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

The Southland Times - - Weekend -

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.

Dun­can McKen­zie

Wil­liam Lewis

Sergeant John Charles Henry Colyer.

Pri­vate John Reid Cow­ley.

Pri­vate James Ge­orge Troon, right, pic­tured with A Harby, at Cairo, Egypt Fe­bru­ary 26, 1916.

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