Invercargill’s own Soldier Boys
A pile of letters of sitting in a basement reveal the unusual friendship between a group of Invercargill council workers and a London export agent during World War I. Mary-Jo Tohill reports on the significance of the correspondence that snuck past tough c
Two years ago Wendy McArthur was sorting dusty old files when she came across a rare discovery.
The assistant archivist for the Invercargill City Council said in between the information about such things as brass fittings, brackets and enamel switch plates, the letters from November 1914 to November 1918 reveal the concerns and thoughts on the war, which were not being printed in the newspapers.
The letters provide insights into WWI and the relationship between New Zealand and England.
As to how they ended up in the basement, and the fact they are still in tact, is remarkable.
During WWI, a group of Invercargill council workers – Corporation of Invercargill (predecessor to what is now the Invercargill City Council), travelled to the United Kingdom to fight.
Following the war, all the men returned home alive.
While in London they were befriended by export agents William Coward & Co Ltd.
They named the small group of Kiwis their Soldier Boys.
Correspondence began to flow halfway around the world between Invercargill town engineer and town clerk T W Walker and William Coward & Co Ltd secretary A M Scott, or Scotty as he sometimes signed off.
The letters were sent at a time when mail ships often did not reach New Zealand because they were torpedoed by German submarines, but duplicate copies sent on other boats sometimes did make it to shore.
At the time, New Zealand imported almost everything needed by councils as there were no iron foundries in what was then still a young agricultural country.
‘‘All we made in New Zealand 100 years ago was grain, butter, milk, wool and meat basically. Import licenses were required and a manufacturer had to be found for everything from printing paper, fire hoses, machinery and parts to glass covers etc for the gas lamps,’’ McArthur said.
William Coward & Co Ltd sourced what was needed and arranged the shipping.
But tucked in amongst the import information, an honest insight into the war was given
McArthur read through the letters with great interest.
‘‘I have been to the Somme, so have an interest in WWI history. This file is like a snapshot of a time with the thoughts of those in Britain – so close to the fighting – and their gratitude to New Zealand,’’ McArthur said.
And the Kiwis returned that feeling.
‘‘Your letters have been carefully considered by the council, who greatly appreciated the courtesy and kindness which you are showing to our Soldier Boys of the corporation staff,’’ Walker wrote.
‘‘And particularly it was noted that you have acted as bankers to them in certain cases.’’
During their time overseas, Coward & Co Ltd would give the men spending money of no more than £5 the council would later reimburse.
By March 1915, in an effort to help win the war, the New Zealand Government decided to send 1800 men to war every two months and there were ‘‘plenty of men of magnificent physique and also fine horses available in quantities,’’ London secretary Scott wrote.
‘‘[. . .] We can assure you that the people in the Homeland are deeply conscious of the magnificent way in which our brethren from the great Dominion are responding to the Empire’s call.’’
However, censorship was strict. Information was scarcely shared for fear it would fall into the wrong hands.
‘‘We are kept very much in the dark as to the progress of events in France but we feel that now that spring has come and efforts are being made to produce vast quantities of ammunition, it will not be long before great things happen,’’ Scott wrote.
Before long, in April 1915, his letters to Walker turned to talk of Gallipoli. The evacuation of the Gallipoli Peninsula did not come altogether as a surprise, and drew some criticism.
‘‘[. . .] We can imagine the distressful feelings caused to many of our countrymen in New Zealand and Australia upon the abandonment of an enterprise in which the Anzacs played so prominent and heroic a part, and which might have reached a victorious conclusion but for the middle of the superior offices and Suvla Bay.’’
Letters continued back and forth between the pair, highlighting some of the most crucial parts of WWI, all the while organising the exportation of goods to Invercargill.
During the Battle of Somme, between July and November, 1916, weaved into talk of business between the two was key information that may not normally have been known.
The business of ordering and installing a gas holder for the city of Invercargill continued, and so did the visits from men of the New Zealand Forces – among them, quite a few ‘‘Invercargillites,’’ Scott notes.
‘‘We feel we have greatly increased our knowledge of your progressive town directly through the conversations we have had. With the great news now reaching us from the field of battle, we constantly receive references to the splendid work done by troops from the Dominions. Although those from New Zealand have not yet taken an actual part in the fierce battles on the Somme, they have filled an important role by retaining further nothing on the line large enemy forces thus making an easier task for our new arming endeavouring to break through successive lines of fortifications.’’
As the communication continued, the admiration from the Brits shines, with Scott telling Walker: ‘‘We are all proud of your boys, they are great. Hardly a day passes but two or three look in on us and we help cheer them up and show them round.’’
By November 1917, the Americans had entered the fray.
During this period Scott wrote that Britain was ‘‘very much disturbed and worried by the thought that Zeppelins or Aeroplanes might visit us any time but although we have the Hunter’s moon with us [the perfect time for bombing], we have so far escaped.’’
Sometime later in the war, London was bombed, including Piccadilly, Lewisham, Cricklewood and Camberwell.
In December, Scott writes of how a German Gotha heavy bomber was brought down with all its crew alive in the Thames estuary. The ‘‘Huns’’ were arrested by the vicar, who was on special constabulary duty.
As the war and the letters continued, patriotism reached fever-pitch. Walker became critical of Australia for not voting for compulsory military service as New Zealand had. In his opinion, there were too many pro-German ‘‘and others of their sort’’ in Australia to decide a question like this by popular vote, and therefore the matter should have been decided by Parliament.
Without Australia and Canada to back Britain and New Zealand, the war would continue for another 11 months.
Southland Museum and Art Gallery history curator David Dudfield said this newly rediscovered wartime correspondence was quite remarkable from a social history point of view.
‘‘For example, how the letters echo the moods of the war from 1914 patriotic fervour, to the 1915 Gallipoli disappointments, then on to 1916, when the Western Front battles seem to make the war very real. Then we get to 1917, with Kiwi conscription of married men and gripes that the Irish aren’t doing enough, to the dour almost bittersweet Armistice, followed by a deadly outbreak of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic.
‘‘Amongst the assorted product orders and account details, the regular personal notes exchanged add a real sense of humanity and camaraderie to what would normally have been strictly business dealings.’’
On November 1, 1918, just 10 days before the armistice, Scott wrote the last letter preserved in the file.
‘‘I think it is only a matter of weeks before our arch enemy will capitulate unconditionally.’’
On the morning of November 12, New Zealand Prime Minister William Massey got word Germany had surrendered and signed an armistice with the Allies.
‘‘This file is like a snapshot of a time with the thoughts of those in Britain – so close to the fighting – and their gratitude to New Zealand.’’ Wendy McArthur
Back row fourth from left, Henry (Harry) Charles Gimblett, Invercargill Corporation clerk with the Waikiwi Football Club, who served as a gunner in World War 1 in France.
Invercargill City Council archivist assistant Wendy McArthur with the World War I soldier boy letters between the Invercargill City Corporation and the shipping agent William Coward & Co Ltd in London.
Sergeant John Charles Henry Colyer.
Private John Reid Cowley.
Private James George Troon, right, pictured with A Harby, at Cairo, Egypt February 26, 1916.