Some uv the yarns yeh 'ear is true,
An' some is rather umptydoo
418 Driver Frederick Harcourt Smyth of the First Divisional Train enlisted on 20 August 1914, making him one of the first Coburg men to enlist. He was a 36 year old bushman and bachelor whose mother Jane lived at 37 Hudson Street, Coburg (although by the end of the war she had moved to Murrumbeena). He arrived in Egypt in November 1915 then went on to serve on the Western Front for two years. In November 1918 he returned to Australia on Special 1914 leave.
This watercolour by Arthur Streeton depicts the 1st AIF Divisional Train in the L'Hallue Valley in France with a section of horse lines, a row of general service wagons, and soldiers formed up near the road.
Image courtesy AWM. Image ART03512.
The family did not have a long-standing connection to Coburg. Frederick and his siblings were born in the Victorian goldfields towns of Sandhurst (now Bendigo) and Ballarat in the 1870s and 1880s. In the early years of the twentieth century, Frederick and his widowed mother Jane moved to the Hawthorn area of Melbourne. From 1914 to 1924 they lived in Coburg, but soon after his return from the war, Frederick Smyth moved to Oakleigh where he worked as a storeman. His mother died at Murrumbeena in 1920 aged 71 and Frederick died at Sunbury in 1927 aged 50.
Frederick Smyth’s life and war were unexceptional. The same cannot be said for his youngest brother Harrie Gordon Smyth, born in Ballarat in May 1886. By 1908, when he was in his early 20s, Harrie started to appear in the criminal records of New South Wales. Between March 1908 and March 1909, he had six convictions for stealing, false pretences, embezzlement, forgery and uttering and spent most of the year in Bathurst Gaol. More convictions were recorded in NSW in 1910. Then he moved to Tasmania where he was convicted of obtaining money by false pretences in 1912.
Tents in the military camp at Kiama, NSW in 1916. The camp was the training ground for new recruits.
Image courtesy AWM. Image P01699.004
When the war came along, Harrie Smyth enlisted in the 1st AIF under the name Arthur Charles Berry, and claimed to have been born in Norwood, Adelaide. This was in September 1916. Within a month he had stolen £32 from the Military Camp at Kiama in NSW. He re-appeared in March 1918, signing a statutary declaration saying he was Harrie Gordon Smyth, son of Jane Smyth of Oakleigh, Victoria. He spun a yarn to his CO saying he wanted to move down to Victoria, which was where he claimed his family had moved to, and convinced the CO that he ‘wanted to make good and blot out the trouble into which he got.’ He left for the war on 5 June 1918, arrived in Liverpool, England on 11 August 1918. He saw no action, because within a week of arrival he had deserted and was never seen again. The consumate chameleon.
And this is where we leave Coburg's Digger Smiths and return to exploring the impact of the war on the Melbourne suburb of Coburg.