By Brian Thomas
My great uncle John and I missed each other by a little more than 33 years.
Corporal John McIntosh Fraser, a Gallipoli veteran and twice awarded the Military Medal for bravery, was killed at Bapaume in northern France 100 years ago and I was born on the last day of 1951.
But at last I feel I have done the right thing by a man I never met and even now know precious little about. A few months ago, at my request, the New Zealand Army issued his Gallipoli Medal earned 103 years ago to go with the Military Medal and Bar I obtained by chance three years ago.
The youngest boy in a family of six, John McIntosh Fraser was 20 when he volunteered for World War I service at the first available opportunity, joining the 15th North Auckland Company of the Auckland Regiment. No doubt he was caught up in the euphoria of the time, perhaps inspired by the adventurous nature of his oldest brother, Thomas, my grandfather.
Grandad was turned down because he was half an inch (1.3cm) too short when he tried to volunteer for the Boer War in 1899. Undeterred, he signed on for the long sea voyage from Auckland to Southampton and then found a ship to take him back to Cape Town, where he was put overboard and swam ashore to enlist. He was quickly sent up country without too many questions asked.
At one point he had his horse shot from under him but he survived the war and eventually worked his way home to the outskirts of Whangarei, six years after he had left. His wanderings took him to Coolgardie in Western Australia for a spot of gold prospecting on the way.
It was only when I began researching Grandad's war service, I discovered that he had enlisted in World War I at the age of 38 in the hope of protecting his kid brother, a common if forlorn practice at the time.
Grandad survived, invalided home at the end of 1917, but great uncle John perished, probably killed by a grenade, on August 16, 1918, less than three months before the Armistice that ended the war.
It was a wonder he made it that far. Twice he was badly wounded and his Military Medals were won in the face of German machine-gun fire when comrades were being killed all around him. The citations are remarkably similar and not just for the formulaic first sentence:
"For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in the field on the 26th March 1918, north east of Mailly Maillet [near Arras in northern France]. When his Platoon Officer and all the NCOs became casualties Private Fraser organised the platoon under heavy machine-gun fire and led them forward capturing the final objective. He again organised the platoon and consolidated the position."
"For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during a raid on enemy's trench south of Serre Rd on the 15th May 1918. This NCO was in charge of the left party and owing to shells falling among them and coming under machine-gun fire as soon as the party left our trenches they became disorganised. It was only this NCO's example and quick decision in altering his dispositions that the party rallied and carried on to the objective. He then led his men through the trench and himself accounted for five of the enemy."
My application for the citations led me to the New Zealand's National Army Museum in Waiouru where the warm reception from a librarian was in great contrast to the chilly welcome when I undertook compulsory military training there in 1972. She told me in passing that my great uncle had served at Gallipoli and it appeared that no one had ever applied for the service medal.
While awaiting the citations, I rang a fellow great nephew with a penchant for family history to find out more about our great uncle. He could tell me nothing but he remembered he had some old war medals in a tin somewhere.
He fished them out and to my great surprise they had been awarded to John McIntosh Fraser, apparently handed down to him by John's sister. And even more surprisingly he was prepared to send them to me. They arrived by post in less than a fortnight.
My wife and I took the medals to France and photographed them on my great uncle's grave in Gommecourt Wood New Cemetery, on the outskirts of Foncquevillers, only a few kilometres from where the Military Medals were won. He lies with almost 750 other casualties of World War I's carnage, two-thirds of them unidentified – Known Only to God is the inscription.
There are hundreds of beautifully kept Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries just like it all across the Somme and the rest of the Western Front. The Battle of the Somme, which lasted for 141 days, is best known for the first-day casualties; 19,240 British were killed to gain only three square miles of territory.
Before leaving for France, I sent an exploratory email to the NZ Defence Force Personnel Archives and Medals section about claiming the Gallipoli Medallion. The answer was enough to deter me for the moment: "The difficulty you may run into is showing the link between you and John McIntosh. To claim the medallion you are required to submit both the application and copies of official documents that show the link between you and him . . . The further away the relationship the harder this can be."
The matter rested until earlier this year when I was recovering from a hip operation and had time on my hands. After coming a cropper on the Internet, I sent away to the Births, Deaths and Marriages office in Wellington for birth certificates for me, my mother, my grandfather and my great uncle.
All four came back within a few weeks, except that mine had the word DECEASED after my name. It took a forceful email to persuade the bureaucrats I was very much alive but I had to send the erroneous certificate back before a new one could be issued. By the time it arrived my slim hopes of getting the medal in time for Anzac Day, if at all, had been dashed.
And there was still the NZ Defence Force hurdle to clear. On the face of it, I did not qualify for a Posthumous Application but I wrote the most persuasive letter 40 years in journalism had equipped me for and had a statutory declaration and the birth certificates witnessed by a JP.
I sent the bundle off more in hope than expectation, wondering when I would begin to field queries about contacting all the other great nephews to ask for their permission, or some such obstacle.
Imagine my surprise when in the middle of May the medallion arrived at the local post office. The Customs declaration puts its value at NZ$40. To me it is priceless. And when I am gone it will be handed on to my son Fraser Thomas in the hope it will always remain in the family.
Brian Thomas is a semi-retired, Whangarei-born journalist who now lives on the outskirts of Brisbane.