Bernard James ANNABELL, Private, 25429
Ernest Henry ANNABELL, Private, 68181
*Frederick Felix ANNABELL, Private, 10/1175
*Reginald Paul BLUNDEN, Private, 59591
Arthur George CHESSWAS,
Henry James CHESSWAS,
Herbert Douglas CHESSWAS,
Lance Corporal, 23673
Arthur Oswald DUFFY,
William Arthur EDGE,
Charles F FOORD,
*Lindsay Filmer HUGHES,
Toi Wiremu KAUIKA,
*Alexander Craig LEITH,
Lance Corporal, 11889
George Holliday MEE,
Daniel Stewart MORRIS,
Michael R MURPHY
*John Allan NEWTON,
Frank Kenneth PEARCE,
Second Lieutenant, 30115
Roy Brinsley ROLLS,
Lance Corporal, 3/2214
Lance Corporal, 52896
*Joseph Pearce THOMAS,
Lance Corporal, 64169
John Thomas THOMPSON,
Rob W THOMPSON
Geoffrey Compton TOTHILL, Corporal, 34753
Harold Vernon WILTON,
*Denotes: Killed in Action
Ngamatapouri means- light in the darkness
It wasn’t my intention to write about the men from The Waitotara Valley who went to WWI. But when I drove up to Ngamatapouri for the first time, a few weeks ago to show our friends from Italy this enchanting place, and saw the beautiful old hand written Roll of Honour for these men in the St Hilda in the Woods Church there, I just had to.
There is some kind of magic about this vast interior of New Zealand back country that is easily assessable these days, off the main Highway at Waitotara. Such a contrast to the early days when steep, dangerous tracks through the bush on horseback were the only option, or even earlier back when the man who surveyed the area: Joseph Annabell and his brother in law George Braithwaite bought the first blocks of surveyed land at Ngamatapouri in the year 1890. The Waitotara River was the only way in, and large totara canoes were their mode of transport to get their families and possessions (even a piano!) to their new home in the bush.
By the time WWI was declared the landscape up the Valley had changed dramatically. Acres of land were now cleared and being farmed. Some farmers were milking up to 100 cows on plateaus of cultivated areas in the bush many miles inland. Good money could be made from the cream which somehow they got out to Waverley on a regular basis, and helped finance more development on their land. So the impact of virtually all single men and many married men between the ages of 18 – 40 suddenly enlisting and leaving the district was immense. Farms were leased out, or looked after by neighbours, progress in converting land to farming stopped, and the gangs of men employed by the Public Works Department to cut new roads through from the outside world disappeared. Ray Matthews told me about the partially built road from Waverley on their farm that was just 2km from reaching Ngamatapouri when it was abandoned, with the retreat of men off to War. The remnants of this road and the huts they lived in remain today.
The 36 men that called The Waitotara Valley home and whose names are on the Roll of Honour, were just a fraction of the loss the community felt in those 4 years of WWI. Many more men who went to war had left their mark on this place. And the greatest loss was the 7 men from the Valley that were killed in action, never to return again.
Three of Joseph Annabell’s sons are on the Roll of Honour. His eldest son, Fred, had just started a six week bush-felling contract when war was declared, but enlisted as soon as that finished. He was a strong, striking looking man, with a pragmatic understanding of what he was embarking on. This was a man who at the age of 23, when he went to war, had already spent years clearing bush, converting it to pasture and blade shearing sheep, to say the least. He was accustomed to swinging an axe for 9 or 10 hours a day, stopping only to sharpen it, and eat large campfire meals. His brother Bernard wrote many years later in his book ‘Ngamatapouri’, that the average time it took to clear fell one acre of standing forest and scrub was three days for one man. (this would be no average man though!) Then comes ‘the burn’ of stumps etc, then the reseeding.
I was fortunate to meet Fred’s nephew Graeme and great niece Dell, and be told wonderful stories of this respected man. As we sat round the table (also with Rod, Frank Pearce’s son) Graeme’s wife Pam read the letter Fred wrote to his youngest brother Bert 23 days before he was killed at the Battle of the Landing at Gallipoli. We felt the sadness his family and friends would have felt the day they found out this beloved boy of the Valley was gone. On his war records Lieutenant FK Turnbull wrote of him: “he had been in my Platoon since he joined the Main Body in Egypt, and was quite one of my best men”. In his Will, Fred left all his money to his Mother, with the instructions that it be spent on a new bridge to replace the narrow ‘single plank’ one with a much wider one that could accommodate both man and horse over to their farm. This was done, and the Annabell Bridge is still there today, though time and floods have taken their toll and it is now unusable.
Another man on the Roll of Honour who sadly never came back to the Valley and the wife and two children he left behind was Pearce Thomas. He was married to Fred Annabell’s older sister Edith. Pearce had an unhappy, lonely childhood. In the memoirs written by his niece the late Merle Crawford of Hawera, she tells of how at the age of 8 he was sent to work on a farm, working from dawn till dusk, the owners happily paying the ‘truancy’ fine that was imposed in those days when children were kept away from school. His life continued like this, on various farms, until, at the age of 20, he got a job on a farm at Ngamatapouri, and subsequently met the Annabells. For the last few years before WWI he worked with the Annabell brothers, and as Pearce said “these years with the Annabell brothers were the happiest of my life. But more joy was to come when Edith Annabell accepted my proposal of marriage”. They were married on New Year’s day 1916 and had their first child Roy later that year (Roy was tragically killed in the Air NZ Mt Erebus disaster of 1979). Together with Edith’s sister Violet and her husband John Washington, they bought the Ngamatapouri Store (Violet and John continued to run the Store for the next 40 years). About this time Pearce enlisted, and left NZ at the end of 1917. Edie, as she was known by all, was pregnant with their second child. The legendary Dr Harvey of Waverley delivered their bright-eyed daughter Vesta, on the day Pearce was killed in France on 26 July 1918. Edie never got over the death of her adored husband. She stayed on in the Valley for many years, her house is now the Ngamatapouri School House. She moved to Wanganui in the 1950’s and died in 1978 at the age of 92.
Fred’s younger brother, Bernard Annabell left for WWI in 1916, a war that had already taken his brother Fred. The illusion of a ‘quick war’ was fading for all at this stage. As a postcard he received from his good friend and brother in law Pearce Thomas while in Hospital in Sept 1917 tells : ‘Dear Bernard; As I am pressed for time tonight I am just going to send you a PC to let you see I have not forgotten you altogether. I must say whatever you thought of this game in the finish, I think very little of it for the start. Will write later, From Pearce’.
Bernard was badly wounded, a bit was shot out of his leg. He spent 10 months in Hornchurch Convalescent Hospital in England before he returned to NZ. For the rest of his life he had a limp, but it never stopped him doing everything a hill country farmer did. Back in 1893 he was the first white baby to be born in Ngamatapouri, and he was 13 years old before he ventured out of the Valley to go to Wanganui. When he returned from the War back to his farm at Ngamatapouri, he married Kathleen Haddow, daughter of the dynamic early settler Joseph George Haddow. J G Haddow taught at Marohema and Taumatatahi Schools in the Valley (3 days at each) and on Sunday worked on his farm, as well as this he managed to do a law degree by correspondence. The Haddow family left the Valley after 13 busy years, for Auckland in 1906, but Kathleen returned to teach at the local school and consequently married Bernard. Their daughter Prue told me how her parents worked well together, in particular on things like bridge building. Kathleen with her flawless mathematic mind would do all the arithmetic, and Bernard would construct it...with the help of other locals. These bridges were massive feats of engineering, many of which remain today. Bernard was a Justice of the Peace for this area, just as his father had been before him. In his later years he wrote ‘Ngamatapouri’ a wonderful insight to life in the Valley in the early days.
Frank Pearce enlisted in 1917 and his rank of 2nd Lieutenant is not unexpected, considering he was Head Prefect of Wanganui Collegiate and also Captain of the First Fifteen in 1910, the year the School opened in its current location. Later he was also nominated for a Rhodes Scholarship, but the commencement of WWI made that impossible. Franks son Rod told me how when his father left School at the end of 1910, his own father, Gilbert, bought him a 4000acre farm up the Valley at Makakaho, called Ten Ridges, and handed him over ownership and the mortgage. With WWI looming and then the impending slump that followed, his future in the Valley was secured. Franks younger brother Alan ran his farm while he was away. Like most of the men who returned from the War with their lives intact, Frank never talked about his War. His 6 children have only found out about what he went through from reading his diaries. Which are insightful, often the little things like not having tooth brushes in the trenches for weeks on end, were just a frustrating as the appalling conditions they were fighting in.
Frank had two amazingly fortunate escapes from death. The first was when a bullet was deflected by the silver hip flask he had in his left breast pocket; it then went into his neck but caused no major damage. One of his children still has that hip flask with the hole in it. The second wasn’t quite as easily recovered from. He was shot 6 or 7 times in the back with enemy machine gun fire, miraculously they didn’t hit any vital organs. Frank spent the next two years in firstly a convalescent hospital, then in private family homes in the English countryside. The final place he spent time recovering in before his six week boat trip back home, was on the farm his Grandparents, Robert Bryant Pearce and Elizabeth Pearce, had owned in Devon. They sold it before they immigrated to NZ, but the new owners must have been known to Frank and looked after this soldier from the other side of the world, happily. Robert and Elisabeth came to NZ in 1876 with their four sons. Eventually Alfred owned Deer Park on Wilson Rd, Kakaramea; George owned Castle Hill on Ball Rd and Weraroa at Waitotara. He was a member of Parliament, and would catch the train at Ball Rd to go to Wellington. Franks parents Gilbert and Ella owned a large farm opposite Weraroa at Waitotara, called ‘Longveiw’ in more recent years. Bill was the fourth brother, unsure about his story. All, except Deer Park, are still being farmed by descendants of the Pearce family today. The family farming gene remained strong in Frank too, considering he aspired to be a doctor in his early years, he returned to his farm, and lived a full and happy life there. In 1922 along with Jack Peat, he was the driving force behind the Annual Sheep Fairs at Ngamatapouri. From 1938-47 he served on the Patea County Council, and was a fine public speaker amongst other things. During WWII he was in charge of the Home Guard at Ngamatapouri. One day in 1951 he fell off his horse out on the farm, and when he went to the doctor, it was found that he was full of cancer, caused; it is thought, by the bullets all those years ago. He died soon after.
Four of the six Chesswas brothers went to WWI. Their niece Joan has memories of these hardworking, pioneer men who grew up in the bush helping their father Jack on their farm and with the family saw mill business, amongst other innovative endeavours they undertook. Their saw mill by the Makakaho Stream, used the Water Fall to power a pelton wheel to run it. At one stage they had five saw mills operating in various areas of the Valley and worked in partnership with young Jack Peat. Herbert (Bert) was the first to go to WWI in 1916, the other three followed the next year. Bert met his English bride, a nurse Eva, while over there. He only came back to NZ many years later, after Eva’s death, and actually died during that trip back home. Harry was badly wounded during the war, but fortunately was only left with a bad limp for the rest of his life. He never returned to the Valley. Arthur and Frank went back to the farm in the Makakaho Valley, Frank died aged 48 of a heart attack. To have all four brothers survive the War was fortunate indeed, considering 1 in 5 NZ soldiers who went to WWI were killed.
There are so many stories to be told, and each one is a privilege to share. Talking to the families of these men brings them all back to life, even if it is for a short while, as we remember them after all this time.