A fit young labourer from the Nel­son coun­try­side had the un­happy distinc­tion of be­ing the first New Zealan­der to die in World War I, writes

O’Byrne. Bill

Auckland City Harbour News - - NEWS -

It was a suc­cess­ful de­fence of the Suez Canal for the New Zealand troops, but it cost them their first fa­tal wartime ca­su­alty in World War I.

On Fe­bru­ary 3, 1915, Turk­ish troops launched an at­tack across the Suez Canal against the Em­pire forces sta­tioned along the west bank.

Pri­vate Wil­liam Ham, from Nga­ti­moti near Motueka, was part of a pla­toon of 30 men from the 12th (Nel­son) Com­pany, Can­ter­bury In­fantry Bat­tal­ion, who dou­bled over to help the In­dian troops on the first com­bat the New Zealan­ders had seen.

It was good tim­ing, as the Nel­so­ni­ans no­ticed Turk­ish troops com­ing over on pon­toon boats and opened fire.

‘‘The Turks put in a half-hearted at­tack which was eas­ily re­pelled,’’ says mil­i­tary his­to­rian Glyn Harper, but bat­tles went on up and down the canal that day.

Later that day, when 12th Com­pany was mov­ing to the 22nd In­dian Bri­gade Head­quar­ters, Turk­ish troops opened fire. Ham was hit af­ter a bul­let ric­o­cheted off his ri­fle and struck his neck, break­ing his spine.

He died of his wounds at Is­mailia Hos­pi­tal on the evening of Fe­bru­ary 5 and his fu­neral took place on the morn­ing of Sun­day, Fe­bru­ary 7.

Ac­cord­ing to his bat­tal­ion com­man­der, Ma­jor Cyprian Br­ere­ton, in a con­do­lence let­ter to Ham’s mother, he was ‘‘ an ideal sol­dier . . . in ac­tion splen­did, happy and cool’’.

Orig­i­nally from Ire­land, Ham em­i­grated to New Zealand with his fam­ily in 1903 on the SS Athenic, which was co­in­ci­den­tally the ship he sailed on to Egypt with the New Zealand Ex­pe­di­tionary Force.

A labourer be­fore the war, he was said to be very strong with black hair and blue eyes.

He was one of 14 vol­un­teers from Nga­ti­moti who signed up for the war.

Of those first 14, ac­cord­ing to Br­ere­ton, 11 were killed in ac­tion or died of wounds, one died of sick­ness and only two lived to see New Zealand again, ‘‘ and those two be­tween them re­ceived seven wounds’’.

His fam­ily was hard hit by the war. Ap­par­ently the shock of Ham’s death fin­ished off his sickly father who died a month af­ter­wards.

Ham’s mother, Hester, re­mar­ried but her new hus­band, Cyril Bart- lett, was killed in Ypres in 1917.

Ham’s younger brother Thomas (known as Harry) joined up and sur­vived World War I, only to die of dis­ease serv­ing dur­ing World War II in Fiji.

Harper says there was an un­for­tu­nate side to the New Zealan­ders’ suc­cess­ful de­fence of the Suez Canal that would have ram­i­fi­ca­tions within three months.

‘‘The ru­mour ran round that the Turks weren’t real fight­ers and that they were noth­ing but a harm­less bunch of or­ange sellers.

‘‘I think that led a lot of the sol­diers to think they were go­ing to have an easy time on Gal­lipoli. And we know how well those ‘or­ange sellers’ could fight when they were de­fend­ing their own home­land.’’

Dis­ease and ac­ci­dents ac­tu­ally ac­counted for the first deaths of New Zealand sol­diers dur­ing WWI. There was a young trooper from Cen­tral Otago who fell ill just as he was board­ing his troop ship in Welling­ton har­bour in 1914.

‘‘He took sick and died of pneu­mo­nia some days later be­fore he even got to sail,’’ Harper says.

‘‘Then there was a medic – Lance Cor­po­ral Jack Gilchrist – who died from blood poi­son­ing just af­ter his in­jec­tion for ty­phoid and cholera, which put a lot of peo­ple off get­ting their in­jec­tions.’’

Gilchrist, who was from East Gore in Southland, had been a chemist be­fore the war and was with the New Zealand Med­i­cal Corps.

His ship sailed from Port Chalmers on Oc­to­ber 16 and he died at sea on Oc­to­ber 25.

The in­jec­tions went into the arm and the chest, and large, painful nee­dles were used. Af­ter Gilchrist died, 35 men would refuse to have the shots and they were sent back to New Zealand.

One of the more tragic early deaths was of a doc­tor, Lieu­tenant Ernest Webb, who was a doc­tor on the trans­port ship the SS Arawa.

He was tak­ing part in the tra­di­tional Nep­tune cer­e­monies where peo­ple cross­ing the equa­tor for the first time get a dunk­ing.

He took mat­ters into his own hands and de­cided to jump into the bath of wa­ter.

Ac­cord­ing to the Wairarapa Daily Times: ‘‘But in­stead of jump­ing he dived, ev­i­dently think­ing the wa­ter to be deeper than it was. He hit the deck be­neath the can­vas bath with ter­rific force, and dis­lo­cated his neck.’’

The pop­u­lar doc­tor died sev­eral days later in Colombo af­ter be­ing op­er­ated on there.

Photo: MOTUEKA & DISTRICT HIS­TOR­I­CAL AS­SO­CI­A­TION 1980. FER­GUS HOLYOAKE COL­LEC­TION, 1173/1 WAR 1914

Fi­nal farewell, above: The farewell muster in 1914 at the old Motueka wharf for vol­un­teer troops in­clud­ing Pri­vate Wil­liam Ham, cir­cled. Ul­ti­mate sac­ri­fice, left: Pri­vate Wil­liam Ham of Nga­ti­moti, New Zealand’s first fa­tal ca­su­alty of WWI.

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