Harold Thomson SMITH
Eyes hazel, Hair brown, Complexion fair
Harold Smith – Killed on his 20th Birthday
Can you help to identify Harold?
Harold’s body was recovered by the Germans after the battle, but there are no records of his burial. There is still a chance he might be identified, but we need help.
A mass grave was found in 2008 for 250 bodies the Germans had recovered after the battle. 168 of these soldiers have now been identified and given proper burials and recognition through finding family DNA donors. 82 soldiers remain and some identifications are highly likely. We just need to find DNA donors. Both mt DNA (mother’s line) and Y DNA (father’s line) are needed for this soldier.
If you know anything of Harold’s family or contacts here in Australia, we would like to hear from you.
See the DNA box at the end of the story for what we do know about his family.
Harold Thomson Smith, born on 19 July 1896 in North Melbourne, was the second of David and Elizabeth (nee Leeming) Smith’s six children. His siblings were Arthur, Elsie, Ivy, Vera and Aubrey. Arthur also served in the War, joining in January 1916, regimental number 20345.
Harold attended State School No 583 in South Yarra and then the Working Men's College in Melbourne, the predecessor to the current-day Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.
He worked as a warehouseman after his schooling, as did his older brother, Arthur. Harold’s interest in technical workings was shown by being a member of the 7th Field Company Engineers for nine months of the three years he spent in the Citizens Military Forces in Melbourne.
Into the Army and off to Gallipoli
Harold was the first of his family to enlist, signing up on 22 March 1915. He was only 18 years, 8 months old and this required his parents’ approval, which was willingly given.
He was assigned to the newly formed 24th Battalion, B Company and given regimental number 509. The 24th was raised in a hurry during the first week of May 1915 and they sailed from Melbourne at the end of that week. Training shortfalls were to be made up in Egypt.
With his earlier engineering experience, Harold was reassigned to the 2nd Australian Division’s 5th Field Engineering Company for the Gallipoli campaign and his regimental number was changed to 4474. The engineers’ training in Egypt was largely focused on trenches, listening posts and erection of wire and other obstacles.
Harold was promoted to Lance Corporal on 16 August 1915 and, by the end of August, his unit had completed their basic military and engineering training and were headed for Gallipoli. They left Alexandria on 4 September 1915 and were onshore at Anzac Cove ten days later.
With the major offensive having been completed earlier in the year, Harold’s unit spent their time at Quinn’s Post, Pope’s Hill and Russel’s Top improving the trenches, listening posts and defensive positions. While there were no direct attacks, the Turks were still just meters away with snipers, grenades and mines to contend with daily.
On 16 December 1915, orders were received to head for Egypt, destroying their trenches as they left. They departed Anzac Cove on 18 December, spent Christmas in Mudros on Lemnos Island and arrived in Alexandria on 8 January 1916.
Back to Egypt and then on to Fleurbaix
On arrival in Egypt, Harold’s unit was renamed the 8th Field Company since there was “another” 5th Field Company arriving from Australia.
The Western Front required some different engineering skills than those needed for Gallipoli and Harold spent his time training to erect pontoons/bridges/spans and also doing some railroad work when they were at Ferry Post.
The call to the Western Front came and on 16 June Harold left Moascar, headed for Alexandria and then Marseilles, arriving on 25 June 1916. After several days of train rides and marches, they were in Morbecque by 1 July - just 30 kilometres from the Front. While there, they received an important addition to their training - how to handle a gas attack.
Harold’s unit moved forward early to take over trenching work in the front lines on 6 July to prepare for the upcoming battle. They were in and out of the trenches through the 15th, all the time under ongoing artillery and German sniper fire.
An attack was planned for 17 July, but it was called off due to the weather.
The attack was rescheduled for 19 July, Harold’s 20th birthday. The 8th Field Company were to provide support for 32nd Battalion’s attack.
Heavy artillery from both sides had begun at 11 AM. Harold’s unit were in position by noon and the 32nd’s charge over the parapet began at 5.53 PM.
The 32nd were successful in their initial assaults. By 6.30 PM they were in control of the German’s 1st line system, which was noted as “practically a ditch with from 1 to 2 feet of mud and slush at the bottom”. From there, there was little progress to be made, given the “gluey” nature of the trench and a lack of sandbags.
Harold’s role in the battle was to dig and clear communications trenches. The War Diaries specifically note that the communication trench was well constructed and of good condition.
By 8.30 PM their left flank was under heavy bombardment from shrapnel from high explosives. Return bombardment support was provided and the troops were told that “the trenches were to be held at all costs”.
Harold’s role placed him in the thick of the battle and near the machine gun embankment at Delangre Farm. Being almost 6 feet tall was not an advantage and “he was sniped with a shot through his head, killing him almost instantaneously” - 20 years old that very day.
Fighting continued through the night. At 4 AM, the Germans began their attack from the Australian’s left flank and then on the front.
A charge at the Germans’ firing line was made by the Australians. However, they were low on grenades and there was machine gun fire from behind from Delangre Farm. They were also so far advanced that they were getting shelled by both sides.
By 7.30 AM on the 20th, what was left of the 32nd had withdrawn. The toll of the attack was horrendous – 718 casualties, 90% of their effective strength.
As reported by the Officer in Charge, Harold was well ahead in the 32nd’s advance, but with the ferocity of the battle his body was not able to be recovered by his mates.
No Closure for the Family
From records received through the Red Cross, the Germans did recover his body from the battlefield and that information was provided on 2 August 1916, stating that he had fallen in the neighbourhood of Fromelles. This was confirmed later, but no other details were provided.
On 13 September 1916, Harold was formally declared as “Killed in Action” on 19 July 1916 although his father as next of kin had been advised of his death in mid-August.
With his death having been confirmed shortly after the battle, the family were seeking some sort of closure by hoping to receive his personal effects in a reasonably short period of time but with all the confusion of the battle this did not happen.
Harold’s father, David, wrote to the Army on six separate occasions between October 1916 and July 1917, even contacting the Secretary of Defence in his later letters. The frustration is clear in his 6 June 1917 letter, as he knows of other families whose sons fell on the same date who had received their sons’ belongings. The Army replied to these requests but were unable to return Harold’s goods though his file shows that his identity disc was returned to next of kin some time after November 1917.
He was clearly missed by his family and friends – just 20 years old on the day he died. His brother, Arthur - then serving as a driver with the 8th Field Artillery Brigade (service number 20345) - made enquiries as to his younger brother’s fate and received the only known details of how Harold died by sniper shot. Knowing that Harold’s death was probably instantaneous must have been some solace to his grieving family.
In addition, in January 1917, Arthur took steps to ease the blow for his parents should he also be killed by requesting that his file be annotated “in case of fatality, the Rev J. T. Lawton (Presby.), South Yarra, is to break the news.” Fortunately, Arthur survived the war and returned to Australia in May 1919.
Harold received the 1914-15 Star, the British War Medal, the Victory Medal and the family received a Memorial Plaque and a Memorial Scroll.
He is commemorated at V.C. Corner (Panel No 1), Australian Cemetery and Memorial at Fromelles, France and also on Panel 25, Roll of Honour, Australian War Memorial, Canberra.
Still a Chance?
With no burial details and no personal effects other than his id tag, there is no true closure for the family. But is there still a chance?
As described at the beginning of this story, it is possible that Harold is one of the yet to be identified soldiers from the mass grave that was dug by the Germans near where Harold was shot and only discovered in 2008.
We just need to find DNA donors to test for a match with the bodies in the grave. For this soldier, both mt DNA (mother’s line) and Y DNA (father’s line) are needed.
If you know anything of Harold’s family or his friend’s contacts we would like to hear from you.
DNA is still being sought for family connections to
|Harold Thomson SMITH 1896 – 1916 of North Melbourne, Victoria
|David SMITH 1863 - 1943 and Elizabeth Eleanor LEEMING 1865 - 1925
|Arthur Leeming SMITH 1893 – 1968 (m Mary Jane WILLIAMS)
|Elsie Waters SMITH 1899 - 1976 (m Herbert Richard EDRICH)
|Ivy Constance SMITH 1902 – 1955
|Aubrey George SMITH 1906 - 1939
|James SMITH 1821 – 1871 and Ann THOMSON c1827 – 1872
|William LEEMING 1826 – 1876 and Elizabeth WATERS 1825 – 1874
In the search on the maternal line, the town of Bolton Le Sands in Lancashire was where Elizabeth Waters’ ancestors originated. Surnames associated with her line include GILLOW (b. circa 1735), Elizabeth JACKSON (b 1763) and Peggy MAWSON (b 1797).
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