A family history blog

War Letters: Two Local Families in 1917

Written by Alvin Smith

In August 2000, Alvin Smith, my eldest brother, wrote an essay for the Warkworth branch of NZ Society of Genealogists. He chose as his subject the experiences of two local families when the family’s sons enlisted and were sent to fight in Europe during the First World War.

Three brothers, Vic Smith (our father) and Neil and Norman (our uncles) were involved in the fighting in France and Belgium while Angus and Cyrus Matheson, two brothers in Alexander and Mary Matheson’s family and cousin to the Smith brothers were also involved in the same conflict.

Essay Category: Experiences in a World War
29 August 2000
War Letters: Two Local Families in 1917

‘Who’s this a picture of?’

We are a group of young cousins, we should be playing outside, on the beach, or in the bush below the cowshed, but it’s stormy and wet, it’s about 1937 I guess, and we’re cooped up inside waiting for the weather to clear, we’re in the front room of the old house, the room that’s so seldom used, and an easterly swell muddy with creek water rolls in between the cliffs and the island, and we the kids are going through old shoe boxes of photos which we’ve dragged from cupboards on each side of the fire place.

‘That’s Angus. My brother’ , says our auntie.

‘And who’s that a picture of?’

‘That’s Cyrus. Angus’s younger brother.’

‘And where are they?’

‘Cyrus died in 1917. Angus died in 1915. They died in the war.’

The photos were monochrome, and I seem to recall that the natural blacks of the photos had been somehow softened to a grey. They were each mounted within a folder of grey card, and with a covering of light grey paper. Each was a figure in immaculate military uniform, standing on a featureless floor, against a drapery suggesting a path and a rural foot-bridge, and each man was staring, guardedly, at the lens of the camera. I recall being puzzled by the strange quietness that then hung about us after the questions and answers, but we were at a loss to inquire further, and we must have put the matter aside and turned to something else. But I can now guess that there was something about our aunt’s manner that was adding its weight to the photos. She was twenty years older than us, and her older brothers had died when she was ten, and she seemed unable to find the right words to speak of them. She would’ve recollected them clearly, and the grief of their parents. Grief of parents, it was something that never occurred to us children.

The migrant family had settled in 1857 at Matheson Bay, near Leigh (then known as Omaha), north of Auckland. Their parents and grandparents had simply been cleared off their land in Scotland at the wish of English investors and landlords, and they migrated to Nova Scotia, and then to New Zealand. The family had eleven children by 1877, and between them – within twenty miles of each other – they in turn produced sixty first cousins. Here, we are concerned with two of the eleven children – Alexander and Christina.

Alexander married his cousin Mary and settled at Point Rodney, in the area now known as Goat Island. Christina was another of the eleven, a younger sister to Alexander. She married a John Smith and settled a few miles away at Ti Point. But in 1898, with a growing family, the depression forced them to leave, and this couple and their children moved to Ponsonby, where several of Alexander and Christina’s brothers and sisters had recently moved.

Two of Alexander and Mary’s children enlisted in the 1914 war, and three of Christina and John’s children. By the middle of the 1930s the elderly parents of the soldiers had died – Alexander and Mary, and Christina and John – and four decades later still, when all their children had died, and the old houses were cleaned out, it was then that two caches of papers surfaced, letters from Angus and Cyrus Matheson to their parents and siblings, and war letters from Vic and Norman and Neil Smith to their parents and siblings.

Angus and Cyrus were brought up on the farm. The family was Presbyterian in religion and their parents insisted on the strict observation of the Sabbath. The schooling of the two eldest children would have been at a two-days-a-week part-time country school, and judging from old photographs, with perhaps eight or ten pupils. They would have left school at the age of ten. From that age their lives would’ve been centred upon the labour of the farm – managing stock, calving, milking, and upon fishing and helping relatives in their boat yards.

Angus and Cyrus moved to Auckland about 1910 in search of wages, and lived there in the households of their aunties and uncles. They found themselves in a world very different from that at home. In Auckland polarities abounded, and were intense, fuelled by a mischief-making press: Catholic against protestant, town against country, workers against the bosses, pacifists against militarists, whites against Maoris and Chinese, the wealthy against the poor, this nationality of migrants against some other nationality of migrants.

I had expected the men to be conservative in their social and political views. Just prior to their enlistment, Angus and Cyrus were working on scows owned by their uncles, and one of the Smith men was working locally in Ponsonby, and the other two had just begun working as teachers and attending Auckland University College in the evenings. All five men had found themselves in the middle of the 1913 labour troubles, and I discovered that their sympathies were – though somewhat passively – with the strikers.

There is 2 thousand special police and they are worth seeing when about 400 of them ride up the street together on horsback. … There was a big procession yesterday it started at Hobson Street and marched right round to Victoria Park after going through Newton. There was 4 bands in it and there was some cheering going on. (Matheson Papers #14, Cyrus from Auckland to his mother, 17 Nov 1913)

I hear Angus [his nineteen-year-old brother] was coming up but if he goes scabbing he needs go to his relations any more [he’s referring to his aunties’ and his cousins’ places around Ponsonby]. (Matheson Papers #9, Cyrus from Auckland to his mother, 27 Nov 1913)

War broke out in Europe on 4 August 1914, and there was immediate enthusiasm in New Zealand for sending troops. Until August 1916, recruitment of troops was by volunteering, but the Government and press exerted enormous pressure upon those eligible to enrol.


Due to the patriotism of your forefathers, ENGLAND is to-day able to assert the principle of JUSTICE and RIGHT. Are you by your neglect going to deprive our Empire of this privilege and power? (From a recruiting poster, 1915, reproduced in Baker, p. 22.)

Such posters, with their concepts of justice and right, and their appeal to patriotism to England, would have been read strangely by men who had occasionally heard their grandparents speaking Gaelic amongst themselves, and who would have known that an English mortgage corporation had driven their parents from their Northland farm. But, beyond the inept posters, there were powerful community pressures. Men were accosted by strangers in the street, and especially by women, with the venomous accusation: ‘Why aren’t you at the front?’ All five men finally volunteered. It is hard now to gauge how they or their parents thought about it at the time. But we know that whatever the feelings about the war that they had in 1914, by war’s end the feelings of the survivors had changed radically.

Immediately after induction, the men began telling their parents of the new and surprising world of the army:

While in camp, many men were met who openly stated that they were not there for any love for the part that England was taking in the war, but because of the social pressure put upon them by their friends and relatives who had been influenced by the newspapers. (Vic, journal, p. 4, 2 Jan 1917).

The chaplin protested against the men playing cards while the church parade which was a special one being the first Sunday after Anzac day, was being held. The church parades were voluntary, and very few men took any interest in them. The idea of mixing war with religion was repulsive to a lot of the men. (Vic, journal, p. 21, 28 April 1917)

They were also surprised by the disorder they often found in the camps, where there seemed to be attempts towards a rough alternative to official justice:

There was some excitement at Featherston the last night we were there the canteen was raided windows and benches and tables smashed a big mob collected and they couldn’t do anything with them, the Camp Adjutant pushed his way in amongst the crowd and started talking but he didn’t get a hearing. The officers grabbed several chaps but the mob kicked and shoved until they had to let go. The 20 th [reinforcements] were responsible for it but there was 22 and 21st amongst them. Their excuse was that they weren’t treated fair, and they thought it a good way to get their concessions back. It’s not worked fair about overstaying leave. (Matheson Papers #38, Cyrus from Trentham to his father 27 Nov 1916)

The Sergt Major the other day was yarning to us about saluting. He explained that when you saluted a commissioned officer it was not the man you were saluting but the authority he held from the king. “In fact”, he went on, “it’s the king you are saluting”. One hard case chipped in from the back, “Well, who the ruddy hell is he, anyway?” So there’s a bit of what is termed Rafferty rule here all right, but there is a very fair sprinkling of patriotic chaps like myself who waited only about two and a half years before enlisting. (Neil from Trentham to his mother 11 Mar 1917. 8 Vic, journal pp 55 ff: at Sling Camp, Wilts, 14 Oct 1917)

And especially in England, insubordination easily ignited into a full-blown riot.

There were a lot of Canadians, Aussies, and Tommies camped near our camp, and on the 14/10/17 a crowd of them with some of our lot among them had a riot. Much damage was done to windows, the canteen broken into, the beer emptied in the roadway, and the till smashed and the money taken. There was a muster parade next day. The C.O. complimented the men on their behaviour under trying conditions, but regretted that the first hand that he saw going into the till in the canteen belonged to a New Zealander. (Vic, journal pp 55 ff: at Sling Camp, Wilts, 14 Oct 1917)

How would the parents have taken all this? Their grandchildren now agree that their grandparents would seldom have been extreme or vociferous in their social views. The sons write their accounts of camps and countries and conditions with the obvious expectation that what they write and the tone in which they write will be acceptable to their parents, and there can be little doubt that what they wrote was slowly taken up by the parents. For the parents, too, the shining ideal promulgated by the public community of a just and good war fought by a loyal and righteous army would have begun to fade.

One of the deepest impressions made upon the men was the enormous gulf between the patriotic militarism of the public community in New Zealand, on the one side, and the reality that they met in the camps and in France. They found that official language, the rhetoric of recruitment, and the jingoism of the newspapers had been muffling the reality of the war. First-hand reporting in letters home of conditions in the field was prohibited, and the letters were censored by the men’s officers, not only for strategic reasons, but also because of the effect they might have on continued recruitment. There is only one account of the battleground, and this was written away from the front during convalescence, and brought back to New Zealand in person:

On 10/7/17 in the evening owing to extra heavy shelling near our dugout, we were advised by an old hand to shift to another about 100 yards along the trench. The four of us had just got to the other dugout when heavy shelling started there also. While the two older hands were reporting the shift to the sergeant I shifted into the wing for better cover and to make a comfortable place for the night. Here I was hit by a shell fragment. My first impression was that I had several ribs broken. Just after that there was no pain at all, but just a heavy feeling. When they cut my tunic off, they found that I had got what the sergeant said he would give a fortune for, but as I was loosing a great deal of blood, I began to take very little interest in what they said. My iodine and field dressing was put on, and I left with three others for the first aid post about a mile and a half along the sap, where the wound was properly dressed. A shell hit the depot that night but did no damage owing to the thick concrete protection. I stayed there until daylight, and then went further back to a depot at the brewery on Stakes farm. There I had the wound redressed, and an injection for antitetanus. I went from there in an ambulance to the main dressing station at Pont a Neippe. Another dressing was put on there and I was sent on in an ambulance to the Australian casualty clearing station at Steenweark, where I was put under X ray and then put under chloroform, and had the shell fragment removed. I stayed there for two days. An air raid took place there on Friday morning, killing two nurses and a number of patients. I heard before leaving, from an Aussie orderly, that one of the Fritz airmen who had taken part in the raid that morning was taken alive. When asked to explain why he had bombed the hospital, he pointed out that we had our observation balloon hung almost above it, and to attack the balloon he had to risk hitting the hospital. I had seen the balloon over the hospital on the day before, so I knew that what the airman had said was right. I left there that morning on a hospital train. The beds were three deep on each side of the carriage, and were fitted up very comfortable with glass windows aside each bed, so that we could watch the country as we passed through.protection. I stayed there until daylight, and then went further back to a depot at the brewery on Stakes farm. There I had the wound redressed, and an injection for antitetanus. I went from there in an ambulance to the main dressing station at Pont a Neippe. Another dressing was put on there and I was sent on in an ambulance to the Australian casualty clearing station at Steenweark, where I was put under X ray and then put under chloroform, and had the shell fragment removed. I stayed there for two days. An air raid took place there on Friday morning, killing two nurses and a number of patients. I heard before leaving, from an Aussie orderly, that one of the Fritz airmen who had taken part in the raid that morning was taken alive. When asked to explain why he had bombed the hospital, he pointed out that we had our observation balloon hung almost above it, and to attack the balloon he had to risk hitting the hospital. I had seen the balloon over the hospital on the day before, so I knew that what the airman had said was right. I left there that morning on a hospital train. The beds were three deep on each side of the carriage, and were fitted up very comfortable with glass windows aside each bed, so that we could watch the country as we passed through. (Vic, journal, pp. 39 ff.) 

They began strenuously extinguishing any enthusiasm their younger brothers had for the war:

I hear that Roy [his younger brother] has got an Indian missionary craze. Tell him not to bother going so far. If he wants to convert heathen there will be no lack of material ”when the boys come home”. Ah me! One has to live with his fellow man to know him and the Western front doesn’t exactly bring out the softer side of a man’s nature in spite of the Anzac tosh that “Grannie” [The New Zealand Herald] deals out so lavishly. The high souled superman is painfully hard to find among those who are cursing the war and hoping for an early return to N. Z. (10 Norman from No. 1 General Hospital, Hornchurch, to ? [first page missing] 18 Jun 1918.)

There was a line of people, over twelve hundred (the number was reported in the daily paper) waiting outside one dairy Coy. in London last week, waiting for milk. the young fry [children] in the east end can’t get half of what the Drs say they should have, and at the same time a reporter proved that he could get as much milk and cream as he liked to order in a west end hotel. (Vic from Codford Wilts. to his eldest brother Ben, 16 Dec 1917)

One of the men writes some patriotic rubbish to a newspaper, in order simply to get it published:

To win a bet of 6d [sixpence] I wrote to the Daily Mail last Sat. They published it Tues, – I enclose it. Don’t think it is a reflection of my own opinion, I merely temporally adopted an opinion that would get my letter published and bring me 6d. I have not got the letter to which it is a reply but mine really explains itself. Suppose you send it home for the fun of the thing. I bet I am the first member of the family to have his statements & opinions regarded as so weighty that they were deserving of reproduction 5,000,000 times and in 3 languages, Eng. French, & Welsh (?) – an explanation of the circumstances with it, or else they’ll think I’ve turned jingo. Betterstill, send this envelope to explain it – there are no swear words on it. (Neil from Convalescent Hospital at Hornchurch, England, to his brother Norman, 10 Jul 1918)

If Roy [one of his younger brothers] comes voluntarily to France he’ll deserve all he gets. Tell him France rubbed the enthusiasm off Leaming, Platt, & Reynolds [older fellow students whom he would have known]. Also tell him to keep the fact to himself and not mention it at College. What does he want to come for! Tell him if he’s thinking of the rights of small nations and all that rot that the Belgians as a rule seem to be regarded as spies until they prove themselves anti-German and that the French show their appreciation of ‘L’entente cordiale’ by charging 100 c for filling our water bottles [The English guards shot a peasant who had done that.] No wonder the Froggies love us. The names they use for us among themselves are incapable of English rendering. The ideas Roy has probably got of the treatment of the English by the French from reading books like the “Retreat from Mons” will suffer a rude shock when he comes here. There is very little glory left in it now. … Roy ought to have a bit of sense and stick out of it as long as he can. It might easily last another five years. … If our Roy goes on as he is going he’ll end up like another chap I know – an old French woman went round her field with a bucket collecting most of him for fear the bits of him that had been charred and discoloured by the shell might poison her dog. Tell Roy to turn round and have a look at himself and resign his commission. (Neil at Torquay to his mother 29 Apr 1918.

They were not prepared for their first encounters with captured German soldiers:

I saw my first Germain soldiers since we came here. There are plenty of them here, prisoners of war and they have them out working under an armed guard. They look a pretty sly lot and some of them look just boys. (Cyrus from Codford to his sixteen-year-old sister Annie 7 May 1917)

The Germans as a whole had been portrayed in the press as reptilian incarnations of evil. Surprisingly, conditions at the front itself tended in one sense to blur even the distinction between ally and foe. The line of the front was almost static, year after year, except for occasional and expensive advances or retreats of a kilometre or two, and in places casualties at the front could be huge in terms of deaths per kilometre. In the histories we are told that the dead and the mutilated dead and the decaying dead, from both armies, were promiscuously intermingled. The sight of the carnage, with the stench, sometimes became an almost unnoticed part of the landscape. (Fussel, The Great War and Modern Memory, 1975, p. 49. See also the quotation from the Wilson Diary in Glyn Harper, p. 91) ‘The Allies’ and ‘the Germans’ became words and concepts that seemed no longer adequate to what was being experienced.

It was inevitable that the men began to contrast their present views with their state of mind when they enrolled, and to write of their fear of the front and their home sickness.

I should have had more sense than to go to Victoria Str [in Auckland, to enrol] just a year ago today.(Neil from General Hospital, France to his mother 5 Jan 1918)

I certainly cannot claim that my luck has been out these last few years (except 6 – 1-17 [when he enlisted]). (Neil from No. 5 General Hospital, France to his mother 7 Feb 1918)

We have been away from the shells lately we will be pretty scared of them when we get back amongst them again. (Matheson Papers # 80, Cyrus from France to his mother 15 Sep 1917)

It will be 8 months next Wednesday week since we joined up so we are mighty lucky to have no prospect of France yet. (Norman from Cambridge Hospital, Aldershot to his mother, 27 Oct 1917)

It is five months yesterday since we saw Cape Farewell drop below the horizon and we are looking forward to the day when we shall [see] any bit of old NZ rise out of the water. (Norman from Cambridge Hospital, Aldershot to his mother, 14 Nov 1917)

[He is convalescing in England from trench fever.] Trench fever … is caused by lice. It was not strange that I caught it for I was simply crawling with the pests. I looked upon them as pests then but I have since come to regard them as a blessing. (Norman from No 1 New Zealand General Hospital, Brokenhurst, to his mother, 8 Jun 1918)

On a still day we could hear the heavy artillery in France while we stood on the cliffs, in spite of the long distance that separated us. (Vic Journal, p. 62, at Torquay, 16 Feb 1918)

He says (and you say too, in another letter) that you have been bottling fruit. That settles it. I reckon it’s up to them to finish the war this Spring. I have forgotten the look of a peach pie, to say nothing of the taste. (Neil at Torquay to his mother 29 Apr 1918. 24 )

In an eleven-page letter, one writer ranges over money matters and his future after the war. The letter seems a mixture of bravado and depression, with a final gesture of irresponsibility, no doubt intended to raise a parental eyebrow:

I don’t think it is at all certain that I shall return to Grammar. I don’t feel a bit like taking up the old threads again and sitting for my degree. I may do like Trot [Norman] and take a couple of schools in the country. I could get a fiver a week out of the Education Board easy enough, and besides I think I just about know now how to get the maximum result out of a country school with a minimum of labour. I don’t care much what I have to do when I get back so long as I don’t have to work for my living. The Government will have to make some arrangements about keeping me. [ And so on.] (ib)

The letters also, in an indirect way, evoke the households at home. The social centre of the house was the kitchen. It was a large room, it was in fact the living room of the household, where the meals were cooked and prepared and
eaten, it contained the big black wood-burning range, and the long table that could seat the whole family. Cards were played (but not on Sunday!), and talk-as-entertainment flourished. Here, no doubt, the letters were read and shared. The letters contain a fair amount of chivvying of younger siblings, and parental-like advice to them all. There was also playful romping-like interchanges with their elder sisters. If a sibling was married with children, there were many requests for news of babies and infants.

[Angus Matheson writing to his thirteen-year-old brother, in a long letter:] Dear old Son, … I wouldnot mind if you where down here we would have a pretty good time of it together. I have shifted from all my cobbers and goodness knows when I will get back to them. (Angus Matheson from Trentham to Sandy Matheson 3 June 1915)

Roy [his younger brother] in his high glee concerning the lowering of the age limit deserves to be spanked. Stick a needle in his arm if he feels heroic about France, – that will cure him. (Neil at Cambridge Hospital Aldershot to his mother 29 Oct 1917.)

He [his father] expects Roy will take some holding in when he turns nineteen. Well, you have asylums there for the purpose. (ib)

I also received a letter from Mat [his older sister, with whom he frequently exchanges letters], but they managed to bring me round again alright. (Neil at No 5 Convalescent Camp, France, to his Mother 24 Mar 1918)

… he [Gorrie his much older brother] was wondering how long it would be before one of us came home to liven Dad up and prevent him interrupting an argument by falling asleep in his chair. (Neil from Hornchurch to his mother 14 Jul 18)

Angus, the eldest son of Alexander and Mary Matheson, died on 29 June 1915 in Wellington, soon after enlistment , when measles and meningitis swept through the Trentham camp. Cyrus, the second son, was seriously wounded during the notorious attack at Passchendaele on 12 October 1917 (Harper, Massacre at Passchendaele, chapters 4 and 5). The telegram received at Point Rodney read

… seriously ill … wounded gassed shelled (Matheson Papers # 86, Minister of Defence to A. Matheson, 20 Oct 1917)

He died on 18 October 1917. Amongst the papers for that household, following the second death, we find score upon score of sympathy messages. Some of them are standardised official messages:

The Governor General is commanded by the King … true sympathy of his Majesty and the Queen. (Matheson Papers #122, office of Governor General, 23 Oct 1917)

Many of them are two or three line telegrams from neighbours, and some of them seem to be from utter strangers from distant places who seize the occasion to preach a text, to praise patriotism or to emphasise some narrow
aspect of Christian teaching. It’s difficult to imagine that these documents made much impression at all on parents who had just lost their second son. But those members of the immediate family who are living elsewhere write to the parents (they are writing to a sister or brother) and struggle to imagine the heaviness of the loss. In a moving letter, Bella, the eldest Alexander’s siblings, who also has two sons in the war, writes to her younger brother and to her cousin Mary:

I got your letter and glad to hear you were keeping well. I am sory for Alick and all. I tried to write but cold not manage it so I am sending a card. If I did not feel too much for them [the dead sons] I sepose I could, but as soon as I begin to think of them my Hand Shakes and my glasses feel dim. (Matheson Papers #138: Bella Young from Ponsonby, to Alex Matheson and his wife Mary)

Jessie, the youngest of Alexander’s siblings, barely older than the victim, writes in a long letter to her brother:

This cruel awful war how many young lives have [been] lost, if we could only give our lives to bring them back how willingly would we do it. (Matheson Papers # 95, Jessie Fenton from Warkworth to her brother Alex Matheson, 24 Oct 1917)

Finally, we are fortunate to have a letter from Alexander himself to his wife Mary – it gives us a rare glimpse of the intimacy between these two, who in the old photographs so frequently seem to be inaccessible and perhaps even iron-hearted. Alex has been informed that his eldest son, who had been at Trentham, is now seriously ill in a Wellington hospital. From his home he walks or rides the three miles to Leigh to catch the steamer to Auckland, which is a five-hour journey, and from thence by train to Wellington, where he’s met and accommodated by some distant members of the family. In hospital Alexander visits his son Angus, and two days later writes to his wife.

[Monday]: Dear Mary, You must be having a bad time waiting for news I know I have had the most trying time of my life I got here at 3 p.m. Saturday … I saw him but he was very weak when I bent close to him he just whispered ‘oh Dad’ that is all I got from [him] and had to leave him [the next day] he said don’t worry Dad I’ll be allright soon [at seven thirty at night] he seemed better spoke to [me] for a while … but did not grin when I was leaving he said tell Mum not to worry about me I will be allright in a few days. He asked me did I think they would give him a holiday to go home. [This morning] they said Angus was much the same as when I left last night … he says they are very good to him there if we had a little of this in Camp I would not be here now he said. The Doctor said he got cold after the Measles or he would have been allright. … I hope I will have better news soon … Your loving husband A Matheson. (Matheson Papers #21, Alex at Wellington to his wife Mary, 21 June 1915)

Angus died on the day following the writing of the letter. He is buried in the Leigh cemetery.

Alexander himself died in 1926. One of the younger sons married and took over the parental home (it was exactly where the present marine laboratory is at Goat Island). The widow became a guest in her son’s household, and later moved back to Matheson Bay, to live with a maiden daughter, and she died in 1938. Her grandchildren recall her as a kindly visitor, bringing them gifts of lollies from Leigh. I never heard her speak of the war. My young memory can do no more but recall Mary clad always in black, silent, sitting aloof in the front room as the sun poured in, while one of her surviving sons ran the farm.

It’s now impossible not to surmise that the parents too finally shared in the disillusionment of the younger generation, and in their rejection of the whole project of the war. But the parents were quiet unobtrusive people. How complex their grief must have been. It must quickly have grown into a resentment towards state and community, for both had colluded in sending their sons to meaningless deaths. But what of themselves? Should they been more active, earlier, in guiding their sons? How, in the midst of war, could one speak of these things, break out of a circle of recrimination? Our blunt childish questions to our aunt, on that stormy day in 1937, would have taken her back, as a ten-year-old daughter, to the calamitous news of 1917, and into the inarticulateness of that bewilderment and grief.

We are born with the dead. See, they return, and bring us with them. (Two lines from Eliot’s poem, ‘Little Gidding’, 1942)

A note on sources

The primary source comprises two collections of letters. The first, containing letters from Neil, Norman, and Vic Smith to their parents and siblings – 170 items – is in my possession. The second, containing letters from Angus and Cyrus Matheson to their parents and siblings, and also some other papers – 143 items – is in the possession of Enid Campbell of Whangamata.

Some fine collections of New Zealand letters from the Great War have been published, for example Nancy Croad [ed.], My Dearest Home, Auckland (Nancy Croad, 1995). The letters in many of those collections were written by naturally accomplished writers, or the letters in others have a unity of tone by having been addressed to a wife or fiancée. The letters I’ve used are very different . Some of the writers are struggling to write. There is a hodgepodge of fact about place, travel, expressions of feelings of isolation and depression, gratitude for food-parcels, and comments on news from home and concern for the family’s welfare.

An indication of the enormous wealth of unpublished material is revealed in the following three books: Glyn Harper, Massacre at Passchendaele, Auckland (HarperCollins, 2000); in Nicholas Boyack, Behind the Lines: The Lives of New Zealand Soldiers in the First World War, Wellington (Allen and Unwin, 1989); and in Nicholas Boyack and Jan Tolerton, In the Shadow of War: New Zealand Soldiers Talk about World War One and their Lives, Auckland (Penguin, 1990). These last two books point to the gap between the official histories and the testimonies of the soldiers themselves and their communities. They indicate that the growing disillusionment of the five letter writers that I’ve used was almost universal. The official and social pressures upon men eligible for enlistment, and upon their families – and much else – are described in Paul Baker, King and Country Call: New Zealanders, Conscription and the Great War, Auckland (Auckland University Press, 1988).

I have also found it very useful to browse through such books as Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past: Oral History, Oxford (OUP, 1988), and Stephen Caunce, Oral History and the Local Historian, London (Longman, 1994).
Terry Healy of Goat Island has helped immensely by throwing a human light upon the task of writing about families. She also read a couple of early drafts and performed that essential service of reflecting back to me their shortcomings. Nathan Torkington’s comments have been invaluable.

Finally, for insight into our own families, I’ve been helped by conversations with my cousins, especially with Iris Chitty, Enid Campbell, Valerie Stern, Doug McClintock, and Barry Torkington.

One thought on "War Letters: Two Local Families in 1917"

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *