During the war in France, my great great uncle and great grandfather were fighting in Picardie. At the same time Epsom Girls was founded and my great grandmother began attending there from day one. This is a bit of their story from before they met.
Beginning of Epsom Girls – February 1917
One of the foundation pupils at Epsom, May Simpson was just 16 when the school opened. Many of the girls’ fathers, brothers, cousins and uncles were fighting in WWI and the whole community was struggling with the loss of many of these men. Previously May had attended Auckland Girls Grammar, but with a new school opening much closer to her home, she moved to Epsom Girls’ to become one of the first pupils there.
The girls probably had time to knit socks or warm scarves for the soldiers while at school, also possibly sending old blankets or peggy square blankets to hospitals desperately needing warm things for the freezing winters in France. There were also glass bottle collections set up to raise money for Belgium, who was hit hard by the war. There was a shortage of glass bottles so these were in high demand by chemists, brewers and the general public. The girls would also have sent over darning kits, with needles, thread and darning material for the soldiers to fix the many holes in their clothes. Although these things appeared small, they were a huge help to the exhausted soldiers, and letters or pictures from home were comforting as well.
Thomas and William Harray ( My great grandfather and my great great uncle)
Thomas Harray and his brother William Harray fought in Bertrancourt, Picardie during 1918, when the war was coming to an end. In late April 1918, Thomas Harray was sent back to England with mementos from his brother. Thomas and William were trained at the original NZ training camp, Sling Camp in Salisbury Plain, England before they travelled to France and joined the front line. Over in England, Thomas’s younger brother was out exploring London, (there appeared to be quite a lot of time for sightseeing before they arrived in France), but from March onwards both William and Thomas were posted in France, mostly in the Picardie region. Despite being in different battalions, the two brothers found themselves fighting the enemy, their battalions about 500 yards from each other in April 1918. Thomas Harray was one of the lucky ones, in fact incredibly lucky. Both Tom and Willie survived the war.
May met Thomas when she was about 19, when they were both working at the Onehunga Woollen Mills. Thomas was fourteen years older and the two married when he was about 35. They went on to have four children and lived with them in Epsom. Willie went back to the family farm in Te Puke. There were actually three brothers and their sister who lived in Te Puke before the war - Thomas and William were the two eldest, Jack and Margaret stayed at home to care for the farm. Conscription rules exempted the one of the brothers from having to join the military, as farmers were free to stay at home, but William and Thomas both volunteered to fight in about 1915/1916.
The region of Picardie is next to the region Nord-pas-de-Calais, where the town of Le Quesnoy is. The troops would be hearing of the successes and losses of the soldiers fighting to take back Le Quesnoy. Indeed, William mentions the incredible achievement in his diary as he writes on the 5th of November 1918, “Batt. had very successful stunt at Le Quesnoy two days ago, many prisoners and plenty of souvenirs.” Despite not actually being involved in the battle of Le Quesnoy, William was on the frontline in nearby Picardie and possibly even played a game of football with some of the soldiers involved, as this was the pastime of many of the NZ boys. Just days after this memorable battle, the war ended. Willie gave an account of this event as well, writing on the 8th of November, “Germans given till Monday noon, to accept or reject peace terms.” At 9:30 am on the 11th of November Willie and the other soldiers were told “that hostilities would cease at 11am that day and the war was as good as over.” He then describes the reactions of the soldiers, “the men, as I expected, took it quite calmly and there was hardly a smile and no demonstration.” This just shows what the war took away from men, the joy of winning what they had been fighting over for 4 full years was bittersweet and no one was able to celebrate what should have been a huge achievement. Among other memorable events during his time in the military, in late 1918 Willie and his unit paraded in front of the Prince of Wales, who later became King Edward VIII.
My family may not have been famous or even involved in important battles during the war, but they did their bit – whether from home or in the field – and so did countless other New Zealanders. Tom and Willie weren’t required to sign up and fight, they did it because New Zealand needed them, just as May and the other Epsom foundation pupils didn’t need to help the cause for something that was happening thousands of miles away. What we need to remember from World War 1 is the unity that came from other countries in crisis, not the killing but the helping that followed – from New Zealand, Australia and all the allies in between.
Diary of William Harray
(Thomas Harray also wrote his own diary. But unfortunately this has been lost and Thomas appears to have been returned to New Zealand before the war ended and Le Quesnoy was returned to the French.)
Poems – Two of these were written for this project, one I wrote last year.
We say lest we forget Because of course we must remember The men As they were, bloody, insane and alone. Because we should never forget that young boys shot at What could have been their best friend Had he spoken the same language. Because we can never lose the memories Of fathers, brothers and cousins leaving And old, old men returning.
100 years ago that war was And yet we are still the same. It is still brave and valiant to fight for the country And they are still praised for continuing the agony. Even the soldiers did not want to go along But everyone at home was cheering them on. We should not remember, but forget Forget that we have made the same mistakes over and over Until they are second nature to us.
Walking through porridge is like going backwards Try walking through opaque mud you cannot judge the depth of. With every step you slide back several more.
You think carrying a school bag is like being a pack horse Try carrying a pack kilometres on end Feeling yourself bend further forward with every step.
You think wearing bulky shoes on your feet is like pulling a muscle Try big black boots filled with water and sludge Every step is painful and heavy.
You think mosquitoes in summer are intolerable and irritating Try lice crawling over and inside your clothes Itchy red bites swelling up, scabs healing over.
Young blushing faces, sneaking from barns. Ice cold lemonade, spilling onto grass. Ivory white roses, opening to the sun. Innocence
Fearless faces, gallant declarations. Forged names, dates. Small photographs tucked into pockets. Romance
Intensive training, wrong becomes right. Brutal punishments, formed by brutal ideas Comrades stand side by side. Loyalty
Theory is reality. Luxuries are scarce and rife with rats. Long hours without reward. Longing
Faces etched into memories alone. Untreated scrapes fester and ooze. Ice cold nights, damp toes. Desperation
Pelted with mud, bullets, blood. Near misses celebrated with empty emotion. Routine checks to keep image of authority. Misery
Dragging still from muddy aftermath. Blank, unstaring eyes. No time to linger, Fritz never does. Agony
Weak limb, tresses of bandages. Clean sheets, warm drinks. Crisp uniforms, working all hours. Comfort
Hushed whispers, lingering glances. Swollen, red pain. A wilted ivory rose, propped against an open card. Peace
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Last modified on Sunday, 06 July 2014 09:25