An old teddy bear, missing one eye, is plucked from the top of a cupboard at an Auckland retirement home.

A handwritten letter for a baby nephew, opened for the first time on his 17th birthday, is read aloud by a descendant in Tauranga.

And in Rotorua, a 97-year-old opens his photo album and shares the story of how his father was wounded while digging trenches at Gallipoli.

One-hundred years on from the end of World War I, the stories of those who served and sacrificed their lives, are still being told.


Details have been passed down from generation to generation – through personal anecdotes, photos, letters and family heirlooms.

This is how we remember them.

The singing captain

Reginald Alfred Watkins. Photo / Tauranga Heritage Collection, courtesy of the Watkins family
Reginald Alfred Watkins. Photo / Tauranga Heritage Collection, courtesy of the Watkins family

The shell shrapnel struck Private Reginald Watkins in the stomach as he went to the aid of a wounded soldier.

The 30-year-old stretcher bearer was with his battalion, in action near Armentieres in France.

It was July 20, 1916. A Thursday.

Two days earlier, he had described the setting in a letter to his sister, Nellie.

"Just a line or two to let you know I am still safe," Reg Watkins wrote.

"We are still in the trenches occupying the N.Z. sector. Although no advance has been made here, bombardments, with all kinds of weapons have taken place, including raids and you will see by the papers we have sustained some casualties."

Another letter Watkins wrote a week earlier began in a similar, reassuring fashion.

"Just to let you know I am safe and sound," he said on July 12.

"My work consists in dressing and carrying the wounded from the firing line to the first field dressing station ... we need all the nerve and moral courage we possess at this task, and we hope and pray that our services will soon not be required."

Watkins would later show both nerve and courage as he himself was carried from the battlefield to a casualty clearing station on July 20.

In fact, "when picked up" he began to sing hymns – in both English and Māori.

Usually "the singing captain" was the rescuer. Not the rescued.

Before leaving for war, Reginald Alfred Watkins was a captain in the Salvation Army in Tauranga.

He was fluent in te reo and held a first aid certificate, which he felt would make him useful to his country and the Empire.

He believed he was the only one in his family who was free to go to war and said in a letter, "my people regard it as a stigma ... that no one is represented".

Watkins trained at Trentham after enlisting on October 20, 1915. He embarked from Wellington in January the next year. He was placed in the medical corps.

The first stop was Egypt, but when a call went out for stretcher bearers in France, Watkins volunteered and transferred to another battalion.

More than 100 years later, his niece can still recall the stories she heard about "the singing captain".

"He was held in great respect in our family for what he did and the way he conducted himself during the war," Janet Hanna said from a retirement home in Auckland.

The 84-year-old wasn't yet born when her uncle Reg was carrying stretchers through the trenches in France, but she was told all about it later.

"We always used to hear about uncle Reg because we always honoured him at Anzac Day."

She was told he sang Salvation Army hymns in English and Māori as he transported the injured on stretchers.

"Just to keep the people cheered up as much as possible."

Anecdotes like that must have left an impression on Watkins' young niece because, when gifted a teddy bear as a child, she named it "Reg" – after a man she had never met.

When asked to describe the bear, Hanna laughed over the phone.

"I can show it to you," she said.

"I've still got it. Reg is sitting up in the cupboard. He's still here."

She put down the phone and went to find him.

"There we are," she sighed on her return. "He's a very old bear."

She would later send a photo.

Apart from a missing eye and some well-worn fur, the golden teddy was in remarkable condition.

"You're talking about somebody who was brought up during the war, and we did not throw things away ... he's moved around the world with me," Hanna said.

"And he's been played with by numerous nieces and great-nieces. He was just a nice, friendly bear."

Janet Hanna, 84, with her teddy bear Reg, named after her late uncle. Photo / Supplied
Janet Hanna, 84, with her teddy bear Reg, named after her late uncle. Photo / Supplied

Similar words have been used to describe the teddy's namesake.

The Bay of Plenty Times wrote that Reg Watkins had a "very quiet unassuming disposition" and was "held in great esteem" by Māori he lived alongside on Rangiwaea Island.

He was by all accounts a thoughtful, kind man of very strong faith.

Sadly, the letter written to the Watkins family on July 23, 1918, did not have the reassuring opening line that their son and brother used in his correspondence less than a week earlier.

"He is badly wounded and is anxious for me to send word," a chaplain wrote from Watkins' bedside.

"I have grave doubts as to his recovery. He sends his love to you all."

The 30-year-old died of his wounds that same day. It was a Sunday.

Watkins' younger brother Lewis – Janet Hanna's father – would later visit his grave in the military cemetery at Bailleul.

Lewis had enlisted just before Reg's death and left New Zealand for Europe in late September.

He found himself in the area where his brother died in early 1917 and arranged with a florist to have permanent flowers and a more durable cross put on his grave.

Lewis later wrote: "On my return to my Company I was deeply touched when the sergeant of my platoon who had known Reg in the earlier days of the fighting wished to contribute to the cost of what I had done."

Both Watkins brothers were decorated for their bravery and service during World War I and Lewis made it home to New Zealand, where he made sure his older brother's legacy lived on.

His son Val, with help from other family members, later researched and wrote a 47-page biography about uncle Reg.

And his daughter Janet still has her golden teddy bear and continues to share the stories passed down to her.

'I know not what tomorrow will hold'

Samuel James Keam. Photo / Tauranga Heritage Collection, courtesy of the Keam family
Samuel James Keam. Photo / Tauranga Heritage Collection, courtesy of the Keam family

Three days after Reg Watkins died in France, Samuel James Keam turned 28.

The Welcome Bay farmer, affectionately known as Jim, had enlisted the month before.

He was reluctant to go to war but felt it was his duty.

"The tears are in my eyes as I pick up the pen this morning to write a brief message to you all," Keam said in his last letter to his family before leaving New Zealand.

"Because as I write I look into the unknown future ... And I want now before I go just to tell you that I go out in peace."

By this stage, he had spent months training in Featherston and was about to sail for Europe.

"Many times since I came into camp have I longed to be with you all again," he wrote.

"And I pray God that for your sakes I may be spared to come."

But Keam wouldn't live to see his 29th birthday.

He died on the Western Front, on the first day of the Battle of Messines in West Flanders, Belgium.

It was June 7, 1917 – less than a year after he had left Tauranga, where his fiancee Alice Ridley was waiting for him.

The couple had been sending regular letters to each other.

Keam's final words home were sent on June 6. They indicated a sense of foreboding.

"I am on the eve of the most momentous time of life," he wrote.

"I know not what tomorrow will hold. But this I know and want to tell you, that for me it has no terrors. Nothing can happen that I am afraid of."

He was killed in action the next day.

On the cover of his diary, he left a message.

"In case of fatality will the finder be good enough to return this to Alice Ridley ... and thus earn the lasting gratitude of a worthy woman and her lover."

Ridley left a message of her own one year later.

She wrote a letter to a baby boy who was born nine days after her beloved fiance died, and asked that it be handed to him on his 17th birthday.

The boy was Keam's nephew. His name was James Samuel (Jim).

Robert Keam reads aloud a letter that was written to his father, Jim, after World War I.

In her handwritten letter, Ridley told young Jim what a great man his uncle was.

"What he preached he acted up to and he was ever on the alert to do any kindness and give a willing helping hand to anyone at any time."

She encouraged him to follow in the footsteps of his namesake.

"And do not be afraid to show your true colours to the world. Always do what your conscience tells you to be right and be not afraid of the scornful laugh of worldly comrades.

"Live clean. Act clean and play clean. No matter what else prevails."

The Keam family still has the original copy of that letter.

Robert Keam, whose dad for whom it was written, read it aloud in his Tauranga office ahead of this weekend's Armistice Day commemorations.

"The words are very poignant and arouse quite strong emotions within myself," the 66-year-old said.

Robert Keam, 66, reads aloud a letter that was written to his father, Jim. Photo / Andrew Warner
Robert Keam, 66, reads aloud a letter that was written to his father, Jim. Photo / Andrew Warner

He said his father had a particular affection for the uncle he never met.

"He had a very soft spot and a lot of respect for the older Jim."

Robert said his father also lived up to the words in the letter.

He was an honest businessman, a conscientious farmer and served in World War II in the Pacific, despite sharing his uncle's reluctance and distaste for war.

On his return, he preached in church (just like his uncle Jim did), even using the same Bible and wearing the same waistcoat and watch.

Robert said he often thinks about how he would have reacted if, like those before him, he had been sent off to war.

"It shows incredible bravery."

He said his great uncle Jim was a role model and a noble man of integrity.

And so was his father, Jim.

"He was one of my heroes."

Wounded in war, but lives to see it end

Charles Honeycombe. Photo / Supplied
Charles Honeycombe. Photo / Supplied

In a war where nearly one in five who served overseas did not return, Charles Honeycombe was lucky to survive.

He made it home after more than four years of service abroad; from Egypt, Malta, Gallipoli and Mudros to France and Belgium – and few places in between.

More than 18,000 New Zealanders, including Reg Watkins and Jim Keam, died in World War I.

As we honour and remember the fallen tomorrow, 100 years since the hostilities ceased, it is important we also commemorate those who lived to see the end.

Honeycombe was 23 and single when he enlisted for the Great War on December 10, 1914. He had been working as a labourer for sheep farmers in Matawai, near Gisborne.

He joined the 1st New Zealand Maori Contingent as a private and set sail from Wellington aboard the SS Warrimoo on February 14, 1915, headed for Suez.

He would later spend time in the trenches at Gallipoli, where more than 2700 of his Kiwi compatriots were killed.

"He got wounded at Gallipoli," his son Charlie, who lives in a Rotorua rest home, recalled this week.

The 97-year-old said his father, with whom he shares the same name, was wounded by shrapnel or by a mortar or bomb.

He was digging trenches at the time.

That was something Honeycombe did speak about after the war.

"He was telling us about the slit trenches and things like that," Charlie said.

"They dug them and they were pretty deep. You know, it wasn't a five-minute job."

He said his dad had the same role when he got to Europe.

"When they went to Passchendaele, they dug the slit trenches for the soldiers. But he got gassed there and that affected him most of his life. He died at 63."

Charlie Honeycombe, 97, shares photos and the story of his father, Charles, who served in World War I. Photo / Ben Fraser
Charlie Honeycombe, 97, shares photos and the story of his father, Charles, who served in World War I. Photo / Ben Fraser

Family research into Honeycombe's World War I story also uncovered an account in which he is said to have carried an officer in under heavy gun-fire.

He was promoted to sergeant during his service and was decorated, returning to New Zealand in 1919.

"He was a bloody good father," Charlie said. "He really was.

"He taught us to do things – sawmilling and things like that."

Honeycombe was a sawmiller by trade and had a passion for pig hunting and deer stalking.

He got married soon after the end of World War I and had a large family.

"Mum was good too," Charlie said. "They were a good mum and a good dad."

Charlie was the eldest child and would later serve in World War II.

Before leaving, he said his father offered him some words of advice.

Charlie gave a light laugh as he relayed that message, all these years later.

"Do as you're told. Yeah, that was it."

He followed his dad's advice as he went off to Egypt and Italy and, like him, also made it home from war – despite being wounded, twice.

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Charlie Honeycombe fought in WWII and his father Charles fought in WW1.

In Egypt, two bombs were dropped nearby and he was hit by shrapnel.

And at Cassino in Italy, a piece of shrapnel struck Charlie's tin hat and went into the back of his neck.

"And the mark is still there," the 97-year-old said.

This week he got out his old family photo album and a few items he kept from the war.

He shared stories, some of which were passed down, and others that were experienced firsthand.

One, in particular, stands out.

The day Charlie returned from World War II as a 24-year-old in 1945, he arrived in Rotorua and went for a beer with his mum and dad.

It was a Sunday.

"The hotel had a lot of people there," he said.

The atmosphere was one of merriment and peace.

"You've never seen so many blokes hug and kiss one another, lying on the floor," Charlie said.

"You've never seen anything like it."

As for his father, Charlie said: "I'll remember him, till I pass on."