First war fallen deserves military grave, say family

By Andrew Stone

Sue Atkins at the grave of her great-uncle Robert Arthur Hislop (below), the first New Zealand soldier to give his life in the Great War. Photo / Richard Robinson
Sue Atkins at the grave of her great-uncle Robert Arthur Hislop (below), the first New Zealand soldier to give his life in the Great War. Photo / Richard Robinson

The family of a young soldier who was given a military farewell as New Zealand's first casualty of World War I wants his neglected burial site honoured as an official war grave.

Sue Atkins, great-niece of Sapper Robert Arthur Hislop, said his descendants believed that as the state had honoured her great-uncle with a military funeral, his grave at Waikumete Cemetery in West Auckland, which has weathered badly in the century since his death, should be recognised as a war grave.

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"He was given a military funeral and he was called a casualty. I feel his is a story of war history for New Zealand and should be honoured as such," said Mrs Atkins.

"I think the leading indicator that it should be treated as a war grave is that the Government put it in, the Government actually gave him his funeral and the honour.

"I think they put a lot of weight on his funeral and the story of a military death. What have they got to lose?"

Christchurch-born Hislop, 21, was critically injured when he fell from the Parnell Railway Bridge on the night of August 13, 1914 - eight days after New Zealand joined Britain in the war against the German Empire.

A member of the NZ Corps of Railway Engineers, Hislop had been assigned to guard the bridge.

Details of the accident which led to Hislop's death have emerged from a coroner's report which Mrs Atkins obtained this week.

It says Hislop and another sapper reported for duty to guard the Newmarket end of the bridge in the dark about 9.30pm.

As the other trooper was receiving instructions, Hislop, who was just 2m away, stepped between the north and southbound lines, possibly assuming there was solid ground beneath him.

But he stepped into thin air and fell several metres to the hard ground below. Badly injured with broken bones, Hislop told his rescuers: "It's my fault boys."

He died on August 19. Newspapers at the time described him as the first New Zealand casualty of the war. His burial service at Waikumete - where his neglected grave can be found - was conducted by a senior military chaplain, Major John Luxford, who presided over "fitting military honours" for the deceased soldier.

In the years since Hislop's death, his burial site has deteriorated.

His name is not included on official records which stand as a memorial to New Zealand's war dead, even though cemetery documents say his gravestone bears the inscription: "In memory of Sapper Robert Hislop No 2 Company North Island Railway Battalion NZ Engineers, the first NZ soldier to give his life during the Great War accidentally killed while on duty guarding the Parnell bridge."

The Ministry of Defence has determined that gunner Ludolph Edwin Wynn West was New Zealand's first war casualty. West, 19, died of pneumonia and pleurisy at Palmerston North's Awapuni mobilisation camp on August 25, 1914 - nearly a week after Hislop.

West was added to the New Zealand Roll of Honour only after his details were rediscovered a decade ago.

Sue Atkins thinks Hislop too should be on the honour roll. " Suffice to say I don't think it was his fault and he paid a big penalty," she said.

Robert Hislop was not the only war casualty from his family.

His sister Theresa's husband, Harry Arnold Bonniface, who served in both world wars, died during World War II. Their son, Robert John Bonniface, died on active service during World War II.

"That's quite a sacrifice," Mrs Atkins said. "Both Harry and Robert are on the honour roll. Robert should be there too."

A Ministry of Culture and Heritage spokesman said officials were considering the case for Sapper Hislop.

The process involves a review of the details surrounding death, whether he was enlisted in the armed services, whether his passing was attributable to war service and whether the authorities at the time regarded him as a war casualty.

- NZ Herald

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