A mixture of emotions gripped the passengers on the crowded deck of the SS Persis as it manoeuvred its way out of Port Jackson, Sydney. Buoyed by the jubilant crowds that had lined the dock, the myriads of waving ribbons and bands playing uplifting songs, any anxieties that these men might have harboured seemed to have dissipated into the ocean breeze. William leaned forward against the rail, enjoying the cool sea breeze and revelry that surrounded him, both on the deck and in the water. He enjoyed a party and this was no different. “Besides,” he thought to himself. “it will keep my mind off the future. Whatever it may bring.”
On the morning of 21st December 1914, the sea was a glorious hue of blue. William’s thoughts were with Cis and the boys. “If only they could see this splendid show.” He thought to himself. He knew that he will miss them terribly. He wished he could photograph the scene before him. At least he will write to Cis and describe it to her, something to cheer her, to lift her spirits albeit briefly.
William listened to the sea of youth that swirled around him on the open deck; singing and cheering. He had stood in their shoes fifteen years before. He too had sought adventure when he set sail for South Africa to help the British fight the Boers. He envied their young free spirits, their naivety. Is that not better than knowing what to expect? He was now 41 years old and his expectations were more real than those of his ship mates, or so he thought anyway. He knew he was now the fittest he has been in years. His regular 30 mile walks from Minehan Siding to Townsville surely will keep him in good stead. He learnt from his experiences in the Boer War, the importance of being physical fit and being able to ration water in case of shortages.
Gazing at the throng of happy smiling faces, William suddenly felt a pang of sadness. He realized that some of them appeared not much older than his eleven year old son Ron. He pondered the thought of his own son wanting to enlist. How would he feel? Would he be proud or would he try to dissuade him? He allowed the thought to slip away on the ocean breeze as quickly as it had fluttered into his head.
There was an eagerness about these young men that he felt unsettling. He had seen it in their eyes whilst being schooled in horsemanship and weaponry at the Enoggera training camp during the preceding weeks. Training was purely an adventurous game for some of these lads, but he knew first hand the deadly game they were soon to play. It is a game that will end tragically for many who are blissfully unaware they are on a one way ticket.
Leaning on the rail, he felt something crackle in his top pocket. Undoing the button, he retrieved a folded piece of paper. It was a railway ticket issued for passage from Newmarket to Liverpool. Looking down at the ticket, William recalled the sombre procession of khaki clad troopers alighting the awaiting brown carriages on the morning of 12th December. For the Fifth Light Horse Regiment there were no cheering crowds and bands playing Auld Lang Syne or God Save The King. There were no public announcements of their departure. No, their departure from Brisbane was a mass shuffling of leather boots on the platform floor and muffled banter of men who had already bid farewell to their families in home towns throughout Queensland in the preceding weeks. That thin piece of paper, he returned to his pocket, reminded him of the seriousness of his duty bound loyalty to the British Empire; of the task he has undertaken.
The ship’s horn sounded as it cruised beyond the heads, leaving the boats carrying well-wishers behind in the bay, along with remnants of past lives. William stood erect, clasping his hands behind his back, facing the stormy horizon. The winds were now feverishly stabbing at his face and neck with a biting chill and the jubilant atmosphere on deck had lulled into an eerie quiet. As the coastline and city faded away, he knew that the lives of those aboard were now in fate’s fickle hands.
- History of The Fifth Light Horse Regiment, by Brigadier-General L.C. Wilson and Captain H. Wetherell
- Frank Smith Diary – 13 December 1914 to 8 July 1917