Friday, 15 June 1917 was shrouded in tragedy for both the 9th LHR and the Expeditionary Force.
At 3pm, in the sea at by the shore of Tel el Marakeb were men bathing their horses and themselves. They were troopers from the 17th Company, 5th Battalion, 115th Infantry Regiment, Detachment Francais Palestine under the command of Captain Georges Jean Joseph de Jelle. One these men, Trooper Giuseppe Zerbini, 35, from Mirandola, a town near the south eastern coast of France, was walking his horse in the water a few metres from the shore. A freak wave hit him, tossing him over and dumping him in the water. The subsequent undertow was strong enough to drag him away from his horse, ripping the reins from his hands. In seconds the rip swept him out to the open sea. When Zerbini was finally able to get his head to the surface and tread water, he cried out in distress.
On hearing Zerbini’s cries, his comrades turned their heads towards him. Nearby British and Australian troops arrived with the intent of rendering assistance. Two French troopers were by the shore preparing to undress to effect a resue. Joining them was 3131 Trooper Walter Smith, a farm labourer from the little village of Glencoe near Mount Gambier. Smith was well known as a strong swimmer. After undressing, the three men swam out to help Zerbini.
The two French troopers were the first to reach Zerbini. The circumstances were difficult enough for exhausted rescuers to keep afloat but when they encountered a panicked Zerbini who began thrashing around, they were pulled under water. It was classical drowning man behaviour that triggered the tragedy.
Now the panicking three Frenchmen were struggling to stay afloat. Into this deadly trap came Smith. The drowning Frenchmen began to pull Smith under the water. Despite his swimming skills, Smith was now in serious trouble. It was at this point that the three putative rescuers also became in need of being rescued.
In order to prevent any further men being lost, on the shore Captain de Jelle organised the available men into a human chain. The men involved in this effort were 5105 Trooper George Leo Mulcair, 8th LHR; 487 Corporal Edward Vere Appleton, 4th LH Field Ambulance; 3127 Trooper William Charles Joshua Peart, 4th LHR; No 2602 Trooper Charles Timbrell, Royal Gloucestershire Hussars Yeomanry, 1st South Midland Mounted Brigade; and, 47012 Pte Matthew Pickford, 18th Machine Gun Section,16th Machine Gun Squadron, 5th Mounted Brigade.
When it was evident that the human chain was an ineffective solution, Mulcair went back to the shore, mounted his waiting horse and galloped off.
At the same time as Mulcair rode off, Peart dived in and swam out to the struggling men. It was too difficult to safely help them as they were threshing around in blind panic. Peart swam back to shore absolutely exhausted. Captain GT Torrance of the 5th Mounted Brigade Field Ambulance grabbed Peart and physically prevented him from re-entering the water after he had recovered his strength.
In the meantime, Mulcair returned a few minutes later with some rope. Within minutes, 1202 Trooper Hartley Donald Steele, 9th LHR, a wood machinist from Norwood, volunteered to try to assist the drowning men. He tied the rope around himself and swam out while on shore, men gradually played out the rope to keep Steele secure and safe. Here is Steele’s account:
“The first man I reached was a Frenchman and I passed him along with assistance towards the shore. I then brought in an English Private who had a rope twisted round his leg. Accompanied by Private [433066 L] Walker RAMC [Royal Army Medical Corps - 1st South Midlands Mounted Brigade Field Ambulance] I swam in search of two others that I was told were still out. Seeing no one we were returning to the shore when I saw Smith about 60 yards to my right and about 60 yards form the shore. We then swam towards Smith and together succeeded in bringing Smith ashore. When I reached Smith he was floating face downwards.”
Making the circumstances more remarkable, both Mulcair and Steele patients at the Tel el Marakeb hospital. Despite their obvious ill health and poor physical condition, they put their lives on the line to assist comrades in danger.
It was a sad ending. Four men drowned of whom three were the rescuers of Zerbini. The French government was quick to recognise the gallantry of Smith and his sacrifice with a letter that was read out at the next parade.