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Learning from Kyle

100 years ago today, my grand-uncle SGT Leslie John SMITH, Regt No 119, AIF - killed in action on The Somme. Lest We Forget.

This artwork represents some of the thousands of Allied soldiers killed in action on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

I'm watching the sun set 100 years to the day since the first of those horrific years of war on the Somme.

My grand-dad and his brother Les served there together in the 3rd Division, AIF.   Grandma's brother Les was there as a 21 year old engineer.

100 years ago my family well and truly answered the call.

Gerald Patrick Smith left home in late 1911 to go to sea on the Royal Australian Navy's first day of service.

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The King had just approved formation of the RAN and Gerald was one of its first members.


When war broke out, Gerald had already been to England to sail back on the pride of the fleet, HMAS Australia.



Grerard Patrick was one of the first Australians to see action in The Great War.  

He was in the landing party that secured German Rabaul New Guinea.

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The elder Smith boy Leslie John was a famous musician and the manager of Stanley MacKay's Royal Pantomime Company.   He was constantly on tour with glamorous stars throughout Australia and New Zealand.

I reckon he was a lady's man.   Maybe Eydie Stamp does too.  After he'd sailed away to war Eydie tried to find him and didn't want the letter in reply sent home.

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119 Leslie John Smith went straight into action as a machine gunner on The Somme.

That's him on great grandma's Catherine's lap with great grandpa the stern school teacher watching over them.

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My grandpa Percy Leo Smith was a telegraph operator at the Melbourne GPO.

Les, Percy and Gerald were solid Irish Catholic working class boys.

Waltter Geappen was a 3rd generation protestant Australian.  His boys signed up too, as you'd expect of the sons of the Victorian Government Printer and Grand Master of Melbourne's Masonic Lodge.  Here are the Geappen boys with my grandmother Myrene just before the war.

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20 year old blacksmith  Les was always going to be a Sapper!


But Les hadn't attained his majority..

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Les was an Australian Native just like me.



My grandfather Percy Leo Smith was first allocated to the 7th Battalion.   He first served in Cairo Egypt.


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When Les went into action on The Somme, Percy transferred to the 3rd Division to be near him.

In December 1916 Les copped a shocking whack - a gunshot wound penetrating his face and eye.

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This photo was taken a year later, even in the grainy sepia wash you can see the damage.

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Les was a fighter.   After he came out of hospital in London he was sent to the machine gun training school at Grantham as a Sergeant Instructor where he spent the remainder of 1917.

Gerald was by then on HMAS Warrego sailing out of Brindisi, Italy hunting subs and enemy ships in the Mediterranean.  When Les suggested the boys get together over Christmas 1917 Gerald was on to it like a shot!  Somehow he got leave and made his way from Brindisi to London via the Channel - 2,200 kilometres during the war!  Not a bad effort.

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And so the Smith boys were together again for one final Christmas in London, December, 1917.

Their priority mission was to get this photo to send back home to their mum Catherine in Richmond.

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Imagine her excitement going to the letter box in Sherwood Street Richmond with the two girls to see her 3 boys together!

Here's Catherine with the two girls after the war - granddad has written "my best pals" on the top of the photo.

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I hope that Percy, Leo and Gerald had the best of times in London and partied like it was their last Christmas together on earth.   Because it was.

Les had been seriously wounded.   He had a good job in England training machine gunners.  He was part of the war effort.  But his loyalty lay with his mates and brother.

On 10 March 1918 he rejoined the 10th Machine Gun Company on the Somme.  

He didn't know, but allied commanders suspected that the Germans would soon launch a major push from the Hindenburg Line trying to breach the Allies line and thrust through to the sea.

This is Field Marshall Hindenburg and General Ludendorf.

Ludendorff was planning a surprise offensive to divide the French and British forces on the Western Front. As anticipated, the German army amassed its troops and launched an offensive on 21 March, on a front south of Arras in St Quentin sector.


German reserves advancing through St Quentin.The Germans wanted to capture the strategically important area of Amiens, to divide the Allied armies and to weaken them to the point where a combined counter-attack would be impossible.

Sixty-three German divisions attacked over 60 miles of the front held by 26 British divisions, overwhelming British defences and driving them west. The Germans concentrated on infiltrating strongly in one central area, whereas the British expected that the attack would be spread out, and that the Germans would attempt to outflank them in the Somme woods and valleys. The British 3rd Army and 5th Army were taken by surprise, divided and forced to retreat. German troops then rapidly advanced across the Somme battlefield towards Amiens. In five days, they had recaptured all the land they had lost around the Somme in the previous two years. This was disastrous for the Allies. Not only had they lost all the land which thousands of men had died to capture, but also the Germans were now dangerously close to Amiens, a vital rail junction, which in March lay defenceless.

In the short space of ten days since launching the offensive, German troops were almost at the gates of Amiens. The Allies had to prevent the Germans from passing through Villers-Bretonneux, the main area before Amiens. On 25 March, the 3rd and 4th Australian divisions were on their way, hastily instructed to plug the gap and to assist in stopping the offensive.

On 30 March 1918 my grandfather saw his brother Les shot and killed in action at Dernancourt, The Somme.

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There wasn't much to send home.

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His effects were boxed and placed on the Barunga, formerly the German liner Sumatra which was captured by the Royal Australian Navy in Sydney Harbour at the start of the war.  Gerald Smith was there when she was captured and put into service for Australia.

He was also there on the Mediterranean Sea when a German submarine torpedoed her and sent the ship and his brothers earthly effects to the bottom of the sea. H02017 A01043

I wonder if Catherine knew the little trinkets left to her by her son were on Barunga when she read about her sinking?

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There was no homecoming for the dead in World War One.

Grieving mothers were asked to pay for a copy of the gazette entry recording the headstone details of their dead boys.

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But a mother's love for her son never dies.

When the Australian men came home the official historian Charles Bean's first order of duty was to oversee the creation of an Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

Today, new generations of Smiths can see the name of 119 Smith, Leslie John in bronze on the Roll of Honour.

A few years after the war, Catherine Smith received a polite note from the official historian asking for details about Les.

I can imagine her tears as she wrote about the lad who won the Royal South Street Open Violin solo - at the age of 17!  And the memories of treasured letters from his tours of the major provincial centres of Australia and both islands of New Zealand with the pantomime company.

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I'd also lay odds my great grandmother never forgot the Dept of The Somme, France.

Nor should we.

On the centenary of the first of the bloody battles of the Somme.

At the going down of the sun,

And in the morning,

We will remember them.

Lest we forget.

PS - The Hall of Memory in the Australian War Memorial has stained glass windows on 3 sides, each window divided into 5 panels.   The 15 panels represent personal qualities of Australians at war.

As I write these last few words with tears flowing freely I'm particularly moved by one of the qualities we used to value.

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Leslie John, Percy Leo, Leslie Claude, Gerald Patrick and my many other ancestors who fought for the idea of Australia must be looking on and wondering at what we have become.

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