They say that the first casualty of war is truth. And they may be right. But I think the first casualty is family ties.
Growing up in New Zealand, I listened to my ageing uncles and aunts talk about my Uncle Leslie. After he enlisted in the New Zealand Army at the start of WWI, my family had no idea where he was. They wondered what had happened to him and where his medals were. All they knew was that his mother had received a telegram in 1916 saying that he had been killed in action.
My first book, An Anzac in the Family, is about the 2,235 men that left New Zealand to fight in Gallipoli in WWI as part of the 4th Reinforcements. My Uncle Leslie was one of them. New Zealand sent 103,186 men to fight in WWI. They left in batches between 1914 and 1918, referred to as Reinforcements. I researched just the 2,235 men in the 4th Reinforcements.
Since the book was published in New Zealand, I’ve discovered my family weren’t the only ones who never knew what had happened. Many New Zealanders have emailed me to say that they found a ‘lost’ ancestor in the listings included in my book or they have used my sources to do their own searches.
However, the least remembered men could be the British born recruits who joined up in New Zealand or Australia. They had migrated from Britain in the early 1900s, in search of adventure, leaving their families behind. They were single, with no children and, when war broke out, they enlisted right where they were. I found 383 men born in Britain and naming their next of kin as still living in Britain. This is the number from just one of about 30 batallions.
With so many military records and diaries online now, I could piece Leslie’s story together and build a new set of family ties. I discovered a very young man, just 18 when he joined up, who fought in Gallipoli, survived a torpedoed ship, and served in Salonika and then in France. He was just 19 when he was killed in action.
I could tell Leslie’s personal story and I could try to show the pride, the worry and the painful loss felt by his parents, brothers and sisters. But I could see that Uncle Leslie was ordinary, one of many, just a Private. Most families in New Zealand have an ‘Anzac’. So I decided to tell his story within the 4th Reinforcements.
I researched what had happened to each man. I used a number of databases to find each man’s birth details, next of kin and embarkation dates. If they were killed in action, I recorded their burial details. If they were wounded, I followed them to hospitals and, often, a ship home. I used their military records to find them in Gallipoli, where they fought between June and December 1915, then to France where they fought on the Western Front from April 1916 until the end of the war. Plus I searched all the New Zealand photo archives for photos of them.
My book seemed to resonate with others in New Zealand, especially because Leslie was a very ordinary solider. I’m now in touch with New Zealanders who are writing their own family’s story about the Anzac’s in WWI. I think personal stories are a marvellous way to tell a nation’s history.
I found the UK publishing world quite daunting but the Self-Publishing Partnership has been really helpful in getting my book self-published here. I hope that UK readers will see how similar the Anzac was to the Tommy, remembering the shocking experiences all of these young men lived through. And, maybe, find a ‘lost’ ancestor along the way.
You can purchase ‘An Anzac in the Family’ by Sherryl Abrahart on Amazon.