This week marks the centenary of the bloodiest day in New Zealand military history at Passchendaele. Jude Dobson's grandfather had an unusual route to the Western Front. She made a personal odyssey to retrace his steps.

I never knew my grandfather, Ernest Kirk.

He died when my father was 16.

I knew he'd survived World War One, but I wanted to know where he fought so I could go there on a trip to France.


My dad, Bill Kirk, 94, and I morphed his knowledge with online military records.
Ernest went to the Western Front from his job as an English engineer with Standard Oil Company in Newchwang, China (now Yingkou).

Apart from his preschool and university years in England, his life was in China, and at 41 he went to war as part of the Chinese Labour Corp (CLC) - something I'm ashamed to say I hitherto did not know existed.

My grandmother told my father as a boy that Ernest had been shellshocked, buried in mud. My father remembers Ernest used to smoke a lot (a reason my father did not), and would go to Hanmer for spells. Hanmer being Queen Mary Hospital, which, post-World War One, "treated people with joint disorders, and later those suffering from psychiatric illness and alcoholism".

I suspect he was not going there for sore joints, and given he only drank alcohol at Christmas, that only leaves one reason.

My dad reflects on a somewhat disconnected, gruff father, and when I pieced the story of his war together and the aftermath, it's no wonder. It is one thing to die in war, but quite another to survive the bloody thing and try to pull a new life together.

Shanghai. 1922. Pregnant at 40 with my dad (the reason his 90th birthday dinner had a "Made in China" theme) the doctor thought it safer his mother give birth back in New Zealand.

At 47, his father was finally pulling his post-war life back together, having had a shafting from the British War Office who'd cut his "wound pension" after shellshock made him unfit for service. That, and the fact Standard Oil, the pre-war employer he'd hoped to return to, enforced a directive from its New York HQ that "unfit for military service" meant not employable in a civilian role.

Ernest had finally found employment with Asiatic Petroleum Company, and was picking up the threads of his old life, when my father was on the way and the decision was made to return to New Zealand for good. Unlike his 12- and 8-year-old siblings who were born in China and lived there all but a couple of years, Bill's childhood would be spent at the family farm in Mangere.

How odd my grandfather would have found this new life in New Zealand. And, in turn, how odd he would have found China after France. Further back, how odd to be in World War One France as the bilingual glue between his Chinese company and British hierarchy. Odd might not be the right word. Shattering perhaps?

Jude's uncle, Jim Kirk, and aunt, Blanche, with childhood friends at Shanghai in 1922.
Jude's uncle, Jim Kirk, and aunt, Blanche, with childhood friends at Shanghai in 1922.

I wondered why the Chinese were in France anyway. As the war progressed, Great Britain needed more non-frontline manpower. Given China's nationals were not allowed to fight, the London War Committee in 1916 sought a "business agreement".

The British recruited about 95,000 Chinese, mainly from northern Shandong and Zhili provinces, with some 40,000 more recruited by the French. Documentaries and books have exposed how the work was often dangerous, living conditions terrible, nutrition poor, and discipline questionable.

Although sources vary, it's thought that 1834 Chinese died in France and 279 at sea. Thirty two were untraceable. In their "day jobs" they died from artillery fire, gassing, unexploded bombs and grenades, and as a by-product of disease.

I'm imagining my grandfather was the meat in the sandwich between about 480 Chinese men in his company and the British hierarchy he reported to.

When the call went out in 1916 to find bilingual British men, perhaps he thought he was duty bound. He was fit and healthy at 41 and the CLC work was behind the lines. He volunteered on December 28, 1916, knowing he was leaving an engineering job, a wife and two pre-schoolers.

There's a photo of this slightly bookish man on the doorstep of his 1917 home with his family. He would soon sail to France, the family to Auckland to sit out the war. Winter ice sailing on local frozen rivers and summer holidays in North Korea would become a memory.

Temp 2nd Lt Kirk left Tsingtao (now Qingdao) on May 21, 1917. He was paid 7s 6d a day. The Chinese he went with would be paid a pittance. In mid-July he reported to Noyelles-sur-Mer, CLC sorting central.

Ninety-nine years and 11 months later, I set foot in this sleepy town. I'd read that British HQ was Chateau de Fransu (later German HQ in World War Two) and the officers' quarters and mess at Chateau de Thesy.

I went to the only chateau in Noyelles-sur-Mer, now a hotel, and showed the receptionist the photo of my uniformed grandfather, explaining in schoolgirl French he was "ici" 100 years ago.

I learned I was in what was Fransu - and that Thesy was once the name of a chateau owner on the outskirts of town.

We left, noting the Chinese artwork, and drove all of two minutes to a huge chateau behind closed gates. It was beautifully liveable at one end, the rest needed restoring. I opened the gate, and wandered up the long lawn.

An older couple answered the door and I started my Frenglish explanation of being from New Zealand tracing an Englishman who was there with the Chinese a century ago. The lady of the house explained her grandmother was a Thesy who lived there pre-World War One, and confirmed the officers lived upstairs. As she showed me round I realised this was where Ernest slept 100 years ago, before being shifted to the field.

I was stalking a dead man. It felt satisfying and weird simultaneously.

After this temporary stop, Ernest was posted to the newly formed 54 Company, attached to The British Fifth Army, and stationed for the second half of 1917 in Wippenhoek, behind the lines.

The hamlet is almost on the border of Belgium and France and was where the CLC were based to support British efforts at the front, including Passchendaele about 30km away.

Detective work took us to a small, rural road near the Belgium border. There wasn't much there, bar a name on the side of a building to identify it. I thought about this place in early October 1917, and the record rainfall making it a muddy nightmare. The British fought the Battle of Poelcappelle on October 9, 100 years ago today.

The Kiwis weren't far away. They had fought the Battle of Broodseinde on October 4, losing 350 - 450 men. The worst was to come on the October 12 with another 845 killed. Passchendaele - so much New Zealand bloodshed.

Ernest knew two Kiwis at Passchendaele - his wife's brothers. Twenty-three-year-old Ross had won a Military Cross in 1916 and although badly wounded was back, working between the rail heads and the frontline. His 21-year-old brother Arthur, was on the frontline. He would also be awarded a Military Cross, for his efforts at Passchendaele. Both brothers survived.

Come January 1918, Ernest was promoted to acting captain where his "physical" war ended in May 1918. Wounded further north at Bergues, he was shipped to a UK hospital.

The initial entry note stated "a shell burst not far away, he fell down. His nerves were upset. He felt short of breath with pain in his precordial region" (chest). A month later he was deemed 80 per cent disabled, but told he may regain fitness in time. He was reassessed in February 1919, after home leave in New Zealand.

I'd naively thought with war ending in November 1918 he'd be allowed to stay in New Zealand or make his way back to China. Instead, at the end of his leave, he had to return to the UK to be deemed permanently unfit for further military service. He finally got back to China mid-1919.

The medical review some 18 months after the explosion makes for a stark comparison to the fit and healthy medical report on entry. Capt Kirk was deaf in one ear from nerve concussion, had D.A.H. (Disordered Action of the Heart) and neurasthenia - in layman's terms, a nervous breakdown).

Jude Dobson is dismayed at the dismissive treatment her grandfather Ernest Kirk and fellow World War I survivors were faced with after the war's end.
Jude Dobson is dismayed at the dismissive treatment her grandfather Ernest Kirk and fellow World War I survivors were faced with after the war's end.

He suffered sleeplessness, throbbing in his head, lack of concentration, forgetfulness, nervousness, had an enlarged, dilated heart that missed beats, and couldn't sustain mental or physical exertion. He was deemed 100 per cent disabled, permanently unfit for military service but would be "receiving no treatment".

Bravo chaps, thanks for coming, terribly sorry you're so badly affected. Off you go to your post-war life, and by the way, can't help with money or treatment.

An outcome for many no doubt, lucky enough to survive.

Most of the unlucky members of the CLC are buried at Cimietiere Chinois de Nolette, just outside the HQ and hospital at Noyelles-sur-Mer.

Of the 842 men who lay there, 42 are remembered with no known grave. Some headstones have names, others just numbers, but all have Chinese characters.

Four phrases repeat: A good reputation endures forever; Though dead he still liveth; Faithful unto death; A noble duty bravely done. Indeed.

The Chinese connection with my grandparents continued long after they left China. My grandmother, who lived with her daughter 200 metres down the road from me as a child in Mangere Bridge, had a special relationship with the Chinese market gardeners who occupied one whole side of our street. She sold part of her land to her market gardener neighbour, who later sold it to build the Chinese Community Centre.

My grandfather didn't live to see that connection go full circle. He died of a heart attack in the milking shed aged 63. It was 1939. His two sons were not on the farm to help.

The youngest, 16, had been pulled out of school and sent to Massey to learn agricultural skills. This was to fill the hole his older brother had left on the farm, because another world war had broken out and he was off to fight.

I am quite sure that farewelling his son was, emotionally, the last straw for Ernest, suffering from what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Lest we forget, those who die, of course, but the also the traumatised survivors.