100 Kiwi Stories: Mother never forgot only son

By Andrew Stone

Soldier died in battle in which three Kiwis got VCs.
Hermann Rolfes died in a hail of machinegun fire at the Battle of Bapaume. Photo / Te Papa
Hermann Rolfes died in a hail of machinegun fire at the Battle of Bapaume. Photo / Te Papa

84 Hermann Rolfes
Ten years after World War I, Frances Rolfes finally got to see the cross which marked her son's grave.

A friend of the Kaikoura widow took a photograph of the simple wooden cross which listed Hermann along with four other soldiers at a burial ground in northern France.

Mrs Rolfes had never forgotten her only son. She held on dearly to a canvas bag with Hermann's pay book, uniform badges, a three-day leave granted before he left for France, and ticket stubs which allowed him to stay at soldiers' hostels in London and Edinburgh.

Above all she treasured a black and white photograph of her beloved boy, a farm labourer, and she carried it in a purse, it seems, for the rest of her life.

A soldier with the Canterbury Infantry Regiment, Rolfes -- his military papers spell his Christian name with one 'n' but it's Hermann in the national birth register -- time in uniform ended in a hail of bullets from a German machinegun during a bitterly-fought exchange on the West Front.

He was one of five soldiers in the regiment who died in action on August 24-25, 1918, and whose names were recorded on the same cross.

The first belongs to Lance Corporal Charles Mackintosh, who worked on a farm near Rangiora and who had been on active duty for just six months.

Below him is Private Thomas Crawford Morrison, a 38-year-old Otago labourer whose military records suggested he frequently challenged authority.

In April 1916 he was sentenced to death after a court martial for leaving his post. The sentenced was commuted and replaced by a five-year prison term.

This was suspended, his records show, and Morrison was sent back to his regiment, only to be badly wounded.

A simple cross marked Hermann Rolfes' grave.
A simple cross marked Hermann Rolfes' grave.

After months in hospital, he was back with the regiment in France.

The fourth soldier is Private George Rosanoski. His file says he was born George Cornwall, but as a young boy the Palmerston North lad was adopted by Michael Rosanoski.

The soldier at the bottom of the wooden panel is Private John Henry Knight, a 30-year-old West Coaster and flax mill hand.

The men all died in the Battle of Bapaume, a decisive albeit costly conflict in terms of Kiwi lives. New Zealand fought as part of the vast British Third Army, and for the first time in the war were thrilled to be joined in action by American soldiers. From the perspective of the long and costly struggle, the tide was finally starting to turn in the Allies' favour.

Bapaume was the only battle in New Zealand's history in which three of her soldiers were awarded Victoria Crosses. It was the first time Kiwi troops faced a counterattack from German tanks and received supplies dropped from the air.

Unlike the scarred and broken countryside of Flanders, the advance towards the village of Bapaume crossed open countryside, suited to mobile attacks and armoured support. But though the Allies held the upper hand, the fighting was fierce.

"Bapaume, oh yes that was dirty," Corporal Claude Wysocki of the NZ Rifle Brigade told an interviewer in 1988.

The five men remembered on the wooden cross played their part in a battle which veterans called "bloody Bapaume" because it took weeks of hard, costly and weary fighting to force the German Army - until this point the world's mightiest machine - to retreat.

After the photograph of the grave (above) was taken, the faded cross was renewed, before the New Zealanders were given individual headstones in Grevillers Cemetery, 3km from Bapaume.

Read the first 83 stories in this series here.

- NZ Herald

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