4 Who Served in World War One
Centenary celebrations of the First World war (1914-18) recalled four people I knew who served. I researched their backgrounds and found interesting careers worthy of telling…
Effie Williams – Nurse
Like other neighbours and residents of Alba Road, Epsom, we knew the lady at number 30 as “Nurse Williams” or just “the Nurse”.
She lived opposite our house, alone in her bungalow surrounded by luxuriant, slightly overgrown, gardens and an enormous spreading fig tree which every year provided half the residents of the street with copious quantities of the fruit.
Nurse Williams was diminutive, slight of build, silver-haired – the locks always done in plaits wound over her head, crown-like. She had a noticeable dark-blue mole on her lower lip, emphasised because she spoke plainly and deliberately, fully deploying her teeth, tongue and lips.
Nurse Williams, we knew, often called in at the Epsom Returned Services Association’s rooms up on Manukau Road. We later knew she was attending card afternoons and other socials.
When I was in my pre-teens Nurse Williams took me to the RSA Club in High Street, in the city, for lunch. It must have been school holidays and was part of a big day out for me because after the meal we went to the Town Hall for a variety concert, complete, I recall, with a two-man talking horse which gave every kid in the place a small chocolate bar! On another occasion Nurse Williams took me to the city on the tram before joining the ferry for the trip across the harbour to Devonport where we had lunch before returning home.
My other early recollection of Nurse Williams was a shocking revelation. I must have been aged 7 or 8. My mother was chatting with the Nurse outside her house and I was listening in. Mother noted the huge Scotch Thistles growing against each gate-post. “I’ll get my husband, Laurie, to bring a spade and dig out those weeds” she offered. “No thanks, dear”, Nurse Williams said, “I like to keep them. The dogs hate the sharp prickles on their behind, so they don’t stop to do their business against the posts!” I was astounded that an adult would say such a thing. It was my very first revelation that grown-ups actually mentioned such unspeakable subjects.
Research in much later years revealed we didn’t have the full story about Nurse Williams. She was, in fact, Staff Nurse Effie Williams, Service Number 22/312, of the New Zealand Army Nursing Service during the First World War.
Effie (only one document, probably wrongly, ever referred to her as Euphemia, the usual long-form of Effie) was born in Sydney on March 3rd 1887 where she trained to be a nurse at the Royal North Shore Hospital. At the outbreak of World War One in 1914 she was working as a Sister at Auckland Hospital.
Effie enlisted in the New Zealand Army Nursing Service in January 1916, promising to “… to serve for the term of the present European War…” as it stated in here enlistment papers.
She was aged 32 years, 5 foot 5 inches in height, weighing just over 8 stone, showed marks that she had the required inoculations and displayed good teeth. The examining physician, Captain A. G. Talbot, marked her “fit for service with Army nurses”.
On January 25th 1916 Effie’s overseas service began when she sailed on the Hospital Ship “Maheno” from Wellington bound for Suez where she disembarked on 5th March.
After only 3 weeks she was on board another Hospital Ship evacuating wounded soldiers to England.
More Hospitals Required
Lady Louisa Godley, wife of General William Godley who led the New Zealand troops at the Dardanelles, set about organising hospital and other shelters for wounded troops in Alexandria – “… those who master-minded the Anzac landings provided nowhere near enough medical and convalescent facilities for the large numbers of injured and sick soldiers,” she said, “so we’ll have places here for them to help their recovery”. This sentiment was echoed by the Matron-in-Chief of
the New Zealand Army Nursing Service when additional wards were added at Walton-on-Thames. She said “… the awful need was not realised”.
Effie became part of this expansion of New Zealand hospital services s in England. Kiwi casualties were scattered in many hospitals and it was decided to relocate them into specific “New Zealand” hospitals at Brockenhurst in New Forest, Hampshire (which became No. 1 General New Zealand Hospital) and in Walton-on-Thames at Mount Felix (No. 2 GNZH) and nearby at Oatlands Park. There were others at Codford, on Salisbury Plain, near the Army base at Sling.
From 4th June 1916 Effie was working at the No. 2 GNZ in Walton-on-Thames until early November.
It was then Nurse Williams became “run down and tired” and she was admitted to recuperate in the Nurses’ Convalescent Home at Sandwich. Within 2 weeks she had resumed duties at Walton on 15 November 1916.
This hospital was gradually expanded to cater for increasing numbers of New Zealand soldiers arriving from, mainly, the front in France until capacity was reached with beds for nearly 2,000 patients, plus staff accommodation.
After almost nine months’ hard work in the wards without leave, Effie was tired. On 31 July 1917 she was medically examined at Walton-on-Thames and declared “unfit” and ordered “…rest for 10 days at Sandwich Convalescent Home, suffering fatigue after much heavy work in the hospital. She has lost weight and is sleeping badly”.
On 28th August 1917 Effie was medically examined again, in London’s New Zealand Expeditionary Forces’ Headquarters, and the Medical Board noted “since her last examination she has been in Sandwich Convalescent Home, recovered debility caused by hard work, put on 6 pounds weight, fit for service” and she returned to the wards at Walton-on-Thames.
Seven months later Effie was suffering again, this time admitted to the hospital in which she worked with Rheumatism and after a month’s treatment she was transferred to the Sisters’ Rest Home in Brighton early in April 1918. There she was pronounced unfit for 6 months, recovering from Rheumatic attack, and ordered to bed-rest for one month with repatriation to NZ recommended.
War Ends for Effie
The Matron-in-Chief placed Effie on the list of those relieved of duties “on account of ill health contracted on active service”. The war was over for Staff Nurse Effie Williams. She sailed from Avonmouth aboard the “Maheno” bound for New Zealand. Before Effie left the ship in Auckland on 22nd May 1918 she was again examined by a Medical Board: its members ordered her removed to Auckland Hospital forth-with as an in-patient for further treatment for “effects following rheumatic attack, infection and a weak heart showing a murmur, the patient generally debilitated which results in her permanent disability”.
On 12 July 1918 another Medical Board at Auckland agreed to her discharge from military service with a pension and on 2nd August 1918 Effie was “Struck Off Strength of the New Zealand Expeditionary Forces” and posted to the Retired List. On 1 Oct 1921 she was transferred to the Reserve List as Staff Nurse.
Effie Williams’ devotion to duty ministering to soldiers had been at the expense of her own health. At Walton she helped with a constant influx of wounded servicemen, a new wave of patients after each campaign in France. Military records show she worked her fingers to the bone, wearing herself out as she helped the sick and injured until her own health collapsed and she herself needed nursing…..
Effie Williams resided in Alba Road, Epsom, in her forced retirement from the military. It was a fortunate choice for our family: she was a generous, kindly neighbour who kept reasonable health. Like so many who had served overseas she enjoyed company at the RSA Clubs but, as far as I know, never talked about her days with the New Zealand Army Nursing Service. She died on the 6th of January 1971 aged 87.
Reginald Moreton Young – Good Neighbour
In the 1950s our next door neighbour often wore khaki shirts while gardening. Were they relics from World War One? Or could they have been left-overs from his uniform while working on the trams? We will never know. But for Mr Young, as we knew him, either was possible: he had served overseas and he‘d been employed on Auckland’s trams.
Reginald Moreton Young (Regimental Number 19/369) enlisted at Narrow Neck Military Camp on Auckland’s North Shore on December 8th 1915 aged 33, having already been declared medically fit for active service abroad.
His papers show he was born on March 15th 1882 near Malpas, Cheshire, in England. And at the time of enlistment he was a tram conductor with the Auckland Tramways Company, living in Albert Road,(later Alba Road), Epsom and his next of kin is listed as his wife, Mrs Mary Young.
After 4 months training at Narrow Neck Camp, Private Young embarked for Samoa with the Samoan Garrison, a group variously described as the Reinforcement Force or Relief Force. He arrived in Apia late December 1915 and served in Samoa until June 1916 when he returned to New Zealand on leave, only to return to Samoa on “Tahuni” 6 weeks later. Back in Samoa he was promoted to Corporal on New Year’s Day 1919 and concluded service in Apia in January 1920. He returned to Auckland and was discharged from the Army a few weeks later.
The Mr Young that we knew seemed to show no signs of his wartime service. Though retired, he was very active, keeping a big garden that covered the whole of a spare section, one-fifth of an acre, which would have been Number 29 Alba Road had it been occupied. He lived in a large villa alongside, number 31.
He worked the garden almost full-time, organised strictly by the seasons. Over each winter artichokes and lupins (legumes) were grown, to be dug-in around late autumn, providing manure for rows of tomato plants planted out in early spring. These were inevitably great croppers, providing bountiful supplies year after year. Those locals in the know could buy tomatoes from the old man… huge, juicy and flavoursome fruit, picked while “customers” waited. On the eastern boundary of the garden was a high metal frame covered in Kiwifruit vines (known as Chinese Gooseberries in our day) which, likewise, gave an annual harvest of delicious fruit. He also grew potatoes, rotating these beds in a system to return natural goodness to the soil. Nearer the house he had beds for peas and beans, the peas grown against wire netting frames, the beans trained up a traditional tripod of poles, made of bamboo. Mr Young did not have a central or even elementary watering system. He caught water off the roof of the house, and his big shed, storing it in tanks: from these he carried water to the plants in the garden in home-made buckets made from kerosene tins.
He had a handful of ducks and hens plus a rooster and these had the run of the house section with roosts and nests in a small shed where we, as kids, would look for eggs. We learned the trick of the dummy egg to encourage hens to lay!
Mr Young was pretty good on the violin. He was also a sure shot with the catapult, especially when he was after birds, blackbirds and starlings mostly, attracted by the fruit on his plum and apple trees. The birds didn’t stand a chance against his accurate eye and powerful, home-made, slingshot! He would recover the birds where they fell and, if they were fleshy specimens, he would pluck the feathers and prepare them for cooking.
Having served in Samoa it was second nature for Mr Young to take on a Samoan housekeeper sometime after his return. Miss Rita Ryan was a first-class cook and provided food he was used to in the Islands, as well as European dishes, and there were fine woven mats on the floor in the house. In latter years Mr Young would have a mid-afternoon rest, much the same as in Samoa to beat the heat of the day.
In summer there would always be a traditional tapa or woven fan at hand to cool the air in the dining room, together with a Samoan traditional whisk to chase away any annoying flies.
Rita used fruit and vegetables from the garden in jams, pickles and relishes. She was generous in her gifts of this produce to her neighbours. For us, there was a niche in the stone-wall fence where Rita would leave potted preserves, to be discovered when we climbed over the wall or when she called out. Never one seeking thanks, she was already well on her way to her house before anyone could respond to her call.
Had it not been for the war, and New Zealand troops sent to take over the islands from German Rule, and maintain the foothold, Aunty Rita Ryan and the Samoan influence would not have entered our lives.
John Forsyth Potter, VD – Educationist
Headmaster of Epsom School, John Forsyth Potter, 13/118, saw service in both WW1 and WW2. He was a great orator about Anzac and the military when we had a service at school each April 25th to mark Anzac Day… he knew all about it from personal experience… he had fought at Gallipoli. And looking at his service record, one can’t help feeling that his life was a tussle between education and the military – though somehow he managed to keep both in play, in parallel, and reaching the top echelons of both callings!
He was born in Avondale, Auckland, on 19/7/1891 and enlisted in the Territorials at Hamilton in September 1909, joining the Auckland Mounted Rifles, then embarked overseas in September 1914 as Trooper serving first in the Dardanelles… at Walkers Ridge (May 1915), on the general advance to the summit of Chunuk Bair (August 6th) and at Hill 60 (August 26th/27th). He fell sick in August.
Recovered, he returned to the field briefly before being posted to France where he saw service at the front in Camiers before the evacuation after which he was transferred to the Suez Canal for patrol work until April 1917.
Recommended to return to NZ for a commission, this was thwarted when he had to have an emergency operation in Egypt to remove his appendix: it was classed as “peritonitis, septic” and after initial recovery he was put on SS “Ulimaroa” for return to recuperate in New Zealand where he arrived in mid-1917. Once recovered, just a month later, he was at Featherston Camp for training on machine guns.
While there he wrote asking to go overseas again. He was accepted and in February 1918 travelled to England, thence to service at the front in Rouen, France. He was later transferred to NZ Army’s London HQ where he worked until long after Armistice.
Mixing Service with Education
Once home in October 1919 he continued on the Reserved List with the Mounted Rifles. He was made Captain in 1924. In 1927 he was a teacher at Granity School on the West Coast and by 1929 he had been promoted to Major when he signed on once again after Army HQ reorganised Reserved postings. In “civvy life” he took a teaching position in Richmond, Nelson in 1932 and joined the Nelson-Marlborough Mounted Rifles. Then he was appointed headmaster of Frankton District School, and as he was still in the Reserves he transferred to the Waikato Mounted Rifles Regiment. The Second World War arrived and Potter, on the Reserved List, was posted overseas in January 1940, despite protestation from the Frankton School Committee, pointing out “Potter is indispensable to us, and besides, he’s 8 years over-age for the rank he holds!”. Orders are orders – Potter went overseas, anyway.
He served in the Middle East, in Egypt and Greece. He lost his pistol while on active service and had to refund its value to the Army – £4 twelve shillings (more than £5 in NZ currency!).
On returning to NZ in September the following year he had numerous promotions in the Reserves (ultimately to Lieutenant Colonel) culminating (1/1/1949) in Officer Commanding, 1 NZ Armoured Regiment, based in Hamilton. Despite these postings he had been appointed headmaster at Pt Chevalier School in Auckland (1945). He was a popular leader there, according to reminiscences
of children who were pupils at the time. They were greatly amused by the school concerts the staff organised, starring the students and compered by “Uncle Pot” – the headmaster who was always appropriately costumed for the part.
After war’s end he was Honorary Aide de Camp to the Governor General in 1946 and remained on the Reserved List until 1956. He had served in various OIC positions and had been attached to Light Armoured Fighting Vehicles (LAFV) School, Waiouru and later headed the LAFV Regiment in 1941.
In 1949 his Personal Report indicates “A very good all-round officer with recent war experience… …one of the outstanding personalities on the course, fit to command a Brigade”. He received the Colonial Auxiliary Forces Officers’ Decoration for long service allowing the use of the post-nominal V.D. and he also received the King George the Sixth Coronation Medal.
He is listed among the returned soldiers on the War Memorial plaque created for the Avondale Oddfellows’ Lodge, now at the Avondale Returned Services Association.
Epsom Normal Primary School
I knew John Potter as headmaster of Epsom Normal Primary School which I attended 1950-55. Probably reflecting his military background, pupils did not see a lot of the man in charge of the school… teachers were left to get on with their delegated responsibilities. But I got to know him quite well as a 4 year old on my very first day at school when I misbehaved, unhappy about attending and wanting to go home. Mr Potter gave me a very sound telling off followed by a touch of a leather strap on the open palm of my right hand which had to be held out ready to receive the stinging blow. I have not forgotten my introduction to the education system!
Potter headed a school with a roll swollen by “baby boomers”: many pupils were children of men who had returned from World War Two and began (or resumed) families. The greatly increased numbers started in Primer rooms about 1950, forcing a staff room in the old block to be converted to a classroom. The growth swept through the whole school as pupils progressed year after year – the “new concrete block” was soon overtaxed despite an average of 38 pupils crowded into each classroom.
The school had to expand to meet the demands and additional rooms would be provided in the form of prefabricated classrooms, “prefabs”, components built off-site and trucked to the school. In my time the number of these “temporary” classrooms increased from none to 6, built at first on asphalt playing areas (at the expense of basketball courts) and then overflowing on to grass areas to accommodate a total of another 200 pupils. Potter oversaw all this expansion and at the same time had to maintain very high professional standards – Epsom was a Normal School which meant it was a training facility for student teachers. Potter was expected to provide first class opportunities and experience for these student-teachers, “on section” for 6 weeks at a stretch getting practical skills, building on the “theory” they were taught at the nearby Teachers’ Training College (now an Auckland University campus in Epsom Avenue, Mt Eden). The government was gearing up to meet future expansion in education and as more student teachers were enrolled, it was rare indeed not to find 2 student teachers attached to every classroom in the school. John Potter was assisted by senior teachers Len Rich and Edith Hawkins.
Potter showed he was a stickler for detail when, in my Standard One year our class teacher Phyllis J. Witten had each pupil write a formal letter to the Headmaster, Mr J. F. Potter as an exercise. The format of the letter, including the addresses, dates and salutation had to follow a very strict template laid down by the Education Department (as did the formation and style of every letter of the alphabet!) and Mrs Witten coached us to ensure we got everything word-perfect. We each had to bring to school an envelope and a stamp, I recall, enabling each letter to be posted to the Headmaster. The mail-out accomplished, Mrs Witten assured us he would reply. He did, and some of us felt cheated when a few days later we received just one letter addressed to the whole class rather than to each individual who had written to him. Much to our consternation, worse probably for Mrs Witten, he had no hesitation in rejecting all 38 letters because, he wrote, there was a minor error in the format of the date. Mrs Witten’s notes of “best practice” in her Manuals had not apparently kept pace with change and the headmaster pointed out we all had it wrong.
Mr Potter wrote to the class thanking pupils for their letters, but was bound to point out “There should have been a comma in the date… 23rd May, 1953”. We all wrote another comma-perfect letter in our exercise books and selected pupils were sent along to the headmaster’s with their efforts to show that we had learnt our lesson!
I guess this was a time of intense expansion in the education system throughout New Zealand, an expensive exercise for the Education Department. This was probably the reason that there was little improvement at the school in my time, apart from the new “prefab” classrooms.
Half a pint of milk, delivered to each classroom, was available at morning break at no cost for those who wanted it (I was a milk monitor for the school in my last year) and kerosene heaters in winter
months (I was chosen, that same year, to carry the refuelled heaters from the caretaker’s shed to the Primers rooms each morning and return them at 3pm) and the school patrol, stopping traffic on The Drive while pupils crossed (I was “stand-in emergency patrol” for a year but don’t think I ever got a turn because no one was absent when I was on stand-by!). The swimming pool, a basic “concrete tank”, was one-depth, shorter than Olympic length, and without changing sheds. The caretaker, Frank Barnes, lived with his wife in a very modest cottage on-site. It was all pretty austere.
We received traffic and bicycle safety instruction when the Ministry of Transport traffic officers visited twice a year and there was the annual visit of the Fun Doctor, Norman Tate, who always arrived in his little brown Austin 7 car. His session, admission fee sixpence, entertained with jokes, magic tricks, juggling and – probably his best-known act – playing the piano with his nose. He became legion among generations of school children. Norman Edward Tate enlisted for the First World War aged 26 in July 1917, his occupation listed as a musician: he and his brother had developed stage shows, inspired by a troupe of Japanese jugglers he had seen. Tate was found to be unfit (a fracture caused by a horse treading on his foot some years before) meant he was in pain after sustained exertion and was discharged before training for overseas.
Aside from the Fun Doctor’s visit, there were a few other events to look forward to each school year. There was the Annual Fair with bring and buy, coconut shy, needle in the haystack, quick-fire raffles and other fund-raising attractions… Mr Potter needed all the financial help he could get to maintain the school… and then Christmas, when the Chairman of the School Committee, Doug Smith, visited each classroom distributing an ice cream to every pupil. Over winter, for several years, we looked forward to hot cocoa served for a penny a cup from the otherwise moribund cafeteria.
John Potter died at Northcote, Auckland, on February 28, 1967. (See! I still remember where the comma goes!)
Franz Roering Slevin, MC, Educationist
Headmaster of Normal Intermediate, Franz Roering Slevin, Regimental Number 15981, was known as Frank Slevin. He was son of one of the pioneers in the Bay of Plenty, Joseph Slevin of Katikati and later Waihi, and Sarah, nee Roering. Frank was a teacher at schools in the North when he entered military camp at Trentham. Both Mangakura and Glorit part-time schools farewelled their teacher of 18 months. Newspaper reports said that practically every household in the two districts gathered for a farewell social in April 1916 as Frank Slevin departed. He was aged 24 and joined the 6th Reinforcements 3rd Battalion, G Company, of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, interrupting his university studies to enlist.
Frank Slevin embarked for overseas service on 26 July 1916 from Wellington, bound for Devonport, England. He served on the Western European Front, mostly in Rouen, in France and was wounded in September 1917. Recovered, he returned to the front. He received the Military Cross in September 1918 for acts of gallantry in the field – “for conspicuous gallantry and initiative in an attack – when all the officers of his platoon company had become casualties, he took command of 2 platoons, led them forward and consolidated the objective, his determination and good leadership under most adverse conditions assisted materially in the attack”. Probably this action took place as the Kiwis approached, and later took positions, along the Hindenburg Line.
He was Company Sergeant -Major at war’s end when he was accepted into Officers’ Training at Balliol College, Oxford and was promoted to Second Lieutenant in February 1919 – “…. Cadet Slevin is a very good type of cadet; knows his work well and how to lead men. He will in my opinion make a first-rate Platoon Commander,” wrote Officer Commanding Number 6 Battalion. Slevin returned to New Zealand in May.
Belatedly, he graduated Bachelor of Arts at Auckland University in 1929. He returned home to Waihi in 1932, and the school where he was first educated, as Headmaster of the newly-designated intermediate school with Secondary Department attached. His achievements in teaching were noted in 1933 when it was reported that all but one of the 29 Waihi candidates who sat examinations to qualify for free places had succeeded.
There is a Slevin Street in Waihi which remembers his father, Joseph, who was a member of the first Waihi Borough Council and for many years Chairman of the Hospital Board. He was a Justice of the Peace. Joseph had gone from Katikati, where he farmed, to Waihi when the Martha Mine opened and then went into business as a carrier and auctioneer.
Frank Slevin is listed in both Katikati’s and Waihi’s Roll of Returned Servicemen.
Normal Intermediate School, Mt Eden
Like Epsom Normal Primary School, Normal Intermediate School trained student teachers in practical classroom skills, they having learned the basics just across the playing fields at Auckland Training College (now part of University of Auckland campus).
Frank Slevin, as headmaster at Normal Intermediate , thus had to maintain something of a model school. In my Form One year I had little contact with the headmaster… as with John Potter, Slevin left much of the administration to his “lieutenants”, in this case Miss Birch and Hugh Hunter. But in Form Two I was in Miss Jewell’s Room 5 which was next door to the headmaster’s study. There was a buzzer in the corridor outside the classroom and if Mr Slevin wanted assistance he would press the button on his desk, the buzzer would sound and Miss Jewell would despatch a pupil to the study to see what was wanted. I was often sent in response. It was usually a “fetch or carry”’ errand within the school: occasionally there would be an urgent walk to Mt Eden Village shops to get something for the school office or to post mail. More often, the headmaster required a cup of hot water brought from the nearby staff room, perhaps to relieve his indigestion!
Mt Eden Community Centre
As well as administering a school with the added responsibility for training student teachers, Slevin created and oversaw the Mt Eden Community Centre, based in the school which, after school-hours, provided a wide range of tuition and experiences for local residents of all ages. There was a drama group for children while the adult “Community Players” staged major prizewinning productions. The Operatic Society mounted two musicals a year in the school hall, there was a pottery group, classes to study millinery, arts and crafts lessons, cooking instruction, keep fit exercises and workshop sessions in both metal and woodwork. Slevin, and the school committee, supported them all, an ideal use of school premises and facilities after-hours for the benefit of the community, the forerunner of many similar “night schools”, “extramural classes” and “community classes”. Frank Slevin’s involvement in setting up such community education programmes is recognised in “One Pioneer – The School as Community Centre 1945 – 1958”, a paper by A.E. Zeigler, edited by Noel Parsloe.
Frank Slevin’s retirement was signalled in the House of Representatives in later 1958 when the local Member of Parliament for Eden, Mr D. M. Rae, commended Slevin’s work fostering the Community Centre. “The value of this, at practically no cost to the Education Department, cannot be over-emphasised,” he said, “it is regularly used by more than 700 people, much the same as Adult Education Schemes elsewhere, which are at a cost to the taxpayer”. He congratulated Slevin on his work, noting his imminent retirement, and thanked the Education Department for supporting Slevin to help create the Community Centre concept.
Frank Slevin retired, his last year at Normal Intermediate was 1958 and he died in 1978.