Your ‘lost’ ancestor might have been a WW1 Anzac

The least remembered men that fought in WW1 could be the British born recruits who joined up in New Zealand or Australia. They became part of the ‘Anzacs’, a term we all use to describe the Australian and New Zealand soldiers that fought in Gallipoli and on the Western Front. It’s true that most of the men were recruited in Australia or New Zealand. But that doesn’t mean they were actually New Zealanders or Australians.

For family historians in the UK, looking for a long lost relative, one of these Anzacs could be the man you’re looking for. I’ve spent two years researching the New Zealanders’ experiences in WW1. The stories of newly arrived immigrants to New Zealand, joining up to fight for their home country and their new country, are the saddest stories of all.

Of course, when King George V declared war on Germany in 1914 he did so on behalf of Great Britain and the British Empire. New Zealand was not an independent country, so it entered the war without any prior consultation. I don’t believe it ever occurred to New Zealand’s leaders that they might not follow where Britain led. Many people had emigrated from Britain as children with their parents or were the first generation to be born in New Zealand. They rarely thought of themselves as ‘New Zealanders’. They thought of themselves as ‘British’ and part of the British Empire. Christopher Pugsley, in his book Gallipoli The New Zealand Story points out that although there was no real feeling of being a New Zealander, the men did relate to the province they came from – Otago, Canterbury, Wellington or Auckland - and that they left for war as a set of ‘highly competitive provincial teams’.

I started my research with the men who embarked for war. New Zealand sent 103,186 men to fight in WW1. They left in batches between 1914 and 1918, referred to as Reinforcements. I concentrated on the 2,170 men of the 4th Reinforcements. They left New Zealand in April 1915. I thought I was exploring a story about New Zealanders. Imagine my surprise when I found 383 men stating that they were born in Britain and naming their next of kin as still living in Britain. This is the number from just one reinforcement battalion and only a fraction of the total number of men that left New Zealand. I realised that I was looking at a subset of young men that had left Britain in search of adventure on the other side of the world, leaving their families behind. They were single, with no children and, when war broke out, they enlisted right where they were.

To develop the story of the 4th Reinforcements, I began to research what had happened to each man after embarkation. I used New Zealand’s Online Cenotaph database. It holds a separate record for each man – all 103,186 of them. You can view each man’s birth details, next of kin and embarkation dates. If they were killed in action, the details are there. If they were wounded, there is some information, including when they were invalided out. I followed all of them to Gallipoli, where they fought between June and December 1915. Many died, killed in action or as a result of wounds or sickness. I then followed the survivors to France where they fought on the Western Front from April 1916 until the end of the war.

Once again that small set of 383 men, born in Britain with next of kin in Britain, caught my attention. The Online Cenotaph is a very interactive website. It encourages people to add biographical details to a soldier’s page. Most importantly, it invites visitors to ‘lay a poppy’ for the person. You can leave a message and you can say who you are, if you wish. Not one of those 383 men have a poppy. A large number of other men do, as New Zealanders are very keen to offer tributes to their ancestors.

Here is a typical message for Private Victor Duncan, born in Canterbury in New Zealand, killed in action on Gallipoli in 1915:

My dear Great Uncle Victor, I have not met you but feel very close to you through doing our Family Tree…..I wish you had a grave I could have visited. My thoughts are with you and Gallipoli as tomorrow is Anzac Day. Thank you for giving up your life for us. I would love to have known you. With much love and huge sadness. Robin

If you are searching for a ‘lost’ relative and you have some evidence that they went to New Zealand, you would probably start by looking at New Zealand’s BMD records for a marriage or a death. But if they didn’t get married before embarkation, and very few in the whole 4th Reinforcements did, they probably left no other records behind in their new country. If their British family had moved or their parents had died, it’s possible the Army couldn’t find anyone in Britain to notify when they died.

So it might be worth looking for your ‘lost’ ancestor in the Anzac records:

  • The New Zealand Nominal Rolls of embarkation for WW1 are available on the Ancestry website.
  • The New Zealand Online Cenotaph (www.aucklandmuseum.com/war-memorial/online-cenotaph) combines the official military data with personal memories. It offers links to a soldier’s military record and a link to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database.

You never know. Your ancestor might be buried just over the Channel in France or Belgium. When you visit the Online Cenotaph, please consider laying a poppy for one of these least remembered Anzacs.

 

-Sherryl Abrahart

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