Man from Motueka area had the ill fortune to be in the way of a Turkish bullet at Suez.

One hundred years ago today, a skinny young labourer from Ngatimoti died on a dusty field on the other side of the world.

While repulsing a Turkish attack on the Suez Canal on February 3, 1915, Private William Arthur Ham, 22, was hit by a bullet that deflected off his rifle and broke his spine.

He died in hospital two days later, making him the first New Zealander killed in battle during World War I.

The whole nation mourned the loss of the black-haired, blue-eyed soldier from a hamlet 10km from Motueka, and member of the 12th (Nelson) Company, Canterbury Infantry Battalion of the NZ Expeditionary Force.


But there would be no reprieve from grief, as more than 18,000 Kiwis died during the Great War of 1914-18.

Today, about 150 people, including direct descendants of Private "Willie" Ham, the local community, the Motueka RSA and military top brass will gather at Ngatimoti's St James Church for a memorial service.

For years, Private Ham's place in New Zealand history "felt like a family tale ... one that we'd made up", said great-grand-niece Ashley Mackenzie-White.

But historians have confirmed he was the first combat casualty, and his 29-year-old descendant believes today's memorial will add to his recognition.

"It's a weird situation that I'm so lucky that my ancestor's death is so significant," said Ms Mackenzie-White, who is unable to attend the service but will be laying a wreath at the National War Memorial in Wellington.

"For so many families, they just have a medical record or the tales their families have kept alive, or not." Of the 14 men who enlisted from Ngatimoti, 11 were killed in action or died from their wounds; one died of sickness and only two lived to return to New Zealand, both wounded.

Peter Millward, chief executive of Nelson Provincial Museum, said Private Ham's death had a huge impact - not least on his commanding officer, fellow Ngatimoti man Major Cyprian Bridge Brereton.

"Half of these guys were related, and the rest knew one another's families and did so for years. The impact on the community lasted for years, and the impact on a tight-knit group of men serving together must've been shocking."

Major Brereton ensured that Private Ham was not buried in a mass grave, but given the dignity of burial with full military honours at Ismailia European Cemetery.

Local soldiers' memorabilia - including diaries and a rare, recently discovered photograph of Private Ham's funeral - have been collated by Nelson Provincial Museum and Motueka District Museum, and will be on display today at St James Church.

Defence Force chief Lieutenant General Tim Keating said: "The death of Private William Ham was a significant event for all New Zealanders in 1915 and it is fitting that the NZDF returns to Ngatimoti to acknowledge him and the service and sacrifice of all New Zealanders in the First World War."

First man to die born in Ireland

New Zealand's first World War I casualty, William Arthur Ham, was born in Ireland on April 14, 1892.

In 1900, his parents, William Edward Ham and Hester Hawthorne Ham, set sail for New Zealand on the ship Athenic. The Hams settled in tiny Ngatimoti, near Motueka.

William (Arthur) Ham was working as a labourer for the Waimea County Council survey team when war was declared on August 5, 1914.

The former cadet and keen territorial soldier soon enlisted and embarked from Wellington with the main body of the Canterbury Infantry Battalion on October 16, 1914.

On board the Athenic - the same ship that brought the Ham family to New Zealand - he reached Suez, in Egypt, on December 3.

The joint Australian and New Zealand contingent set up camp at Zeitoun, just outside Cairo, underwent extensive training and, when off duty, they went sightseeing.

On February 3, 1915, the New Zealand Infantry Brigade was engaged in repulsing a Turkish attack on the Suez Canal when Private Ham was shot. He died two days later.

His brother, Thomas Henry Merrick (Harry) Ham, enlisted several months later.

Harry survived the war, but died of illness while serving in the Pacific during World War II.