tho 15 were very seriously injured none were killed, tho at this stage it is hard to say if the more seriously hurt will recover. The explosion was caused by a bomb & was dropped by the colonel as he was carrying it. It fell 8 feet before it struck the floor. The bomb was the news that we were going to Cairo instead of England. _ _ _ After the first effects had passed off, the Col. told us he thought it was a good move & that we could train very well there and get plenty of rifle practice and would probably go on to the front from there in the spring.”
Bert’s letter 13 December, 1914. Pages 3 and 4 addressed to -“Dear Dad, Mum, Brothers and Sisters” (this repeats the data above with some slight differences)
“On Saty 28 Nov. while seated at dinner, a terrible tragedy occurred when a bomb exploded on our mess deck. We were all seated tearing into our dinner, never dreaming of any danger when suddenly awful explosion occurred. The row was awful and the concussion caused the ship to rock violently. When we regained our scattered senses, an awful sight was revealed to us. Men were lying about writhing in awful pain and agony. Two unfortunate fellows were alongside of me & one in the front were terribly injured. Two were lying quite still huddled up in a curious heap half on & half off the table. The other was writhing about on the floor. Fortunately except for the shock Vernie & I escaped unhurt. Altogether there were 14 very seriously injured and a whole lot more were injured. So far not one has died but several are in a very serious condition. The bomb which was a very powerful one, was dropped by our Colonel while standing over the hatches above our deck. What the dickens he wanted to carry a bomb about the ship for, I’m hanged if I know. The bomb was the news that we were going to Egypt instead of going to England. Oh well, and they will have their little joke, it’s a big one & judging by what I’ve seen this piece of earth a very dry one. _ _ _ ”
Vern’s letter 29 December 1914 – Red Sea. “The cooks very nearly disposed of some of our men the other night. They had not kept their boilers over clean, & the result was that about 400 of the men had an attack of ptomaine poisoning. Luckily it was not severe enough to be fatal, but it was pretty bad. The poor beggars were lying all over the deck and were fearfully sick. Nearly every man had to be carried to the hospital. By great good luck Bert and I escaped it. It was so bad that at 2 am the Master of the ship, & all his officers, as well as our head officers, got up & had an inspection of the cook-house, & gave the cooks the soundest shaking up ever they are likely to get.
Our brigadier told them that if any man died over it, he would hand them over to the civil power to be tried for manslaughter. I guess that after this we will get our food cooked in clean boilers.”
Bert’s letter Egypt 1 January, 1915. “On Tuesday the 29th Dec, a regrettable incident occurred which makes a man wonder if the British boast of fair play is not a misnomer. A pair of niggers have a stand at which they sell different things. They have proved a great convenience to the men. On the day in question the only one that could speak English was in Cairo laying in fresh supplies, when some big brig of an officer who does not belong to the 3rd, ordered the other chap to clean out inside half an hour. Of course the poor beggar couldn't understand him. The O. came back in half an hour and finding the stand still there, told some men who were about to loot the stand. Our old Col. was furious over it and has ordered all the men who took things to pay for them. There has been the dickens to pay over it. Anyway the niggers are back on their stand again. The poor brutes have a bad enough time at the hands of the whites in ordinary circs dear knows without looting them. And by a people who pride themselves on fair play too.”
Bert’s letter 23 January 1915 Mena Camp. “I’ve got a new nickname which is spreading thro the coy. It is “PD” – pronounced “Pip Don” phonetical pronunciation. I was instructing a squad and some of my tent heard me using them and it tickled their fancy and there you are. Now the strangeness has worn off and it is getting quite familiar. I’m getting it everywhere. Its Pip Don this and Pip Don that all day from my tent and when on the march.”
(An enquiry to the Army History Unit yielded four P.D.s and the only one of those that I think it could be is Precision Device but it also it is also a possibly it could be some nickname given to a difficult/slow soldier.)
Bert’s letter 23 January 1915. Last Sunday the 17th of Jan there was rather a romantic wedding celebrated here in camp in the 4th Bn. A young English angel being very much in love followed the object of her affections to Australia and finding that he had enlisted and sailed with the troops and still being very much in love followed him here and at last was rewarded by finding her quarry having a fine old time with the troops. So she decided to put the acid on him and with the aid of the 4th Bn chaplain she did it. The ceremony eventuated in the 4th lines and after the nuptial knot had been tied, the happy pair marched to the taxi waiting on the road. The march which was very impressive, despite the fact that one of them was out of step, was between two ranks of the grooms friends, who with fixed bayonets formed an avenue and arch of glittering steel. There were a large number of snapshotters present and they secured several good pictures of the unique wedding. The happy groom obtained a fortnight’s leave of absence in which to have his honeymoon and considering what a pretty bride he has one could hardly blame him if he forgets to come back.
Bert’s letter 1 Feb 1915 Mena Camp Egypt. A lot of men are leaving here for Aust tomorrow. They are the sick and the undesirables. There are a lot of undesirables and its the best thing for all concerned. They are a disgrace to their reg's. There are also a large number of men suffering with an incurable disease going back. The whole lot leave early tomorrow morning. (See notes Chap. IX re similar actions)
Bert’s note on scrap of paper undated. (Possibly 17 April 1916 Perce was in the Army and had missed out on promotions.) “Have been informed by a chap who was there at the time, that Percy’s bad luck was a put up job by several who for some reason or other had a down on him. I’ve got the name of one of the beggars. Percy doesn’t know yet. He thinks it was just bad luck.”
Bert‘s writing about the Landing – (this was NOT in the Newspaper Articles. Possibly it was censored or the paper thought it too graphic for its readers at that time)
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.
Bert’s letter 9 May 1915 From Wandsworth, England - Mum & Dad & Brothers & Sisters – The wound in my arm is nearly healed but my arm is still practically useless. I can only just raise it very slowly. I suppose that the papers told you all about the big fighting, but all the same I spose you’d like to hear it again. The landing was commenced very early in the morning (Sunday 25/4/15). The 3rd B.D.E (Brigade query) going first & that B.D.E. had the most landing casualties. The Turks were right on the beach, despite the fact that the warships had shelled the place very thoroughly, and the first few boatloads of our boys lost heavily, but as soon as they got ashore they dug themselves in very thoroughly, & the Turks out very thoroughly with the Bayonet. During the whole of the landing the Turks were giving our boys shrapnel a treat and once boats were struck by a shell exploding and one boat was sunk by a shell exploding on her water line. I heard also that two pontoons broke away from the tow and the Turks got their machine guns on to them, and wiped out everyone on them. Our turn came about 8 o’clock & A Co. was the first to go. We got on a destroyer and she took us pretty close in and then we got into rowing boats and thus on shore. When I first got on to ...
(Have yet to locate the other pages if they can be found)
Vern’s letter 9 May, 1915 – Gallipoli.
Rup Ferguson did not leave Lemnos. He was in Hospital there.
Dear Mum, Today completed our fourteenth day of battle, and up to the present have not had a scratch. Don’t worry about Bert. His wound is in the shoulder but it is only a flesh wound, and was made by a clean bullet. Had it been a dum-dum it would have blown his arm off. Some of the chaps here have been frightfully torn about by dum-dums. Ralph Dixon was wounded in the neck on the day we landed, but I have not seen him since and cannot get any tidings of him. I hope he gets over it OK. Keith Rixon one-time telegraphist at N’dera (Narrandera) while I was there, was shot dead. He was trying to shoot an enemy sniper at the time. Bert was sent on board the hospital ship the morning he was shot. I probably won’t see him again till he returns for more fight. I have had several fairly close shaves but I don’t run as much risk as those in the firing line. Our Hqrs. are about 50 yards behind the firing line. The first four days fighting was very heavy. I suppose you have read of the glorious landing of the 3rd Brigade and their bayonet charge. Will write as soon as the Censor’s embargo is raised. V.
(Note: Ralph Dixon’s father sent a many heartbreaking letters to authorities about the whereabouts of his son and the replies were frustrating and upsetting for him. It seemed at that time no one could advise him if he was killed in action, how badly he was injured or where he was in hospital. He also mentioned sending a cable to Vern for some information. It is possible his body was not located for burial for some time. On 30.8.15 Lt. E.V.Smythe reported that he had been advised by Chaplain Breen that Ralph had been buried. The date of burial is shown as 24.5.18. There are many conflicting reports about the date that he was wounded and nothing about where he was during the times mentioned.)
Bert August 1915 -The trenches are worked as follows. One half of the unit is on duty, & the other half off, each doing 12 hours at a time. The half that is on duty divides its men up into posts, consisting of 1 N.C.O. & 6 men. Each post goes to its allotted position & the N.C.O. puts two men on watch, whilst the remaining 4 men make themselves as comfortable as conditions will permit. They must not go to sleep, or take off their equipment or leave the post without permission. The men on watch, watch for 1 hour & then have 2 hours off until their turn comes again. The other half of the unit in the relief dugouts, provide any men required to do fatigues in the trenches, such as deepening the trench, strengthening it, or filling sandbags. At times we were so hard pushed that the relief unit, would be working the whole of the time we were in the trenches whilst they were not on watch. We were often so short of men that the men on watch, instead of having 1 hr on & 2 hrs off, had to be content with 1 hr on ½ hr off. We all crowd together in the ‘rest’ dugout & of course to pass the time away some of us try to sleep, others read or write, & others tell each other yarns, most of which, I’m sorry to say will not bear repetition.
One of the yarns tho, is a very good illustration of our boys feelings & behavior, when they get worked up. It was told by a youngster who’d never see 40 again if he lived forever, & was about a chap he knew, whom we will call – say Hawkins. Hawkins was a little sandy haired man from some out back hole in N.S.W. & he had lied hard & bravely when he told the attesting officer he was 39. He was one of the men of a very much cut up platoon that was endeavouring to hold an advanced trench taken from Abdul. They were getting H___ belted out of them with bombs & it was suicide to expose a head. They were short of both bombs & ammunition, but were sticking it out, cursing & swearing, as I believe, only Australians can, as Abdul threw bomb after bomb into the trench & ripped the sandbags to pieces with their machine guns as they traversed them back & forward along the parapet.
Bert’s letter 20 August 1916 – Weymouth. Percy has been through an awful time at Pozieres. The 3rd Bn has been almost wiped out. He gave me a pretty good description of the fighting. I think he ought to get something out of it. Poor Mrs Morgan has lost her son. He was killed by a shell at Pozieres. The first she heard of it was from Percy. The War office didn’t advise her until some time later. She is terribly broken up by it. Quite a lot of my old mates have been killed. Poor old Dick Rosen who was in charge of our tent at Kenso being among the fallen. Also a little chap Sgt Gordon who was wounded 3 times on Gallipoli. Percy has had some truly wonderful escapes.
Bert’s letter 17 September 1916 – Perham Downs. I’ve got a heartbreaking job here to train the Bn Siglrs. They are the dopiest lot I’ve struck. Held a reading test yesterday & only 3 passed anywhere near the standard rate.
Bert’s letter 26 September 1916 – Perham Downs. I do not think there will be any need to worry over me for awhile now. I felt that it was my duty to get over to France if possible & with that in view I approached the Signal Offr but he has turned me down – refuses in fact to hear of it, so for awhile at least you can imagine me safe & snug in Eng whilst the others are in France doing their bit __ & mine.
( I was very pleased to find the letters below when checking the transcribed documents. I had never heard of Bert’s application for Officer Training Corps before this time. I was not surprised that he wanted the opportunity to become an officer and believe that like his brothers would have performed as well as they did but of course never had the opportunity. These are entered in full. All the boys were sending money home to their parents and the extra for any promotion would have been a great help.)
Bert’s letters 30 October 1916 re OTC Perham Downs and Replies
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 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
30/10/16 Corp. H.Smythe,
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.
C.O. ## 24.11.16
Bert’s letter 23 January 1917 – Salisbury. By Jingo they are socking the work into the draft. 7 hrs solid each day & two or three night stunts of 3 hrs each, each week. We start off under the “Indiarubber _____” as we lovingly term the physical “jerks” instructor. He doubles us all over the place until he’s lost ¾ of his lot, & then gives us a breather till the others catch up, & then tears physical jerks into us. We have him for an hour. Then we do an hours bayonet fighting at the dummys. Then an hour bombing, & that is followed by perhaps a gas demonstration, with perhaps a nice little double with a suffocating gas helmet on _ _ _. The other three hours are chiefly spent in drill of some sort or other. Its bitterly cold here & we parade without great coats, & wear full packs. They keep us moving but our ears & feet suffer. We all wear gloves so our hands are O.K. The ice doesn’t melt all day & its quite an exciting, pleasant, & frequent thing to suddenly assume a sitting posture on the cold, hard, slippery & unfeeling pavement. The language which is released by these little incidents melts the ice for yards around & also releases smiles & guffaws of appreciation from the numerous spectators. The yarn of the chap who put a dish of water on the stove overnight so that he could have a wash, & got up to find it had an inch of ice on it, has become so common that one fails to smile at it.
Vern’s letter 11 April, 1917 - Wandsworth Hospital. I hope you didn’t worry about me when I appeared in the casualties. I would appear in the “slightly wounded”, so I don’t think you’d worry. I got a tiny little piece of shell in my right leg about half way between the knee & ankle. It was a piece only about as big as a pea, & I feel almost ashamed that I had to come to hospital with it. I got wounded on the 2nd inst & arrived in England on 7th. The wound is getting along splendidly, & I think I’ll be able to walk within a week.
About a couple of hours after we captured the wood, I was having a look round to see that everything was going O.K. when a 5.9” dumped itself along side me, & though I managed to escape all the larger fragments, this one little piece got me & bowled me over. So I had to quit & make my way back to the dressing station. From there I was sent thro’ other stations, until finally I got to our base hospital, & after putting in a couple of days there, was sent across here. (I believe this incident happened at Louverval, as advised by an Historian at the Aust. War Memorial)
Bert’s letter 20 April 1917 - France. Was in a bit of a stunt the other day when another Bn & C&D coys of ours took Hermies. [Canal?] to be in it cos I had a fatigue party carrying up iron rations to feed the M. Guns. Fritz threw a lot of metal at us – it was the worst I had up till then experienced, but we came throu O.K. Gave Fritz a severe towelling & got quite a lot of prisoners. A few mornings later he put a barrage behind us & bombarded us but nothing much came of it. A great number of HEs fell very close to us, but owing to the softness of the earth, only 2 went off. One of the ones that didn’t go off was so close that when it stuck it violently shook our dugout. Just before daybreak the same morning a party of about 40 Fritzs tried to get around on to the right flank of No 1 platoon, & apparently unaware of our position, ran almost into us & altho it was dark, still at 200 yds they were a pretty good target & so they came the proverbial G. Our Lewis gun chopped them up more than a little bit. I bagged one. Had pretty rotten weather nearly all the time we were in. At present we are out just behind the line having a spell with only an occasional shell from Fritz. We move back to the line again before long I think.
Bert’s last letter to Percy 28 March 1917 - Etaples
Dear Percy, Enclosed please find 10 Francs. Hope that it comes in handy as I know it will if you are still on 5/- a day. (Perce was often short of money on his Private’s pay).
I think my bullring course must be nearly finished so don’t suppose I’ll be here much longer. Ought to be a guard expert son. Have been on 4 guards so far and going on again tomorrow. Getting a bit sick of them. Haven’t heard a whisper from Viv or Vern or any others I know over here.
In case you did not get my last I am at ABDB but any you write after receipt of this address to Bn. cos I will probably be with them.
How is the Cambridge affair getting on? Don’t let them send you to Kandahar or Tidworth. That place is only a joke.
Hope everything is OK with you. Your loving brother Bert