Monday, 29 January 2018

36597 Sergeant John Gilks 23/7/1897-21/1/1918

John Gilks grew up in Montgomery Avenue, Dunedin, just up the Leith from the Otago University.  He went to the nearby primary school in Albany Street and was made Dux in 1910.  He then attended Otago Boys High School then worked as a clerk for the shipping company H L Tapley and Co.
John Gilks, thanks to Susan Madden, OBHS

He left Dunedin for the Great War on the 26th of April, 1917 as part of the 25th Reinforcements for the NZEF.  He spent some time as a drill instructor at Sling Camp, the New Zealand depot on Salisbury Plain.  On October 17, 1917, his application for front line service was granted with drafting to the First Battalion of the Otago Infantry Regiment.

On January 20th, 1918, the Otagos returned to the front line.  Improvements to trenches they took over - especially drainage - could not be done due to the wet weather.  German raids took place on the evening of the 21st  and, according to the Official History of the Regiment:

"At 1.30 on the following morning the enemy was encountered in considerably greater strength. A total of approximately 100, in four parties, attempted a raid on the left of the line held by 8th Company of the 2nd Battalion, under cover of a preliminary bombardment. Only one of the four parties succeeded in getting through the wire, and none of them reached out trenches, the attack being beaten off by Lewis gun, rifle fire and bombs, aided by the artillery and machine gun barrages which came down promptly in response to a call from the line. In this action the combined bombing efforts of Sergt. Travis and Sergt. A. Maclean, the latter of whom remained at his post though severely wounded, assisted very materially in effecting the repulse of the raiders. There were eight enemy dead in front of our wire, and our casualties numbered one killed and three wounded."
It is very possible that the "one killed" was twenty year old John Gilks, died of wounds "somewhere in France."

Northern Cemetery, Dunedin

The loss felt by his family was expressed in following years, beginning on the first anniversary of his death:


GILKS.—In loving memory of our dear son and brother, Sergeant John Gilks, who died of wounds, "Somewhere in France," on January 21 1918.
No one you loved was by your side,
To hear your last faint sighs; 
Or whisper just one loving word 
Before you closed your eyes. 
But the saddest part is yet to come, 
When our heroes all return; 
Mothers will be looking for their darling boys, 
But our Boy will ne'er return. 
—Inserted by his sorrowing parents, sister, and brother. 

GILKS.—In loving memory of our dear cousin, Sergeant John Gilks, who died of wounds, "Somewhere in France," on the 21st January, 1918. 
We looked for his safe return, 
And longed to clasp his hand, 
But God has postponed tho meeting— 
Twill be in a better land.
 —Inserted by his loving grandma, E. Gilks. cousins Laura and Henry Simpson (Maungatua). 

GILKS. —In loving memory of our dear cousin, Sergeant Jack Gilks, who died of wounds, "Somewhere in France," January 21, 1918. 
As long as life and memory last, 
We will always think of thee. 
—Inserted by his cousins, Leslie, Stanley. Winnie, and Edna Hey.

Memorials continued to be placed in Dunedin newspapers up to 1929.  In 1928:

GILKS.—In loving memory of our dear son and brother, Sergeant John Gilks, who died from wounds in Belgium on January 21, 1918. 
A light is from our household gone, 
A voice we loved is stilled, 
A place is vacant at our hearth 
Which never can be filled. 
Inserted by his loving mother, father, sister, and brother. 

and in 1929:

GILKS —In loving memory of our dear son and brother. Sergeant John Gilks,who died from wounds In Belgium on January 21, 1918. 
There is someone who misses you sadly. 
And finds the years long since you went; 
There is someone who thinks of you daily. 
But tries to be brave and content. 
—lnserted by his loving mother, father, sister, and brother,

Sunday, 28 January 2018

8/1258 Lieutenant Thomas Dalwood Hartley 25/3/1889-28/1/18

Thomas Hartley grew up in Invercargill and was originally a farmer and a Territorial Officer. He joined the Invercargill City Guards in 1909 and was appointed from Sergeant to 2nd Lieutenant in the 8th (Southland) Regiment (which replaced the Guards under the Territorial System) in April 1913.  He also had 3 months' experience with the Artillery.  He was made full Lieutenant a year later.  He left with his Regiment, part of the Otago Battalion, for the war in February, 1915.

In May of 1915 he was in hospital on the island of Lemnos, wounded at Gallipoli in the left heel and shoulder and suffering from acute bronchitis and also from dysentery, was granted 6 months leave of absence in August and was invalided home.  He was passed fit for duty in October and promoted to Captain in November of 1915.

He returned to the war with the 11th Reinforcements, this time attached to the New Zealand Field Artillery, in April of 1916.  In November of 1916 he is recorded as being promoted from Captain to Major.

Andersons Bay Cemetery, Dunedin

In the winter of 1917-18 the New Zealand Division were stationed in the Ypres Salient.  The collapse of Russia and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Germans was ominous news and a defensive strategy was prepared so there was much work to do in the cold and wet of Flanders.  This work was sporadically disrupted by German shelling.

For the Field Artillery, January was mostly occupied in what was described as "harassing fire," disrupting preparations for an enemy assault as much as possible and, on the 22nd, stopping a German raid on British trenches.  It was during this period that Thomas Hartley died, killed in action.

Friday, 12 January 2018

Private William Thompson 1876-13/1/1918

Andersons Bay Cemetery, Dunedin
"Greater love hath no man than this: that he lays down his life for his friends."

William "Tommy" Thompson grew up in Roslyn, Dunedin, and worked as a cutter for Mr Stephens, a tailor in Cromwell.  He was described by the Cromwell Argus as "a fine young fellow and a favourite of all."

He arrived at Plymouth in September of 1917 with reinforcements for the 3rd Battalion of the Otago Infantry Regiment.  On the night of January 2nd, 1918 the 3rd Battalion of the Otagos relieved the 1st Battalion in an area known as Cameron's Covert, next to a marshy area of the Paesschendaele region.  It being winter, the large bog was a perfect barrier from attack but the trenches were wet and muddy.

The Official History of the Regiment records "intermittent shelling" during the stint in the trenches and it might have been one of those shells that ended the life of William Thompson, a "fine young fellow."

A fine young fellow - Otago Witness photo.

Monday, 8 January 2018

The Soldiers of 1918 - an introduction

The soldiers of 1918 - and later

I made the decision, early in December 2017, to tell as many stories as I could of the soldiers lost in the battles of 1918, on the centenaries of their deaths.  Had I begun blogging earlier, I might have  had much more to share - more cemeteries explored and it might have been possible to do the same for 1917.  I am restricted by time and resources - I can't use the official archive records so there will be few details in many cases and a few guesses on my part, educated or not.  Therefore, the cemeteries from which I have drawn details will be those in Otago and the southern area of the south Island of New Zealand.

1918 - the situation
The year 1918 was, as were they all, a tumultuous one in the Great War.  Like 1914, it was a year in which Germany almost won on the western Front.  Unlike 1914, it was the year Germany lost.

There were three main strategic considerations for the German Empire in 1918:
1 - Russia had been beaten and had signed a ruinous treaty (Brest-Litovsk), ceding enormous areas of productive territory and freeing about half a million soldiers for deployment against the West.  The costly French and British offensives of 1917 had left their armies exhausted and low in morale, especially the British in the minds of German High Command.
2 - The United States had declared war against Germany in April of 1917 and the resources it was sending to Europe were beginning to show their effects - a massive influx of fresh troops could only be on their way.
3 - The economic blockade imposed upon Germany by her enemies since 1914 was steadily worsening its effect.  The winter of 1916-17 was known as the "turnip winter" after the staple food from Sweden, grown for winter stock food, which replaced the failed potato harvest of 1916.  It is estimated that between 400 000 and 800 000 German civilians died from starvation and its effects during the war.  The economy was reeling.  Paper bandages were used at the Front, paper clothing by workers and other civilians as well as "shoddy" - material which was combed apart and recycled with a proportion of replacement fibres such as nettle.  For nearly all of the German people, real coffee was nothing more than a memory, as was shoe leather.

one last chance
The German High Command knew that they had one last chance to win the war before it was lost and planned their offensive.  They called it der Kaiserschlacht - the Emperor's Battle.  New tactics, later to be refined for the year 1939 an named "Blitzkrieg" or "lightning war" were developed. The assault opened on March 21st, 1918.  A few days later, the British Fifth Army had fallen back and the German army had made more progress than they had since 1914.  The New Zealand Division was sent to plug a 7km gap in the line.  Both sides knew what was at stake at this stage of the war and the fighting was savage.

As well as those New Zealand soldiers killed in the Kaiserschlacht of 1918, many died from wounds inflicted in 1917.

Another killer of soldiers - as well as civilians - in 1918 was the pandemic of Spanish Influenza.  It was a particularly virulent strain, described as the worst pandemic since the "Black Death" and it swept a world with many populations affected by war and war rationing.  For many people the victory celebrations of November were not for them.

Further soldiers, wounded and disabled in the War, died in the years after 1918.  One in particular which impressed me early in this project, was wounded in 1916 while serving at the Second Battle of Gaza with the Imperial Camel Corps.  His death notice was published in 1922.  And, for many, the War never truly ended.

A collection of opinion
I'll end this with three contrasting poems from the time.  The first is very familiar, written at the beginning of World War One, when the war was a glorious thing and those killed in it also glorious.  The second is deeply cynical, written at the time when the glory of war had drowned in the mud of the trenches.  The third is gently cynical, seen from the distance of fifty years and another war, and echoing the first.  I think that each of them are valid for their time.  I hope that what I describe in coming months brings some life and individuality to the names of young men who lived before they died.

For the Fallen, Robert Binyon, pub. 21/9/1914
With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.
Solemn the drums thrill: Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.
They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England's foam.
But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;
As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

The last laugh - Wilfred Owen (1st draft written February 1918)

‘O Jesus Christ! I’m hit,’ he said; and died.
Whether he vainly cursed or prayed indeed, 
                 The Bullets chirped—In vain, vain, vain!
                 Machine-guns chuckled—Tut-tut! Tut-tut!
                 And the Big Gun guffawed.

Another sighed,—‘O Mother,—mother,—Dad!’ 
Then smiled at nothing, childlike, being dead.
                 And the lofty Shrapnel-cloud
                 Leisurely gestured,—Fool!
                 And the splinters spat, and tittered.

‘My Love!’ one moaned. Love-languid seemed his mood,
Till slowly lowered, his whole face kissed the mud.
                 And the Bayonets’ long teeth grinned; 
                 Rabbles of Shells hooted and groaned; 
                 And the Gas hissed.

‘On Picnics’ - Roger McGough, 1967

at the going down of the sun
and in the morning
I try to remember them
but their names are ordinary names
and their causes are thighbones
tugged excitedly from the soil
by French children
on picnics

Private Ernest Sainsbury 1890-4/1/1918

Edward's grave at Andersons Bay Cemetery, Dunedin
Ernest Sainsbury grew up in Skippers, one of the more remote gold mining localities in Otago.  It's a place of isolation, of freezing winters and burning summers.  His father was a gold miner, working steadily at his nearby claim and also living off the vegetable garden and the eggs and milk of the hens and goats they kept.

Edward was educated at the Queenstown Main School and left home to work on a dairy farm at Upper Junction, Dunedin.  From there, he volunteered for the Great War.  Of the Sainsbury's five sons, three were enlisted in the army for the war, Edward leaving New Zealand in 1915 (presumably a volunteer) and Ernest and Walter being called up in 1917.

Edward was enlisted as a Private in the Otago Infantry Regiment and first served in Egypt, after the Gallipoli Campaign.  The Regiment then moved to France and was readied for what the British called "the Big Push."  The British volunteer "Kitchener" soldiers had been trained and the almost disastrous lack of artillery and shells had been rectified.  Everything was ready for the effort which would begin the end of the war.  British troops would break the Germans lines and British cavalry would pour through and chase the Germans back to Berlin.

The Otagos were not committed to the offensive, which began on July 1st, 1916, for several months.  It was the middle of September when they in position near Flers and were given instructions to make their first assault on German positions.  The artillery barrage was unlike anything they'd seen at Gallipoli and the eager troops had to pause twice to allow the steadily moving barrage to lift in front of them.  The artillery was, however, not the decisive factor in the day as the men realised when German machine guns opened fire from the shattered tranches.  This was a common experience on the Somme.  The German had prepared themselves with deep, concrete lined shelters for waiting out the barrage.  They were confident that, as fast as their enemy might approach when the guns stopped, they could be faster in clearing out the entrances and bringing up their machine guns.

 On October the first, 1916, the Otagos were part of a major assault on German lines in the Battle of the Somme.  Four waves advanced "each perfect in line and interval, and with rifles at the slope." (Official History of the Otago Regiment)  The heavy artillery bombardment before the assault had wrecked the enemy trenches but the German machine gunners, yet again, were on the parapet as soon as the bombardment lifted.  Casualties are described in the Official History as "severe" - of the 19 officers and 314 other ranks who began the attack, 9 officers and 259 other ranks were killed, wounded or missing by the end of the two day period of taking and holding the enemy position. 

It was during these two days that Edward was wounded with a bullet under his right arm which paralysed the arm and put him in hospital, first the Canadian Hospital in France and then the 3rd London General Hospital.  While in hospital Edward suffered trench fever - a bacterial disease spread by lice - twice.  It was probably trench fever which resulted in a condition called fibrosis of the lung, a permanent scarring of the lung tissue which causes shortness of breath - if the patient is lucky.

The Lake Wakatip Mail described his experience in his obituary: "When he was considered any way fit to undertake the journey he was brought out to New Zealand in the hospital ship Marama as one of the cot cases, arriving at Port Chalmers on the 27th of August (1917). Since that time he had been an inmate of the Dunedin Hospital. In this institution he received treatment at the hands of the most skilful physicians and surgeons, but without avail. His sufferings were intense during the latter part of his illness and, big powerful man that he had been, his poor body wasted away to nothing—as if with slow poisoning."  

He was 28 years old.  His military funeral at Andersons Bay Cemetery was attended by large numbers of the public.

Edward's commemoration record on the site of the Upper Junction School, Dunedin

L/Sergeant Alexander McGregor McGavin 1898 - 9/1/1918

Alexander McGavin commemorated in the Northern Cemetery, Dunedin

Alexander McGavin was born in 1898, grew up in Duke St, North Dunedin and worked as a clerk.  He was, if that redoubtable pillar of journalistic respectability the NZ "Truth" was to be believed, something of a larrikin.  Their report of his 1916 court appearance for assault on a Constable can be found here:

By 1917 McGavin had been called up for military service, trained and embarked for Europe in September as a Rifleman of the NZ Rifle Brigade..  He didn't last long at the front, being severely wounded and/or gassed in late November.

He died in hospital of cerebro-spinal meningitis.