In 2014 the person of John Gildroy Grant was rediscovered, a young volunteer firefighter from Hawera who enlisted to serve in the First World War – and returned from the Front in France with the highest award possible – the Victoria Cross. In 2014 it was a no-brainer: John Grant would be the focus for a fire brigade ceremony to mark the centenary of the beginning of the First World War
John Gildroy Grant was “Taranaki” through and through. He was born on 26th August 1889 at Hawera, the son of Scottish parents George and Jane Grant and, later, brother of Janet. John Grant was known as Jack to many people: he was an intelligent scholar, a fit athlete and, in particular, he was a great swimmer. When Jack finished his schooling, he became a carpenter by trade working as a builder-contractor, and on the 23rd of May 1911 aged 22 years old he joined the Hawera Volunteer Fire Brigade.
John quickly rose to the rank of brigade First Foreman, in today’s brigade the equivalent of a Senior Station Officer, to which he was appointed in June 1914. He was often recognised for his plucky actions during fires, such as the commendation for his good work when he came across smoke issuing from building. He summoned the brigade but, before it arrived, he with bystanders had the flames under control. His athleticism carried over into fire brigade competitions and he often represented Hawera Brigade with success.
First Foreman Grant becomes Private Grant
Hawera launched numerous events in support of Patriotic Funds to assist various wartime charities. The Fire Brigade attended one of these more formal evenings and the opportunity was taken by the Mayor Edwin Dixon to present brigade members with service awards: among them First Foreman Grant. The Mayor continued his remarks that night extolling those men from the town who had enlisted for active service abroad and asked other young men s to consider joining the defence forces. John Grant broke ranks and stepped up, advising the Mayor there and then that he would be enlisting.
He signed up on June 15, 1915, joining the 1st Battalion of the Wellington infantry regiment, B Company (the Sevenths).
He was farewelled by Hawera firefighters before he left the town to go overseas and at the function Superintendent Pettet said John Grant would be a serious loss – “the best member of the brigade, an officer who knows his work…”
He left New Zealand in October 1915 and first saw service in Suez.
Service in France
In July 1916 he was transferred to the front in France. He was promoted to Corporal and then to Sergeant, rank he held when fighting in battlefields of the Western Front in France which led to the action resulting in John Grant being awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery in the field.
On the 1st of September 1918, he and his platoon were in action near Bancourt when they found they could not advance over the crest of a hill due to heavily armed German machine gun posts. John and a comrade, Corporal Hill from Patea, decided to rush forward along the left side and take on the nest of five German machine gunners. Under point blank fire the two silenced the enemy gunners. This skirmish won, John led an attack down the other side, again disabling the Germans. This enabled his platoon to advance into the enemy line. For this act of bravery John Grant won the prestigious Victorian Cross.
Shortly afterwards he was promoted to Second Lieutenant and travelled to Cambridge in England for officer training in October 1918.
He was wounded in November, within days of his return to the front.
On 26th February 1919 he went to Buckingham Palace to be presented with his Victoria Cross by King George the Fifth.
His service with the New Zealand Expeditionary Forces ended with his repatriation to New Zealand in 1919 aboard “Remuera”, arriving in Auckland late October 1919.
Members of the Hawera Volunteer Fire Brigade did not wait for their “Jack” Grant, VC, to return home before they made him a Life Member of the Brigade in February 1919, an honour he treasured very much.
Then, when he did reach Hawera, there was the biggest welcome for him, not just by the fire brigade, but the entire town and community around about. The Mayor, Councillors, Town Band and hundreds of citizens, including all the school children in the district, were at the station to meet the train carrying John home, and to give him a rousing welcome.
There were several ceremonies over the next few days, including a Mayoral Reception where His Worship, Edwin Dixon, reminded John, and all present, that the now-decorated soldier had volunteered to enlist at a local patriotic gathering some years previous, encouraged by no other than the mayor himself. The Hawera and Normanby Star newspaper put out a special edition on 29 October 1919 to report the day’s events associated with Grant’s return including one of the ceremonies beneath the town’s famous Water Tower.
John Grant planted an oak tree in the park at the foot of the tower.
He was accompanied on the day by Henry (Harry) John Laurent, another Hawera soldier who also won the Victoria Cross. He had planted an oak tree on the reserve some 3 months earlier in July.
Laurent had been a grocer’s assistant when he enlisted in Hawera in May 1915. He was posted to the 2nd Battalion of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade and from 1916 served on the Western Front. On 12th September 1918, (just a fortnight after John Grant’s famous actions) Sergeant Laurent was near Gouzeaucourt Wood, during an engagement that followed the Second Battle of Bapaume. He led his men on an operation which began with a mistaken position – and finding themselves behind enemy lines, quickly capitalised on the error by attacking the Germans taking out their gun posts, rounding up prisoners and successfully making it back to the allied line.
John Grant, like Harry Laurent, had a street named after him and most of the civic and community groups in Taranaki wrote him congratulatory letters.
John Grant did not remain a member of the fire brigade for long. He resigned on the 1st June 1918 with an impressive 79.76% attendance rate. He completed 9 years’ service, 4 of which were counted while he was on active duty. But he continued as a keen follower of the fire brigades’ competitions and whenever he had a chance to go and watch he did – and he would always search out the Hawera team for a good catch-up about home.
John turned instead to his carpentry work and to marriage and family life. In 1921 his interest as a keen swimmer was noted when he was one of the proposers at the meeting of the Hawera Amateur Swimming Club to form a branch for life saving under the auspices of the Royal Humane Lifesaving Society.
He joined the Army’s Territorial Force in September 1921 and was posted to the retired list of the Taranaki Regiment on 16th October 1929.
About this time it appears John Grant began suffering the aftermath of war… “shell shock” they called it, a condition largely misunderstood in those days, now better recognised as post-trauma syndrome. His marriage ended in 1928 and the military lost touch with one of their most decorated… John moved North and was odd-jobbing around Auckland in the lead up to the depression of the 1930s.
Then there was a big surprise when the Thames Star newspaper published an article in April 1935 saying an unnamed winner of the Victoria Cross was reduced to staying in a work camp at Paeroa, part of the Government’s relief programme to help overcome unemployment during the depression.
The news item was included in a report about work at Paeroa racecourse… and was not the result of John Grant’s personal agitation: indeed no one at the camp seemed to know who he was.
No doubt this revelation dismayed John Grant’s friends… and caused the Army to immediately look into the matter… and John Grant’s welfare.
He moved to Auckland around 1940, lived in Te Atatu and was a founding member of the local RSA.
John Grant was invited, and travelled, to London for the periodic gatherings of Victoria Cross winners, usually held in Buckingham Palace. It was said alcohol was a panacea for his trauma, evident with an episode in London at one of these gatherings. Part way through the evening he was heard to cry out that he would “shout the bar”: hardly appropriate in that setting. He then, the story goes, fell down, intoxicated.
But that was not the worst of his behaviour. He attended celebrations in 1956 to mark the 100th anniversary of the Victoria Cross, hosted by Lord Louis and Lady Edwina Mountbatten.
“How are you, Edwina?” John Grant inquired, slapping her heartily on the back. History does not reveal her ladyship’s response, but Lieutenant-General Sir Bernard Freyberg, himself a VC winner and a former personal friend of John Grant, was outraged. Grant was escorted from the premises.
John Grant flew under the radar for some years: he died aged 81 on 5th November 1970 and was interred in the Soldiers’ Lawn Section at Waikumete Cemetery.
Reflecting on World War One
In 2014 the New Zealand Ex Firefighters’ Association combined with the Auckland Fire Brigades’ Museum and Historical Society to plan a suitable memorial as part of nation-wide activities to mark the centenary of the beginning of the First World War and New Zealand’s involvement at Gallipoli.
Firefighters from throughout New Zealand had played their part in World War One – volunteering, enlisting and serving at the front on active duty. Remarkably more than half the total number of the country’s firefighters between 1914 and 1918 signed up. The Mayor of Hawera, Edwin Dixon, pointed out that military service “was a natural stepping-stone” for young volunteer firemen who were fit, accustomed to discipline and used to working as a team.
When the numbers were added up at the end of the war a remarkable contribution was clear. The United Fire Brigades’ Association announced that, of the 2,600 firefighters in the Dominion, more than half, 1,553, had served overseas during World War One. 195 paid the supreme sacrifice, either killed or dying of their injuries, while 238 were wounded and 205 invalided.
“The record of decorations received by firefighters while on active service is also highly creditable”, the Association pointed out, “two received the Distinguished Service Order, eight the Distinguished Conduct Medal, four the Military Cross, three the Military Medal, one the King of Serbia’s Gold Medal, and one the Belgian Croix de Guerre. Above all, one, Sergeant John Grant, a member of Hawera Volunteer Fire Brigade when he enlisted for service, was awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry”.
In planning a commemoration event for 2014 the two Auckland groups wanted a service to remember those who fought in World War One , along with firefighters who took part before that in the South African War and who have since seen active service in all subsequent conflicts, notably the Second World War.
John Grant Re-emerges
It was at this stage in our planning and research that John Grant VC emerged – the only New Zealand firefighter to be awarded a Victoria Cross – and then it was discovered that he rests in Auckland ‘s Waikumete Cemetery. It was plain that John Grant would be the focus of our memorial service and that an appropriate date to hold it would be the hundred anniversary of the day he enlisted at Army HQ in Hawera.
We would thus honour his service and his gallantry that earned him the Victoria Cross, and through his example commemorate all fire-fighters who served in World War One and all other conflicts.
With help from Hawera Volunteer Fire Brigade, New Zealand Defence, Waikumete Cemetery Management, Titirangi Returned Services Association, the New Zealand Fire Service and others, a fitting ceremony led by the Bishop of Auckland, Rt Rev Ross Bay, was held at John Grant’s graveside on Sunday 21st June 2015. The lanes around the Lawn Cemetery were lined with fire appliances old and new as firefighters, friends and families gathered for the service. We were pleased that John Grant’s sister, Janet, was well enough to travel from Taranaki to join us.
The Army provided a Guard of Honour, an RNZAF officer read “In Flander’s Fields” and the Navy Band’s bugler gave the Last Post and Reveille. Dozens of poppies were laid on John Grant’s grave alongside a replica Victoria Cross medal while the piper played a lament.
President of the NZ Ex Firefighters’ Association, Ric Carlyon, mentioned John’s life .. “although there is not a lot known about this man later in life, I believe it is pretty evident after the research that I have done he was quite the character with a kind heart, time for a joke, and had the belief in his friends much as he did with his fellow firefighters facing emergencies. And then by enlisting he stood up for what he believed in and took his leadership qualities to his platoon in wartime. John Gildroy Grant’s name and memory will always stand pride of place in the Hawera fire station, at the Hawera RSA, in the town’s history and in the stories firefighters relate about World War One. Past and present members thank John for his courageous efforts and the camaraderie he has given us and created for us to be present here today”.
After the simple but moving Remembrance Service there were refreshments at the nearby Titirangi RSA rooms where Janet Grant presented the replica Victoria Cross to the Ex Firefighters’ Association. It has since been added to the Medals Cabinet in a special presentation frame picturing John Grant VC as both firefighter and soldier.
His Victoria Cross is held at the Army Museum in Waiouru and was one of 96 medals, including nine Victoria Crosses, two George Crosses and an Albert Medal, stolen from the museum on 2nd December 2007. They were later recovered. Two Auckland men appeared in court on burglary charges. One was eventually jailed for 11 years and the other for six.
Victoria Cross Citation
“On 1 September 1918 John Gildroy Grant was in command of a platoon during an attack on Bancourt Ridge. On reaching the crest, it was found that a line of five enemy machine-gun posts offered a serious obstacle to further advance. When about twenty yards from the posts, Sergeant Grant rushed forward ahead of his platoon and with great dash and bravery entered the centre post, demoralising the garrison and enabling the men of his platoon to mop up the position. In the same manner he then rushed the post on the left, and the remaining posts were quickly occupied and cleared. Throughout the whole operation Sergeant Grant displayed coolness, determination and valour of the highest order and set a splendid example to all.”
Papers Past National Library of N Z
Hawera Volunteer Fire Brigade
Official Gazette, London
RCC 2014: amended, updated 2020