On 2 September 1898, Captain Nevill Maskelyne Smyth of the 2nd Dragoon Guards would perform an act of valour that would result in the award of a Victoria Cross. His citation, published in the London Gazette of 15 November 1898, read:
‘At the Battle of Khartum [Omdurman] on the 2nd September, 1898, Captain Smyth galloped forward and attacked an Arab who had run amok among some Camp Followers. Captain Smyth received the Arab’s charge, and killed him, being wounded with a spear in the arm in so doing. He thus saved the life of one at least of the Camp Followers.’
His award would be one of four VCs for the battle, the other three being bestowed upon members of the 21st Lancers for their legendary charge against the Mahdists in Khor Abu Sunt.
Smyth was 30 years old at the time of the battle, having been born in 1868, the son of Sir Warrington Wilkinson Smyth who was a well-known geologist of the time. He also had a first-cousin of some note, in the form of Robert Baden-Powell of Siege of Mafeking fame and founder of the Boy Scout movement.
Following his formal education at Westminster School in London, Smyth joined the British Army and was commissioned as a second-lieutenant in 1888 after completion of his training at Sandhurst. He would be posted to the 2nd Dragoon Guards, joining them in India later that year.
Although he took part in the Zhob Valley Expedition of 1890, his first real taste of active service came in 1896 during the early stages of Major-General Kitchener’s re-conquest of Sudan from the Mahdists. For the Dongola campaign of 1896, Smyth would be mentioned in despatches for his services on ‘intelligence’ duties.
Although the Mahdists were effectively destroyed as a fighting force at Omdurman, their leader, the Khalifa, remained at large for some time, thwarting a number of attempts to capture him. However, he would finally be killed at the Battle of Umm Diwaykarat on 25 November 1899. Smyth would again be mentioned in despatches for services during this action, this time by Colonel Reginald Wingate, again for his intelligence work.
With the Mahdiyya (the Mahdist state in Sudan) dealt with, Smyth joined his regiment in South Africa for service during the Anglo-Boer War, following which he would be promoted to brevet-major in October 1902. A year later, he would be made a substantive major and transferred to the 6th Dragoon Guards in India.
In 1909, Smyth was promoted to lieutenant-colonel, taking command of the 6th Dragoon Guards. Later, he would return to Egypt and take up the post of commandant of the district of Khartoum in Sudan. For several years, from 1913 onwards, he would be heavily engaged in operations aimed at abolishing the slave trade that still persisted in the region.
More active service followed during the First World War, when Smyth was instructed by Kitchener to assume command of the 1st Australian Infantry Brigade in Gallipoli. As brigade commander, he would take part in the Battle of Lone Pine, fought between 6 and 10 August 1915. The action ended in victory for the Australians.
In early 1916, Smyth was again mentioned in despatches and remained in command of his brigade when it was sent to France, where it saw action at Pozières. He was made a temporary major-general in December and given command of the 2nd Australian Infantry Division, being yet again mentioned in despatches twice during 1917.
Towards the end of the First World War, Smyth would be made a substantive major-general and spent time commanding the 58th (2/1st London) Division and, later, the 59th (2nd North Midland) Division.
With the war over, Smyth was made Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB) in 1919, and given command of the 47th (1/2nd London) Division, a Territorial Force formation. In 1920, he became honorary-colonel of the 3rd Dragoon Guards. Smyth finally retired from the Army on 5 July 1925.
Smyth would live out his retirement in Australia, on a farm in Balmoral, Victoria with his family. He later became engaged in politics, joining the National Party of Australia, with which he was elected to a seat in the Australian Senate.
On 21 July 1941, Smyth passed away at the age 72. He is buried in Balmoral Cemetery.