Mirboo North Soccer team 1914, which includes the unidentified Shoesmith and Preston. (Image by George Sutton, thanks to Centre for Gippsland Studies, Monash University.)

On 28 September 1913, two men walked into the Russell St Police Station, begging to be arrested, locked up, and fed. They gave their names as Thomas Witham, a Shoesmith and Whitmore Pink. After working their passages out from England as cabin stewards, they had worked for a week in the Wonthaggi mine before finding themselves starving on the streets of Melbourne. Their plight was widely publicised and the men received some offers of employment, eventually finding themselves at Mirboo North where they obtained labouring positions and soon settled into the community.

A year later, the two men, whose real names were Thomas Shoesmith and William Preston played in the very first game of soccer at Mirboo North, on 22 August 1914. The match was a fundraiser for the war effort and a chance for the region’s immigrants to play their game. Shoesmith was the stand out player for his team.

Shoesmith and Preston enlisted in the AIF soon after. While they embarked separately, both had left for Egypt before Christmas and met up in time for the Gallipoli offensive. Thomas was extremely fortunate in battle, surving when those around him were falling. Will was not so lucky, shot in the head by an explosive bullet in July 1915 while his mate looked on. He was buried at sea. Shoesmith was repatriated to Mirboo North in 1916 where he received something of a heroes’ welcome. The local newspaper reported:

Signaller Shoesmith has, perhaps, seen more fighting than any of the men who left this place, or, in fact, of any who left the Commonwealth. He had five solid months of it – and the first five months at that.  He had dozens of narrow escapes, and he says he cannot hardly realise that he is safe and in Australia again. He had his water-bottle broken by a bullet, on another occasion his pouch was pierced by one, and his haversack was also hit by one. He was also struck on the face by shrapnel. He was eventually put out of action as the result of a shell exploding close to where he and three others were. The four were buried.

Even though he had been playing what he saw as the ‘greater game’ of war, Shoesmith nevertheless kept soccer in his mind. The newspaper reminded its readers that he “was a soccer player of some repute. He hoped the war would soon be over and that Mirboo would again have a football club, and a team of returned soldiers.”

Unbelievably, after all his trauma and injury, Shoesmith returned to the front, fighting in France. Here he struggled with chest infections and bronchial problems and was repatriated once more in 1919. In 1921 he requested a piece of land in the Soldier Settlement scheme and applied to bring his sweetheart out from England. It is here that the evidence trail dries up, but we suspect that this is a story worth tracing to its conclusion.

This is the third part of Ian Syson’s We Shall Remember Them series on soccer Anzacs. Funding for this series was provided by Football Federation Victoria.