Experience ripples across the century
With the one hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele last week, I felt compelled to share a little of my own whanau’s history with the Great War.
Both sides were touched by the war.
On my Dad’s side, when the war broke out most of the Salmons family were living in the same area of Essex, near London, where they had been for generations.
The eldest brothers, Joseph and Christopher, were already professional soldiers by 1914. My great-grandfather Alfred was only 16 when he ‘took the king’s shilling’ with the Essex Regiment. Another brother, William, lived in Australia and joined a regiment from Bunderburg.
The Salmons boys all fought in different regiments, but often on the same front.
On Mum’s side, four brothers of the Miller whanau from Purakaunui signed up to fight.
George, David and Peter left early in the war with the Ma¯ori Pioneer Battalion, but my greatgrandfather Thomas, the eldest, had not long married and had his first child on the way.
Thomas signed up later but never made it to the front. The soldiers were hit hard by the flu while he was at Waiuru. It was so bad the men took bets on who would die next.
All bar two of my ancestors came home from the war.
Peter Miller fell on New Zealand’s darkest day; in the mud at Passchendaele, fighting to take Messines Ridge. He never came home to his sweetheart, Jemima.
Christopher Salmons died at Archangel, Russia. He was gunned down while charging the Soviet Red Army’s lines on Armistice Day. He never came home to his wife Sophie. They are both still over there. Alfred didn’t talk about the war much, only sharing the odd tid-bit of information with my Dad as they snuck a smoke together. He spoke of how he was shot three times, a bit about his regiment, and the time a dudround landed mere feet away from him.
But part of war’s impact was clear.
Beyond leaving his homeland, he also refused to attend Anzac Day services. Too much ‘King and country’ going on for his tastes. He blamed the royal families of Europe for the war. That stuck with us, generations later.
Finding out the stories of your whanau history is rewarding. It provides you with an insight into who and what formed you, about who you are.
My family used a few ways to get information. My Dad used those smoke breaks with Alfred and Ancestry.com to access British Army records. The information about my Mum’s side comes from history compiled by Te Ru¯nanga o Nga¯i Tahu on soldiers of the iwi who served, postcards sent home and my Nan’s memory.
While she talked to me, something she said struck home.
‘‘I just wish I could go back and talk to them, find out what they were thinking back then. When you come to want to know, it’s too late. They’re gone.’’
If you’ve got the opportunity to speak to your kauma¯tua (elders) about your family’s history, take it. Record it.
Knowing even a little bit about those stories makes me happy. It gives me context for my own existence.
Researching his family’s history, including their part in WWI, has brough Matthew Salmons closer to understanding his place in the world.