As my regular readers will already be aware, among my collection of historical ephemera, military memorabilia and postal history are several albums of postcards sent by soldiers during the First World War. This year marks the centenary of the start of that conflict, so I’ll be sharing more of these cards, and more importantly, do my best to try and tell the story behind each one.
The postcard I want to share today was sent to a woman in Otakou, a small and historic settlement on the beautiful Otago Peninsula. I found it a number of years ago in an antique shop just across the harbour from Otakou at Port Chalmers. It shows a scene from nearly a century ago and half a world away.
On the back of the postcard is a message from a member of the main body of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force – written just before they disembarked at Alexandria, Egypt.
Have had a good trip. Are going into camp at Cairo. Rupert is doing fine. Had leave in Colombo for 6 hours had a good time. We lost 16 horses out of 725 on the trip. We will be disembarking at Alexandria tomorrow, it will be like parting from an old friend leaving this boat. I remain your obedient trooper.
According to the Cenotaph database there were at least sixteen William Harveys that fought for New Zealand during the First World War, however there are several clues that can help identify which of them sent this postcard. The first clue is the date of the postmark, which indicates that the sender arrived in Egypt with the main body of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in early December 1914. This narrows the candidates down considerably. Only two William Harveys left New Zealand in 1914, another three left in 1915, five in 1916, four in 1917 and two in 1918.
However, I suspect that the sender was actually another serviceman – Trooper James William Burns Harvey of the Wellington Mounted Rifles. He was known to his mates as Bill, and was named after his father, William Harvey, who had played for the Wellington Rugby team in a historic match against New South Wales in 1882, during what was the first tour of New Zealand by an international team. William Harvey Snr. had a farm at Whakataki.
In late 1914, Trooper Harvey travelled to Egypt on the HMNZT6 ‘Orari’ – the only one of the ten ships that transported such a large number of horses. According to the Official War History of the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment there were 728 horses listed as being on that ship, of which 14 were lost during the voyage. These statistics are remarkably similar to those mentioned in the message on the postcard.
Trooper Harvey likely wrote the message on either 2 or 3 December 1914. Along with the rest of the Wellington Mounted Rifles he would have disembarked and taken the train from Alexandria to the New Zealanders camp at Zeitoun, north of Cairo.
The Wellington Mounted Rifles spent the next five months in Egypt before joining the infantry at Gallipoli in May 1915. Their horses stayed behind.
In late August the Wellington Mounted Rifles were part of an Allied force that assaulted Hill 60, a strategic Ottoman position that separated the Allied landings at Anzac and Suvla. The Otago and Canterbury Mounted Rifles had attacked on 21 August and the entire brigade, including the Wellington Mounted Rifles, tried again on 27 August.
Among the men that charged towards the Ottoman trenches on that day was James William Burns Harvey.
The WMR Official History describes the action:
“Punctually at 5 p.m. the bombardment ceased and the attack commenced, the two lines of the Centre Force dashing “over the top” with great vigour, their combination and speed presenting a magnificent sight. Intense rifle and machine-gun fire was immediately encountered, for notwithstanding the effect of the bombardment the enemy trenches were found to be fully manned, and our men met with very strong opposition. The intervening ground was much exposed, the casualties in consequence being very heavy. The sight of comrades falling in all directions intensified the determination of the men, and they pressed forward in magnificent style. Nothing could stop them, and the front line entered the first Turkish trench a few minutes after the charge commenced. The Turk is a first-rate and skilful trench fighter, but is no match for the New Zealander at close quarters, and immediately our front-line men reached the first enemy trench they sprang into it and quickly proved their superiority with the bayonet amongst the hive of Turks, the second line continuing its advance whilst their comrades completed the destruction of the enemy in the first trench. The Connaughts had meanwhile captured part of the line on the left.”
Trooper Harvey was severely injured during the mad dash towards the enemy trenches. One of his mates wrote home with an account of his fate.
“Poor Bill Harvey was shot through the head during a bayonet charge about three weeks ago. He was not dead when he was carried in, but he did not recognise me. I have not heard any word of him since, but I believe he was very badly hit”.
Wairarapa Daily Times, Volume LXIX, Issue 14429, 10 November 1915
Tragically, Trooper Harvey succumbed to his wounds on 2 September while on-board a hospital ship. He was buried at sea. Tributes were published in several New Zealand newspapers.
Every postcard has a story behind it but not every one has a happy ending. After spending a while searching for the identity of the sender of this card I was sad to discover his fate. I’m fairly confident that I’ve identified him correctly, there seems to be plenty of circumstantial evidence regarding the ship he was on, his rank, the horses that were lost, and finally, the account from his fellow trooper who refers to him by his middle name. Please get in touch if you have any additional information. I hope that in some small way sharing this postcard and story helps to keep his memory alive.
Four of the other sixteen William Harveys that served with New Zealand forces during the First World War also lost their lives.
A quick note for my regular readers – apologies for the recent inactivity, things have been rather busy here, but I’ve got a number of exciting posts in the works so stay tuned!