First World War

WW1 Postcard: The Search for Trooper Harvey

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.

Egyptian Postcard sent to New Zealand in December 1914 Lemuel Lyes Collection

Egyptian Postcard sent to New Zealand in December 1914
Lemuel Lyes Collection

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.

Back of Postcard - Egypt, December 1914 Lemuel Lyes Collection

Back of Postcard – Egypt, December 1914
Lemuel Lyes Collection

“Dear Sylvy,

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.

Will Harvey”

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.

The two William Harveys travelling with the main body of the NZEF were Private William Frederick James Harvey, from Rockville, Collingwood; and Gunner William Harcoe Harvey from Opoho, Dunedin.

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.

Soldiers from the Wellington Mounted Rifles at Gallipoli. Read, J C :Images of the Gallipoli campaign. Ref: 1/4-058177-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Soldiers from the Wellington Mounted Rifles at Gallipoli. Read, J C :Images of the Gallipoli campaign. Ref: 1/4-058177-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

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!

26 replies »

  1. How amazing that the postcard has stayed intact throughout all these many years. Your research for this post is also above and beyond – great!!

    • Thanks for your kind words! Yes, I find it remarkable that postcards such as this one can still show up in small town antique stores and bookshops. I came across this one in a shop just a short boat trip away from where the card was originally sent to.

    • Thank you! The personal stories are key for me – they often seem left out from the schoolbooks, when I was at school anyway, yet without them history can be difficult to relate to. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Very interesting piece. I am in the process of getting war records of relatives who took part in WW1 from NZ National Archives. From what you have written it may be that you have this Harvey’s already. If not, you simply ask for his WW1 record and they put it on line within a few days. I have been going into NA to lodge the names as i live near Wellington, but I presume that they can be lodged by mail. Russell Marshall

    • Thanks for stopping by. I did indeed refer to Harvey’s record which Archives NZ had already digitized. I didn’t realise that it was so easy to request that non-digitized records be added!

    • Thanks! I feel lucky to live in a time when so many digital records can be accessed remotely. Would be much more difficult to do any sleuthing without easy access to those resources.

  3. Great detective work finding the ‘right’ Will Harvey! It’s amazing how many soldiers of the same name there were in WWI – I suspect nowadays parents have a much wider range of names to choose from, but 100 years ago it seems every second boy was a William, George, Sam or John.

    • You make a very good point – a lot of the same names do show up at around that time. Ted is another one. Having a relatively common surname compounds the problem!

  4. Another fascinating post, great research and such a poignant story. That postcard must have seemed so impossibly exotic to the people ‘back home’. Looking forward to your upcoming posts.

    • Thanks for your kind words! Yes – the card would have seemed very exotic, and this example would likely have been in one of the first mail bags to arrive back in NZ from Cairo. It is still not too hard to find Egyptian postcards in antique stores around the country and they were usually sent by a soldier.

  5. Intriguing postcard and an amazing story – as so many of our WWI stories were! The difficulty of tracking down the right person, among common names, is one of the hardest tasks facing historians (and Google…did you know that according to them, my “Illustrated History of NZ” was written by a lecturer at Bristol University? But I digress…) My great uncle was with the Wellington Mounted Rifles at Gallipoli – a fact I was able to verify via that Archives NZ service. They’re still transferring the records down from Trentham, as far as I’m aware, but have completed the WWI set. It’s an awesome resource.

    • It is incredible that so many military records are now easily accessible over the internet – that along with other resources such as Cenotaph, Papers Past and the NZETC make it easier to conduct historical research as a hobby – from home – on a different island from where many of these collections are held.

      It can still be hard work though – especially if the names are common, or if they are easily misspelled. Also if you are relying on text recognition software then that too can have its limitations. Still – I’m not complaining!

  6. Despite his untimely fate, it is great that your research has told this story of this simple postcard. Until as recently as twenty years ago, postcards provided the same service that Facebook provides today, a way of showing where you are in the world to the folks at home.

    It has been written often that young men go to war not due to a sense of patriotism, but rather as an opportunity of free travel and adventure. I can imagine this solders excitement of arriving in Egypt, a land so different to New Zealand, and how his senses would have been overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and smells of this ancient land, and yet taking the time to send this postcard to reassure its recipient that he had arrived safety. This postcard tells the story of not only an individual, but of a generation of young men who jumped at the chance for adventure with little thought to the horrors and consequences of that conflict.

    • You make some excellent points! It is hard to imagine what it must have been like for those young soldiers, many of whom would not have have traveled much before.

      Postcards were already very much in vogue, they had been for the previous decade, but a card from somewhere as exotic as Egypt must have been particularly exciting for the recipients. There is something innocent about those cards from late 1914 and early 1915, when they had only just arrived in Egypt and it was all still a big adventure.

  7. This is an impressive demonstration of the informational content of an artifact. All too often we don’t see the story behind what we have in front of us. I look forward to seeing more from your collection.

    • The best way to preserve context is to keep a collection intact – but sadly most of the cards I come across are orphans, with little or no provenance.

      I started by collecting stamps, for which there are many catalogues, and then postal history, which encourages collectors to use postal markings, addresses and stamps to tell the story of the letter or card. It is incredible how much information it is possible to piece together from those clues alone – and most importantly, then try and see what the item can tell us about the past.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  8. Hi there, I’ve just come across your research as I’m writing the stories of my ancestors that fought in World War One. James William Burns Harvey was my great uncle so it is amazing to come across this information, thank you! I have ancestors that fought and died in the main battles of World War One so I’m telling their stories for our families, my children and generations to come. If you did come across any further information I would be most grateful, I’m yet to find any photos of James / WIll. Interestingly his younger brother Ian would go on to play for the All Blacks in the 1920s. My grandfather Colin Harvey served in WW2 and is the son of another brother Bruce who served at the end of WW1. My email is Thanks again this really means a lot.

    • Hi there, I’m trying to track down a photo of James William Burns Harvey, if you have one I’d love to get a copy. Many thanks, Brad Edwards (email above)

    • Hi there, Is this JWB Harvey you are asking about? He too is my great uncle. My maternal grandmother was Billy’s older sister.

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