Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 6, Issue 6, 2008
Nelson's Turkish Pontoon
When I was growing up in Nelson during the 1960s, the Returned Services Association (RSA) played an important role in the life of my father, who was a returned World War II soldier. I remember seeing a large, metal, lifeboat sized craft in the RSA grounds, which was known as the Turkish pontoon. I have researched it for six years and its history goes back 92 years, to the early years of World War I at the Suez Canal, Egypt. The pontoon was nationally significant on two counts. Firstly, it was the very first World War I war trophy to be brought back to New Zealand and, secondly, during its capture, Private William Ham from Ngatimoti became New Zealand's first serviceman killed in action.
When war was declared in New Zealand, on 5 August 1914, there was great enthusiasm amongst the local Territorial volunteers, who had been training regularly since the inception of the force in 1911. All men aged between 14 and 20 years had been required to attend training and annual camps, which were held throughout New Zealand, from 1912. Geo MacMahon's farm at Tapawera 1 had hosted the annual camp in April 1914, when 1,000 men arrived from Blenheim, The Sounds, Collingwood, Takaka, Motueka, Nelson and the surrounding valleys. It was located to the north of the present Tapawera Village.
At the declaration of war, the general feeling throughout New Zealand was that, once the British army landed in France, the Germans would be easily overthrown 2 . The Territorials were ordered to their closest drill halls 3 to be enrolled in the 1st New Zealand Expeditionary Force, as part of the Canterbury Regiment. They soon all arrived in Nelson by steamer, train or horse and, after signing on, were accommodated in tents at Victory Square. Early on the morning of 15 August the Nelson contingent departed from Port Nelson on the Pateena for Lyttelton. In Christchurch they were encamped at Addington Race Course and underwent further training with the whole Canterbury Regiment.
They were then shipped to Wellington on the Athenic (HMNZT No 11) and Tahiti (HMNZT No 4) on 2 September, with a cargo which included 350 horses for the mounted rifle squadron. At Wellington they met up with other troop carriers from the south and the north and went ashore daily for route marches and manoeuvres. The mounted troops were sent ashore to camp for the benefit of their horses. Following the arrival of a naval escort of four warships, all ten troop transport ships finally sailed on 16 October for Albany in Australia. There they met up with 28 Australian troop transport ships and two cruiser escorts, and all sailed for the Suez Canal on 1 November. Everyone thought page 5they were bound for France, but Turkey had entered the war on 31 October 4 as a German ally. To strengthen British forces at the strategic location of the Suez Canal, the troops disembarked at Alexandria, Egypt, on 3 December 1914.
The troops trained and acclimatised together and this joint contingent, known as the Australian and New Zealand Army Corp, led to the coining of the name ANZAC 5 . The Anzac troops, Indians, Gurkhas and some British troops initially guarded the western bank of the Suez Canal, in preparation for an expected attack on it by the Turkish troops. Intelligence had noted Turkish troops building up in Palestine, and primitive aircraft of the day observed Turkish columns in the desert. These planes had a range of 60 miles 6 and were some of the first planes the Kiwis had ever seen 7 . Battleships and torpedo boats were stationed at various parts of the canal to provide big gun fire at the advancing Turks 8 .
The Turkish military had been supplied with senior German officers who assisted with training and military planning. Their attack orders were to cross the canal at its narrowest point at three locations between Serapeum and Tussum, establishing bridges, to attack any forces on the Western bank and to disrupt shipping for up to three days. There was also hope that the Egyptians might turn on their British rulers. Little has been recorded in New Zealand of the epic journey by 25,000 Turkish troops across the Sinai Desert in three separate groups, enduring considerable hardship from fatigue and thirst. They were top quality regular troops and arrived at the canal in fit condition 9 .
One small group travelled to the north, far enough from the coast to be safe from battleship guns. Another small group travelled to the south, while one large group travelled through the centre of the desert, something no army had ever attempted 10 . They were most fortunate that rain had fallen in the desert during November and all the wells were full. As the troops neared the canal they travelled by night and hid during the day.
Pontoons, which formed part of the Turks' equipment, had been built by the Hilgers Aktiengesellschaft Company in Germany 11 . They had been smuggled through neutral Bulgaria to Turkey 12 . Made of galvanised iron, the pontoons were 7.5m long, 1.54m beam and 0.8m draught, and they were fitted with thwarts and rowlocks and had long pairs of oars. They were dragged by oxen on heavy wheeled frames, to which rollers or sledges could be fitted on soft ground 13 . The Turkish troops left Hebron on 11 January 1915 and were close to the canal by 26 January.
The Nelson Turkish pontoon at Sue: awaiting shipment on HMNZT No 4 Tahiti, March 1915. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, 350WWI Egypt Suez 37424½. Unknown photographer.
Private William Arthur Ham. Alexander Turnhull Library, Wellington, NZ Freelance 18 Feb 1915, p 21, N-P 521–21. W Bridle, Motueka, photographer.
Turkish pontoon in the yard at the Nelson Gas Works, 2 July 1915. F N Jones Postcard, Ken Wright Collection.
The Nelson Company had two casualties. One, 22 year old Private William Arthur Ham of Ngatimoti, died from a bullet wound to his neck two days later 16 . The first NZ soldier to die in action during WWI, he was buried in the civil cemetery at Ismalia. The other casualty, Platoon Sergeant AJ (Billy) Williams, who was injured in the shoulder by shrapnel, had the Cockney gift for profanity and, on this occasion, he excelled himself 17 . Sergeant Williams had been a member of the NZ defence staff for 12 months before the war and had been stationed at Blenheim. Aged 32, he had begun his military career 13 years previously in the British Army, serving in South Africa and then in the Somalia campaign, while stationed in India 18 .
William Ham was born on 14 April 1892 in Ireland 19 and had emigrated with his parents, William Edward Ham and Hester Hawthorn, nee Barnwell, and two younger brothers, to Gisborne, arriving in October 1900 20 . The family travelled on the RMS Athenic, the very ship that transported William to Egypt 11 years later. They lived in Wanganui before arriving at Ngatimoti in 1905 and William was enrolled at Orinoco School on 29 May 1905 21 . The Hams later ran a general store at Ngatimoti and William worked as a farm labourer for the Beatsons at Ngatimotr 22 . At the time of his army enlistment he was employed by Waimea County Council as a labourer. A month after William's death his father died at Nelson Hospital from pneumonia 23 . The next eldest son, Thomas Henry Ham, went to war in December 1915 and eventually completed his service 24 . Hester Ham was remarried in 1916 to Cyril Bartlett 25 , who enlisted in May 1916 26 and was killed on 15 December 1917 in Belgium. She eventually moved to Dunedin with her remaining sons and died there on 1 February 1947 27 . A poignant war memorial in the grounds of St James Church Ngatimoti honours Private William Ham and other men of the district. Erected by relatives and friends, it was unveiled on Anzac day 1921. Of the 14 men who left Ngatimoti with the 1st New Zealand Expeditionary Force only two returned, both of whom were wounded 28 .page 9
All 25 of the Turkish pontoons had been recovered following the battle and were rendered unserviceable 29 . Sir John Maxwell, General Officer Commanding in Cairo, Egypt, made a gift of one of them to the NZ Government 30 . The Minister of Defence, James Allen, decided that, because of the Nelson regiment's sterling action during the Suez Canal attack, the pontoon should be given to the Nelson City Council 31 . It was dispatched on the HMNZT No 4 Tahiti and arrived in Wellington on 18 May 1915. The Wellington Harbour Board put the pontoon on display in premises in Buckle Street, with the sixpence viewing charge going towards patriotic funds, and it also featured in a patriotic parade through the streets of Wellington on 3 June. It was then shipped to Port Nelson, arriving on 2 July, and was taken to the Nelson City Gas Works yard, where it awaited its final location 32 .
A request came from Dunedin to borrow the pontoon for patriotic fund raising but was not followed up. A second pontoon, which arrived in Wellington on 13 January 1916 33 , was put on display at the Woodhaugh Gardens in Dunedin during 1921 or 1922 34 . By 1962 it had rusted beyond repair and it was cut up by the army and buried 35 .
There were many debates about where Nelson's pontoon should be located, with initial thought being given to the newly created Anzac Park 36 . The newly formed RSA favoured this location, but it was eventually installed in the Queens Gardens, near the rose gardens, in late 1915 37 . Temporary mountings were made permanent late in 1917 and the holes in its side were repaired, and an explanatory engraved brass plate was installed in mid 1918 38 . The pontoon featured in a parade on 13 November 1919, during Nelson's peace celebrations, being carted on a wagon drawn by a draught horse. Its enduring guardian was Alex B Hoy, who had departed with the 1st NZEF from Nelson and had served in Egypt as a bugler when it was captured 39 . In 1917, as RSA Secretary, he was on the Council's case to find a proper home and provide the care needed to preserve it. He again lamented the deteriorating condition of the pontoon in a letter to the Editor in 1953 40 .
During World War II the Council gave consideration to getting rid of a WWI German siege gun, kept at the back of the Suter Art Gallery, together with the pontoon, which was still on display in the Queens Gardens. The RSA executive had no objection to the gun being disposed of, but wanted the pontoon preserved, as it had real historic association, and could be moved to another location 41 .
Turkish pontoon at the start of the Peace Celebrations parade, leaving from the Drill Hall, opposite the Fire Station, Harley Street, 13 November 1918. The soldiers, who have a German machine gun, participated in the capture of the pontoon. The Nelson Provincial Museum, F N Jones Collection, ½ Box 108.
Turkish pontoon with its captors at Trafalgar Park during Peace Celebrations parade, 13 November 1918. The Nelson Provincial Museum, F N Jones Collection, ½ Box 108.
Turkish pontoon in the RSA grounds, Rutherford Street, Nelson. Review: the official RSA journal. Vol XXXI, No 10, Aug 1955, p 16.
|1||Nelson Evening Mail, 21 April 1914, p 6B.|
|2||Cecil Malthus, Anzac: a retrospect. 1965, p 11.|
|3||Colin Townsend, Gallipoli 1915, 1999, p 43.|
|4||Malthus, 1965, p 18.|
|5||C E W Bean , The story of Anzac, 1921, p 124.|
|6||C.B. Brereton , Tales of three campaigns, p 28.|
|7||Townsend, 1999, p 46.|
|8||Bean, 1921, p 154.|
|9||Malthus, 1965, p 27.|
|10||Bean, 1921, p 147.|
|11||The Times History of the War, Vol IV, 1915, p 346.|
|12||Alan Palmer, The decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire, 1992, p 230.|
|13||Dominion 17 Mar 1915 , p 6, Suez Canal attack.|
|14||Malthus, 1965, p 24.|
|15||C B Brereton , War diaries Jan-Feb 1915, Action at Serapeum 3 Feb 1915. National Archives, Wellington, WA77/1.|
|16||NEM 8 Apr 1915, p 5–6. Lieutenant Forsythe's experience.|
|17||Malthus, 1965, p26.|
|18||Colonist 17 Feb 1915, p 4D. Sergeant Williams' career.|
|19||New Zealand Expeditionary Force Attestation of 6/246 William Arthur Ham.|
|20||Passenger List. National Archives, Wellington. SS-1/485 no 4.|
|21||Orinoco School. Admission register 1894-1949. Tasman Bays Heritage Trust/The Nelson Provincial Museum, Archives collection, AG 40.|
|22||One hundred years of witness 1884–1984: St James Church Ngatimoti (Nelson Diocese), 1985, p 65.|
|23||NEM 19 Mar 1915, p 6A.|
|24||NEM 13 Dec 1915, p 4.|
|25||NZ Birth Death & Marriages 1916, 1148.|
|26||Helen Whelan, Ngatimoti is in the news, p 285.|
|27||NZ Birth Death & Marriages 1947, 998.|
|28||Onc hundred years of witness, 1884–1984: St James Church Ngatimoti (Nelson Diocese), 1985, p 19, 26.|
|29||Fred Waite, The New Zealanders at Gallipoli, 1919, p 54.|
|30||Telegram, General Godley, Heliopilis, Egypt, to NZ Defence Minister Hon FJ Allen, Wellington, 2 April 1915. National Archives, Wellington, AD series 19/41.|
|31||page 13Letter, Minister of Defence to Mayor Nelson. National Archives, Wellington, AD series 19/41.|
|32||NEM 2 Jul, p 4, 3 July p 4 1915.|
|33||National Archives, Wellington, AD series 19/41.|
|34||Aaron Fox, Silent sentinels: the war trophies of the First Expeditionary Force in war and peace, Thesis, September 1987, p 69.|
|35||Sara Gutherie, Otago Early Settlers Museum, Email, 11 September 2000.|
|35||NEM 6 Nov 1915, p 6A.|
|37||NEM 5 Sep 1916, p 12.|
|38||NEM 18 May 1918, p 2.|
|39||NEM 19, 20 Oct 1917, p 5A; 28 Apr 1953, p 10.|
|40||NEM 24 Apr 1953, p 10.|
|41||Nelson RSA, Executive minutes, 4 Mar 1942.|
|42||Ibid, 24 Jun 1953.|
|43||NCC. Finance, Reserves and Traffic Committee, Minutes 15 Dec 1952, Minute no 46103.|
|44||Nelson RSA, Executive minutes, 22 Jan 1958; Correspondence.|
|45||Ibid, 22 Mar 1961.|
|46||Nev Pankhurst, RSA executive member 1970–71, Pers comm 13 Aug 1999.|
|47||Fox, September 1987.|