Ernest Firth Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales
In 1918 the Trustees of the Mitchell Library appealed to families for photographs of men who had served in the AIF. Aboriginal families were amongst those who responded and the collection which eventuated contains images of men from the Lock, Wortley, Stafford, Duroux and Firth families. The Library also sought letters and diaries and contributors included the mother of the Firth brothers – Ernest James, Francis Walter Bertie (known as Bertie) and Charles Allen, bush workers from Pilliga, New South Wales. Such records for Aboriginal families are rare and apart from the letters of Charles Blackman, now in the Australian War Memorial, to date these may be the only publicly available records of this nature.
The Firth’s records are unusual also because of another fact relating to their service. While two brothers served with the AIF, Charles who was shearing in New Zealand before enlistment became a member of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. The three brothers served with Light Horse, Machine Gun and Transport units in the Middle East where Ernest Firth was killed on 3rd November 1917 at Tel Khuweilfeh. Bertie Firth went on to serve in France. However while Ernest is amongst those Aboriginal service men listed by the RSL journal Reveillle in 1932 – the names provided by police and mission managers did not include those of his brothers. In Charles’ case this is understandable but Bertie’s omission underlines the hit and miss nature of the collection process.
The letters from the Firth brothers, now available on the website of the State Library of New South Wales, are written to their mother Catherine and show a constant thread of warm family relationship, nostalgia for home and the trials of missing mail – subjects which so often feature in wartime correspondence. They also show that the brothers were in touch with each other and tried to keep abreast of each other’s locations and movements, which in turn they relayed to their mother.
This is evident in a letters written in May and November 1916 from Ernest, which as well as general information about his part in the war, contain information about his two siblings and show a network of information sharing between mates from both the Australian and New Zealand forces.
[15 May] We have been here about a fortnight and taking it all round we are not having a bad time Seemed strange to see the difference in the places on our way back. In a place where we had some of our heaviest fighting we had the pleasure of seeing a picture show in the Y.M.C.A. which of course we very much appreciated as its some time since I seen one I heard from Bert before we came here He was in hospital in France at time of writing. Have had two big goes with Abdul in the last two months And as I suppose you already he came off second best in both. I am sending a couple few of photos that Charlie gave me I will tell you what they are on their backs. Well mother I will close now. Hoping to hear from you soon. Best love to all at home … your loving son Ernie
[21 November] My dear Mother I cannot make out how it is I am not recieving any of your letters lately as I am sure you are sending them. They seem to reach Bert alright as I recieved a letter from him yesterday saying he gets his regularly enough. The only thing I can think of is that they are going to some other Firth in the light horse some where … Bert says he is O K and has been in the trenches for some time Have not heard from Charlie for a week or so He is only about 15 miles from here. I sent him a letter a few days ago and am expecting a reply any time now Seen some of his mates and gave them the letter They said he was well at the time’. Back out on the desert again and doing the same old work patrolling etc. We have no tents now but live in blanket shelters It would be rather amusing for you to see them the way they are built But they serve very well to keep the dew off at night as it falls very heavy now and is much colder .
Charles’ letters are less detailed but show he also sent photos home:
Charles Firth. Image enclosed with a letter to his mother Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales
well mother I ham sending you sum Photo of is on the desert I wood like to get back again to the old home and see all my old mates Dear Mother how is Dad and May I hope they are all well rembr me to all I remain your loving sun Trooper C A Firth
A letter from France written by Bertie in the last year of the war hints at more sober issues. (Although dated 1919 the details line up with the 1918 entries on his Service and Casualty record.)
My Dear Mother Just a few lines to let you know that I am back again in France I had an enjoyable three months spell in England after my wound in the wrist I am O.K now. I recieved letters from you dated January 9 and none since then my letters must be going astray I am at our Base details Rouen am expecting to join my own unit any day now you had better keep writing to my address in England and I will be sure to git them, We have been having delightful wether over this side of the World but today has been a bit cold. I went to a quaint old Villiage church this a m it reminded me of the last time I was in church with you dear Xmas morning 1913 in Narrabri Things has changed a lot since then
In this closing comment Bertie seems to refer to his brother’s death as well as reflecting on his whole experience of war.
The war certainly changed life for the brothers and their family. In January 1921 in a poignant letter to Senator Pearce, Minister for Defence included with papers in Ernest’s service record, their mother summed up the current state of her family.
Thanking you very much for war book as my 4[th] son sleeps in Palestine Egypt My yung son CA Firth in New Zealand yet cant get home for want of money My yungs [youngest] son FWB Firth been [?] sick in Sydney poor boy I and his father is old.
Both surviving brothers suffered from health issues on return from the war. Bertie said by his mother to be sick in Sydney was probably in the Randwick repatriation hospital. Charlie’s service record shows he was discharged in 1919 as medically unfit for further service. Writing to his mother from Auckland, New Zealand in May [192o?] he stated that I got no money to get my ticket for I cannot get eny and I not strong enoff to work and only for a frind I dont know whot I wood do. However his death registration in Narrabri near Pilliga in 1944 does show he eventually returned to his family.
The service of the Firths and the price they paid is one common to many families, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal alike, whose members served in the First World War. But for Aboriginal families the difference lies in the fact that legislation attempted (often unsuccessfully) to prevent Aboriginal men from serving their country and then post war the service of those who were able to do so was ignored. This is cause for reflection on Anzac day.
The term Anzac was originally used to describe the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps – which was part of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign. Today this word has evolved to describe any Australian or New Zealander who served in the First World War. The combined service of the Firth brothers with both the AIF and the NZEF – embracing both Australia and New Zealand – gives another dimension to their claim to this term and makes them unusual Anzacs.
Philippa Scarlett 24 April 2016
The service records of Ernest, Bertie and Charles can be read on the websites of the National Archives of Australia and the Archives of New Zealand.