*Aotearoa: the Mãori name for New Zealand. It means Land of the Long White Cloud.
As a light rain began to fall at Botley Cemetery, Brigadier Evan Williams reminded me that, for Mãori, rain during a sacred ceremony symbolised divine sorrow. New Zealand’s most senior military representative in Europe had joined us to commemorate the lives of the nine New Zealand soldiers who fell during the First World War and who were buried in Botley Cemetery. As the High Commissioner for New Zealand, His Excellency The Right Honourable Sir Lockwood Smith, highlighted in his talk, the nine soldiers had travelled 12,000 miles from their homes to fight first on the Eastern and then on the Western Fronts, before dying at the 3rd Southern General Hospital in Oxford. Approximately 200 people gathered at Botley to acknowledge the journey – the footsteps ngã tapuwae – that had brought them here.
The event was organised as part of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Living Memory project, to highlight Commonwealth war graves across the UK during the centenary of the 141 days of the 1916 Battle of the Somme.
New Zealand, then a dominion of the UK, pledged support to the British Empire at the start of the war in August 1914. The first of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) – numbering some 8,454 men – left Wellington in October 1914. The country, with a population at the time of 1.1 million, sent 100,444 troops and nurses overseas during the four years of the war. Ultimately, 16,697 men were killed and 41,317 wounded, a 58 per cent casualty rate. The Somme offensive alone accounted for 8,000 casualties, of whom more than 2,100 men lost their lives. It was New Zealand’s first major engagement on the Western Front and it was to be its most costly. Despite nearly 60,000 British soldiers losing their lives or being wounded on the first day of the Somme, 1 July 1916, the offensive continued. New Zealand soldiers joined the battle later that year on 12 September, and the third Allied push began on 15 September, aiming for a significant advance on the German lines. The plan was to break the stalemate of trench warfare. It failed for many reasons; most notably the inability to overcome the German artillery. On 5 October, the New Zealand infantry was withdrawn, followed by its artillery on 25 October. By the end of the Battle of the Somme, some four and a half months after it had started, the Allies had advanced ten kilometres.
John Moffatt Hampton was 25 when he enlisted on 15 August 1914 at Timaru, Canterbury. A farmer from Hinds in Canterbury, he departed from Port Lyttelton, near Christchurch, on 16 October 1914 and arrived in Suez on 3 December. He was one of many New Zealanders who fought on the Dardanelles. It was there that he received gunshot wounds to both thighs on 30 May 1915. Following hospital treatment, he was discharged on 7 August and returned to light duties. On 16 September 1916, whilst fighting in Armentières, he received gunshot wounds in his right leg during the Battle of the Somme. He was admitted to the 3rd Southern General Hospital in Oxford on 30 September, dying there on 5 October, age 27. He was buried on 7 October at 2 p.m., at Botley Cemetery. A local newspaper reported that Dr Freeborn ‘kindly drove three of [Hampton’s] wounded comrades to the funeral in his motor, so that they might pay their last tributes of respect to their friend.’
The hospital where Hampton died was established almost as soon as the war started. The University of Oxford’s Examination Schools had already been identified as an ideal location. Confidential plans – apparently unknown even to the Vice-Chancellor – envisaged turning the building into a 520-bed hospital if and when the need arose. Emergency arrangements were also made to staff the hospital, and to obtain beds and bedding from nearby colleges. Mobilisation on 4 August 1914 triggered the implementation of these plans. The Clerk of the Examination Schools was ‘bundled out of his office, without time allowed him to write out the records of two examinations then finished.’ Preparations, which included taking the Kaiser’s portrait off the wall, went ahead so quickly that what became known as the 3rd Southern General Hospital was ready for use by 16 August.
From early in the War, it was inevitable that there would be deaths among the patients at the hospital, and Colonel George Ranking of the Royal Army Medical Corps, Administrator of the 3rd Southern General Hospital, soon approached the City Council for burial space. The Cemeteries Committee decided that an area of Botley Cemetery should be defined for military burials and that soldiers should be buried free of charge if they were British or Allied troops, but for a fee of 12/6 (62½p) per burial ‘in the case of alien enemies.’ Botley Cemetery was presumably chosen because it was closest to the city centre, and it also served an area where population growth was limited. The majority of men buried at Botley were British but foreigners included twelve Canadians, eight Australians, nine New Zealanders, and a South African, demonstrating how men from across the British Empire supported, and died for, the Allied war effort.
On 8 October 2016, 100 years after the New Zealand infantry withdrew from the Somme, an audience of New Zealanders, local Oxford residents, military dignitaries and members of the University gathered to pay their respects to the New Zealand soldiers. Talks by local historian Dr Malcolm Graham and the High Commissioner for New Zealand were followed by James Belich, Beit Professor of Imperial and Commonwealth History, reading out the names of each of the soldiers. As he did so, nine members of the Oxfordshire (The Rifles) Army Cadet Force laid arrangements of New Zealand foliage on each of the graves. Regimental Serjeant Major Instructor Phil King, Bugle Major, Oxfordshire (The Rifles) Army Cadet Force, and Rifleman James Howard, 7 Rifles, then sounded the Last Post, while the New Zealand flag was lowered.
The commemoration in the cemetery was followed by a series of talks in the Botley Women’s Institute Hall just across from the cemetery. James Belich began with an overview of New Zealand’s role in the First World War, focussing particularly on why New Zealanders volunteered to fight. Dr Adrian Gregory, Director of GLGW, then outlined the Somme Campaign, and particularly New Zealand’s role in it. Finally, Liz Woolley, coordinator of the local history project 66 Men of Grandpont 1914-18, spoke on the 3rd Southern General Hospital in Oxford and how so many soldiers from across the world came to be treated there.
-Dr Jeanette Atkinson
- For further information on the role of the New Zealand forces in the Battle of the Somme see here.
- For more information about the Globalising and Localising the Great War Project, go to http://greatwar.history.ox.ac.uk/