An artwork dedicated to the women and children left behind has connected distant family members - and brought to life the sad tale of ill-fated Private William Harold.

Two years ago the Dannevirke News featured Mike Harold's Anzac artwork telling the story of wives and families left behind when their men failed to return from World War I.

"They were our unsung heroes," Mike said.

"Although I never met my great-aunt Bertha Harold, I learnt so much about her determination, resilience and hard slog for survival when her husband William went off to the Great War in August 1916, not to return."

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Mike Harold's great aunt Bertha Harold, centre, on her farm at Pukehinau with her two older sons, Ernie (left) and Clarrie, sometime in the mid 1930s
Mike Harold's great aunt Bertha Harold, centre, on her farm at Pukehinau with her two older sons, Ernie (left) and Clarrie, sometime in the mid 1930s

The result was Mike's painting Te Manawaroa, focusing on the impact the war had on families left behind.

Now the power of that graphic storytelling has continued after Cheryl Wilson (nee Harold) from Auckland read the story online and made contact.

This was the first contact between Mike and Cheryl and it led to the exchange of information between the two families.

"It's thanks to the story being out there online," Mike said.

Cheryl is the only daughter of Hugh Vernon Harold (William and Bertha's son) and the only descendant of her grandfather, William Edward Harold, Mike's great-uncle.

Cheryl was researching William's war history for her grandson's school project on the Battle of Messines, when she found the Dannevirke News story online.

"It's been very exciting to have this new link in our story," Mike said.

"It's about peeling the layers and getting down to the nitty, gritty."

And the new family connection has helped answer questions too.

In the 2016 article, Mike pondered what had motivated his great-uncle Private William Harold, No 22662, to join the war effort as a member of the 16th Reinforcements to the New Zealand Machine Gun Corps.

"It wasn't clear," he said. "Why would a man with a wife and three little children leave his Dannevirke farm and go to war?

"At the time families here would have had a clearer understanding of the horrendous impact of World War I, with stories from Gallipoli.

"Whatever prompted my great-uncle William, 27, to join the front line of the battle, I didn't know, until now."

It was also something Cheryl had wondered about.

"Why did my grandfather volunteer? He had no need to with three little children," she said.

"But my grandma's story was that white feathers were being put on the fences [at Horoeka where the family farmed on the outskirts of Dannevirke] and so I guess it was a matter of honour."

Cheryl has also been able to share William's diary with Mike, much of it written on board the troopship Aparina.

"There was a level of adventure and excitement, which dramatically contrasted with the reality of serious illness on board the ship, amongst the troops, including William," Mike said.

But the troops on board faced the reality of war first-hand on approaching the English Channel when two German submarines sunk a tramp steamer.

One submarine was blown to pieces by a destroyer's torpedo.

"Obviously William had no sense of foreboding of what was to come," Mr Harold said.

Sightseeing at the Tower of London relieved the boredom of life on the troop ship before they returned to sea.

"William talks in his diary about his visit to the Tower of London, highlighting its gory past. He seemed oblivious to the horror that awaited him on the Western Front in the weeks to come.

"But he didn't recognise his brother Hugh when he met him. Hugh had been at Gallipoli and had experienced war in Europe and was obviously changed."

William's last diary entry was on Saturday, November 11, 1916.

On February 2, 1917, he wrote a note to his wife Bertha.

"It's very poignant," Mike said.

William wrote to Bertha, "Keep it dear and when I get back I will be able to tell you a lot more about several things. Au Revoir."

William died in June 1917 in the Battle of Messines.

Cheryl said her grandmother never talked much about the past.

"Grandma Bertha brought up her three boys on her own, along with her sister's two boys for a period as their mother passed away with TB," she said.

Bertha died aged 85 from breast cancer.

Mike had never met his great-aunt Bertha, but said he'd learned so much about her hard slog for survival when William went off to the Great War in August 1916, not to return.

"The story of those women left behind is about tenacity in a tumultuous time. These were the people who really shaped us as a district and a country.

"My family all had very fond memories of great-aunt Bertha who was an amazing lady who saw two of her boys serve in World War II," he said.

"Those women had a life sentence and their survival was through dedication to making life work, but it's not just my family story, it's everyone's story of the time.

"They were the war survivors. Bertha never remarried and for the rest of her days her whole life was affected by World War I.

"The men were dead and gone and I believe stories like this are a damn sight more inspiring than men going to war and the carnage.

"Women like my great-aunt Bertha were inspirational."