Chapter 11: Extracts From H. R. Williams books
on his experiences in the 56th Battalion in W.W.I
These extracts are about Capt. Erle Vernon Smythe. At the time I first entered these, there were no letters available that were written by Vern and these books provided a lot of valuable information on his actions.
At the finish, there are some extracts from the 3rd Battalion History “From Randwick to Hargicourt” written by Eric Wren. Vern was in the 3rd Battalion until he was transferred to the 4th Battalion on 18/12/15 on Gallipoli. The evacuation of the Peninsula began that evening though a few soldiers from the 3rd Battalion had been evacuated on with the Padre on the 15th after the orders had been received on the 14th. (Possibly they were sick and/or wounded men)
"C0MRADES OF THE GREAT ADVENTURE" - by H. R. Williams
(Page 108- Somme) "However, the ranks of cape-draped figures stood with backs towards the rain and listened intently to plans for relieving the front-line troops. Captain SMYTHE did not mince matters; in fact he was brutally frank as to what lay before us. We always preferred the truth. He told us of the difficulties of approach to the front line; an approach through a sea of mud, and under direct supervision of the enemy. He warned us to expect a merciless shelling if Fritz discovered a 'change-over' was taking place. Next he spoke of the wastage caused by trench feet among the units who had held waterlogged trenches of this particular sector. Drastic measures, however, were to be taken to minimise the effects of this insidious enemy, and, moreover, we were warned that disciplinary action would be taken against any members of the battalion who contacted the malady. Finally the captain informed us that we were to hold the line for four days – this was rather unusual for the Gueudecourt sector."
“Men,” continued the O.C., "you have got to stick it. Stick it out no matter how hard it proves to be. As the conditions prevailing in the front line are pretty awful you’ll need all your determination to carry on but it has to be done. If, at the end of two days, our losses, through privation and trench feet, are too high we’ll be withdrawn. That will mean you are lacking in guts, and also, two more turns in the front line." (I wonder how this would go down with today’s soldiers)
(Page 110-111 - Somme) After the death of Captain Fanning the command of A company passed to Captain SMYTHE. This was followed by "He’ll do me." they said when discussing the new O.C. An officer in an Australian Battalion could receive no greater praise. SMYTHE was our commander for many months; a commander who ruled us with a rod of iron, and, in so ruling, maintained the efficiency of his company through many trying ordeals. On active service a unit commanded by a brave strong-willed officer is always a good one to serve in; the teamwork necessary to play the rough, nasty game of war cannot be enforced by kid-gloved methods. Following Captain SMYTHE’S address the company made preparations to move up the line. Early in the afternoon
(Page 117-120 - Somme) One morning, before daylight, Captain SMYTHE was met by the brigade major and staff captain. The men in the adjacent posts were curious to learn what the presence of these two meant, and in their eager discussions, a pessimistic note was distinctly noticeable. The business afoot, however, was conned over with O.C. in the depths of headquarters dugout. It was with a feeling somewhat approaching delight that the troops saw night change into day while the pow-wow was still in progress. Acting C.S.M. Sergeant Grimstone, becoming uneasy at the improving visibility, made bold to inform the commander of the fact. Even this news did not hurry the two staff officers; it was broad daylight when they finally emerged from underground. SMYTHE told his visitors that at this hour they would not expect to cover much of their route before a German sniper would be harrying their footsteps. This did not in the least alarm the staff – or so they said. Our captain and Grimstone pointed out the salient features of the course, which led to the safety of the ridge, several hundred yards in rear of our line.
Talking as if they considered the job easy, the two officers were legged over the parados. The state of the ground did not lend itself to breaking records; our crowd suspected, too, that the staff “wallahs” had not been out for a walk for a considerable time. Hardly were the departing ones into their stride when “crack” came the first rifle shot.
Another and another in quick succession; then followed a short burst from a machine gun.
While single shots were being fired the runners pursued a straight course. The vicious spraying of the Maxim, however, caused them to separate and zig-zag as they ran. Eventually, the proximity of the thudding bullets forced them to take shelter in a small crater. When the human target went to earth the firing ceased. Presently the harassed pair arose, and, urged on by the missiles of the hidden marksman, made another dash to reach the shelter of the rise. This procedure was repeated time and again.
Meanwhile, back in our lines, the troops, munching bully-beef and biscuits, looked over the parados and callously remarked about the side-show being enacted in the waste of mud. However, the figures eventually were lost to sight in the torn ground; as the fire from the German trenches ceased, the watchers considered that the fugitives had safely reached their goal. But the episode was by no means finished. During the morning Captain SMYTHE was asked, over the telephone, the whereabouts of the two officers from the brigade. Rather astonished by this enquiry our O.C. replied that when last seen the gentlemen in question were in full flight, and being hastened on their way by the enemy’s sharpshooters. Further telephonic communication passed between the brigade, battalion and line company headquarters; uneasiness turned to alarm when noon came without any definite news of our early morning visitors. Brigade was most anxious that an immediate search should be made. SMYTHE, however, was emphatic that this would not be undertaken during daylight. The early afternoon brought tidings which gave further grounds for disturbing suppositions. Battalion advised that the staff captain, mud-caked, exhausted, and "all-in" had reported. Even when thawed out and revived he could not give any definite information as to the fate of his superior officer.
In the gloaming, a search party from A company moving in fan-shaped formation commenced to comb the area over which the race with death had taken place. Just on dark a hail brought the whole of the searchers to the lip of a large shell crater. In the centre, submerged to the waist in the yellowish cloying mess was the brigade major. It transpired in the later stages of the major’s flight the German machine-gunner had ranged him with unpleasant accuracy. Self-preservation drove the staff officer to dive for cover of a deep shell hole; as his arrival therein was most hurried, the luckless officer landed with the full weight of his body behind the leap. In escaping the bullets however he had fallen into a treacherous slough. Like a fly in a jar of honey, the more he struggled to extricate himself the deeper he sank. There was no alternative but to suffer the numbing cold and hope for darkness and succour. Once discovered willing hands and strong backs soon had the major out of the bog (without his pants and shoes our family was told by Vern SMYTHE). This was carried out by four men using stretcher poles under his arms when he was taken with all speed to battalion headquarters. Upon his arrival there he was the most forlorn looking and certainly the most overweight officer on the Western Front.
From my post, this early morning sprint and its sequel had not been seen. However eyewitnesses gave graphic descriptions of the two officers being chased over the landscape with the Hun machine gunners and several snipers acting as pace makers. The gusto, although unkind with which the tale was related caused us to suspect that the performance had been rather enjoyed by the infantry.
(Page 166 ) Early April found the 56th Battalion encamped on a desolate bleak flat near the battered hamlet of Linguy-Thilloy, on the outskirts of Bapaume. Two days rest was granted us to lick our wounds after the recent battle – and then commenced a period of intensive training. Captain SMYTHE having been wounded in the recent stunt the command of A company passed to Lieutenant “Jock” Gordon. (An entry on his Service Documents showed the date as 8 April 1917 – and this may be the injury referred to above.)
(Page 170 – Linguy-Thilloy) The Author writes of an elderly soldier, who appeared on sick parade and was accused wrongly of being a malingerer when he was really ill and had a bad arm. Williams had tried in vain to keep him out of the front line but this time the soldier only wanted a couple of weeks rest and Williams asked Captain SMYTHE’S permission to leave him behind as a baggage guard. The soldier was indignant and then asked to be paraded to the Captain. Williams was rather nettled at his attitude and told him to "fall in". He carried on until the privations in that winter, his age and the ordeal of battle resulted in him being evacuated and his war was over.
(Page 196 - Blighty) The Author (a sergeant) writes about being paraded in front of Captain SMYTHE in the village of Ebblingheim and told to proceed to England for an officer’s training school. "Sergeant", said the captain after reading, "I am pleased this opportunity has come your way. For a long while you have been one of my best N.C.O’s and it will give me great pleasure to welcome you to my company as an officer."
(Page 214 - Wytschaete – January 1918 ) Williams completed his officers course and was posted to C Company. He wrote 'Here I found that the lack of accommodation made it necessary for me to seek a billet in A Company’s area. Captain SMYTHE, debonair and cheerful, allotted me quarters in the home of the village baker.'
(Page 218 - Wytschaete) Following discussions after Polygon Wood, Williams wrote 'The raconteurs next praised the dapper Captain SMYTHE, A Company’s commander'. He had charge of the battle line of the battalion, and, in a most able manner, supervised the consolidation of the position. Cool and brave, he was an inspiration to all. Good leaders are assessed by such qualities. For his excellent work during the battle SMYTHE was again decorated.
"THE GALLANT COMPANY" - by H. R. Williams
(Page 57 – Fromelles 14 July - 22 July 1916) The writing before this described some truly horrific word pictures of the battle of Fromelles - Dead men, broken trench material, shattered duckboards that tripped us as we passed, the smell of the fumes of high explosives, and the unforgettable odour of death made this trench a place of horror. A gas alarm passed down added to it, and we were ordered to put on our helmets. So into the hideous, vile-smelling P.H. helmets we got. The heat of our heads soon clouded the glasses; we floundered through the mire and debris of the shattered trench partly blinded. Alex O’Rourke was immediately in front of me and at one place when the trench had been blown in he, in his semi-blindness, got out in the open, and I as blindly followed him. When we realised that we were wandering (Cont’d on Page 58)
(Page 58)… away from the line of advance we pulled the helmets off and risked gas danger for the boon of being able to see where we were going. As the company emerged into the battle line, Captain SMYTHE of B Company, standing by, roared out to the men, "Take those damn helmets off!" – so the gas alarm was given by somebody who mistook smoke for gas.
(Page 101- Gueudecourt – November 1916) - On 30 November we moved to relieve the line at Gueudecourt. Our new commander, Captain Smythe told us that we were to move into supports that night to do four days in the front line at a stretch. If we made up our minds to fight sickness and trench-feet and stuck out the four days, we should not be sent in again while the division was holding this sector.
(Page 110 - Gueudecourt ) ...some poultry appeared from a dubious source and were hidden in a blanket, and the cooks were bribed to supply the hot-water for plucking purposes and also food the cooking. As officers and men were constantly coming to the billet we had to do this under a bunk behind a blanket over the edge. While we were engaged Captain Smythe came to the billet with some instructions for the company sergeant-major. It was a distinct relief when he took his departure. (All kinds of food supplies and other items seemed to appear from nowhere, either borrowed, stolen, pilfered or as above. Captain Smythe was a country lad and would have smelt the chickens but because he had a sense of humour, possibly lingered about for a while to make the men feel uneasy and because the chickens were hidden, he saw nothing and therefore would not have to take any action.)
(Page 112 – Somme 1 January-3 April 1917) The author mentioned briefly that he was to attend a course at the Fourth Army Training School at Flexicourt and that Captain SMYTHE would also be on it.
(Page 121 –Somme – (Dates as above) From the crest of the ridge, our losses began. Lieutenant Reid, Leading No. 1 Platoon was one of the first to fall, and all the length of the incline was dotted with men struck down as the fire became a hail of bullets. But the line never faltered – in fact an officer of A Company was in front calling out to the platoons to keep their dressing as they advanced. Captain SMYTHE was at the head of his (Cont’d on Page 122)
(Page 122) ... company with nothing more deadly than his walking-stick and his coolness and disregard of the bullets that cracked around him was a wonderful example for everyman that he led.
(Page 123 Somme – (Dates as above) The writer tells of Captain SMYTHE being wounded.
(Page 184 – July August 1918) Doullens we found to be a hive of activity. This town had been the detraining point of the other brigades of our division, and also of the 3rd Division. We went five miles further along and commenced to detrain at Mondicourt. Whilst this was in progress I saw Captain SMYTHE (who was on brigade staff) and asked him: "Where is Fritz?" "That is what a lot of people would like to know," he replied. "You have to march until you find him."
(Page 212 – (Dates as above) After an all-night struggle to avoid or make progress amid this traffic, we reached the Daours area at daybreak, sweating and exhausted. We reported to Captain SMYTHE, now of brigade staff, who sent us (Cont’d on Page 213)
(Page 213) … forthwith back to our units, as “a change had been made in the plans.” Without anything to eat, we immediately started on the return journey. The author continues on to tell that no one knew why they had been turned back when they reached the units and that they must repeat the journey back to Daours. He complained that the army had a habit of doing things like this.
"FROM RANDWICK TO HARGICOURT" - by Eric Wren
A copy of part of Page 97 showing the Officers
for the attack on Lone Pine on Friday August 6th,
1915. Vern is shown as the Signalling Officer.
(Pages 109-110) - The fighting strength of the battalion on the day of the attack was 27 Officers and 856 other ranks. One officer was hit before leaving the trench. Of the remainder, 17 were killed outright, or subsequently died of their wounds. At the end of three days fighting Major D. McF. McConaghy, Captain O. G. Howell-Price, Second Lieuts. P. W. Woods, A. F. Burret, V. E. Smythe, and E.W.G. Wren were the sole survivors. Of 856 ‘other ranks’, 277 were all that remained. --- The 6th reinforcements, who joined up only a day or so before the attack, were wiped out almost to a man.
(Page 114) - On September 22nd 1915, it is noted that Vern was promoted from the ranks to Second Lieutenant.
Ted & Annie SMYTHE - parents of the four SMYTHE boys.