Kurt Bayer is a Herald reporter based in Christchurch

Tributes for early WWI casualties

Relatives of two Kiwi World War I soldiers Michael Tobin and Piana Pera will today pay tribute to them in an emotional memorial service a century after they died. Photo / Supplied
Relatives of two Kiwi World War I soldiers Michael Tobin and Piana Pera will today pay tribute to them in an emotional memorial service a century after they died. Photo / Supplied

Relatives of two Kiwi World War I soldiers will today pay tribute to them in an emotional memorial service a century after they died.

Sapper Michael Tobin is believed to have been the first member of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force to die on the Western Front.

After two months toiling underground with the New Zealand Engineers Tunnelling Company, the Tauranga miner succumbed to bronchial pneumonia on April 15, 1916.

Today, 100 years after the 36-year-old's death, his great-niece Anne McLellan, 65, will read the Ode in English at a Last Post ceremony at Pukeahu National War Memorial Park in Wellington.

Her great-uncle's tragic story had long been forgotten in the annals of family history.

But recent research before the centenary commemorations had connected her with a previously unknown cousin, and helped to reunite the family, Ms McLellan said.

"To be able to say to him that you were important to our family, we remember you, and we're part of what you did, is very important to me," she said.

"I feel very honoured to help make him a real person, instead of just a name in a family tree."

The day after Tobin was laid to rest at Beauval Communal Cemetery in France, Private Piana Pera became the first member of the New Zealand (Maori) Pioneer Battalion to perish on the Western Front.

The 23-year-old Gisborne labourer was travelling through France on a packed train on April 16, 1916 with his company unit when he tragically died.

He was leaning out of a window when his head is believed to have been struck by a trackside object between the stations of Chalons and Chagny.

Pera died from a fractured skull and was buried at Dijon (Les Pejoces) Communal Cemetery. He is remembered on the St Mary's Church memorial board at Tikitiki and war memorials at Patutahi and Gisborne.

Today, Sylvia Pene will deliver the Ode in te reo Maori at the memorial service to pay her respects to her great-great-uncle.

Last year, the New Zealand Army supply technician travelled with the Defence Force contingent to France and Belgium to commemorate the Anzac centenary.

While she was unable to visit Piana Pera's resting place in France, her thoughts "laid heavily" with him throughout the tour.

Today's service in Wellington, to be attended also by top military brass and two serving NZDF engineer regiments from Linton Military Camp, begins at 5pm and is open to the public.

- NZ Herald

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