|Ray Jerrems, Our Genealogist, Historian||
Above is a photo of my grandfather Edward Healy Smith (sitting) and his brother. My grandfather, with his trademark lantern jaw, is dressed in the uniform supplied to him as a member of B Company in the 13th Field Ambulance Unit. In summary he served in France in World War l as a stretcher bearer and was awarded the Military Medal.
But what was the former headmaster of an English Art
School doing in an Australian Army Field Ambulance
unit in the killing fields of France in 1917? Simply, he
had grown up in Templestowe in England in a
strict "Plymouth Brethren" family (the Plymouth
Brethren were what we would now call "conscientious
objectors"). He migrated to Western Australia with his
brother and soon joined up, his concession to his
religious upbringing being that he enlisted in a non-
combative role in the Field Ambulance.
One of the only people he ever spoke to about the War was me, for about half an hour. Here is what he told me. He said the worst part of his job as a stretcher bearer was to decide which of the wounded men could survive their wounds as he threaded his way between the corpses, the shell holes, the barbed wire and the wounded. The men who he decided were beyond help knew that their fate was sealed.
He told me that he had been awarded the Military Medal (statistically speaking this was awarded to only approximately one Australian soldier in every 200) for going out into No Man's Land under German fire to rescue wounded Diggers. He went by himself because nobody else would go. The man with the lantern jaw (often associated with stubborn people) had made up his mind, in his words to me he preferred to go out rather than go insane listening to the haunting cries of the wounded.
I have not been able to locate the citation for the Medal, the most obvious way of finding out where he earned it. However his service record refers to him as being awarded the MM on 21st April 1918. This coincides with the first night of the Australians' attack at Villiers Brettoneaux, where the Australians incurred heavy casualties but were spectacularly successful in achieving their objective of stopping the Germans' last major advance. It has been described by some as the turning point of the War.
The town of Villiers Brettoneux has an almost legendary status in Australian folk lore. After the War money donated by school children in Victoria helped to build the school there. The school was inaugurated on Anzac Day 1927, and since then every classroom and the town's community hall have displayed a sign that has become legendary in Australia: "N'Oublions Jamais l'Australie" (Let Us Never Forget Australia). Australian visitors are warmly welcomed there and the schoolchildren know "Waltzing Matilda' by heart. Last year an Anzac Day ceremony was held near the town, with huge press coverage.
I suppose that the American equivalent would be the landing at Omaha Beach in World War 2.
I am relieved that I have finally established where he
earned the medal, with the additional fillip that he
earned it in an action so famous in Australia.
I have located three members of the Jerrems family who served in the First World War. They were two brothers (Henry "Harry" Herbert Jerrems and William George Jerrems) and their cousin William Frank Jerrems. They all lived in Richmond, Melbourne, the suburb where their fathers (Robert Cane Jerrems and Arthur Reginald) had lived since they had migrated from Gainsborough with their parents and siblings in the 1850s.
Harry (1880-1928) was the grandfather and great grandfather of some of our Melbourne readers (including Anita Veale and Ian and Ken Jerrems) and William Frank Jerrems (1885-?) is the grandfather and great grandfather of some of our Queensland readers (including Jesse Jerrems).
Harry originally enlisted in July 1915 but was discharged in March 1916 as being medically unfit due to back problems incurred before the war. Undeterred, Harry re-enlisted in January 1917 and trained for the infantry in England. In due course he was assigned as a reinforcement to the 38th Battalion, which he joined in France in January 1918. He would have seen action in the Battles of Villers Brettoneux and the Third Battle of the Somme.
Harry's brother William proved to be elusive, and therein lies a story. I would not have located him except that Alexa's grandmother's cousin (don't ask me to explain where she fits into the family tree!) said that she met two Jerrems brothers in England who had served in the First World War. The War Records did not show two Jerrems brothers, so I checked the list of men who had enlisted in Richmond and found a reference to a William George Jerram. William's mother had the same Christian names as Harry's and lived at the same address as Harry's so it was obvious I had the right person.
William George joined up 5 days after his brother and in due course trained with the 38th Infantry Battalion in Cairo (it was probably intended that the battalion would serve on the Gallipoli Peninsular but that campaign had finished before they arrived in Cairo). William was later assigned to the 59th Battalion as a driver in France (he had described himself as a driver in his enlistment application). He returned to Australia in early 1918.
Finally we come to William Frank Jerrems (by the way, do you remember my article about the number of descendants named "William"? William George and William Frank help prove my point). William Frank joined up on 5th January 1915 (perhaps the result of a rash New Year's resolution?) and served at Gallipoli and France in the 6th Infantry Battalion. He was wounded in the left hand in August 1918, possibly at the Somme, and as the result of the wound was repatriated to Australia shortly before the war ended.
Relatives of other readers of the Jerrems Journal served in the War, including Albert Harrison (the grandfather of reader Brian Harrison) and Sydney Blamey (Brian's great uncle).
Albert had served in the Boer War and obtained a commission when he joined the AIF in 1915, serving as a Captain in the infantry in France. He was concussed by a shellburst at the First Battle of Ypres (a notorious battlefield) and suffered from shell shock.
Sydney Blamey served at Gallipoli and then in the Camel Corps in Palestine. Finally he was posted to France where after being awarded the Military Medal he was gassed and wounded.
A great uncle on my mother's side (Arnold McDonald) served all the way through from the Gallipoli landing to the armistice in the Second Infantry Battalion and (as related to his son Donald McDonald, my uncle) was awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre when he led about 20 men in capturing a German concrete pillbox at Passchendale in the Third Battle of Ypres in October 1917. He was very modest about his contribution, saying he fired a few shots at the pillbox with his revolver (sergeants carried revolvers rather than rifles) and soon after that the German defenders surrendered. He said he had received the decoration simply because he was the most senior person there. One of his men was killed so the operation was probably not as anti-climactic as he would have had us believe.
Another great uncle (Cyril Spurge) also survived until the Armistice. He served as a captain in a Howitzer Battery at Gallipoli and was then repatriated to Australia with typhoid fever. A demon for punishment he returned to the War when he had recovered, serving in the Artillery from Major to Lieutenant- Colonel. A note on his record says that he was "Escort to the King in opening of Parliament on 7th February 1917". As the end of the war approached he served on Headquarters staff. He was quite a character, when I was young he would sit me down on the back steps of his house and feed me bananas because he said they were very healthy for small boys.
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