A moving memorial service atop a picturesque Motueka Valley hill has paid tribute to the first New Zealander killed in battle in the First World War a century ago today.

Private William Arthur Ham, 22, was hit by a bullet that ricocheted off his rifle, hit his neck, and broke his spine while repulsing a Turkish attack on the strategically-important Suez Canal on February 3, 1915.

William Arthur Ham died on February 5, 1915, New Zealand's first battle casualty of World War I.
William Arthur Ham died on February 5, 1915, New Zealand's first battle casualty of World War I.

The soldier, who had been serving with the 12th (Nelson) Company, Canterbury Infantry Battalion of the NZ Expeditionary Force, died in hospital two days later.

While driving to the memorial service this morning from Blenheim, nephew Chris Ham drove past the yellow Ngatimoti cottage where the black-haired, blue-eyed council labourer "Willie" Ham grew up after his family emigrated from Ireland.

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The current owner of the house this morning invited Mr Ham to have a look around after the service - an offer he was going to take up.

"When I looked in the mirror this morning, I thought to myself, 'I'm going home'. To think this is where the Ham family arrived from Ireland and where Dad was born, it's very special to me. War is a huge part of being a Ham," said Mr Ham, who for the first time was today wearing his father Ralph's Second World War medals.

Mr Ham spoke during the one-hour service at Ngatimoti St James Church attended by more than 200 people, including local schoolchildren and residents, along with Motueka Memorial Returned and Services' Association and New Zealand Defence Force members.

He thanked the local community for a century of remembering his relative with the inauspicious place in history.

Brigadier Jon Broadley of the Defence Force said the service was about remembering Private Ham's sacrifice, but also those who served alongside him during the Great War of 1914-18, the thousands who have served and protected New Zealand's interests ever since, and the support they have had from local communities across the country.

More than 18,500 died in the First World War - numbers that Tasman District deputy mayor Tim King said would be "extraordinary" today.

"Unfortunately, during World War One, it was not extraordinary. It was repeated in small communities throughout New Zealand and around the world. A generation of young men lost," he said.

"Setting out with a sense of adventure into the big, wide world, sadly for many it the end of a life, not the beginning."

The Last Post rang out across the valley, before The Ode was read, and a minute's silence was observed - immaculately so, even by the dozens of young schoolchildren sitting cross-legged on the parched grass.

The gathering joined to sing the national anthem, before Les Stanton of the Motueka Memorial Returned and Services' Association presented a portrait of Private Ham to the community.

The Nelson Provincial Museum also donated a recently-discovered photograph of Private Ham's funeral at Ismailia European Cemetery.

Afterwards, the catafalque guard of soldiers from 2/4 Battalion, Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment, were dismissed, and poppies were laid at the foot of the marble war memorial - the second oldest in the country.

Of the fourteen men who enlisted from Ngatimoti, 11 were killed in action or died from their wounds. One died of sickness and only two lived to return to New Zealand - both were wounded.