Moments of truth from World War Iby Jane Tolerton
Attempts to uncover the real stories behind three World War I tales have produced surprising results.
For many families, the centenary of World War I has meant trying to make a story from a sepia photo and a few details on a military file. For some, it has brought to the surface a story that has been long buried – one punctuated with question marks and missing a full stop. The principal protagonist is long dead, but the story has taken on a life of its own.
Some family members say leave it alone, let sleeping dogs lie, what does it matter now? But others feel driven to dig up the story and expose the old wounds to the sunlight of a more understanding century. They are looking for the details and seeking context so they can explain the story in terms of what people understood during the war – and how we might understand it a century on.
Jeff Nimot, Philip Braithwaite and Margaret Burke have all explored a half-hidden family story that is at once personal and national. In doing so, they have taken a role in the story – and become part of our ongoing national effort to understand the cataclysmic events of 1914 to 1918.
Quantity surveyor Jeff Nimot picked up Christopher Pugsley’s On the Fringe of Hell in a bookshop in 1993 and was surprised to spot his surname. He bought the book and went to see his father. “He said, ‘Forget about it, boy. Put it away,’” Jeff remembers.
The story of how William Nimot of Carterton disappeared across no man’s land into the German lines at Armentières one night in June 1916 was buried so deep by the family that Jeff grew up thinking their background was French.
Shortly after Nimot’s desertion, New Zealand positions were shelled, with heavy casualties.
Nimot’s relatives suffered retaliation. Says Jeff, “People threatened to burn down my great-grandparents’ house and their youngest daughter, Dorothy, never went back to school. My grandfather was dismissed from his job as a carrier and later suffered a divorce as a result of his brother’s actions. The insurance company cancelled the policy on his house.”
Police and soldiers were sent to Carterton because of threats. The Government asked people to come forward with names of men with German backgrounds in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force – under pressure from the Women’s Anti-German League.
Nimot’s parents had come from Germany with their two eldest children, so they spoke German at home, on a farm just north of Carterton. When Nimot joined up in August 1915, he said his religion was Anglican, the default faith at the time, but his mother was Jewish.
He arrived in Egypt in October, was initially employed at the School of Instruction in Zeitoun Camp and went to France with the newly formed New Zealand Division in April 1916 – into the trenches in the Armentières sector.
On June 21, he was given 14 days Field Punishment No 2 for being absent without leave while on active service in the field from 9am to 2.55am the next day. He deserted eight days later and after a month was discharged as a deserter.
Defence Minister James Allen said Nimot was a prisoner of war, with this information coming from the American Embassy in Berlin. A court of inquiry held in France in December 1916 said he was a prisoner but also a deserter. The minister assured New Zealanders he would be tried after the war.
The member of Parliament for Wairarapa, JTM Hornsby, said Nimot was not responsible for his actions as he had been suffering from “mental derangement … great mental torture from remarks made as to his German origins”. He added that Nimot’s parents were “as fine a type of settler” as there was and wrote to Allen, saying they were “thoroughly decent people” and it would be “a shameful thing” to intern them. Jeff notes that the Defence Minister was very supportive of the family. “They could have been put on Somes Island, but they weren’t.”
A returned soldier, John Towers, wrote to Christchurch’s Press saying Nimot had been “subjected to many insults on account of his German origins, but nevertheless he always played the game with his friends”. Towers had heard a man say Nimot was a “b[loody] German, but we had the satisfaction of making it hot for him while he was here”.
In his letter to the military he asked, “Do you think this is in keeping with the old tradition of British fair play and justice?” He added that one of his motives for writing was “to stop the mouths of a lot of shirkers who would go and wreck his poor old mother’s & father’s home …”
Says Jeff, “He did desert – there’s no two ways about that. But why did he desert? Towers went out of his way to write to the authorities because he thought he had been treated badly. I wonder if it was a matter of intolerance towards someone who was different, but when you look at the photo of him with the other men working on the farm, he just looks like one of the boys.”
When historians started looking at the story in the 1980s, Nimot’s military personnel file was still suppressed. Dorothy Nimot argued through lawyers that her privacy would be invaded by its release, but by the end of the decade the Ombudsman had recommended it should be. The file is now on Archives New Zealand’s Archway website, and the heat has gone out of the story, but for Jeff Nimot it has been a slow burn since that moment in Unity Books in 1993. With the centenary looming, he engaged a genealogist to try to find out what happened to his great-uncle after the war.
A man arrived at his house with a postcard Nimot had written from a POW camp to a Wellington woman. “A descendent of hers looked me up and dropped in on me. He said, ‘This may be of interest to you.’ What is striking about what is written on the postcard is that he doesn’t sound scared. The tone and content are that of someone who actually was a prisoner of war.”
Archives New Zealand files contain multiple letters from Nimot to his mother – including a postcard from a POW camp in Münster asking when and where she and her husband were born and when they left Germany, as if trying to prove his German credentials – possibly so he could work for the Germans to glean information from newly arrived prisoners. This postcard was intercepted in September 1916 by the military censor here.
His family wrote in October, having just received their first letter from him, and he got the reply – which also said they had sent a parcel – three months later. Both sides stick to health and family inquiries, although Nimot asks for money to be sent to England so parcels, presumably of food, can be sent to him.
New Zealand became part of the army of occupation – but Nimot was not captured and brought back to New Zealand as Allen had promised he would be. Sergeant-Major Bell was ordered to find Nimot while in Germany in mid-1919 to pay “outstanding accounts” and “locate and bring back New Zealand prisoners of war”. He reported back that Nimot was employed in a cheese factory in Assenheim near Frankfurt and “appeared to be prosperous although worried a good deal. He alleges that he did not desert or give himself up to the enemy.”
Nimot would surrender and submit to a court martial, he reported, but only if there were English, not New Zealand, officers on it. Bell said he was prepared to bring Nimot in. Nimot’s desertion had a huge effect on the family, says Jeff. In World War II, one nephew transferred out of the army into the air force because he was bullied over his name. Two who did not have the Nimot name served with distinction; another served in Korea and got a gold star from the RSA. “But they all suffered from the association.”
Jeff Nimot resisted overtures from journalists, TV documentary makers and historians for decades, but contacted me in 2013 after coming across my book An Awfully Big Adventure: New Zealand’s World War One Veterans Tell Their Stories to ask if any of the veterans had mentioned his great-grandfather when interviewed for the WWI Oral History Archive. He would still like to hear from anyone with any relevant information. He doesn’t know when his great-uncle died – though it seems likely it was between 1927, when he was mentioned in his father’s will, and 1936, when he was not named in his mother’s.
When Dorothy Nimot died, Jeff rang the lawyers. “I said I wasn’t interested in money, but I was after documents.” He found a post-war photo of his great-uncle. On the back was a moving message: “Just my photo trusting you will still know your exiled son by it.”
EXECUTED BUT INNOCENT
Philip Braithwaite was in a drama decades before he made a play of it. The playwright is a great-nephew of Jack Braithwaite, the only New Zealander executed by the British military authorities for mutiny in WWI – four other New Zealanders were executed for desertion but under New Zealand authority.
“I don’t remember when I first became aware of the story, but it was always hovering around in the family – not a pleasant thing,” says Braithwaite. “Till the 1980s, they all thought he was a traitor. The saddest thing is that all his siblings went to their graves thinking that, including my grandfather who only died in 1989.”
Braithwaite finally decided to write The War Play at the time of the centenary. As he worked on the story, he found “it became colour rather than sepia”.
He changed details about family members while keeping the war incidents factual. Its first season at the Fortune Theatre in 2015 won Braithwaite best script in the Dunedin Theatre Awards. His father, also Jack, did not see it till this month at a reading at Wellington’s Circa Theatre and was impressed at how his son had managed to get across the way the Braithwaites were hard men but with a high standard of civility. The father of the executed man was the mayor of Dunedin and owned the biggest bookshop in Australasia.
Jack Braithwaite, who described himself as “a bohemian journalist” when defending himself, was in a military prison for escaping from confinement, having been punished for previous offences, including going absent without leave.
However, on the day of the events that led to his execution, he was clearly trying to defuse a situation in which Australian Private Alexander Little had sworn at a military policeman (“Go and f--- yourself”) and resisted arrest, having started off by protesting about how the hot water had run out in the showers.
A crowd of about 30 Australians and New Zealanders got involved. But Jack, who was the mess orderly, having tried to give Little his lunch, then led him away to keep him from doing further damage. In doing so, he turned the attention of the “red caps” – the British military police – onto himself. He was charged with mutiny and convicted, along with three Australians.
One general noted on the file as it went up the line to Commander-in-Chief Sir Douglas Haig that Braithwaite’s version of events seemed to accord with the facts, but discipline problems in the camp probably hardened Haig’s resolve. British soldiers felt the Australians got away with too much.
The Australians were effectively immune from execution: under the 1903 Australian Defence Act a death penalty had to be confirmed by the Governor-General. So the three Australians got only two years’ hard labour – and Braithwaite was shot by firing squad in Rouen on October 29, 1916.
“The military authorities suppressed the details,” says Braithwaite. “There was one telling of the story in Parliament in 1919, but it was garbled and no one understood what really happened. My father says someone once came to see my grandfather about Jack – but we don’t know who that was or what he said. Mainly it was ‘forget about him; he doesn’t exist’.
“As the veil lifted in the 1980s, there was an interest in the family. My father’s sister did some research. Because Jack was executed, no service medals were sent to the family, but when the truth came out, they gave him posthumous medals. David Braithwaite, who was mayor of Hamilton, was instrumental in that.”
Parliament passed the Pardon for Soldiers of the Great War Act in 2000 after lobbying, chiefly by Nicholas Boyack, author of Behind the Lines: The Lives of New Zealand Soldiers in the First World War.
Says Braithwaite, “They grouped Jack and the four who had been shot for desertion in together. Helen Clark said they might have been drunk or shell-shocked and they were being forgiven. But Jack was innocent. He doesn’t need to be forgiven; his case needs to be understood.”
NOT A RACIST STORY AFTER ALL
Margaret Burke thought her grandmother looked after Maori soldiers in her London home because they were not welcome in British hospitals. What else would explain the stories Alice Scott told her granddaughter about the war?
In fact, when Maori soldiers wounded on the Gallipoli peninsula landed up in hospitals in Britain – before our own hospitals were set up – they were hailed as better behaved than their Pakeha comrades.
Scott and the New Zealand Expeditionary Force turned her Acton house into a convalescent home for Maori soldiers – not because of racism but to make sure they were culturally comfortable when they got out of hospital but needed to recuperate. Which makes Scott a predecessor of the Maori nurses, notably Irihapeti Ramsden, who worked on “cultural safety” decades later.
Scott was not a nurse but a singer, using the name Paera (Pearl) Nene. Her mother was a cousin of Ngapuhi chief Tamati Waka Nene, but Scott was born after her family moved to Norfolk Island.
She met Bill Scott from London when he arrived to put in the telegraph cable. By the time war broke out, Bill was director of the London Telegraphic Training College, Alice was 34 and they had two children; another child would be born during the war and a fourth after they moved to Auckland in 1921.
The army order setting up the arrangement says: “She has a large house, which has been specially fitted up to receive Maori men as boarders. There is accommodation for 12 to 15.”
Presumably Scott made the offer and the New Zealand Expeditionary Force took it up.
Pakeha Sybil Lee, who had worked as a missionary on the East Coast and made it her job to visit Maori soldiers in hospital, under the auspices of the New Zealand War Contingent Association, noted that the men were “very happy and thoroughly looked after” at Scott’s.
Says Burke, “They called her Mother. She looked after them, gave them money, just like a mother would have done.”
Lee described the 1915 Christmas dinner at the Acton house: “The food was as near as possible to what they like – pigeons, pork, kumaras, etc. The dinner was cooked in a Maori oven; while it was cooking, they entertained the visitors with hakas and Maori war songs. Was ever there such a strange performance in civilised London? Though it rained nearly all through the festivities, everyone’s spirits were far too high to be damped. We sat down to dinner in relays of 40 to 50. Both appetites and voices were in good form, and it was good to see how happy the boys were.” A service was held in English and Maori.
Burke contacted a genealogical website with information about Scott to try to find details that corroborated what her grandmother had told her. Christine Liava‘a from the New Zealand Society of Genealogists’ Pacific Islands Interest Group sent Burke’s piece to me after a 2014 Listener story on women in the war. Researcher Christine Clement added the detail of the army order – overturning Burke’s feeling that the story had a racist element.
Burke received a Queen’s Service Medal for services to veterans’ affairs in 2010, largely for her work with the Auckland RSA. Though retired from there, she still does the commentary at the Civic Service at the Auckland Cenotaph on Anzac Day and organises the sale of poppies in the central city.
“I am dedicated to any man or woman who puts on a uniform for our country, and our family is very proud that our grandmother is finally getting wider recognition,” she says.
She knew her grandmother’s story was important because of certain events in her childhood. Though Scott was Ngapuhi, many of the soldiers were Ngati Porou. On the honours board in St Mary’s Memorial Church in Tikitiki, large letters along the bottom read: “Capt Scott – Margaret Alice.” It says she was mentioned in dispatches twice.
Ngati Porou kept up the relationship. Scott was invited to open the Hinerupe Marae when it was rebuilt after a fire in 1938.
When Scott died in 1961 after living for less than a year in Sydney, Tawhai Tamepo of Ngati Porou arrived at the Scotts’ Auckland house to pay his respects. After returning to Te Puia Springs, he wrote: “We are sorry for the loss of a lovable mother, not only for you but also to those of the Maori Battalion she knew in the 1914-18 War.”
Alice Scott’s story is included in an upcoming book on New Zealand women in World War I. If you have a story to contribute, please contact email@example.com.
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