World War I Family Story
This is the story of how a young man’s life was wasted in the futility of war. World War I. It is also a story of why you should record your family’s oral history whilst those with the living memory are still available to you.
My story is not an impressive story but it is a story of one of my own ancestors whose personal story has bothered me for a long time. It’s a story of search many famil historians embark on. You see I grew up with a brass plaque hanging in the lounge room of my home. It commemorated the life of a young New Zealand soldier from Auckland who served in the 6th Hauraki Company, 1st Auckland Infantry Battalion. A man who went to Europe as a part of the A Company 14th reinforcements and who was captured and died of wounds in a German Hospital in Douai, France two months after arriving.
This man was Robert Lawrence, 30 years old, a plumber from Newmarket in Auckland, New Zealand, my Great Uncle and the relative whom my father and my cousin were named after which is probably why I wanted to find out his story such as I could.
As a boy I grew up seeing the plaque practically every other day which later, as a young man, prompted me to enquire of relatives who this Robert Lawrence was. I was simply told he was your Great Uncle who died in the First World War, nothing else. Today I very much regret I didn’t ask the correct people the right questions, my great aunts, “Aunt Tot” and “Aunt Lizzie”, both still living at the time of my initial enquiries and now passed on, were regular visitors to my home and Robert’s sisters.
When you are young you don’t pursue the family stories with enough vigour and you don’t necessarily have the interview skills to negotiate the difficult subjects and elicit more complete answers. This is why my interview with relationship expert Kim Leatherdale on asking family history questions
asking family history questions is an important one for all those interested in family history. In the course of the interview Kim and I provide great tips on how to ask family history questions that will provide the answers you seek?
Robert’s Lawrence’s Military Story
No one in our family had visited Robert’s grave in France, our family is of modest means and nobody had been able to visit. And so when I visited France in 2006 I made it my pilgrimage for the family. I visited Douai Communal Cemetery where he is buried. Douai is a town in the Nord department in northern France. It’s right in the heart of the coal belt, the richest in northern France, a transport hub and today seemingly now in a depressed economic condition. No doubt the coal and the transport hub made it a strategic site in World War I.
Robert Lawrence was born in 1885 and in 1916 he enlisted on the 7th of March. He was 30 years old, worked as a plumber and lived with his widowed mother Sophia in Newmarket, Auckland. He was short in stature, some 5ft 6 inches as many in our family are.
After enlistment Robert was moved to Trentham military camp for training, just outside Wellington, New Zealand and spent 111 days there before being embarked on HMNZT 57 (Transport 57), the ship “Tahiti”. The crossing from NewZealand to the United Kingdom took 58 days. The 14th reinforcements consisted of just over 2,200 men and sailed on two ships the HMNZT 56 the “Maunganui” and the “Tahiti” which Robert was on.
Robert arrived in Devonport, England on the 22nd of August 1916 and disembarked on the 23rd being transferred to Sling Camp PR II 3, a World War I camp occupied by New Zealand soldiers beside the then military town of Bulford on the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire.
A Note of interest: After the war was over, the New Zealand troops were eager to return home, but no troop ships were available. In the wake of riots by disaffected New Zealanders at the Sling camp, officers decided that the troops should be kept busy carving an enormous Kiwi into the chalk of the hill. This was done in February and March 1919, by the Canterbury and Otago Engineers Battalion.
On 18th September 1916 Robert embarked for France. His most likely destination was Etaples. During the First World War the town became a vast Allied military camp and then a giant ‘hospital city’. Many medical facilities were established by the Australians, New Zealanders and British. Wounded soldiers were consequently often sent to Etaples to recover or en route for Britain.
Pvt. Robert Lawrence was lucky in that he just missed out on serving at the Somme. The 1st Auckland Battalion War Diary records that over the Somme period they received reinforcements on the 24th of August (this was the 12 and 13th reinforcements) and the next batch of reinforcements was on the 10th of October (14th reinforcements). This is the reinforcements that Robert was a part of and he joined his active Battalion at Estaires on the 3rd of October 1916. The New Zealand Infantry had withdrawn from the Somme battlefield on the 3rd-4th October 1916.
On the 14th of October 1916 the 1st Auckland battalion were once again in the line.
“The line was very quiet, and the sector seemed to have relapsed right back to its old peaceful state. There was very little to complain of, except the rather flooded condition of some of the trenches. In the first few days after the return from the Somme, the Battalion had the misfortune to lose Lieutenant Ancell, a very promising young officer, who was hit by a stray bullet while on patrol. A few other casualties occurred and there were also a certain number of evacuations for sickness, brought on by the wet and cold.” ORMOND BURTON – author the“Auckland Regiment History”
It seems that Robert Lawrence must have been one of the “few other casualties” as there were a number of cross trench raids. By 2nd November 1916 Robert was reported to have been wounded and a prisoner in German Hands, and on 16th January 1917 he was reported officially by the Germans to have died on the 10th of December 1916 at St Clothilde Hospital, Douai, France.
An Australian prisoner of war in the Douai area after the war made the following statement:
“Douai, the conditions were absolutely rotten — bad food and no medical attention, our wounds often remaining forover a week without being touched. I was here for ten days, and only had my wound dressed once. The doctor was a “butcher” and gave me a very rough handling. ….” Australian Prisoner of War statement.
And that is the story I have. It is quite common to have many unfinished stories from family histories. This is just one of mine. His military life was eight short months, from signing up in New Zealand to dying in France as a soldier, and no real personal details of his life except for his profession, age and a photo.
“At the going down of the sun and in the morning,We will remember them,Lest we forget.”
New Zealand lost 18,166 service men and women, out of a population of approximately 1,089,825, in World War I. Nearly all those killed were buried overseas – 5325 New Zealanders have no known grave. I paid to have Pvt. Robert Lawrence’s New Zealand Defence Force Personnel Records record digitised by Archives New Zealand and have received support in the Great War Forums on the internet, many thanks to those in the Great War Forums particularly Andy MacDonald.
Name: LAWRENCE, ROBERT
Nationality: New Zealand
Regiment/Service: Auckland Regiment, N.Z.E.F.
Unit Text: 1st Bn.
Date of Death: 10/12/1916
Service No: 14441
Casualty Type: Commonwealth War Dead
Grave/Memorial Reference: A. 29.
Cemetery: DOUAI COMMUNAL CEMETERY
Service Record Summary
- Enlisted, posted to Trentham 7/3/1916 (111 days training)
- Transport (57) ship Tahiti 26/6/16
- Arrived England, Devonport 22/8/1916
- Embarked for Sling Camp PR II 3
Salisbury Plains in the UK 23/8/1916
- Embarked for France 18/9/1916
- Joined Unit Estaires 03/10/1916
- Wounded, prisoner in German hands 02/11/1916
- Died, St Clothilde Hospital, Douai 10/12/1916