Monday, April 6, 2009

Skeletons and closets

For a school project Rory has been conducting research into the circumstances of my great uncle’s death just before the end of WWI.  We’ve made repeated visits to help jog the memories of the very last of the family’s old women and he’s hunted through Armymore than one attic to accumulate a good pile of fascinating information. 

It was 1918 and Terence was nearly 19 and studying for his solicitor exams in Auckland. All 3 of his older brothers, Charlie, Jack and Jim (my grand-dad), were already fighting in France and their mother (my great grand-mother) Joanna was repeatedly refusing Terence the necessary parental permission to enlist early (i.e prior to his 20th birthday). We have letters between them at the time and he was desperately bargaining with her. If he passed his exams with a good mark, she’d agreed to give her permission and to coax his father to do the same. I can only imagine how hard that must been for her to agree to, her baby and last safe son wanting to join the fight.

A week before his solicitors exam Terence received a white feather in an envelope. An entry in his journal at the time indicates he was distraught. Humiliated.

White feather

Terence sat and passed his exam in May 1918 and enlisted 3 days later. He went into camp at Trentham and was part of the 40th NZ Expeditionary Force which left Auckland for England on the MV Tahiti in July 1918. They made port in Egypt on route and unluckily picked up flu.

In the 2 week period before the Tahiti landed in England, more than 50 men died. Great uncle Terence was one of them. There’s some question about the actual cause of death in many cases – it is recorded that a delirium struck and a number of the young men hurled themselves into the sea from the deck of the Tahiti and were never seen again. The official war records state “Drowned, lost at sea”.

One month later the war ended.

Charlie, Jack and grand-dad all distinguished themselves and made it home in pretty much one piece. They say that Joanna never recovered from losing her youngest son.

My dad is Terence II and my nephew is Terence III.


  1. What a fascinating story.

    Makes me wonder what happened to Terrence. So many times , in the military, young men and women die and the reasons behind it are hushed up.

    I remember seeing a TV movie with Carol Burnett, who played a mother who son was killed in Vietnam and the cause was never disclosed. Turns out the boy was killed by "friendly fire."

    That was new to me, that your own troops could accidentally kill you.

    Hopefully with a little digging, your son can find out what happened.

  2. Yes, fascinating story, Lou. Sad too. My Grandpa was a WWI vet too. In fact, my dad grew up in the old officers quarters of what used to known as, Camp Grant. It was an Army base here in Rockford. The great WWII General, Omar Bradley was stationed there as a, Lieutenant during WWI.

    Bob, troops being killed by friendly fire is actually quite common. Sad, but true. Happens all the time. It's known as, Fratricide.

  3. What a mysterious story. Wow. All those parents and families who lost someone with no real explicit answer as to why.

    My grandfather was in WWII. It wasn't until a few years ago that I learned more or less the whole story.

  4. How could someone send him white feather as an act of cowardice when by law he was just not able to fight.

  5. Yes it's an interesting story which we'll probably never really get to the bottom of.

    I know stu it sucks ay being labelled a coward when he was only 18? I guess he was a fit and strong young man and they perhaps thought he was older. The bit I really don't get is that he already had all his brothers fighting, surely a family deserves a break and can keep one son safe - obviously not!


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