24 April 2011

Lest we forget

Today is Anzac Day in New Zealand and Australia, the day we remember all those who have fallen in times of war. Over the years, many men in my family have served in the armed forces, including my dad – though, luckily, he didn’t actually fight any enemies: he was on final leave, due to go to the Middle East, when the Second World War ended.

Others were not so fortunate. Some of my ancestors served in the First and Second World Wars and, sadly, several lost their lives. Here, I’d like to pay tribute to their courage and their bravery.

Christmas 1942. From left, back row: John,
Bob and Bill. Front: Ted and Doug.
My great-granduncle Thomas Rae and his wife, Ellen Jane Gray, had nine sons. Their older boys were all called up for the army at the beginning of World War Two and, at the time, the family created a record in the province of Canterbury by having seven Rae Brothers in uniform.

Five of the boys served overseas. Bill, Bob and Ted served in the Pacific Islands. Another brother, Doug, was stationed in Italy and later served with the occupation force in Japan. John served in the army in Egypt and, later, in Italy, where an accident while he was driving an army vehicle caused the fingers of his left hand to be severed. Apart from that injury, the Rae brothers came home from the war physically unscathed.


William John Rae

Thomas Rae’s brother, William John Rae (known as John) was working as a shepherd when he joined the army during World War One. John served in Europe with the 1st Battalion, Canterbury Regiment, of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. In the first few months of 1917 he was with the allied forces in Belgium, battling to hold the front line against the Germans in the Douve Sector near the remnants of the village of Messines. The Allies planned an offensive against the enemy troops that held Messines and the New Zealand Division's task was to capture the village. A great deal of preparatory work was required prior to any offensive; communication and assembly trenches were needed to protect the troops in the hours leading up to the assault, and underground rooms were constructed to serve as brigade and battalion headquarters. During March and April 1917 John and his fellow Anzacs spent their days and nights on these earthworks, as well as digging the new trench in No Man's Land that would provide the jumping-off point for their attack.

Unfortunately, John did not survive to celebrate the Allied victory in the Battle of Messines on 7 June 1917. He was killed a month earlier, on 7 May 1917, and is buried in the St Quentin Cabaret Military Cemetery at Heuvelland, West Vlaanderen, Belgium, one of the 460 Commonwealth soldiers buried in that particular war cemetery.
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Donald Alfred Rae
John and Tom’s brother, Donald Alfred (Don) Rae, was also working as a shepherd on Mesopotamia Station, in South Canterbury, when he and his brother John joined up. Don was a trooper in the 3rd Regiment of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles and was one of the New Zealand contingent who fought in the Gallipoli campaign. 

Don was one of the 285 soldiers who died during the Hill 60 Campaign which lasted from 21 to 29 August 1915. These details of that campaign are from the Stuff news website:

On August 21, men from the Otago and Canterbury Mounted Rifles joined an allied attack at Hill 60. Hill 60 was not a major landmark but it had two important wells near its base. The attack was supposed to support an assault by the British at Suvla Bay.

The attack was not well-supported by artillery and was largely driven back by the Ottomans. The New Zealanders managed to capture a small section of the Ottoman trenches, however. There were 55 New Zealand lives lost on the first day of the campaign, August 21.

A renewed attempt at taking Hill 60 was planned for August 25 but delayed until the 27th. In two days of intense fighting, a further 167 New Zealand lives were lost for no gain. Across the 27th and 28th, the Wellington Mounted Rifles lost 59 men, Canterbury Mounted Rifles 48 and the Auckland Mounted Rifles 29.

According to the Auckland Weekly News, Don Rae was wounded in the shoulder and lung. He died of his wounds on 28 August 1915 on board the hospital ship HMS Maheno, then anchored off Gallipoli. In her book While You‘re Away, author Anna Rogers quotes from the diary of nurse Lottie le Gallais, whose words provide a graphic picture of the horrific scene aboard the Maheno on the very day Don died.

On the 28th, with 445 patients on board, and the staff working non-stop in hot, cramped conditions, 'applying pressure dressings to bleeding wounds, changing the dressings of infected wounds and washing men with the limited amounts of sea water available', the Maheno left soon after noon for Mudros Harbour on the island of Lemnos, where the wounded were loaded onto a captured German transport to be taken to Alexandria. There had already been deaths on the Maheno and more died during the short voyage, as Lottie le Gallais recorded: 'Terrible, terrible wounds. The bullets aren't so bad but the shrapnel from exploding shells is ghastly. It cuts great gashes, ripping muscles and bones to shreds. Thirty-nine men have died on board so far and every one suffered great pain and discomfort.’

Donald Alfred Rae was buried at sea and his death is commemorated on panel 72 of the Lone Pine Memorial at Gallipoli.

Leonard Rae Johnstone, with his
father Phil
My granduncle, Leonard Rae Johnstone, was a nephew of Tom, John and Don Rae. After working as a shepherd on both the Ben McLeod and Rata Peaks Stations, Len served with the New Zealand Army in Egypt during World War Two. At the battle of El Alamein he suffered severe injuries and returned home completely disabled. In September 1942, while recuperating at home at Peel Forest, Len met Betty Blogg and they were married in February 1945. Len recovered sufficiently to become manager at Rata Peaks and later worked at Mesopotamia and on a property near Cave. Eventually the strenuous hill-mustering threatened Len's fragile health so he and Betty moved to Geraldine, where Len drove a truck for Geraldine County Council, then spent thirteen years as a driver with the St John Ambulance service. Len and Betty had celebrated over 50 years of married life when Len died on 1 June 1996, at the age of 81, at Geraldine.

John Henry James Rae (known as Jack) was another nephew of Tom, John and Don Rae. He also joined the army in World War Two, serving his tour of duty with 37 Battalion in the Pacific Islands. His battalion formed part of 3 Division, which sailed to New Caledonia in late 1942. There, during nine months of garrison duty, 3 Division established a base and fitted itself out for its forthcoming campaign to assist the United States in driving the Japanese out of the Solomon Islands. Fourteenth Brigade (which included Jack and his 37 Battalion comrades) departed New Caledonia on 17 August 1943, arriving on Guadalcanal ten days later. Over the coming months, they took part in three landing operations, working in the arduous conditions of dense jungle, mangrove swamps and tropical downpours, and under the constant threat of enemy contact. By late 1944 the troops had successfully completed their mission, Japanese resistance was considered at an end, and Jack and those of his comrades who had survived were withdrawn.

All these men fought to protect their countries and loved ones from the threat of war and invasion. Regardless of whether or not we agree with the fighting itself, we can still admire and honour their reasons for fighting.