Shane works on touring exhibitions at Museum Victoria.
The impact of World War One took a particularly tragic toll on families, as great numbers of fathers and sons failed to return home from the front line. The worry and grief of fathers and mothers knew no boundaries, whether in Australia, England, Germany, or elsewhere.
Melbourne Museum is currently hosting two exhibitions on the subject of the First World War. Both contain powerful stories about those who served in the war, and the impact their loss had on families. With Fathers’ Day approaching this weekend, we reflect on two fathers who fought in the war, and tip our hat to all absent fathers this Sunday.
'My three kids'
Robert Stewart Smylie, a 42-year old father of three, died on the Somme with a photograph of his wife and three children in his shrapnel-damaged wallet.
Family photos in Roberts Smylie's wallet.
Source: Imperial War Museums
Smylie was a school headmaster who had taught English, Latin and Mathematics for 20 years. Despite his age and responsibilities, on the outbreak of war he joined the army and eventually travelled with the 1st Battalion in Flanders.
While stationed in Flanders, he wrote a long poem about his experiences to his three children, ending with the hope that they would all soon be together again. A full transcript of the poem appears at the end of this post.
Smylie's poem for his children.
Source: Imperial War Museums
Smylie's sketchbook appears in The WW1 Centenary Exhibition.
A scrapbook of grief
Frank Roberts was recently married when he arrived at the Belgian battlefields in 1917. His first daughter Nancy was born soon after. He kept in close correspondence with his family, including his father Garry, until his death in a fierce battle at Mont St Quentin on 1 September 1918.
The loss of his son Frank cast a shadow over the rest of Garry Roberts’s life. He spent countless hours contacting soldiers who served with Frank, meeting them, trying to piece together what had happened.
From his massive collection of articles, photographs, letters and other memorabilia, Garry compiled 27 huge scrapbooks documenting Frank’s life and the world in which he had lived. The scrapbooks are among the most poignant expressions of grief ever made.
One of three Roberts’ Scrapbooks on display at in the WWI: Love & Sorrow exhibition at Melbourne Museum.
Source: Museum Victoria
You can see the scrapbook and other traces of Frank Roberts in WWI: Love and Sorrow.
Transcript of poem written by Robert Smylie, 19 November 1915
I am writing this tonight, My three kids
By a little candle-light, My three kids
And the candlestick’s a tin
With some dry tobacco in
And so that’s how I begin, To my kids
Now I wonder what you’re at, My three kids
Moll and Bids and little Pat, My three kids
Why of course there’s two asleep
But perhaps Moll’s thinking deep
Watching little stars that peep, At my kids
Since I left you long ago, My three kids
There’s a lot you’d like to know, My three kids
That has happened to your dad
In the varied luck he’s had
In adventures good and bad, My three kids
I have soldiered in a trench, My three kids
Serving under Marshall French, My three kids
Once a shell dropped with a thud
Quite close, covered me with mud
And it’s lucky ‘twas a dud, For my kids
And I’ve crossed the ground outside, My three kids
It’s at night that’s chiefly tried, My three kids
And the bullets sang all round
Overhead, or struck the ground
But your daddy none has found, No my kids
I have mapped our trenches new, My three kids
And some German trenches too, My three kids
I have sprinted past a wood
Counting steps, for so I could
Judge the distance as I should, My three kids
I have placed our snipers where, My three kids
On the Germans they could stare, My three kids
And they killed their share of men
Quite a lot for snipers ten
From their little hidden den, My three kids
And I’ve slept in bed quite warm, My three kids
But I haven’t taken harm, My three kids
When upon the ground I lay
Without even straw or hay
In the same clothes night and day, My three kids
When they sent us back to rest, My three kids
Then they seemed to think it best, My three kids
To send your dad ahead
To discover where a bed
Could be found, or some old shed, My three kids
And new officers were trained, My three kids
And the men we’ve lately gained, My three kids
And while that work was in hand
I was second in command
Of B Coy and that was grand, My three kids
But it didn’t last all through, My three kids
There was other work to do, My three kids
When they made me adjutant
I was busy as an ant
And it’s not much catch I grant, To my kids
I have ridden on a horse, My three kids
Captured from a German force, My three kids
And I’ve marched and crawled and run
Night and day in rain and sun
And shall do it till we’ve won, For my kids
And I’d rather be with you, My three kids
Let you know I’m lucky too, My three kids
Lots of men I used to know
Now are killed or wounded, though
I remain, and back I’ll go, To my kids
And I hope you’ll all keep well, My three kids
Just as sound as any bell, My three kids
And when this long war is done
We shall have some glorious fun
Moll and Bids and little son, My three kids.