Sergeants search an Anzac success

By Mikayla van Loon

Missing for nearly 100 years, a World War I medal has now been returned to its rightful owners – the descendants of an Anzac hero.

When Lilydale police Sergeant Vaughan Atherton was asked to do some investigating, it wasn’t normal police work.

Two members of the Upwey Belgrave RSL found a war medal at Beaumaris beach in 1980.

Having been in possession of the medal, without any luck of finding the family since that time, they asked for some assistance from fellow RSL member Sgt Atherton.

As someone who also served as an Army Reservist for nine years, Sgt Atherton knew what it meant for people to be reunited with a family member’s war medals.

“If you’ve been in the services or you’ve had a family member in the services, to keep the connection is really important but to be able to bring these things back and reunite them with a family is just terrific,” he said.

Spending six days on the computer, ringing cemeteries and making enquiries, Sgt Atherton found the details he was after – who the medal belonged to and his family.

Private Robert Stanley Gordon Smith enlisted in the armed forces in Broadmeadows on 7 August 1915, he was 23 years old.

He served as part of the 13th Reinforcements, 5th Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force, where he was deployed to France.

Wounded in action for the first time in 1916, he returned to the unit before falling ill again later that year.

Private RSG Smith was wounded for the second time in 1918 with a gunshot wound to the right thigh, which subsequently fractured his femur and left him very ill.

With each wound and illness, a letter was sent back home to his father. There is no record of whether Private Smith rejoined the 5th Battalion after his second and most severe injury.

But upon returning to Australia, Mr Smith met and married Ada Grace Nicholl.

For his efforts in the war, Mr Smith was awarded three medals – the Star Medal, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.

In 1925, while visiting Chelsea beach in Victoria, Mr Smith misplaced his Victory Medal.

Mr Smith filed a statutory declaration in 1929 in an attempt to have a replacement medal made.

The original wasn’t seen again until 1980.

The timing of this discovery couldn’t have been better with Anzac Day just around the corner.

“I’m just happy that we could actually find a family to reunite them with the medal particularly coming up to Anzac day where people remember the past and the deeds of past relatives and family, so it’s worked out really well,” Sgt Atherton said.

Sgt Atherton said the family were very surprised by his phone call but were also very pleased.

“The family members indicated that they were aware of the medal recipient but given he passed away some time ago, I don’t think there had ever been any thought that something like this would still be circulating,” he said.

For now the Victory medal will remain with the family, until perhaps direct descendants of Private RSG Smith can be identified.

“Unfortunately the records going back then are fairly scant but we continue to try,” Sgt Atherton said.

“At the moment the family is going to hold onto the medal. If we can’t find a direct descendent then they’ve wished that the medal go on permanent display at the Upwey Belgrave RSL.”

Sgt Atherton is now a seasoned medal researcher, having reunited another medal with a family only a few months ago.

He said should more medals come into his possession, he will do everything he can to find the family it belongs to.

“It’s just really good to be able to reunite the family with the medal. There’s so many of them out there that are probably not with the family.”