MV Blog


Two fathers from WW1

by Shane Salmon
Publish date
3 September 2015
Comments (0)

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.

Roberts Stewart Smylie's 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.

Poem in notebook 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.

big scrapbook of photos 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.

WWI honour boards - can you help?

by Deb Tout-Smith
Publish date
10 November 2014
Comments (5)

Deb is a senior curator in MV's Humanities department. She was the lead curator of WWI: Love & Sorrow.

In the wake of the tragic experience of World War I, thousands of honour boards, memorials and cenotaphs were made to remember those who served and died. They were commissioned by many organisations including community groups, schools, employers, government departments and agencies. Those which survive today are increasingly significant as testaments to community experience and the need to create lasting memorials in the face of nationwide grief and loss.

Honour board inscribed with soldier names Honour Board - Kildonan Presbyterian Homes for Children, World War I, circa 1920 (SH 901000)
Source: Museum Victoria

The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU), in collaboration with Museum Victoria, is seeking information on World War I honour boards commemorating the military service of members of the Victorian public sector. The CPSU hopes to compile information about surviving public sector honour boards and support the preservation of these boards for future generations. If you know of any, perhaps in your own workplace, please contact the CPSU on

Another significant honour board is currently on display at Melbourne Museum’s moving new exhibition WWI: Love & Sorrow.

Timber honour board inscribed with soldier names Honour Board - Associated Stock & Station Agents of Melbourne, circa 1920 (HT 33129)
Image: Rodney Start
Source: Museum Victoria

This board was made around 1920 to commemorate the service of workers at the Associated Stock and Station Agents of Melbourne, which was closely linked to the Newmarket Saleyards. It was donated to Museum Victoria by the Yarra Glen Returned Services League (RSL) Sub Branch.

If you can provide any information about the people named on the board, please contact our  Discovery Centre.

WWI ambulance arrives

by Kate C
Publish date
25 June 2014
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On Monday evening, perhaps just as you were eating dinner, a crew carefully unloaded an extraordinary object from World War I and placed it in the foyer of Melbourne Museum.


This is a British-made Ambulance Wagon MK VI. It dates from 1914-18 and is on loan to us from the Australian War Memorial for our upcoming exhibition WWI: Love & Sorrow

One hundred years ago, these horse-drawn ambulances transported wounded soldiers from the battlefield. Unarmoured and vulnerable, they often travelled by night to avoid becoming targets. The journey between trench and casualty clearing station could take many days over rough tracks—an agonising journey for men with terrible injuries.

WWI: Love & Sorrow marks the centenary of the start of World War I. It opens at Melbourne Museum on 30 August 2014.

WWI & Australian military history

by Meg
Publish date
20 August 2013
Comments (1)

Question: My great-great-grandfather served in Egypt during the Great War – where can I find out more information about soldiers’ war-time experiences and Australia’s military history more generally?

Answer: A useful starting-point for general archival research of Australian military history is the National Archives of Australia Fact Sheets – enter the term ‘military’ in the search field to refine your results.

Private Albert Edward Kemp, 1916-1917: Albert Edward Kemp Mourning Collection Service photo of Private Albert Edward Kemp, who served in France + Belguim in World War 1 and was killed in action in 1917.
Source: Museum Victoria

Your next port of call might be the Australian War Memorial. The War Memorial is a rich source of information about specific conflicts, terminologies and people. Examples of documents held by the Australian War Memorial include:

You can also find information specific to Victorian military service on the Veterans’ Unit website.

Extreme right of Anzac showing soldiers outside dug out and supplies on the beach. Extreme right of Anzac Cove showing soldiers outside dug out and supplies on the beach.
Source: Museum Victoria

If you’re interested in undertaking research on particular soldiers, such as your great-great-grandfather, there are a number of approaches to take:

  • Nominal rolls list members of Australia's defence forces who served during particular conflicts. A handy short-cut to the rolls is hosted by the Federal Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
  • The Australian War Memorial can help you ‘Research a Person’.
  • The National Archives of Australia holds military service records and attestation documents. World War I records are extensively available online, while World War II records are partially online and may be ordered.
  • Trove, hosted by the National Library of Australia, facilitates searches for newspapers, maps, books, images, historic music, archives and more.


'Captain Hunter', Egypt, Captain Edward Albert McKenna, World War I, 1914-1915: : Military Memorabilia Collection Portrait of Captain Hunter in the camp.
Image: Captain Edward Albert McKenna
Source: Museum Victoria

Finally, another good source of general information on military history is the museum collection. Today museums typically have at least some of their collections online – the Museum Victoria Collections Online may be a useful starting point, and you could also browse the Australian War Memorial collection online.

While the Shrine of Remembrance is synonymous with the military history of Australia, traditionally it is not a collecting institution, although it does hold a small collection of objects for display purposes.

Beyond Australia, most nations hold national military collections, often in national museums, and some battlefields have museums specific to those conflicts. International collections that may be of particular interest include the National Army Museum and the Imperial War Museums in the UK.

World War I, Two Nurses, Heliopolis, Egypt, 1915-1917: Sister Selina Lily (Lil) Mackenzie Collection Two nurses standing on a street out the front of Heliopolis Dairy building.
Image: Selina Lily Mackenzie
Source: Museum Victoria

If you have a collection of material you need advice on managing, the Veterans’ Unit in Victoria provides workshops and information guides. Museums Australia (Victoria) also provides training workshops and printed information on managing collections.

Diggers in Birmingham

by Emily Woolley
Publish date
30 November 2012
Comments (2)

Emily is a third-year History of Art student at the University of Birmingham. She worked at MV after winning a Global Challenge award which gives students opportunities to work overseas.

In August and September I spent six weeks in Museum Victoria's Humanities Department helping to plan for the Centenary of World War I exhibition, which will be held at the museum in 2014. My main focus was on a collection of magazines named Aussie published for soldiers during and after WWI.

At the end of my placement I came away eager to contribute more, however small, and link up Melbourne Museum's WWI centenary commemorations with those that will happen in the Birmingham. I set out to find any connections between Australia and the University of Birmingham relating to WWI.

Australian and New Zealand soldiers came to Birmingham in 1914 to be treated at the University of Birmingham’s Great Hall, then called the 1st Southern General Hospital (and it is where I will be graduating next summer). Looking through the university’s collections, I came across an embroidered quilt that was produced by convalescing soldiers. Made up of nine panels, it includes an Australian panel depicting a crown with ‘Australian Commonwealth Military Forces’ written on a scroll underneath and a New Zealand panel featuring an intricate fern with ‘NZ’ over the top.

white stitching on cloth Australian Servicemen embroidery detail on Matron Kathleen Lloyd's linen cloth.
Source: BIRRC-H0013, Research & Cultural Collections, University of Birmingham

stitched fern pattern on cloth New Zealand Regiment embroidery detail embroidery detail on Matron Kathleen Lloyd's linen cloth.
Source: BIRRC-H0013, Research & Cultural Collections, University of Birmingham

I also found photos at the Birmingham Archives and Heritage collections, with wounded soldiers from Australia and Scotland posing with nurses in the grounds of the hospital. Museum Victoria also holds many photographs taken and postcards purchased by soldiers from their time in England during WWI.

group of soldiers Australian soldiers with nurses at the 1st Southern General Hospital, now the University of Birmingham's Great Hall.
Source: Birmingham Archives & Heritage: Misc Photos/WW1/Hospitals/1st Southern Gen (89/1863)

In addition, in the university’s collections there is an interesting article in The Mermaid magazine, entitled A Trip to Gallipoli’ by Percival M. Chadwick. He was a Civil Engineering Lecturer at the University of Birmingham who left in 1915 to go and fight in Gallipoli for twelve months, only to return to Birmingham again to be treated at the university in the 1st Southern General Hospital. He was attached to the New Zealand Engineers working with Australian and New Zealand Infantry and Cavalry regiments including a Maori contingent. He states:

The officers with whom I worked gave me a homely welcome, and I speedily felt quite at ease among them.

I could reiterate what Percival M. Chadwick said about Australians, about my colleagues at Melbourne Museum. It was a pleasure working there and one of the most enjoyable work experiences I have had. I very much look forward to seeing what Melbourne Museum puts on in its centenary exhibition in 2014 and I hope it is a success for everyone.


Percival M. Chadwick, R.E, ‘A Trip to Gallipoli’, The Mermaid, issue 13, p121, 1916-17, University of Birmingham Research and Cultural collections.


University of Birmingham collections

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Updates on what's happening at Melbourne Museum, the Immigration Museum, Scienceworks, the Royal Exhibition Building, and beyond.