• Death at the Races

“A Digger dearly loves a horse-race. And the Race-meeting held on July 22 by the enterprising Circle Divvy amply supported this truism. It was an admirably-conceived, well-arranged and effectively carried out affair, with all the excitement and interest and cheerfulness of the dinkum thing.” – Aussie Magazine, August 1918. The day was perfect, the weather fine, a carnival atmosphere was created with sideshows and fancy costumes everywhere. Sergeant Corbey, the Clerk of the Course was dressed in hunting pink, and the Bookies were decked out in top hats and all manner of gaudy civilian suits, each vying for the prize of 50 francs for the best sustained character of the day. The judges, 4 officers of note, were set up in their own Judge’s Box, and the Clerk of Scales, Major Arthur Hyman, had borrowed a butcher’s scale to ‘weigh-in’ the jockeys. The occasion was the 4th Divisional Race Meeting, and it was being held at the aerodrome at Allonville, a village on the Somme between Albert and Amiens, amazingly only 9 miles from the front line. German balloons to the east overlooked the race meeting, yet no shells rained down during the day, however, an enemy plane flew over during the afternoon and destroyed a nearby observation balloon. The men were resting in the area and had been partaking in various forms of recreation for a few days, the 4th Brigade aquatic and athletic sports having gone off with great success at Querrieu two days before. On this particular day spectators came from far and wide, mostly Aussies, but also English, Scotch, Irish, New Zealanders, Canadians, Americans, French and Belgians. They came in the thousands, on foot and in all manner of vehicles, motor cars and lorries, wagons, light rail, bicycles and even aeroplanes. It’s noted at one time there were fourteen planes lined up by the course. Some of these apparently belonged to men of the 2nd and 4th AFC Squadrons, who had risen early to complete their days work in time to fly in and place their bets. The Hon Secretary of the Race Committee, Captain Ernest Kemmis, 4th Div HQ had signed off on the program for the day which included 10 races over various distances, with varying amounts of prize money, the last 2 races actually being donkey races. 12.15pm sharp was the time set for the first race, The Pozieres Stakes, it was open to officers only and was to be run over 5 furlongs. Capt Kemmis himself had paid his 20 francs entry fee with the hope of riding his horse, Lady Marda to victory and the first prize of 100 francs. Captain Robert Smith (MC and Bar) had also entered, riding Etta. The race instead was taken out by Lt-Col Robert Christie (51st Bn), on his horse Bob, with Capt Tambling on Nat, and Capt Payne on Brooks coming in 2nd and 3rd. As it turned out, Captains Kemmis and Smith never finished the race. Both men had come down in a crash. Capt Smith’s horse fell, and he was picked up unconscious and died later that day from a fracture to the base of the skull at the 10th Field Ambulance. A Court of Inquiry held on the 24th states that no blame could be attached to any person in connection therewith. Capt Kemmis also died at the 10th Field Ambulance from a fracture to base of the skull. It seems that the Officials managed to keep the news of the actual deaths from the general crowd, so the accident didn’t dampen spirits too much. In fact much vin blanc was drunk, and especially by the Aussie airmen, on whom EJ Rule comments in ‘Jacka’s Mob’: “By the time the races were finished some of them were well shickered but it made no difference to them. They climbed into their machines, and before they eventually started for home they did some of the maddest capers I’ve ever seen…” After The Pozieres Stakes, the races continued with the Gallipoli Hurdles, Moquet Farm Plate, Polygon Wood Jump, Messines Gallop, Bullecourt Hurdles, Dernacourt Flutter, Hebuterne Scamper, and finally, the donkey races, the Villers-Bretonneux Sprint and Hamel Steeple. The punters followed each race with enthusiasm, and quite apart from the Bookies, the official totalisator did a roaring trade with 4,230 tickets sold representing the amount of 21,150 francs. It was a day to relax from death and destruction, and most of the spectators and competitors would have returned to their camps well satisfied with the break. With the exception of course, of the two Captains. Captain Ernest Henry George KEMMIS had been born in Sandringham, Victoria in 1892, the eldest son of Arthur and Mary Susannah (nee Lewis) Kemmis. He had attended All Saints Grammar School, been a member of the Royal Park Senior Cadets, and followed the occupation of Accountant. Enlisting in 1915, he embarked on the RMS Osterley on the 29th of September as a 2nd Lieut with the 10th Reinforcements of the 6th Bn, landing at Suez on the 25th of the following month. On the 2/4/1916 he was TOS with the 25th Howitzer Bde, 113th Battery, and promoted to Lieut 2 months later. Embarking on the Kinfaus Castle 18/6/1916, he arrived in France on the 29th, and a week later was TOS with the 13th FAB. On the 18th July he was blown up and partially buried by a shell explosion at Fleurbaix, resulting in shell shock. It was decided on 26/4/1917, that there was no longer any disability present, and on 31st July he was returned to France and TOS with 4th Div HQ. In 1918 he was promoted to Capt in the January, and allowed a few weeks leave Feb/Mar, and then again Jun/Jul. He had only been back at HQ for 2 weeks before the fatal accident occurred. Captain Robert James SMITH (MC and Bar) was born to William and Elizabeth Smith on the 19/8/1876 at Wandandian, near Nowra, on the NSW Shoalhaven Coast. He had married Isabella POWELL in 1909 and they had two children, Thelma and Arthur. Prior to enlistment he had been a Lieut in the Militia’s 24th Sig Coy, and was employed as a Line Inspector with the PMG’s Dept. (Line Construction). Having joined the AIF 2/11/1915 as a Lieut, he embarked with the 2nd Div Sig Coy 28/1/1916 on board the Themistocles. In Egypt on the 9/3/1916 he was TOS with the 4th DSC, and embarked for France on the 2nd June. He was awarded the Military Cross for his work carried out near Pozieres 7th August 1916: Gallantry in the Field and devotion to duty: Since this Division entered into the offensive operations on 7th Instant, Lieut. SMITH has carried out work under most trying conditions and worthy of the highest praise and recommendation. He has built a cable route 6 feet under ground which gives practically a safe means of communication with the two Brigades in the line. Under existing conditions I consider this a triumph in cable work and it has only been achieved by strenuous work and unceasing devotion during all hours of the day and night. The route has been under shell fire for most of the time; on 7th instant he worked on right through the heavy shelling in Sausage Valley and on the 10th instant. When the shelling was so intense that the working party had to be withdrawn and during which barrage my lines were so badly out beyond repair in the Eastern end of the Valley, Lieut. SMITH laid new lines and maintained them during this barrage of fire, thus restoring and ensuring communication between Brigades and Division. In 1917 he was promoted to Captain, awarded a Bar to the MC, Mentioned in Despatches, and recommended for the DSO and the (Italian) Silver Medal. Captains Smith and Kemmis are buried side by side at the St Pierre Cemetery, Amiens – XIV.B.1 and XIV.B.2. It seems at first, such a cruel act, that these two men who had gone through years of war should die in such a sad twist of fate – a senseless accident. But is there really anything as sad, or more senseless, than war. Heather ‘Frev’ Ford, 2008