Issy Smith VC

b. 16/09/1886 Alexandria, Egypt. d. 11/09/1940 Melbourne, Australia.

Issy Smith (1886-1940) was born in Alexandria, Egypt on 16th September 1886 as Israel Smilovitch. There were a number of different birth dates for him including the 18th September 1890 on his Russian birth certificate. There are also several different versions of spelling of both his forename and surname. His father, Moses Smilovitch, was born at Berdichev, about 150km  west of Kiev, Ukraine (then Russia) and became a French citizen, working as a clerk for the French Consular Service. He is understood to have worked in Paris, Alexandria and Constantinople at various times. Issy’s mother was Eva nee Tchukov, also French of Russian extraction. Issy had ten siblings in all.

Issy Smith VC

It is believed that Issy ran away from home, stowed away on a ship and reached London alone in about 1898. He spoke no English, but did speak French, German and Turkish. He added an Indian dialect and some Swahili during his Army service. As a result, in later life, he was used as a court interpreter on occasions. As a youngster he earnt money delivering fish while also attending Berner Street London County Council School, Whitechapel. Issy was then employed  by a second hand furniture dealer in Commercial Road before becoming a plumber.

Issy enlisted with the 6th Manchester (Militia) on 21st April 1904. He was discharged from the Militia on 2nd September 1904 and enlisted the same day as a regular soldier in the Manchester Regiment under his anglicised name, giving his employment as plumber’s mate. He was posted to the 2nd Battalion on 18th September. He moved to the 3rd Battalion in 1906 and extended his service to 8 years in May that year. In October 1906, he was posted to South Africa with the 1st Battalion. Issy was often in trouble with authority and suffered two periods of detention for using insubordinate language. He then served in India from October 1911, including during the Delhi Durbar.

While in India, Issy became the regimental middleweight boxing champion. He was appointed unpaid lance corporal in 1912, and having transferred to the Reserve, he went to Australia where he was given a job by his sponsor, Mr Tallent, with the Melbourne Metropolitan Gas Company. Issy continued boxing under the name Jack Daniels.

Issy was mobilised in Melbourne on 5th August 1914 and mustered at Broadmeadows Army Camp prior being sent back to England. He returned to the Regimental Depot at Ashton-under-Lyne on 9th December 1914. He was appointed acting lance corporal on 19th December and joined the 3rd Battalion on 6th January 1915. On 23rd February he was posted to France to join the 2nd Battalion. He was wounded in action at Neuve Chapelle on 11th March.

On 26th April, 1915, near Ypres, Issy left his Company on his own initiative and went well forward towards the enemy’s position to assist a severely wounded man, whom he carried a distance of 250 yards into safety, whilst exposed the whole time to heavy machine-gun and rifle fire. Subsequently Corporal Smith displayed great gallantry, when the casualties were very heavy, in voluntarily assisting to bring in many more wounded men throughout the day, and attending to them with the greatest devotion to duty regardless of personal risk.

As well as the award of the Victoria Cross he was also awarded the Russian Cross of the Order of St George, 4th Class for the same action. He was the first Jewish NCO to be awarded the VC. Issy was gassed in May 1915 and returned to England on the strength of the Depot on 7th August. He was hospitalised at Mount Joy (Dublin University VAD Auxiliary) Hospital in Dublin. Having been appointed unpaid lance sergeant on 5th October, he was posted to the 3rd Battalion on 15th December. His VC was presented by King George V at Buckingham Palace on 3rd February 1916.

He was promoted to sergeant on 7th March and was involved in recruiting in the north of England while recovering from his wounds. He left England on 4th September and rejoined the 1st Battalion on 16th September at Basra, Mesopotamia. On the journey out, Issy survived his ship being torpedoed. He was wounded at Baghdad in March 1917 and may have been present at the fall of Jerusalem. He transferred to the Royal Engineers as a sergeant in the Inland Water Transport on 1st April 1917. He was wounded five times in total during the War. Following the war, he married Elsie Porteous Collingwood nee McKechnie in Camberwell in February 1919. He was discharged from the Army on 30th April 1919 and was a member of the VC Guard at the Interment of the Unknown Warrior on 11th November 1920.

Elsie and Issy had two children – Olive Hannah born in 1920 and Maurice born in 1932. Issy worked as an actor, music hall manager, bookmaker and cycle accessory salesman. He fell on hard times sadly, returned to Britain and was forced to pawn his medals for £20 in 1924. Issy managed to reclaim his medals the following year for £20 and returned to Australia on SS Orsova. He was manager of “British International Pictures” Melbourne in 1928 and became a JP in 1930. In 1931, he unsuccessfully contested a Melbourne seat for the United Australia Party. He became a commercial traveller for Dunlop Rubber Company in 1934 and was Control Officer of the Civil Aviation Department at Essendon Airport, Melbourne from 1937 until his death.

Issy died of coronary thrombosis at his home at 45 Bulla Road, Melbourne on 11th September 1940. Issy was buried in the Hebrew section of the Fawkner Crematorium and Memorial Park in Melbourne. The day after the funeral, his widow went to his grave on her own and was overcome with grief when she found it had been vandalised and the wreath stripped of flowers.

In addition to his VC and Cross of St George, he was awarded the Delhi Durbar Medal 1911, 1914-15 Star, British War Medal 1914-20, Victory Medal 1914-19 and King George VI Coronation Medal 1937. His medals were sold at auction in Australia for $27,000 on 29th April 1992 and in London on 10th October 1995 for £35,288. The latter purchaser was a Manchester medal dealer. It is understood they are now held privately in Australia.