134 George Howatt Smirthwaite
George Smirthwaite was born in 1888 in the small town of Ilford in the mid west region of New South Wales .
George was the only son of John Alcock Dixon Smirthwaite a native of England and Agnes Jane nee Howatt born in Mudgee New South Wales.
With his sisters Agnes Robina , Lilias Nellie and Jessie Isabel, the family finally settled further west in Gilgandra and in 1904 his mother Agnes died after a brief illness.
Family photo – Father John Smirthwaite centre – mother Agnes right – sisters Jessie left and Nellie seated with young George. photo courtesy the Ian Middleton collection.
The family became re-established and before long had become prominent members of the community. His father John later being described as “a reputable conscientious citizen, possessed with the virtue of doing good to those who needed befriending”.
His father John was a native of England, the son of wealthy parents, his father, Dr. George Smirthwaite a prominent surgeon in Lancashire England who provided John with a solid education before John ventured to Australia.
Initially John settled in the Mid West and worked as a carpenter and eventually “embraced the business” of undertaking and a House agent.
John became a member of the local council and was later recognized as the father of the order of the Gilgandra Manchester Unity Lodge.
George took up his father’s trade as a carpenter and also joined the M.U (Manchester Unity Lodge odd fellows).
George was also an active member of the Gilgandra shooting club and on a number of occasions while competing in national championships he was matched against fellow original 65 Edward Makinson from the Parramatta club. George and Edward both winning a pound each in competition in 1911.
Both young men at the time had no idea that in the years ahead they would be serving in the same unit , the 1st First Field Co. Engineers, in a world at war, side by side , on battle grounds in foreign lands.
George enlisted on the 19th August 1914, and no doubt bumped into his mate and shooting competitor Edward Makinson who also enlisted on the same day.
Originally a sapper with the 1st FCE he fell foul of the scourge of Cairo , venereal disease.
George contracted a serious case of V.D in Egypt and on the 5th May 1915 was invalided back to Australia on the SS Ceramic. George was accompanied by fellow original 33 Frederick Henry Paton a 19 year old mechanical engineer born in Bowral New South Wales who had contracted gonorrhea and was invalided back to Australia on the same troopship.
Both men returned to Broadmeadows in Victoria for follow-up repatriation. It was reported in local news that George had only “contracted fever and was invalided back to Gilgandra.”
He recovered and then returned for duty at Anzac Cove, Gallipoli with the 1st FCE on the 28th September 1915 where he remained until the evacuation and then returned with the remainder of the originals to Alexandria.
In a brief letter to his sister shortly after arriving at Gallipoli, George described it as an “exciting change”……………..
SOLDIER’S LETTERS -FROM GILGANDRA BOYS.
“Miss Smirthwaite, sister of Sapper George Smirthwaite, of this town, who is now on active service, received a letter from her brother last week.
Among other things he says……..I have now been at the front 8 days, and it is not at all too bad— quite an exciting change. Of course I am not allowed to say anything about the military operations in this letter. In fact it is not often we get a chance to send a letter at all. I am O K.” …..Gilgandra Weekly NSW Friday 3 December 1915,
Another letter soon followed
“Writing to his sister, Nell, from Gallipoli, under date November 24, Sapper George Smirthwaite says : —
I think it is some time since I have written to you. I have been nearly ten weeks at the front, but things are not too bright in the tucker line, and I had not had a wash for about seven or eight days; so things don’t look too promising do they ! I have had one letter from home since I left, I think some of my letters go astray ; write and tell me if you got those silk dresses I sent from Colombo? I hope they did not go astray.
I think we are going to have a pretty cold winter here; it is too cold to go down to the beach to bathe now, and saltwater only makes you worse when you are dirty, it makes it stick on. We see some beautiful sun sets here every evening. I have grown another mustache I think I will leave it on till I go home this time. The fleas are still as bad as ever here. I pinched some timber and made myself a bed so it is more comfortable than lying on the ground. Olive Johnsone is sending me a Christmas billy, with a cake and pudding in it. But a terrible lot of our parcels never reach us. I don’t know where they get to. We only get one envelope a week, and I have no private ones, so don’t rouse when I you get field service post cards”……Gilgandra Weekly (NSW : 1915 – 1929), Friday 21 January 1916, page 9
On the 9th March 1916 George was transferred to the 15th Field Company Engineers along with notable fellow originals 97 William Gibb, 133 Francis Moore and 35 Walter Robertson. Shortly after in April George was promoted to Corporal.
The following is his letter to his family from the western front…..
“Mr.and Mrs. J. Smirthwaite, of Gilgandra, are in receipt of a letter from their son, Corporal G. Smirthwaite, of the Engineers, from somewhere in France. He says:
I have not been to sleep since the attack. It was just hell in the trenches; men were killed all around you. I was out between our lines and the Germans, sapping. The fire was awful out there. When the boys got the order to charge, they just climbed over the parapet and walked across to the German lines. I never saw men take anything so cool. A person did not know which moment was his last. I had a pretty severe shaking up and a few bruises through being buried by a shell explosion. I am pretty stiff in the muscles from crawling out through mud and water and stopping in it for hours. I can only say that the Australians are brave men, every one of them. I was out in the hottest corner I was ever in to-day. About 20 high explosive shells burst within 10 feet of me, and I could not shift. I got covered in mud and dirt from the explosions, and small pieces of shell are embedded in the stock of my rifle. There were five casualties alongside of me. All I got was a few clouts with lumps of earth. You know we wear steel helmets.
I was in a gas attack the other day, and the gas helmet protects you. My head is ringing now from shocks. Yet we are asked to vote for or against conscription. I trust that our fathers, mothers and sisters will vote that our brave lads should not perish unassisted.”….Dubbo Liberal and Macquarie Advocate (NSW : 1894 – 1954), Friday 15 September 1916, page 4
George had his last letter to his father printed in the local paper….
On the 6th December 1916 George received a gun shot wound to the left side. He was transferred to the 38th casualty clearing station where he battled for his life for over three weeks. George died from his wounds on the 24th December 1916.
He was buried the same day at the Heilly Station – Somme Military Cemetery . His father was formally advised by letter dated 20th April 1917.
Georges’s father also received a letter two days prior from Captain Norman Beresford Lovett MC and Bar. Norman was a teacher in charge at Bearbung School near Gilgandra and an old friend of George prior to enlisting. Norman was an original 1st Light Horse at Gallipoli and was later killed in action in April 1918 a few months after being awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre.
George was never forgotten especially at home in Gilgandra, his sisters and father had played an important part in the formation of the famous first recruitment march known as the “Coo-ee March”.
The”Coo-ee March” started at Gilgandra, and was led by six local girls on horseback. These girls were Gladys Edwards, her younger sister Phyllis Edwards, Nellie Smirthwaite, Dorothy Wise, Dilzie Cosier and her sister Hilda Cosier. Dorothy was the only inexperienced rider and when the procession got to Boberah she could go no further, so Nellie Smirthwaite took over her mount and continued on with the other to Balladoran. The photo below shows the six girls on horseback behind the car leading the march.
It also looks like George may have had a sweet heart only known as his “ever-loving Dot” – she left a message in the Honour Roll of the Sydney Morning Herald on 15th January 1917.
Could ‘Dot’ have been Dorothy Wise who rode with his sister Nellie on the Coo-ee March ?
After George’s death his father remained active in fund-raising and relentless in his work with the local Progress Committee.
His father died in August 1927 and his obituary published in the Gilgandra weekly a few days after. The summary of his life a tribute to the Smirthwaite family and also his son George whom his father “was deeply attached, made the supreme sacrifice during the war”
Story – ©VanceKelly2016
An extensive collection of Smirthwaite family photos are available on Ancestry.com.
Sources and Acknowledgements:
Photo’s courtesy of the Ian Middleton Collection
AWM, NAA, NLA, Additional photos available from the Gilgandra Museum and Historical Society
The following links below relate to Cpt Norman Lovett.
His Biography – Dept of Veteran Affairs – http://www.australiansatwar.gov.au/stories/stories_war=W1_id=95.html
The Last Post Ceremony commemorating the service of (448) Captain Norman Beresford Lovett MC and Bar, 54th Battalion AIF, First World War. It also has a tribute to this great man as well. – https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/PAFU2015/003.01
“Coooee March”.- AWM link – https://www.awm.gov.au/encyclopedia/recruiting_march/cooees/