Lt. John Lyall Smith M.C. Born c. 1886 Died 29/07/1916
Today marks the centenary of the death of the closest relative I’m aware of to have died in an armed conflict. Lt. John L. Smith was my grandfather’s uncle, the eldest son of my great-great grandparents John and Jessie Smith of Aberdeen, Scotland. The family came from Scotland to Queensland, when he was around 25 years old in 1911 and settled in Ayr, one hour south of Townsville (which I had the pleasure of visiting last year). John had worked as a stonemason (following in the footsteps of John Smith Snr) and had served in the Gordon Highlanders infantry regiment and Scottish Horse regiment in the British Army whilst in Scotland.
Only a few short years into the family’s new life in Queensland, World War I broke out in July 1914. John enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in early 1915 and left Queensland from the Port of Brisbane aboard the HMAT Aeneas in June of that year. He was made a Regimental Sergeant Major upon enlistment (presumably due to prior military service in the UK) and arrived at Gallipoli in the later stages of the famous campaign. While he did not take part in the legendary Anzac Cove landings, he most certainly saw action against the Ottoman Turkish forces – as attested by his promotion to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant in November and receipt of the Military Cross for “gallant services.”
His service record indicates that he was afflicted with jaundice from late 1915 until the end of January 1916 and that he convalesced in Cairo during this time. On 19th March, 1916 the 25th Infantry Battalion of which 2nd Lt. Smith was a part became the first Australian battalion to arrive in France to join fighting on the Western Front. According to the Australian War Memorial, their first major battle was at Pozieres, commencing on 23rd July 1916. John was promoted to the rank of 1st Lieutenant during this battle on 25th July.
The map and description of the Battle of Pozieres below come from the Australian Government’s WWI Western Front History page:
In mid July 1916 the three Australian divisions of 1st Anzac Corps marched to the Somme. On the night of 22/23 July the Corps was committed to the third phase of the Somme offensive in which the only successful attack was 1st Australian Division’s capture of the village of Pozières. Over the next few days the Australians extended their hold on the village as the Germans made determined but unsuccessful attempts to retake Pozières. In this period, at the end of July 1916, the Australians also suffered from the worst shellfire they ever experienced. By the time 1st Division was replaced by 2nd Division, it had lost 5000 men, mainly to artillery fire.
Some 500 metres north east of Pozières was a windmill on the highest point of ridge. The 2nd Division was brought forward to capture the OG lines (called by the Allies Old German line 1 and 2), which ran along the crest of the high ground past the windmill. Australian artillery observers stationed on this ground would then be able to direct artillery fire on the German rear areas up to 10 kilometres to the east in the direction of Bapaume.
On the night of 28/29 July 2nd Australian Division attacked the OG lines. Rushed planning resulted in failure, except on the Division’s left, where 6th Brigade captured a length of German trenches beyond the Pozières cemetery.
It was during the mostly failed attempt to make gains on the Old German Lines (O.G. Lines) on 29 July 1916 that Lt. John L. Smith lost his life – only a few days after receiving his last rank promotion. According to eminent War reporter and historian C.E. Bean, John was struck down – probably by German machine gun fire – “…while directing [his] men to sections where the entanglement [i.e. barbed wire] was sufficiently broken…” (Bean, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918 Vol. 3, p. 634). Elsewhere, Bean is reported to have said that Pozieres Ridge : “is more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth.” (wikipedia).
Tragically, John was missing in action for quite some time and his family at home appear to have learned of his disappearance from the newsreel at the local theatre in Ayr. His death was not confirmed by the A.I.F. until around October 1916. His distressed and elderly parents (my great-great grandparents) were naturally deeply grieved by his death. There is a long, painful correspondence between them and the Australian Military Command in Melbourne requesting both their son’s personal effects and the Military Cross medal he was awarded. Reading these letters has allowed me to sense some of the grief my ancestors felt at the death of their eldest son during the very bloody war. The records do not contain evidence that the matter of the Military Cross was ever fully resolved – though it appears that they would have received it from the Governor General in due course.
Today I reflect on the death 100 years ago of a young man – probably the same age I am now – in one of the most horrendous and bloody conflicts of human history.
That he lost his life in France is a sad testament to the fact that he died as a result of proud empires jockeying for Continental and even global dominance. War can be fought for just causes – such as the defense of innocent peoples and nations in the face of aggressors. But war is always the byproduct of human evil like pride and greed.
But Lt. J.L. Smith fought for King and Country and appears to have served bravely and admirably as a soldier. He made decisions and faced situations that I will probably never have to face. He gave his life in the course of a battle that arguably contributed significantly to the weakening of Germany to the extent that they would later lose the war.
Whatever we may think of WWI and its causes – every Australian who has lived since has benefited at least indirectly from our victories in both World Wars. The death of John L. Smith and thousands of others was anything but meaningless. He made a noble sacrifice on a battlefield with a tragic cost of human lives.
And so on 29th July 2016 – 100 years on – I remember the violent end of this young man’s life. Though I’m not a big fan of our national Anzac mythology, I nevertheless find myself commemorating this familial link to that terrible conflict and the suffering of so many on the field and of their bereaved relatives at home. Lest we Forget.