World War I Family Story

2010 December 10
Pvt. Robert Lawrence

Pvt. Robert Lawrence

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

Robert Lawrence's Grave Douai Comunal Cemetery

Robert Lawrence's Grave Douai Communal Cemetery

The Cross Douai Communal Cemetery

The Cross Douai Communal Cemetery

Douai Cemetery Memorial

Douai Cemetery Memorial

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.

HMNZT 57 Tahiti

HMNZT 57 Tahiti

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.

Tahiti-Truth_lg

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.

The Bulford Kiwi

The Bulford Kiwi

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.

Auckland Infantry Brigade after the Somme

Auckland Infantry Brigade after the Somme

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.

German medics at Douai

German medics at Douai

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.

“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.

Casualty Details

Name: LAWRENCE, ROBERT
Initials: R
Nationality: New Zealand
Rank: Private
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

Douai Communal 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
6 Responses leave one →
  1. J Hendley permalink
    January 8, 2011

    I read your post with great interest. My great uncle William Nolan (Kildare, Ireland) is buried in the same cemetery. The little I know reflects your story – a prisoner of war who died in while in German custody. Many thanks for your work as it has helped me understand a little more of what happened to Willie from Kildare all those years ago.

  2. M B Hutchings permalink
    May 16, 2012

    Sadly, there are so many stories like this. I particularly like the way you described how it felt to be a child and not to know how to ask questions. Luckily for me, both my grandfathers and their brothers returned, although from what I have learned, all damaged in some way. As a child I, too, knew that “Poppa” had been in “the war” and while my brother and I loved war comics and played war games all the time, I was not old enough to work out why my beloved grandfather never spoke of those years in Europe, nor was I brave enough to ask simple questions. As I got older, being a teenager took all my time and energy, and one by one, the old people died. By the time I became absorbed with family history, and more skilled in understanding personalities, it was too late. I now know his war service history, but of all the photos I have of him after the war, there’s not one in which he is smiling.

  3. gregl permalink*
    May 16, 2012

    Absolutely, this is why I am passionate about encouraging folk to record their family stories while they have a chance.

  4. Rachel permalink
    February 7, 2013

    Wow, I’ve got tingles. I’m doing the family history of Robert’s older sister Rose Ellen. I’m putting a story together and have been looking into Robert’s history because I wanted to share his story with his descendants. If nothing else, it is fantastic you have deciphered the scrawled ink of his military record, but if possible I’d really like make contact with you too, though we don’t have any treasures like your photo of Robert.

  5. Allison Lawrence permalink
    April 25, 2013

    Very interesting post Greg, thank you for sharing all your research.

  6. Sophie Hilton permalink
    February 5, 2014

    Hi Greg,

    I took great interest in your story of your Great Uncles time during The First World War.

    I am a Graphic Design Student at Derby University in England and am currently undergoing my final project.

    My aim is to get young people to find out about their families participants during the First World War. It is with regret that I never met my Great Grandfather, who fought at Passchendaele but am honoured to listen to stories and record his life.

    I am currently looking for people who would like to participate in my project sharing their stories of their relatives who fought during the First World War to document and keep alive their history.

    I would be honoured for you to get in touch with me via email and hear your stories of your Great Uncle, Robert Lawrence. Like you I saw medals in my living room and was instantly intrigued as a fond lover of history and my Nanna went on to show me the bullet my Great Grandfather was shot with and shares all the stories she remembers with me.

    Thank you for sharing your story, hope to hear from you soon.

    Sophie Hilton.

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