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
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.
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.