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Settler Kaponga 1881–1914 — A Frontier Fragment of the Western World

Pro Patria

Pro Patria

It was with great regret that Riverlea people heard of the death in action of Corporal Norman Raglan Knight. Corporal Knight lived here for some years, during which time he was employed in the local factory, and during his residence here made himself very popular with all who knew him. He was a prominent member of the Kaponga Association Football Club and a keen sport generally. Always a hard player, he evidently carried his dash with him to France for during the great fighting in Flanders last year he was awarded the Military Medal for gallantry in the field. Corp. Knight's parents, and sisters and brother, who lived here for some time, and his wife, who was a Riverlea lady, have the sincere and heartfelt sympathy of the people of this district. (Star, 4/5/18)

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What chance had family members, relatives and friends back in Riverlea of grasping the grim realities of experience that led to this culmination? Surely they could not have done so from the carefully manipulated war news, the censored letters home from the front, or the traditional condolences from commanding officers? On the other hand, is it possible that this massive body of experience could somehow be sanitised so that a home public desperate to understand it could be kept in ignorance? The presence of returned wounded in the Riverlea community would surely have made this impossible. As early as November 1915 Private Burgess of Kaponga had returned wounded; he addressed Kaponga School on the first Anzac Day in 1916. In August 1917 Gunner Franks of Riverlea returned wounded having lost an arm. In March 1918 Riverlea welcomed home Private Finnigan and Sergeant John Gardner. Gardner had been wounded at Gallipoli, had had a spell sick in hospital in France, and died on 26 November 1918 of influenza. Two more Riverlea men, Frank Silby and Edward Quinn, were welcomed home in June 1918.8 The Star of 26 November 1918, reporting Quinn's death in the influenza epidemic, told that

… He was an orphan boy who had lived with the Malone family of Riverlea. Enlisting shortly after the outbreak of war, he got away with the Thirteenths, and saw a long period of service. He had been wounded twice, gassed once, and buried once during a bombardment. The last occasion was a miraculous escape from death.9

Clearly Quinn must have been prepared to talk about his experiences. Even by inquiring only of their own district's returned wounded, the settlers of this little outlying hamlet in the far reaches of the empire would have had little difficulty in filling out the picture. Relating it all to their own battle with the Taranaki mud, and the mishaps of their pioneering experience in hunting, bushfelling, sawmilling and stump blasting, they were probably much better able to visualise the western front than were the civilians of Kent, within the sound of the guns.

Also, as Phillips, Boyack and Malone have shown us in their The Great Adventure, there was some pretty frank reporting from New Zealand servicemen, who had plenty of opportunities of circumventing the censors. They quote (p. 147) Leonard Hart writing home after the New Zealand Division's most terrible day, at Passchendaele on 12 October 1917:

… our commander has since told us that no troops in the world could possibly have taken the ridge under similar circumstances. Some ‘terrible blunder’ has been made. Someone is responsible for that barbed wire not having been broken up by our artillery. Someone is responsible for the opening of our barrage in the midst of us instead of 150 yards ahead of us. Someone else is responsible for those machine gun emplacement being left practically intact, but the papers will all report another glorious success, and no one except those who actually took part in it will know any different.

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The editor of the Star must have had to fight his own war-weariness as he sat down to write his leader for 23 October 1917. He had another of the long Passchendaele casualty lists to print in the usual place, at the end of the ‘Personal Items’ column. He had news items on the desperation of the dairy industry as conscription, which had gone into effect in November 1916, bled away its already sadly depleted manpower. One column covered a sitting of the Military Service Board, in progress in Hawera, at which the dairy factories had told of the deterioration of their products as skilled men were drained away. For many months his pages had carried news of this deepening concern. In February, under the heading ‘Cheese or Men’, they had told of a representative meeting of farmers called by the Egmont A & P Association to consider the situation. From then on, as the farmers steadily organised themselves to support key men in their appeals, and to help run the farms of men in the forces, the government made it clear that while in Britain food production was a national priority, in New Zealand ‘men’ for overseas service came before ‘cheese’. The Kaponga Dairy Co learnt this in May. Having already lost 20 men to the military it appealed for its working manager and his first assistant, but was turned down.10

A fortnight later Kaponga farmer Bernard Cleland told the board how his family had been affected. A single man of 32, he was running 550 purebred Romney sheep on the 515-acre farm he owned in partnership with his brother Arthur, who was in camp. Two other brothers had also been called up, so he was leasing the 122 acres owned by brother Tom and looking after the 141-acre farm of a third brother. He lived with his widowed
mother on her 192 acres on Manaia Road. The hard-headed board decided against collapsing the entire affairs of the clan and spared Bernard. Before the year was out his brother Tom had won the Military Medal in France and early in 1918 was invalided home.11 The burden on Kaponga's women was also steadily growing and they were showing signs of wilting. ‘Our Own’ (14/7/17) quoted the president of the Ladies' Red Cross Guild telling the AGM that assistance from lady workers ‘had not been as hearty of late as could have been wished and the circumstances warranted’.

It must have been with some idea of countering this growing war-weariness that the editor headed his leader ‘New Zealand's Sacrifice’ and referred to ‘the long casualty list received during the last few days’. He reminded readers that ‘nearly a hundred thousand of the finest men to be found anywhere in the world’ had sacrificed prospects and abandoned homes and social ties to fight for ‘those things which are dearer to the British mind than even life itself’. They go to battlefields that ‘hold in store most frightful sights’. ‘The frightfulness of war,’ he commented, ‘could have no attraction for any sane person’. Referring to the cable messages on the recent action he remarked that ‘there appears to have been an unfortunate lack of unity between the infantry and the artillery’ with the result that ‘our men … suffered very heavily from the fire of the enemy's machine-guns’. In his concluding comments he seemed mainly concerned with the morale of the page 336 district's women, remarking that ‘[Man] lacks the keen sense of loss when death takes a son or a friend; but with women the case is different. Their finer natures feel more keenly death's separation.’

For another long year conscription further savaged the district's workforce as it moved on from single men to husbands and fathers. And these were the months in which Kaponga was most deeply stunned with grief. Nearly half of its war dead fell in 1918. At home in the year's closing months the influenza epidemic struck further sickening blows. With its doctor, W.E. Buist, himself a flu victim in Hawera Hospital the district somehow struggled through what must surely have been its lowest hours. Even the throbbing heart of the district's dairy industry, the co-op factory, was brought to its knees. Dying on successive days of this ‘black November’ were two of its employees, the young men Walker from Riverlea.12 At the AGM on 8 September 1919 chairman A. V. Tait told how hard the company had been hit:

The whole of the staff was down, and it is believed that this company was the only one that had to close down any of its factories. As a result, at the height of the season a large quantity of milk was lost to the company altogether, and what was left of a whole month's supply had to be sent to the Mangatoki Dairy Company to be made into butter.

The amount of milk dealt with was down nearly one-fifth on the previous season, and this together with the extra expenses of the epidemic, includ ing paying full wages to sick men, had a savage effect on the year's payout.