Friday, 25 October 2013

Digger Smith at Fromelles

"Me blackest day!  Wot am I sayin' now?
   That was the day the parson came to tell
The news about our Syd. . . .

339 Corporal Percival Kerrison Smith of A Company, 29th Battalion, enlisted on 5 July 1915. The son of Arthur Edward Smith and the late Mary Ann Teresa Hunt, he lived with his father, an accountant, and his sisters Lina and Vera at 24 Rodda Street, Coburg. Another sister, Florence, had married and moved away, although after her husband Frederick Larter enlisted in March 1916, she moved back home for the duration of the war.

Percival’s father Arthur Smith was from an established Coburg family. His grandfather, John Francis Smith, and grandmother, Henrietta Pettitt, both arrived from England in the mid 1850s. They married at Williamstown in 1857 and settled in what was then known as Pentridge in 1861, where John Francis worked as a warder at the Pentridge Stockade. They raised their five children in Coburg and died there in the first years of the twentieth century. Arthur, their third child, lived in the area all his life, most of it at 24 Rodda Street. He had brought up his children alone since the early death of his wife in 1897 aged only 38. Percival (known as  PK to his friends in the 29th Battalion) was his only son.

On 10 November 1915, Percival Smith sailed for the war in Europe on board the Ascanius. He arrived in Egypt on 7 December 1915 where the members of the 29th Battalion began their training.

The 29th Battalion marching up to its allotted position in the desert trenches. These troops belonged to the new divisions formed to take the place of the 1st and 2nd Australian divisions and the New Zealand division ordered to France.
Image courtesy AWM. Image G01495.

On 23 June 1916 PK Smith disembarked at Marseilles and less than a month later (on the 19/20 July 1916) he was declared ‘missing in action’ in the Fleurbaix sector during the Battle of Fromelles. Seven Smiths died that day. They were only a small number of the five and a half thousand casualties in what was the first Australian battle on the Western Front. PK’s body was never recovered, but after a Court of Inquiry was held in August 1916, he was officially declared ‘killed in action’.

A close friend, Jack Caird, gave evidence that although he had not seen PK killed, ‘several of those who did told me he was blown to pieces by a shell.’ Word of this must have got through to his father, as indicated by the following note found in PK’s service record.

15 Private Jack Caird was also a member of the 29th Battalion. At the time of his enlistment he was an 18 year old brass moulder who lived with his widowed mother in Sydney Road, Coburg. He and PK had sailed together on the Ascanius. Jack was wounded on the same day that PK was killed, but he survived the war.

There were other Coburg men on board: Thomas Joseph Lynch, Frederick John Sherlock, William Charles Thomson, Alfred Williams (all in A Company), George Barrie and Frederick Fletcher (in B Company) and John Arthur Mether (in D Company). All of them returned from the war, although George Barrie had a leg amputated.

It was the task of Rev Newton of Coburg’s Holy Trinity Church to break the news of PK’s death to Arthur Smith. Although the following letter from Chaplain Beveridge is written about PK Smith, it is a reminder that many, many young men died and many ministers of religion had the unenviable task of breaking the news to the families. In this case, as in many others where no body was found, the task must have been doubly difficult.

Percival Kerrison Smith has no known grave and is remembered at the VC Corner Australian Cemetery and Memorial, Fromelles, France.

This is the site of the first Australian attack in France, the only all-Australian cemetery in France. The cemetery has no headstones, however recorded on the screen walls are the names of 1,299 Australians who died in the Battle of Fromelles in July 1916 and have no known grave.
Image courtesy Mark Abercromby.

PK’s family continued to live at 24 Rodda Street, Coburg. After the war, his sister Florence and her returned serviceman husband Frederick Larter went to live in the Hawthorn area where they remained. His sister Lina married fruit grower Francis Bassett in 1918 and moved to Doreen near Whittlesea where she lived until her death in 1983 aged 91.

The link with Coburg continued, however. PK’s father Arthur and unmarried sister Veronica (known as Vera) continued to live at 24 Rodda Street, he until his death in 1946 and she until her death in 1980. This means that this particular Smith family had a 120 year connection with Coburg and a 70 year connection with 24 Rodda Street, a house that has now been demolished to make way for a housing development.

Click here to see Heritage Database place details relating Rodda Street, 23 May 2013.


  1. That's a very thoughtful letter from Chaplain Beveridge. I'm sure it was better to grieve than suffer months of anxiety. In some cases it was years of anxiety.

  2. Yes, I felt that myself. I've seen what can happen in my own family. My uncle and his crew were shot down over Milne Bay, New Guinea during WW2 and because no bodies were ever found my grandmother could not accept that he had died. She still held out hope until her death in 1976. There must have been many WW1 mothers who held out similar hopes.

  3. I have been contacted by the army requesting a dna sample to see if they can identify the remains of Percival who is my Great Uncle. I hope they can find his remains and hopefully I can represent the family an appropriate memorial service at Fromelles

  4. Thanks for your comment, David. I would love to know more about the DNA identifications. And perhaps you have other stories you could share about Percival Smith and his family. Please keep in touch. You can email me at

  5. Thank you so much for this. Sydney Alexander Beveridge was our great-grandfather & we have almost no record of his wartime past.

    Best Regards, Andrew Beveridge (

  6. How wonderful that something I put together about someone completely different has added to your knowledge of your great-grandfather's war service. As a chaplain, he must have written many more similar letters and I wonder what sort of a toll it took on him. I'm guessing that you've checked out Percival Kerrison Smith's service record - there may be more from Chaplain Beveridge there. And you never know, someone reading this may have more examples of the compassion for the family and commonsense that he shows here.