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Think Piece: The Puzzle of Family Military History

Thursday 23 June, 2016

Melanie Fuller_editedFamily history is an interesting concept. It’s like a puzzle without its box. You don’t know how many pieces there are, or what the picture is meant to look like. This is also the case in military family history, however, here you at least get a starting point now that many of Australia’s military records, particularly those from World War 1, have been made available by the National Archives of Australia. I am sharing my puzzle with you today in an effort to inspire others to try and piece together theirs. Mine is still missing pieces, but I have a much better view of my family’s military history now.

My journey started several months ago when I was honoured to find out that I was one of a few who had been chosen to carry the Colours of the 10th/27th Royal South Australian Regiment in the Centenary parades being held in France in July 2016. These commemorations are specifically being undertaken in 2016 to commemorate the Battle of Fromelles, and the Battle of Pozieres in which the 10th and 27th Battalions played a major role, and where thousands of Australian, including South Australian lives were lost.

As part of the preparations for the deployment to France I was asked if I knew of any family connections I might have to these battles, or to WWI in general. It had never before occurred to me to look into my family history, and see if I had any military connections.  It seems such an obvious thing to have done now.

Fortunately my mother had spent some time researching her family tree and  was able to provide me with the names of relatives who had been involved in the military.  I sensed my trip to France was about to take on a whole new meaning for me and that I was about to uncover a vital piece of my family’s military history puzzle.

I discovered that there were two members of my family who had fought in France in WWI; my great grandfather, Private Charles Henry Smith, and my great grand uncle, Private William Leslie Smith.  I know little of my great grand uncle other than that he was killed in Passchendaele in the Third Battle of Ypres, a major campaign fought by the Allies in Belgium. His records are limited and until more information can be found the details of his story will have to remain incomplete.

His brother however, my great grandfather, is a very different story. Surviving the war, he returned to Australia albeit wounded; but at least alive. Using the National Archives I found that he had fought in France, and that from his medical records he had been wounded on the 30th of July, 1916. Knowing this date was close to the Battle of Fromelles, I looked further to see if I could find any more information that might connect him to this particular battle.

According to his records he had enlisted into D Company as part of the 29th Battalion. There is little information available on the internet regarding the 29th Battalion, but fortunately a book was written on the unit’s history, excerpts of which I could read on the Australian War Memorial website.

The book, although seemingly quite rare, was available at Flinders University where I study. Black and Gold: the History of the 29th Battalion, 1915-1918,  written by R.A. Austin, enabled me to discover the full story of my great grandfather’s connection to France, which included not only the Battle of Fromelles, but also Polygon Wood, Bullecourt, Morlancourt and Amiens.

His unit, D Company, was used as a reinforcement unit at the Battle of Fromelles. The 29th Battalion was charged with ‘holding the line’ after the main battle had commenced resulting in horrendous casualties over a 24 hour period. Both British and Australian troops had tried to cover a distance that was the length of two football fields, facing German machine guns that were firing 600 rounds a minute.

It left many questioning the logic of those in charge, but wouldn’t be the first of the great battles fought on the Western Front where numbers lost were beyond anything previously imagined, let alone experienced. The fierce nature of this battle was summed up by one soldier of the 29th whose description appears on the AWM website: “the novelty of being a soldier wore off in about five seconds, it was like a bloody butcher’s shop”.

Although my great grandfather’s battalion still spent periods in the front line, the 29th played no major offensive role for the rest of that year.

This matched with my great grandfather’s medical records. It became evident that the day before reinforcements were brought in, he had been badly wounded in the neck while ‘holding the line’.  It took months of recovery before he was sent back to Australia, but after reading what this battalion subsequently endured, he was one of the lucky ones.

As I carry the 10th Battalion Regimental Colour in the Centenary of the Battle of Fromelles on behalf of all Australians, my great grand uncle and my great grandfather will be at the forefront of my mind.  Piecing together their stories and my family’s military history has been a profoundly interesting and rewarding journey for me. I would encourage anyone who has the inclination to do so, to start looking for the pieces to their own family military history, so they too can have the satisfaction of finding more pieces to these important puzzles that connect us to our past.

Lest We Forget.

Melanie Fuller enlisted in the Army Reserve in September 2012 graduating from her First Appointment Course as an Army Reserve General Service Officer in 2015.  She was awarded the Sword of Honour for best overall performance and Royal New South Wales Regiment Prize for best tactics and field skills at the completion of her final training block at the Royal Military College, Duntroon.  She is currently studying her PhD in Biomedical Nanotechnology at Flinders University, researching a more efficient treatment method for Cystic Fibrosis. At Flinders she is also teaching second year practical chemistry and is a science and engineering ambassador. Melanie is currently posted to 3 Field Squadron, 10th/27th Royal South Australian Regiment as a combat engineer officer.

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