With the commemorations of the 100th anniversary of World War I beginning this month, Greg Dixon goes in search of official records for his family's war and finds the story of two brothers: one who lived, one who died.
The shattering crash of the shells began almost as soon as they moved forward. Minenwerfer, German short-range mortars, pounded the poor bastards in the 4th Battalion of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade - my great uncle Rifleman Ralph Dixon among them - as they set about doing nothing more than relieving some other poor bastards, the 3rd Worcesters, a battalion of Brits.
If the minenwerfer, dubbed the "Minnie", didn't kill you, it destroyed your courage. Soundless to its victims when fired, the only way to know one was coming was for the sharp-eyed to spot the small shells rising from the enemy lines then tumbling downward toward them before bursting in deadly blasts of hot metal shards.
"The very leisureliness of their descent was demoralising," wrote one British officer, "the immense clamour of their explosion was demoralising."
It must surely have been a slow, dangerous and frightening night then, the night of February 22, 1917, as the 4th moved back on to the line. But by 11pm this routine manoeuvre was complete and they hunkered down under continuing, intermittent fire.
The New Zealand Rifle Brigade - nicknamed "the Dinks", short for "the Fair Dinkums" - had been ordered two days before to this section of the Western Front, the Ploegsteert sector on the border of France and Belgium, just north of the devastated French town of Armentieres. For the previous month or so they'd been not far south in the Cordonnerie section in France, east of the ruined village of Laventie.
It was the Dinks' second move in as many months. But their four battalions were probably glad for the 15km march. At least the foot slog north from Cordonnerie into Belgium would have warmed up bodies frozen by the coldest winter in 30 years.
In the Brigade's detailed official history, published in 1924, Lieutentant Colonel W.S. Austin writes of frequent snowstorms and intense cold throughout the whole tour in Cordonnerie. Ice on the trench duckboards made them slippery as hell.
"This rendered movement exceedingly difficult and dangerous, and our men were forced to bind sandbags upon their boots in order to get about with due speed and safety. Patrolling under these arctic conditions was unusually risky ... there was no means of avoiding the noise of crashing ice as the men stumbled upon concealed shell-holes in No Man's Land."
Reading Austin's account, I know for sure that in the 15 days between Ralph joining the Dinks - the same unit to which his brother, Rifleman Victor Dixon, was posted the previous October - and the brigade's move into the line near Ploegsteert, he'd been been snowed on, shelled and experienced a German gas attack. And now he was being shelled again.
One can never know, but it seems more than likely, as the Minnie shells dropped around him, that Ralph Dixon spent his last night scared and cold and fearing what was to come.
The last photograph of all the Dixon family together before Ralph and Vic were posted overseas, circa March-July 1916. Back from left, Ralph, Joseph, Norman and Victor. Front, Hebe, Cyril.
God knows why they went. Was it for the adventure? For King and country? Because their friends were volunteering? Or did they sign up for war because they feared being sent the coward's white feather in the post?
Whatever it was, by the time the Armistice was signed in November 1918, three of the four Dixon boys from Petone, Wellington, had joined the war to end war. Only the youngest, my grandfather Cyril, did not serve his country in the first war, though he would in the second.
Norm, the second youngest, certainly didn't go to war because he wanted to. A mechanic, he was conscripted in June 1918. It's quite probable that the death of Ralph the year before is the reason he did not volunteer; or perhaps his parents, Joseph and Hebe, griefstricken by the loss of one son and fearing for the life of a second, forbade Norm from volunteering. In any case, like his two older brothers before him, Norm became a soldier, trained as a machine gunner at the Trentham Military Camp in Upper Hutt, and was about to be shipped to Europe when the war ended.
In the end, only the two eldest, Ralph and Vic - both of whom volunteered, both of whom were single - served overseas, but only one came back.
The fair-haired and blued-eyed Vic was, at 21, the younger. A labourer, he was also the first to enlist, on February 26, 1916. Ralph, a 22-year-old tailor's cutter with hazel eyes and brown hair, signed up in March 16, 1916. Both joined the Wellington Regiment.
Why had they finally enlisted? The context is interesting. The landings at Gallipoli in April 1915 had seen a surge of volunteers. However, as that bloody and hopeless campaign dragged on - the last Anzacs were evacuated from Anzac Cove just days before Christmas 1915 - the numbers volunteering plummeted just when more men were desperately needed, writes Damien Fenton in New Zealand And The First World War.
There were certainly plenty of men who could fight. A survey in October 1915 found 109,000 eligible men who hadn't yet enlisted. At the same time, the families of those already serving became noisily critical of young men who hadn't yet joined up (to save embarrassment, from February 1916 there were Government-issued arm bands for those who had enlisted but had yet to be shipped overseas) while newspapers were filled with "shrill condemnation of 'shirkers'", writes Fenton.
The latter must explain the tone of a brief in Wellington's Evening Post on February 29, 1916 recording the names of 10 men, including Vic, confirmed as volunteers that day: "There was very little improvement today in the number of men responding to the urgent call for recruits ... "
When Ralph signed on the following month, the Post complained again that "the recruiting campaign in Wellington is not yet showing its full results ... " Eventually, conscription law was passed by parliament in August 1916.
Vic won the race overseas. After training at Trentham, he embarked for Europe in June and landed in Devonport, England in August. A month later he was in France and, on October 7, 1916 was posted to C Company of the 1st Battalion of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade. Rifleman Albert Victor Dixon was at war.
Ralph, meanwhile, was promoted to lance corporal and found himself assigned to guarding prisoners of war on Somes Island, in Wellington harbour. The island's human quarantine barracks were used to hold around 300 "enemy aliens", mostly German nationals, considered a risk to security.
It was surely boring work. By April, presumably anxious to join his brother and the fight, he enlisted to serve, at the cost of his rank, in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. He finally shipped out for England aboard the Devon on September 16. By January he was in France and spent a few weeks at the notorious Etaples training camp. Finally, almost a year after joining up, Ralph was posted to the front.
Vic tried to arrange for his brother to serve in his unit, the 1st Battalion. Instead the army, in its infinite wisdom, posted young Ralph Dixon to A Company of the 4th Battalion. The date was February 7, 1917.
A memorial plaque sent to the family of Ralph Joseph Dixon, who was killed in action in France, 1917, during World War I. Photo / Brett Phibbs
If Gallipoli had been the baptism of fire, the trenches of the Western Front were two years in hell for the men of the New Zealand Division. The eight-month campaign in the Dardanelles had claimed a shocking 2700 New Zealand lives. But our country of just 1.1 million would leave 12,500 of its 18,000 war dead in the charnel house of the trenches.
The deadliest day in New Zealand military history was on the Western Front in the hours after the hard, grey dawn of October 12, 1917, the first Kiwis' day in the battle known as Passchendaele. More New Zealanders were killed or wounded there than on any other single day of military action before or since: 117 officers and 3179 men, in a few hours. The massacre claimed 800 New Zealand lives. But not my great-uncle Vic. He survived the day, though as far as I can tell it was only just.
The New Zealand Rifle Brigade had had a busy summer. In June, as part of the New Zealand Division, it played a lead role in the successful Battle of Messines. The objective was the Messine Ridge, a German-held high point in the Ploegsteert sector and the New Zealanders over-ran the German frontlines in just 16 minutes.
In the months after Messine, the Dinks had rested and served with the French Army in northern Belgium before returning to the Messine area in August for "an exhausting tour", in appalling conditions.
In the month before the New Zealand Division joined the Third Battle of Ypres - the battle usually called Passchendaele - the worn-out brigade was ordered to do cable-burying and road-making in the Ypres Salient. It was during this time that Vic was wounded in action (possibly a gas attack), on September 10, though he remained on duty. However, just prior to the Dinks joining the Passchendaele offensive he was given what must have been much needed leave. On September 22 he went to England before returning to the front on October 7, to join the Dinks' stretcher-bearers.
On October 12 the New Zealand Division were sent to take the Bellevue Spur from the Germans. The attack buckled under the weight of the mud and fire from the German machine guns, pillboxes, mortars and artillery. Men from the New Zealand 2nd Brigade did make it through the wire. But the Dinks got stuck. Two days later, on the 14th, an informal truce was arranged between the British and Germans, and both sides then scoured No Man's Land in search of their wounded and dead. The butcher's bill was large for the New Zealand Rifle Brigade. Two officers and 160 men were killed, while one officer and 133 men were missing. The number of wounded was enormous: 25 officers and 873 men, among them Vic Dixon.
At 5am on that morning of the 14th - before the informal truce to find the dead and dying - Vic had, under enemy artillery fire, been helping to carry a wounded man by stretcher when a shell exploded near him, completely burying him. He was dug out and shipped with an injured back to a hospital, then to another and another before being, a month later, diagnosed with shellshock.
After 13 months on the frontline, Albert Victor Dixon's war - if not his military service - was over.
On release from hospital in January 1918, he was assigned to base at Etaples for more than a year.
He at last embarked for home on the Willochra in March, 1919, leaving his eldest brother behind.
A memorial plaque sent to the family of Ralph Joseph Dixon, who was killed in action in France, 1917, during World War I. Photo / Brett Phibbs
The barrage began at 5.45am on February 23, 1917. After a night of intermittent fire from the enemy's Minnies, the 4th Battalion, my great-uncle Ralph among them, was being targeted by an intense artillery and trench-mortar bombardment.
In the thick fog that lay over the Ploegsteert sector that morning, little could be seen of the enemy's movements, and the poor visibility meant the allied artillery didn't see the SOS rocket signal sent up by the besieged Kiwis. Nor could they call for help; the telephone wires to battalion HQ had been cut.
At 6.10am the fire lifted and a "box barrage" - artillery fire that boxed in its victims but left the way open for an enemy attack on foot - began. At the same moment, the Dinks' history reports, a strong force of German soldiers stormed into the part of the 4th's line that had been blown in by the shellfire. The Germans quickly worked their way southward along the trench.
"As far as could be judged the raiders numbered 200," the history says, "and they remained in our lines for about five minutes, when they were driven out with rifle-fire and bombs."
There was derring-do. Sergeant E.J. Hawkes, despite being buried three times by trench-mortar fire, led his men with great gallantry and determination and "was conspicuous amongst those who so promptly ejected the enemy" from the 4th's line. Meanwhile, Rifleman J. Emerson was wounded and taken prisoner by the enemy raiders, managed to escape, was taken prisoner again, then managed to finally wrench himself free and flee back to his mates.
"Though his boots had been removed, he succeeded in eluding his captors, who, however, fired upon him, and he returned to his company suffering from two fresh wounds, and fainting from pain and exhaustion".
The 4th, however, had not been as lucky as Emerson. Far from it. Though the barrage had lasted half an hour and the raid parried in just minutes, the price had been very high: three were missing, an officer and 20 men had been wounded and six - including Ralph - lay dead.
Berks Cemetery Extension is a Commonwealth War Graves Commission burial ground for the dead of the First World War located in Ploegsteert in the Ypres Salient on the Western Front.
Gravestone of Ralph Joseph Dixon, who was killed in 1917 at Berks Cemetery Extension. The cemetery is a Commonwealth War Graves Commission burial ground for the dead of the First World War located in Ploegsteert in the Ypres Salient on the Western Front.
Ralph Joseph Dixon rests, like so many others, in a corner of a foreign field.
The 23-year-old's grave stands in the Berks Cemetery Extension, a small Belgian cemetery of some 876 World War I burials by a small road running north to Ypres, Messines, Ploegsteert and Armentieres. A rose bush grows beside him.
As far as the army and his country were concerned, the white gravestone was - apart from a few post-war files recording his family's receipt of his service medals and a bronze memorial plaque - the final word on the soldier with the service number 26068. His official "statement of service" sheet is stamped with a large blue "Deceased". Beyond "killed in action", there is no detail about how his war ended, just 16 days after it began.
But if the story told by the official documents ends there, the family knows and still remembers what happened in the hours after Ralph was killed by a "whizz bang", a German artillery shell.
In a handwritten record of the family's military service made by my grandfather Cyril and left to his son (my father) Ron, Cyril writes briefly, heartbreakingly that "Victor was resting behind the lines [with the 1st Battalion, which was in reserve] when Ralph was killed. But he was allowed leave to go up to the front to recover Ralph's body, which he did, then buried him".
At least someone from his family saw Ralph buried. At home, his death was, like all the others, reported plainly in the newspapers' long roll calls of the wounded, dead and missing.
There was a family death notice: "killed in action in France ... eldest beloved son". On March 12, 1917, in the Evening Post, he got a paragraph of his own in a longer article headed "Personal Matters", a paragraph that for some reason also ran in the Poverty Bay Herald (but with this sentence added: "He had a bright disposition, and was a great favourite among many friends"). And that was that, though not quite.
For five years after Ralph died for his country, the family inserted an "In Memoriam" in the Post on the anniversary of his death. It reads "In loving memory of Ralph Joseph Dixon, killed in action in France on the 23rd February, 1917, in his 23rd year. His duty nobly done. Inserted by his mother, father, and brothers".
On the 100th anniversary of his death, I will make sure to remember Ralph Dixon with those same words in the paper's In Memoriam column.
Keeping memories alive
It is all there if you look for it, the mud, the horror and the death. In the faded but now mostly digitised official records, the postings, wounds and deaths of our World War I soldiers are all there. Many of these files are available for free online, which made the facts of my great-uncles' wars remarkably easy to gather.
New Zealand's official World War I website, 100.govt.nz, and the Government-funded general history website, nzhistory.net.nz, are good places to start researching your own family, with each offering research advice and links to New Zealand and overseas archives.
I found the principle documents for this story at Archives New Zealand. The National Library of New Zealand's digital archives held newspaper reports mentioning my great-uncles. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has detailed records as well as photographs of war cemeteries and places
of burial. The War Graves Photographic Project is a volunteer organisation photographing and archiving the graves or memorial listings of every service casualty since the outbreak of the first war.
This story also owes a major debt to Lieutentant Colonel W.S. Austin and his The Official History Of New Zealand Rifle Brigade, a book published in 1924 but now published digitally, too, by Victoria University electronic text collection.