Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Remembering a Soldier

I've been trolling through The Otautau Standard on Papers Past researching Otautau district men who served in World War I. I came across several stories that seemed interesting. One story was about two men, Alexander Thomson and D.C. Sutherland, who had gone into the building trade together but then in 1917 decided fighting the war was more important. They joined the NZ Expeditionary Force at the same time but Alexander was killed in action in France, age 27. He was a member of the Otautau Football Club and I.O.O.F. Aparima Lodge. A portrait of him hangs in the Otautau Museum's Military Memories display. D.C. Sutherland was wounded but was able to return home.

Another story is about a young man of 20 years who was among the very first from Otautau to join in 1914, Ralph Edward Miller Wilson. Ralph's parents came from Dunedin and settled in Otautau. His father, John Wilson, was a baker.

Ralph lived through the landing at Gaba Tepe (Anzac Cove) at Gallipoli and wrote a letter to his mother recounting his experiences.

"I have been wounded, and am better again. I expect to be returning to the front again in a few days, but am not too anxious, as it isn't fighting, it is wholesale slaughter there, and we have lost heavily. Archie Macdonald [also from Otautau] has been wounded through the right hand; he had a very narrow escape of losing the use of his hand; as it is, his first finger is slightly stiff, but I think he was lucky. He and I are going back next week together to the Dardanelles, so we will be fighting side by side. It is to be hoped we both get through it safely, but God knows it is a hard thing to do, as the bullets fall all round one like hail.... I am quite sure I will ge through this war after what I went through in the landing. No man could explain it or know what it was like bar the man who was in it. I know my ears ring like a telephone at night yet. To give you an idea we couldn't hear ourselves speak. They pelted us with shrapnel, and played machine guns on us in the water, and to make things worse, they had barb wire entanglements in the water, and when we got on shore, we had to climb up a cliff, fighting all the way with bayonet. It was awful to see your mates falling at your side and praying for water, and, couldn't stop to do anything for them, as we had to silence the Turks fire, and that meant we had to do a Light Brigade charge, and my God we knew it when we met the Turks face to face with bayonet. It was awful, but we succeeded, and no praise is too good for the boys. Well, mother, I believe David is killed, but am not sure. I am trying to find out, and Tom Miller, I think, is wounded. I don't think the fighting will be near so bad when we get back, as they have got the Turks moving now, and we are making them pay for it, and so is Queen Lizzie (Queen Elizabeth). They can't stand her at any price. The sights we have had to go through here were awful to see - men lying in pieces all over the ground. You know Hugo Tangney. Well, he is dead. He died at Lemnos Hospital with pneumonia, poor fellow. He was laid up three days, and died suddenly. Tell Bill that his brother has gone back to New Zealand, so probably he has heard of him since he went back.... Well, mother, I don't care now soon the war ends, as I have seen all I want to and a little bit more. I know one thing, and that is, I don't want to go through the same again as we went through in the landing. I can tell you it makes a man think of his past life, and also makes him wonder if he is ever going to see his loved ones again, although I can't say I was nervous, as I didn't know what I was doing as the rear of the artillery and the rattle of rifles drives a man nearly off his head. It is not the shot and shell that frightens a man, it is the sights you see, and the moaning of the dying, and wounded calling for water." -- From The Otautau Standard, 31 Aug 1915.

When Ralph Wilson returned to Otautau in late October 1915, he gave a lengthy account of his war experiences to an Otautau Standard reporter. You can read this in the Standard's 2 Nov 1915 issue on Papers Past.

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