Grammar headmaster’s son vanished in mysterious circumstances

28 A father's duty

When the school day dawned early in February 1918, Auckland Grammar School headmaster James Tibbs had a painful burden to unload.

Throughout the war the school had mourned the loss of dozens of former pupils and staff. This time Tibbs had to report that his son Bernard was a casualty, missing presumed drowned in the Tigris River.

Bernard Edmund Tibbs was 29 when he disappeared in the muddy waters of the historic waterway, which flowed from the Persian Gulf through the ancient land of Mesopotamia - now Iraq - past Basra and its oil pipeline upstream to Baghdad, almost 1000km from the Gulf.

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For Tibbs' father, an accomplished mathematician and Grammar's head for a quarter of a century, the uncertainty around his son's death must have been distressing.

Bernard spent three years at Grammar, leaving in 1905 to pursue marine engineering. On completing an apprenticeship in Auckland, he sailed to Britain where he joined the Shaw Savill line and worked in the engine room of two steamships which sailed between the UK and New Zealand, Mamari and Karamea.

In December 1915, he was awarded a chief engineering certificate by the London Board of Trade. The Auckland Grammar magazine Chronicle says Tibbs had tried twice to join the war effort, in London and in Sydney. Eventually he got a commission in the Royal Indian Marine (Rim) to serve on the transport fleet which plied the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, leaving London for Bombay in early 1916.

In Mesopotamia, Rim's task was to retain control of the waterways to support British forces in the field. In summer temperatures could reach 49C while in winter it froze.

On December 9, 1917, despite the bitter cold, Tibbs rescued an Indian soldier at risk of drowning. An excellent swimmer, the Kiwi was recommended for a Royal Humane Society medal for his bravery.

One month later Lieutenant Tibbs had vanished. No one could shed light on the mystery, made all the more curious by a letter he sent to his father saying he was looking forward to getting back to New Zealand. His body was never recovered.

The 100 Kiwi Stories from the Great War series continues every Monday and Thursday.