No 54: Dick Travis
Nothing seemed to frighten Dick Travis. His turf was No Man's Land, the zone of death between enemy trenches and his regiment's frontlines.
He would range over the grim battlefield, alert for an unwary German to drop his guard. Then Travis would pounce, before returning with "a mirthless grin on his darkened face and another notch on his rifle", a soldier told the RSA Review almost 60 years ago.
A crack shot, Travis was ruthless when it came to the task at hand. Veteran Bill Ramage, who served in the Otago Regiment with Travis, once recalled an incident during the Somme conflict: "He leaned against the sandbags and shot a German in the face about 100 yards away, then he walked away."
Travis - born Dickson Cornelius Savage in Opotiki in April 1884 - left school after standard four to work on the family farm. He acquired a reputation as a brave teenager and a skilful horse-breaker. But he fell out with his father and moved to Gisborne where, according to one account "he is thought to have got a young woman in trouble".
So he moved again, cut his family ties and changed his name to Richard Charles Travis. In Winton, Southland, he found farmwork before enlisting with the Otago Mounted Rifles Regiment in August 1914.
His first stop in the war was Gallipoli, where he sharpened the skills which earned him fame on the Western Front. When night fell, Travis set off to slip invisibly in front of the New Zealand lines, returning with priceless intelligence on the enemy.
In late 1916 Travis, by then a sergeant, was put in charge of a Sniper and Observation unit. The exploits of "Travis's Gang" in capturing enemy soldiers for interrogation and gathering information became legendary. On September 15, 1916, Travis eliminated German snipers who had slowed the battalion's advance in the Somme. His actions were recognised with a Distinguished Conduct Medal.
In February 1918 Travis was awarded the Croix de Guerre (Belgian), and later that year in May, the Military Medal.
His technique involved a study of the nearby terrain, before he would set out to "raise the wind" on the Germans.
In contrast to his meticulous battlefield preparations, he cared little for the spit-and-polish demanded by the top brass. He carried two revolvers, strapped cowboy fashion to his waist. He preferred a balaclava to a helmet, and his uniform seemed, at least to a visiting group of British officers on one occasion, to break every rule. His commanders sprung to his defence: "That's Travis; he pleases himself."
Travis once wrote home: "I have seen and experienced sights never to be eradicated from the tablets of my memory but am happy to state I have come through unscathed." But it was in Rossignol Wood, northeast France, that his luck ran out. On July 25, 1918, a day after he had rushed an enemy position, he was hit by shellfire. His bravery earned him one more honour - a posthumous Victoria Cross.
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