New research shows that the tally of our dead from World War I is much higher than officially recorded. It's time to end the injustice. By Clare de Lore.
They were the walking wounded – some possibly better described as the living dead: men who returned from World War I but who died of war-related mental or physical injuries and illnesses in the years that followed. There is a growing interest in WWI history and finally the stories of many of these mostly single, damaged and often forgotten men have been researched and verified. More than a century after the end of the Great War, an estimated 2000 are missing from the official New Zealand Roll of Honour, which was published in 1924.
Nearly every city and small town has a war memorial, recording the names of those who died in the service of their country during the two world wars. The nation took a huge hit in WWI. At a time when the population was only 1.1 million, 100,440 served overseas, including 550 nurses and 2000 Māori. The Roll of Honour shows 18,166 were killed and many others wounded. That death toll is now being challenged by Methven farmer and business leader Sir Graeme Harrison, and new information from the New Zealand Military Historical Society (NZMHS) also reveals major under-reporting.
Many of this country's war dead are buried in cemeteries near where they died, tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. There are 959 of these cemeteries on what was the Western Front and New Zealanders lie in 336 of them. Their names, where known, are also recorded on the memorials in their home towns alongside those soldiers who returned wounded or ill and whose wartime service-related deaths occurred before the end of 1923. That was the cut-off date determined by the government of the day. After that year, they were not counted as war deaths and recorded on the Roll of Honour and their names are not displayed on many of the memorials.
Even some who made it home only to die before the cut-off date are missing from the Roll of Honour – including Private Peter Tufi Noon, whose headstone at Karori Ceme-tery records that he "died from shell shock".
From the Mt Hutt area, 351 men enlisted for WWI. The Mt Hutt District Memorial Arch in Methven records the names of 69 men who died in the service of their country in that conflict, but Harrison says that record is wrong. One soldier's name is recorded twice, but, of greater significance, Harrison says, 34 names should be added. It's a story that the NZMHS says will be true of many WWI memorials all over the country.
Under the arch
Harrison was born in Methven and went to school in the area before going to the University of Canterbury and eventually pursuing a business career that took him and his family overseas for 13 years. He founded Anzco Foods, one of our biggest exporters. On retiring from Anzco after 34 years at the helm in 2018, he returned to hands-on farming. His 2300ha carbon-neutral operation takes in hill country, foothills and some flat land. Besides farming, he can be found working in conservation areas on the property and, until recently, completing a major WWI research project.
It was as a child that Harrison first started thinking about the people behind the names engraved on the Mt Hutt arch that stands at the entrance to Methven Primary School. He and his schoolmates waited under it for the school bus to take them home each day. "I was analytical even then and I counted all the names and there were 69, although I now know one was a duplicate, so 68 from WWI. There were 15 from World War II and I used to wonder why there were so many more from WWI. At that stage, when I was at school, people were mostly talking about WWII, but I remained curious about the memorial and the stories of the men behind the numbers."
A single man's war
More than 60 years after that initial spark of curiosity, Harrison has completed his research into the backgrounds of hundreds of returned WWI soldiers who might have had connections to the Mt Hutt area in South Canterbury. He has spent hours tracking leads and official records – for example, those held by churches in the area, councils and health records – and identified 34 men whose names should be added to the arch.
Harrison says that as well as the deadline of 1923 to register the names of those who died in the service of the country on the Roll of Honour, there are other reasons some men have been denied official recognition of their sacrifice. There was a stigma attached to the varying causes of death among those who returned. "One of those who came back and died in our area had venereal disease, but no one wanted to recognise that. And then there were others who went away, then came back and took their lives. I have researched tragic circumstances where they might have served three years overseas, come home and just couldn't live with themselves and shot themselves. They're not on the official rolls, but they died of their war service – there's simply no question."
Some of the deaths that Harrison has researched occurred more than a decade after the end of the war. "There was a horse trainer who came back badly wounded. Eleven years later, he took his life by jumping out of a window at Sunnyside Hospital in Christchurch. He was completely gone. But the military authorities did not want to recognise this and so we've gone on under-reporting war deaths."
There was also fatigue about war in the years that followed, says Harrison, and people just forgot about some of the men. "World War II came along and you had the Depression in between – life was pretty miserable and people just wanted to get over it. There's no question in my mind that the biggest social scar in rural New Zealand was WWI, because of the loss of life of young men. It was a single man's war."
The term post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) only emerged in the 1980s. Before that, the mental anguish suffered by soldiers returning from war was given terms such as "shell shock" and "war neurosis". Harrison knows of numerous stories from friends and relatives of returned WWI soldiers who struggled for the rest of their lives.
"A friend tells of a teacher who was a WWI veteran who had been a prisoner of war for four years. He chain-smoked and lived on his nerves. The boys had a favourite trick they played on this teacher – they'd drop a heavy textbook from a reasonable height on to the wooden classroom floor and watch the teacher collapse shaking, haunted by any loud, sudden noise. The boys had no idea what shell shock was, or the terrible flashbacks and memories they were triggering with their pranks."
Married with children
Harrison's family were not spared during WWI. On his maternal side, he lost two great-uncles and another came home minus a leg. There were also casualties on his paternal side. "One great-uncle, Dudley Harrison, died of his wounds – he came home and died on the operating table at Christchurch Hospital with shrapnel in his head. He was delirious and took the very slim chance that they offered of relief. My great-uncle Clarrie King was gassed and another, Jim Murdoch, was wounded at Gallipoli and on the Western Front. In my immediate family, only one who went away to that war came back basically with no bodily scars or issues with their health. I would suggest that there were a lot of families that experienced the same thing, or worse."
Although rheumatic fever prevented Harrison's maternal grandfather, Wally King, serving in the war, privilege spared his paternal grandfather, Tom Harrison, and Harrison doesn't shy away from the topic. He notes that all but a few of the men from the Mt Hutt area who went to WWI were single, a factor that made it harder to establish the facts of their lives and their deaths.
"Many men were able to avoid going to war. That includes my grandfather on the Harrison side, because he was married, had children and was a sizable landowner. Yet his three sons, eligible in WWII, all went away, including my father. So there were ways that people could avoid overseas military service, especially a landowner. And your best chance was being married with a child."
Harrison's research has been checked and verified by the NZMHS. Its president, Herb Farrant, says Harrison is correct about the 34 missing from the Mt Hutt arch. Not only that, but the NZMHS has just completed its own research, which proves that New Zealand lost many more citizens to WWI than previously thought.
"If they were doing that memorial today, with the research equipment we have, there would already be 100 names on that memorial right now," says Farrant. "And Graeme is right about the others. What this shows is that the cut-off date of 1923 for names to go on the Roll of Honour significantly understates our WWI dead.
"A really significant factor in this was shame, not just suicide but the rate of venereal disease. God, we beat the Australians with our rate – 18 infections per thousand on the Western Front. And people in those districts knew who had venereal disease and those guys' names weren't put forward. They were just discarded."
Farrant says that, as a nation, New Zealand needs to put right the injustice to the memories of those men and others who were left off the roll but whose lives ended as a result of injury or illness from the war. "We are beyond living memory of those times. If we carved out our nationhood at Gallipoli, we paid the price on the Western Front. I can't see any reason why all those who died from their war service shouldn't be honoured. The poor devils – the prognosis for them on the Western Front wasn't great."
The fact that many of the men were sexually active when they had the chance was both predictable and common knowledge. So much so that by 1917, New Zealand was distributing to the troops Ettie Rout's safe-sex packages designed to stop sexually transmitted disease – Rout was a Paris-based New Zealander who campaigned to stop the spread of STDs. Lieutenant General Alexander Godley and Major General Andrew Russell, the commanders on the ground, turned a blind eye to Rout's work – they wanted men on the battlefield despite the moral opposition to prophylactics back home from James Allen, who was Minister of Defence and also Acting Prime Minister for 23 months.
It has always been known that New Zealanders served in the war in regiments other than the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. Farrant, like Harrison, points to privilege and background as part of the reason. "Some families were only one or two generations away coming from England. And in many families, particularly those with the means, it was rather demeaning that you would serve with the colonial division. So their sons were sent 'home' to England to serve with Imperial units."
Although Farrant says these arrangements were known of, the numbers have not, until now, been collated or published. 'There was a published record after the war of the New Zealanders who served in the Australian Imperial Force. Glyn Harper did the major work for his book on WWI and the New Zealanders who served in other units. He found about 11,500 names. We added ours, checked and rechecked, got rid of double-ups, and the total is 12,670, of whom 1660 died. So, our total WWI service deaths are easily more than 20,000."
Farrant and colleagues haven't closed their books yet on the uncounted and overlooked men and women who died as a result of the war. He says small numbers emerge in cemetery records from time to time, men who died in all sorts of places where no one previously thought to look or make a connection.
What happens next seems to hang on the determination of people such as Harrison and Farrant. Putting all the names of those who died from their war injuries, mental or physical, into documentation and publications would be a big job, but it's not impossible. Farrant says it comes down to who pays to change the records and who pays to add the missing names to the incomplete war memorials around the country. It's also a reason he has been pushing, with others, for many years for the establishment of a New Zealand War Memorial Museum at Le Quesnoy in Northern France where research and education about our contribution to WWI can take place.
For his part, Harrison's next step is to persuade the Ashburton District Council and the Methven community that the time has come to do the right thing by the young men who left for war, many never to return or who came home with blighted and shortened futures.
"There are some people who believe that you let sleeping dogs lie, that whatever was determined in 1923 when they closed off the Roll of Honour should stand. But when are you ever going to fix this?
"One hundred years have passed and if it isn't done now, it will never be done. And it's a very incomplete memorial unless we do record all those that we know who fought in that war and died because of their service."
Despite fighting in one of this country's most famous military engagements and later suffering wounds that would prove fatal, Albert Buchly's name is not recorded in the Roll of Honour.
Albert Buchly went through hell on the Western Front in World War I. As with many of his generation, Buchly was a reluctant soldier when he signed up at 22. As a single man, with his occupation listed as farmhand, Buchly knew his fate was sealed – either volunteer or be conscripted.
He trained at Trentham and Featherston before leaving for the UK and more training at Sling Camp, near Salisbury, which was specifically built to train New Zealanders and, later, Canadians. Sling was described by military historian Nicholas Boyack as "black and constantly damp, it was well known for its infamously bad food, large rats, cold huts, harsh training and long marches". At its peak, Sling housed 4300 mostly New Zealanders who carved a huge kiwi on to the chalk hillside behind the camp.
Nothing could have prepared Buchly for the horror of Passchendaele – in just a few hours on October 12, 1917, New Zealand lost 45 officers and 800 men and 2700 were wounded. Somehow, Buchly survived unscathed.
In subsequent action he became ill, but after convalescing, returned to the battlefields of the Western Front. He was granted leave in the UK in August 1918 after 13 months of some of the most deadly fighting experienced by New Zealanders. At the end of August, Buchly was back in action but after barely a week, on September 6, 1918, his luck ran out.
He was seriously wounded with gunshots to both hands and his neck. After treatment in the UK, Buchly made the uncomfortable and long journey back to New Zealand. He arrived at the end of January 1919 and spent most of the next two years in Cashmere Hospital or at a sanatorium.
From November 1921 until his death, less than three years later, Buchly lived in both mental and physical pain in a hut supplied by the army at his parents' farm at Brookside, near Christchurch. He never worked again and he never married.
Of his short life of 30 years, Buchly had spent three years and 94 days in military service, more than half of them overseas.
Albert Valentine Buchly is buried in a churchyard cemetery in Harewood, Christchurch, where he was born. His headstone records his age and that he was a member of the 22nd Reinforcements.
Buchly's name does not appear on the Roll of Honour. His name was added, out of alphabetical order and as an afterthought, to the Leeston War Memorial.
He is one of more than 2000 New Zealanders whose deaths resulted from their service in WWI but who do not officially count.
Sir Graeme Harrison recounts how his grandmother dealt with the death of two of her brothers and the maiming of her third.
Kitty King (née McKay) grew up with her three brothers, Hugh, Jack and Ben, on the family farm at Winchmore in South Canterbury.
The three young McKay men set off for World War I, but only one came home. Hugh is buried at the East Mudros Military Cemetery on the Greek island of Lemnos. Jack is buried at the Kantara War Memorial Cemetery, near the Suez Canal Bridge.
Kitty's third brother, Ben, made it home but had lost a leg and was invalided. Two large oval framed photographs of Hugh and Jack hung in the dining room of their parents' home. The absences cast a cloud over family gatherings, their images a vivid reminder of the high price paid by the family in a war that no one wanted to talk about.
Graeme Harrison would sit at family dinners at his grandparents' home wondering about the story behind the men's pictures. He finally plucked up the courage to ask his grandmother about the young men in the photographs and found out about his great-uncles' war service and their deaths. Kitty told him that losing her brothers made her staunchly anti-war and when it came to World War II, there was no way she would let her two sons go. She appealed to the Military Service Tribunal to argue the case and won.
But it was a family divided, with Kitty and her husband, Wally King, holding opposing views on war. Although Kitty fought to keep their sons out of the conflict, Wally chaired the local Farewell Committee, which celebrated and honoured the service of those leaving for the war.