Bright Williams - World War I soldier, farmer. Died aged 105.

Bright Ernest Williams, a Hawke's Bay shepherd, was only 20 and a battalion messenger with the 3rd Battalion of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade when he was at the bloodbath at Passchendaele in Belgium in October 1917.

Williams, who was New Zealand's last living home-grown link with World War I, recalled the events clearly, although he did not talk about them often.


But in 2000 he told Roger Moroney in a Weekend Herald article how his job as a messenger was fraught with danger on the shell-torn mud and barbed wire of the Western Front.

Opposite his position at Passchendaele were German machinegun posts, so familiar that the soldiers called them by names - Wolf Farm, Waterloo, Peter Pan and Ogilvy.

Williams was cut down by three bullets about 8.30am on October 12. A piece of one of them was to remain in his thigh beside an artery for almost 83 more years.

"It was either Wolf Farm or the Peter Pan lot that clobbered me," he said. "The colonel saw me go down and asked, 'Are you hit, runner?' I said that I was and he said, 'Take care of yourself and I'll see what I can do'."

The situation at the time for the New Zealanders was horrendous. The casualty figures recorded for Passchendaele on that day have varied over the years. The massacre, which occurred after orders to take an objective (which was said to have lost any strategic value) in impossible conditions, was played down in New Zealand at the time.

Historian Glyn Harper in his 2000 book Massacre at Passchendaele suggests there were more than 3000 casualties, including 1190 deaths. More than 1000 of those bodies were never recovered.

Williams endured 24 hours in the mud and freezing rain. His only company in a ditch where he sought shelter were the decomposing remains of a couple of German soldiers. He crawled a short distance in the long day and came across a cobber who had also been hit.

"He wasn't good. He had got it in the guts."


Williams found himself thinking about having one of the old dog kennels from the farm at Rissington "to keep the rain off".

But at no stage did he think he would die.

"Hell, no ... I didn't go there to die ... I never once thought about it."

After being found he was sent back through the lines for treatment and returned home in 1918, complete with shrapnel souvenirs, to go back to shepherding. The return to Rissington had a special moment: "Both the dogs I had left behind were there to meet me."

He harboured no regrets about joining up and when asked three years ago whether he would do it again, replied quickly, "Oh, hell, yes."

Williams, whose funeral this week was held at the family's request without any military fanfare, was a very private person.

From shepherding he later became a farmer, although the "souvenirs"caused him some difficulties. He survived an operation in 1999 to remove the last piece.

Prime Minister Helen Clark said this week: "We of a younger generation can only marvel at what these men went through and it is important we never forget the contribution they made."

Williams, once asked how he felt when he got home, said quietly: "I thought, 'This is something those mates of mine will never get'."

He is survived by two daughters, 11 grandchildren, 20 great-grandchildren and two-great great-grandchildren.

The Returned Services Association says there is one more survivor of World War I living in New Zealand - 101-year-old Greymouth resident Bob Rudd, who was born in Britain and served for that country's forces.