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

The War's Impact on Kaponga

The War's Impact on Kaponga

We introduce our survey of the war's impact on the district with some specific personal examples. One home that was hard hit was Elizabeth Ann Foreman's. Her two sons by her first marriage, William Thomas Faull (‘Willie’) and Henry James Faull (‘Harry’), were farewelled for overseas service in the winter of 1915. They had first appeared on the Kaponga School roll in the Standard 1 class in 1902, and completed their schooling there, always in the same class. In their final year, 1907, when their school's cricket team defeated that of the Eltham, the latter arranged to borrow the two Faull boys for a match they were about to play against New Plymouth. On leaving school they worked at the co-op factory. Before 7am on Friday, 28 May 1915, the Kaponga firebell rang to assemble residents to farewell six volunteers leaving with the 7th Reinforcements. Willie Faull was one of four members of the soccer team leaving with this group. The township, and hence the soccer club, was over-represented among the early volunteers. It was evidently much easier to give notice to a town employer than to detach oneself from a family farm team where the herd size was matched to the workforce. Harry was farewelled as one of another party leaving Kaponga at the end of August. In November ‘Our Own’ (12/11/15) reported that Mrs Foreman had had a letter from Egypt from one of her sons, ‘a great favourite page 332 here’ (presumably Willie), with news that he was about to leave for Gallipoli. ‘Our Own's’ next Faull news (15/8/16) was that

… Mrs Foreman has just received another batch of letters from her two boys in France. So far they have got through without a scratch and are very bright in their writing, always giving their mother the bright side of life. I happen to be one of the fortunate ones who is privileged to read the boys' letters, and am always delighted to know they are well.

But, in common with countless mothers around the globe, Mrs Foreman will have been living in apprehension of the ominous telegraph boy's knock. Nothing will have prepared her for the news she received in October 1916, as the telegrams went out for the 7000 casualties (1560 dead) of the New Zealand Division's 23 days in the muddy horrors of the Somme. ‘A Correspondent’ (16/10/16) filed this report:

The Toll of War

The death of Private H.J. Faull, who was killed in action in France, has cast a gloom over the whole district. Private Harry Faull was one of those genial, clean straight lads who endeared himself to everyone. His clean life and his love of home and mother was a great feature in Harry, and his parents have the sympathy of a very large circle of friends. Private H. Faull always took a keen interest in the affairs of this township, and was always a willing helper in everything. He was associated with the band and fire brigade, and with hockey, soccer, cricket and tennis in a most creditable manner. He will also be much missed as a worker in the Anglican Church.

Private W. Ford, who was killed at the same time as Private Faull, was an uncle of the latter. He was a great favourite in the Eltham district, and was a brother of Mrs Foreman.

Privates W. Faull and F. Ford have both been wounded and are in hospital, and I understand doing well. This will gave some idea of what some mothers and sisters have to go through—a son and a brother killed and a son and a brother wounded in one battle.

Mrs Foreman received more kindly news by a more pleasant route early in December. Kaponga's ‘A Correspondent’ (9/12/16) again:

We can well imagine the pleasure it must have given Private Faull, on his arrival at Southampton, to find himself cared for and attended to by his old friend, Dr Maclagan. In a letter received by the Rev. O.M. Stent this week, Dr Maclagan states: ‘I have actually come across one of our most devoted lads, Willie Faull. He is at present in the hospital at Brockenhurst. He was wounded in the shoulder, and a piece of shrapnel was still in it when I last attended him. But he is almost all right again, and will shortly be leaving us. Please tell his mother and all his friends that there is absolutely nothing to worry about. What a splendid, upright fellow he has developed into, and he is a lad to be proud of.’

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But ‘Our Own’ a year later (5/11/17) told of deep gloom over the district at the news that Willie Faull had been killed in action at Passchendaele, and later (30/11/17) reported the memorial service in St Mark's on the afternoon of Sunday, 25 November.

In addition to the many friends who were present, the members of the Oddfellows' Lodge, headed by the Kaponga Band, of both of which institutions deceased was an enthusiastic member, paraded and attended at the church…. At the conclusion of the service the Last Post was sounded by Bandmaster Woods. The bell of the Fire Brigade, of which deceased was also a member, was tolled throughout the service.

Active, gifted young men like the Faull brothers were widely missed and mourned. Willie's death also came at a dark time for his old workplace, the co-op factory. Also killed in the Passchendaele battle was a son of the manager, R.T. Souness, who had already lost another son in action only three months earlier. And the news that Willie had fallen coincided with the death of factory secretary and much-loved local leader John Bennie. Bennie had gone to Wellington to meet his soldier son returning invalided from the front, and there caught a chill that led to his death.

We turn from the sorrows of one Kaponga family to the impact of the war on the small community of Riverlea, returned as having 134 inhabitants at the 1916 census. We do this particularly to consider what truth there is in the not uncommon view that the stay-at-homes had no idea of the grim realities of the front. As we have seen, Riverlea was hit early with the loss of James Howie at Chunuk Bair. Thereafter almost all the main afflictions of active service could be illustrated from the Riverlea ‘Our Own's’ news of men from, or connected with, the district. There were plenty of woundings. Arthur Griffin, a local farmer with a large family, won the Military Medal but became a prisoner of war in Germany. At least six men were reported killed in action. Here is a typical report:

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.