Richard Robert SMIRK

SMIRK, Richard Robert

Service Number: 512
Enlisted: 17 February 1915, Stanthorpe, Queensland
Last Rank: Private
Last Unit: 25th Infantry Battalion
Born: Rockingham, Western Australia, 1889
Home Town: Perth, Western Australia
Schooling: Not yet discovered
Occupation: Plumber
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World War 1 Service

17 Feb 1915: Enlisted AIF WW1, Private, SN 512, 25th Infantry Battalion, Stanthorpe, Queensland
29 Jun 1915: Embarked AIF WW1, Private, SN 512, 25th Infantry Battalion, HMAT Aeneas, Brisbane
29 Jun 1915: Involvement AIF WW1, Private, SN 512, 25th Infantry Battalion, Enlistment/Embarkation WW1
7 Oct 1919: Discharged AIF WW1, Private, SN 512, 25th Infantry Battalion

Cavanagh, Robert Joseph

Robert was born in Rockingham to Joseph Cavanagh and a man called William McCall and to whom she was not married. William McCall married someone else in the 1920s and didn’t have any more children and doesn’t seem to have had any role in his son’s life. Robert used his mother’s surname, Cavanagh (always spelled with a ‘C’ even though Johanna used ‘K’) and must have been about 12 when she married William Smirk.

All three lived together in the cottage that is now part of the "Smirk Cottage" museum and this certainly explains the addition of the second bedroom which is clearly a very old. It seems, however, that Robert was a lot like his grandfather – Johanna’s father, Thomas Kavanagh.

Thomas Kavanagh was Irish. He was arrested, changed and convicted of highway robbery in 1850. He received a sentence of 10 years and was transported to the Swan River Colony, arriving in 1853. He was described as a labourer and was married with four children. In 1861 he had a daughter with Ann(e) Malone, this daughter Mary Joan(Jean/Johanna) Roberts mother. He never married Ann, even though they had at least nine children together. He also had a child with another woman during this time. Of Thomas and Anne’s children only four survived childhood.

Thomas seemed to have been unreliable at best. He is caught stealing in 1900. Then in 1906 he was involved in a escape that seems to have gripped Perth for a few days. He had been arrested for stealing about nine months earlier and sentenced to two year imprisonment on Rottnest Island. One night a fellow prisoner called Slee somehow got his gaol cell open then opened the doors for Thomas and another man, McCarthy.

West Australian Newspaper Article:

The three men then took possession of the Harbour Trust’s dinghy, and proceeded to the mainland. A strong body of police was immediately detailed to search for the absconders, and ultimately McCarthy was arrested in the city. Though the vigilance of the detectives and police had not been relaxed, yet all attempts to discover the whereabouts of the other fugitives proved unavailaing until yesterday, when Slee and Cavanagh were arrested at Bunbury.

I need to do more research on what ultimately happened to Thomas, but this very same year, 1906, his grandson, Robert pops up in the newspaper’s police reports and in the police gazette. He was charged with stealing three Gladstone bags from a F.J. Simple. He told the magistrate he was sixteen years old (which, incidentally, is how I found out Johanna had had a child at all) and he was released as a first offender. This experience didn’t seem to have troubled young Robert. While I haven’t found any evidence that he continued in this vein in Western Australia, he next pops up in New South Wales.

In late 1914 World War One began. By November, Robert Cavanagh had signed up in Liverpool, NSW. He lists his mother as his next of kin, Mrs Smirk. In early February of the next year, before he’d even been shipped overseas, Robert failed to produce a pass, was drunk and disorderly, using obscene language and finally threatened a Commanding Officer. He was booted out of the service four days later.

Not to be disheartened, however, Robert travelled to Queensland, changed his date of birth (making himself four years older) and his name (to Richard Robert Smirk) and, just eight days later joined up again. The only thing he leaves the same is his next of kin: Mrs Smirk (although he changes her address from Rockingham to Mandurah, which would later make her difficult for the AIF to find.)

This time he makes it through training and is sent of to Europe. Robert is sent straight to Gallipoli and spends fourteen weeks there, then sent to France where he is involved in at the Battle of Pozieres. There is a very clear correlation between his experiences in these two extremely bloody theatres of war and what happens next.

After July 1916 Robert’s military record becomes littered with changes of being drunk, fighting, stealing and disobedience. He does various stints of prison for these charges.

In 1917 he is found guilty of desertion – a far more serious offence – and sentenced to life in prison. He serves just one month of this sentence before it is commuted to two years then just days later it is suspended altogether.

One can only imagine that they needed the men at the front, not lying about in prison. Two months later he is found guilty of being AWL (absent without leave) and sent back to prison for 28 days, but somehow he is still in action a few days later and is wounded.

He stays in hospital for a month or so before being marched back to his unit and then immediately absconds again. This time he is sent to prison to serve the rest of his previous sentence of two years hard labour but just six months later the war is over, his sentence is remitted and he is released and demobilised back to Queensland where his is formally discharged from the AIF.

His war record is almost entirely from the military’s point of view, but we do hear Robert’s words just once (albeit reported by a CO). In 1917 during his trial for his first desertion offence, Lieut. H.J. Ryan, Robert’s commanding officer during the battle at Zonnebreke, finds him in the town of Ypres rather than with his unit. Ryan says: I interrogated him and asked him why he left the front line, and he said "I could not stand shell fire, as I’ve got no guts".

While I have no illusions about Robert Cavanagh – he was a hard man, was raised in less than ideal circumstances and probably left WA to escape some sort of criminal activity, I cannot help but feel immense sympathy for him having experienced the worst of war and finding himself unable to cope with it. His military record shows quite clearly that he needed help and he needed to get away from everything that had caused his behaviour in the first place.

When Robert arrives back in Queensland he disappears from the records. He is listed in the Cairns area on the electoral rolls for the 1930s and 40s and in 1959 – he is 69 – he writes to the military requesting his discharge papers. He gives his address as Cairns. He doesn’t marry or have children. I can’t find any death recorded. It seems he never returned to Western Australia.


Robert was entitled to wear ANZAC "A" badge for his envolvement in Galipolli but was disqualified from all other honors due to his various charges. He served with the 25th Battalion in a theatre of war for 1088 days. Much of his prison time was served during the winters when conflict was brought to a hault due to the harsh weather. When in active service his unit was envolved in some of the bloodiest conflicts of the Western Front and experienced severe losses. The 25th was also embroiled in what is known as the Soldier Strikes, so he was probably not alone in many of these proceedings . Despite first enlisting in 1914 hes was not allowed leave to Australia with other 1914 enlistees due to is re-enlistment in 1915.

All in all this soldier served his Country, his war was long and hard.

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