Gareth Hoar

Consul-General, Melbourne

Guest blogger for UK in Australia

Part of UK in Australia

7th July 2016 Canberra, Australia

Uncovering lost stories of WW1

For many in the UK, the first day of the Battle of the Somme looms large in our island story – it was the first time a mass, citizen army drawn from the population as a whole, rather than professional soldiers, was committed into an industrialised theatre of war. It was to be a terrible, shattering experience.

That’s why last week we marked the 100th anniversary of that day at a series of moving ceremonies here in Australia, as well as in the UK and France.

In addition to arranging these moving acts of commemoration, the British Government has been keen to support projects that cast new light on the historical legacy of the First World War. I’m proud to say that one of these projects has taken place here in Melbourne, in conjunction with the Victorian State Government.

Photo_JERen_GHoar_ Militiades meeting 090516
Consul-General Gareth Hoar met with Victorian Minister for Veterans John Eren to discuss the Militiades research project.

Australians are rightly proud of the hundreds of thousands of young men who volunteered to join the Australian Imperial Force at the outbreak of the war. But among those who took ship for Europe were a group of men whose stories are less well known. These were former soldiers in the British Army who had moved to Australia in search of a new life but who remained members of the Reserve forces. Many of these Imperial Reservists travelled to Europe aboard the transport ship HMAT Miltiades. Our project successfully delivered a searchable database of the names and, where available, the war records of these men.

Not all of the men who set sail on the Miltiades are unknown to us. Among them was a remarkable young man who was born
into a Jewish family in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1890. At the age of just 14 he applied to join the British Army. One can only imagine the look on the recruiting sergeant’s face when the young man Issy-Smith-192x300gave his name as Ishroulch Shmeilowitz. At this point I imagine there was a great deal of moustache bristling but, with the economy of effort that non-commissioned officers are famous for, the young man’s name was duly entered on the official records as “Issy Smith”.

Issy might have been one of the many men on that ship whose tales are now lost to us but for his actions on 26 April 1915. During a counter attack on the Western Front, Issy rushed towards the German lines in order to care for a severely wounded soldier, carrying him to safety while being exposed to gunfire. He returned to No Man’s Land several times, bringing in a number of other wounded men. His exceptional bravery saw him awarded the Victoria Cross; the first Jewish soldier to receive Britain’s highest military honour.

Issy’s story – which you can read in more detail here – is certainly a remarkable one but I am sure that many fascinating stories of the men who sailed for Europe aboard HMAT Miltiades remain to be uncovered. I’m sure that our database will prove to be a valuable tool for professional researchers and historians, but I hope too that the information uncovered will help families to retrace ancestors and possibly re-connect with long-lost relatives. That would be a fitting way to remember and honour their service and shared allegiance to our two countries.