Gal­lipoli medal won, cen­tury later

Weekend Herald - - Science&Tech -

Search for great-un­cle’s war records has price­less re­sult for man deemed dead

Brian Thomas

My great-un­cle John and I missed each other by a lit­tle more than 33 years.

Cor­po­ral John McIn­tosh Fraser, a Gal­lipoli vet­eran twice awarded the Mil­i­tary Medal for brav­ery, was killed at Ba­paume in north­ern France 100 years ago and I was born on the last day of 1951.

But at last I feel I have done the right thing by a man I never met and even now know pre­cious lit­tle about. A few months ago, at my re­quest, the New Zealand Army is­sued his Gal­lipoli Medal, earned 103 years ago, to go with the Mil­i­tary Medal and Bar I ob­tained by chance three years ago.

The youngest boy in a fam­ily of six, John McIn­tosh Fraser was 20 when he vol­un­teered for World War I ser­vice at the first avail­able op­por­tu­nity, join­ing the 15th North Auck­land Com­pany of the Auck­land Reg­i­ment. No doubt he was caught up in the eu­pho­ria of the time, per­haps in­spired by the ad­ven­tur­ous na­ture of his old­est brother, Thomas, my grand­fa­ther.

Grandad was turned down be­cause he was half an inch (1.3cm) too short when he tried to vol­un­teer for the Boer War in 1899. Un­de­terred, he signed on for the long sea voy­age from Auck­land to Southamp­ton, then found a ship to take him back to Cape Town, where he was put over­board and swam ashore to en­list. He was quickly sent up coun­try with­out too many ques­tions asked.

He had his horse shot from un­der him but sur­vived the war and even­tu­ally worked his way home to the out­skirts of Whangarei, six years af­ter he had left. His wan­der­ings took him to West­ern Aus­tralia for a spot of gold prospect­ing on the way.

It was only when I be­gan re­search­ing Grandad’s war ser­vice, that I dis­cov­ered he en­listed in World War I at the age of 38 in the hope of pro­tect­ing his kid brother, a com­mon, if for­lorn, prac­tice at the time.

Grandad sur­vived, in­valided home at the end of 1917, but great-un­cle John per­ished, prob­a­bly killed by a grenade, on Au­gust 16, 1918, less than three months be­fore the Armistice.

It was a won­der he made it that far. Twice he was badly wounded and his Mil­i­tary Medals were won in the face of Ger­man ma­chine­gun fire when com­rades were be­ing killed all around him. The ci­ta­tions are re­mark­ably sim­i­lar and not just for the for­mu­laic first sen­tence:

The first: “For con­spic­u­ous gal­lantry and de­vo­tion to duty in the field on the 26th March 1918, north east of Mailly Mail­let [near Ar­ras in north­ern France]. When his Pla­toon Of­fi­cer and all the NCOs be­came ca­su­al­ties Pri­vate Fraser or­gan­ised the pla­toon un­der heavy ma­chine­gun fire and led them for­ward cap­tur­ing the fi­nal ob­jec­tive. He again or­gan­ised the pla­toon and con­sol­i­dated the po­si­tion.”

The sec­ond: “For con­spic­u­ous gal­lantry and de­vo­tion to duty dur­ing a raid on en­emy’s trench south of Serre Rd on the 15th May 1918. This NCO was in charge of the left party and ow­ing to shells fall­ing among them and com­ing un­der ma­chine­gun fire as soon as the party left our trenches they be­came dis­or­gan­ised. It was only this NCO’s ex­am­ple and quick de­ci­sion in al­ter­ing his dis­po­si­tions that the party ral­lied and car­ried on to the ob­jec­tive. He then led his men through the trench and him­self ac­counted for five of the en­emy.”

My ap­pli­ca­tion for the ci­ta­tions led me to New Zealand’s Na­tional Army Mu­seum in Waiouru, where the warm re­cep­tion from a li­brar­ian was in con­trast to the chilly wel­come when I un­der­took com­pul­sory mil­i­tary train­ing there in 1972. She told me in pass­ing my great-un­cle had served at Gal­lipoli and it ap­peared no one had ap­plied for the ser­vice medal.

Await­ing the ci­ta­tions, I rang a fel­low great-nephew with a pen­chant for fam­ily his­tory to find out more about our great-un­cle. He could tell me noth­ing but re­mem­bered he had some old war medals in a tin some­where.

He fished them out and to my sur­prise they had been awarded to John McIn­tosh Fraser, ap­par­ently handed down by John’s sis­ter. Even more sur­pris­ingly he was pre­pared to send them to me. They ar­rived by post in less than a fort­night.

My wife and I took the medals to France and pho­tographed them on my great-un­cle’s grave in Gom­me­court Wood New Ceme­tery, on the out­skirts of Fon­c­quevillers, only a few kilo­me­tres from where the Mil­i­tary Medals were won. He lies with al­most 750 other ca­su­al­ties of World War I’s car­nage, two-thirds of them uniden­ti­fied — “Known Only to God” is the in­scrip­tion.

There are hun­dreds of beau­ti­fully kept Com­mon­wealth War Graves Com­mis­sion ceme­ter­ies like it across the Somme and the rest of the West­ern Front. The Bat­tle of the Somme, which lasted for 141 days, is best known for the first-day ca­su­al­ties; 19,240 British were killed to gain three square miles of ter­ri­tory.

Be­fore leav­ing for France, I sent an ex­ploratory email to the NZ De­fence Force Per­son­nel Archives and Medals sec­tion about claim­ing the Gal­lipoli Medal­lion.

The an­swer was enough to de­ter me for the mo­ment: “The dif­fi­culty you may run into is show­ing the link be­tween you and John McIn­tosh. To claim the medal­lion you are re­quired to sub­mit both the ap­pli­ca­tion and copies of of­fi­cial doc­u­ments that show the link be­tween you and him ... The fur­ther away the re­la­tion­ship the harder this can be.”

The mat­ter rested un­til ear­lier this year when I was re­cov­er­ing from a hip op­er­a­tion and had time on my hands. I con­tacted the Births, Deaths and Mar­riages of­fice in Welling­ton for birth cer­tifi­cates for me, my mother, my grand­fa­ther and my great-un­cle.

All four came back within a few weeks, ex­cept that mine had the word DE­CEASED af­ter my name. It took a force­ful email to per­suade the bu­reau­crats I was very much alive, but I had to send the er­ro­neous cer­tifi­cate back be­fore a new one could be is­sued. By the time it ar­rived my slim hopes of get­ting the medal in time for An­zac Day, if at all, had been dashed.

And there was still the NZ De­fence Force hur­dle to clear.

On the face of it, I did not qual­ify for a Post­hu­mous Ap­pli­ca­tion but I wrote the most per­sua­sive let­ter 40 years in jour­nal­ism had equipped me for and had a statu­tory dec­la­ra­tion and the birth cer­tifi­cates wit­nessed by a JP.

I sent the bun­dle off more in hope than ex­pec­ta­tion, won­der­ing when I would be­gin to field queries about con­tact­ing all the other great­nephews to ask for their per­mis­sion, or some such ob­sta­cle.

Imag­ine my sur­prise when in the mid­dle of May the medal­lion ar­rived at the lo­cal post of­fice. The Cus­toms dec­la­ra­tion puts its value at $40. To me it is price­less.

When I am gone it will be handed on to my son, Fraser Thomas, in the hope it will al­ways re­main in the fam­ily.

Brian Thomas is a semi-re­tired,

Whangarei-born jour­nal­ist who now lives on the out­skirts of Bris­bane.

Pho­tos / Ray­mond Thomas, Sup­plied

Left: The medals awarded posthu­mously to John McIn­tosh Fraser (pic­tured), killed in ac­tion on Au­gust 16, 1918. Right: Brian Thomas at the grave in the Gom­me­court Wood New Ceme­tery.

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