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My Uncle - Frederick Alan Westenra, 1879 - 1917

My Uncle - Frederick Alan Westenra, 1879 - 1917

A memoir by Bruce Beckett

My uncle Fred died 8 years before I was born. He was spoken about with affection by the family, but, unfortunately – as is so often the case – I never sought out the details of his life.

Piqued by some photos of him, I have decided to piece together as much as I can of his life. Apart from the photos, I have letters he wrote to my mother, an obituary, his army records and information from the internet. There are still many gaps, but I hope to keep filling them.

His parents lived in a house they had built in Rue Balgurie, Akaroa.  His father Arthur was the first bank manager in the town. In his diary he wrote that on 17 August, 1879, he and his wife Julia went from Julia’s parents’ home in Mill Valley (now Rue Grehan) to attend Evensong at St Peter’s. During the service she went into labour, and the baby was born “about 9 am on Monday 18th – is to be called Frederick Allan’.  He was baptized on 28 October.

Arthur and his brother Warner were among the first pupils of Christ’s College. However neither Fred nor his brother Phil are in the College list of pupils, so presumably they were educated at one of the local private schools in the district, possibly at French Farm.

Fred became a fine oarsman and was part of winning crews for the Akaroa Boating Club between 1902 and 1908. The several photos I have show him in double sculls and in fours. He was in the crew of the four that won the Christchurch regatta in 1908.

He also painted in oils, and I have one of  the southern lakes and another of some silver birches

In the early years of the Great War, Fred was working as a farm hand for a Mr Henning in the Gisborne district. Perhaps this was a relative of the well-known Henning family of Akaroa and of the man with whom he won several races.

He enlisted in 1916, and in filling out his application form gave his date of birth as 18 August 1884 – claiming to be 32 when he was 37!  I’m not sure what the upper limit for acceptance was, but he was obviously keen to serve his King and country

One can only thank the thoroughness of the army in keeping records that so many details are preserved and help to give flesh to this unknown relative. For instance, the record of Dr John Guthrie who examined him on 8 July tells us that he was 6’ tall, 11.5 stone in weight, had fresh complexion, blue eyes and dark hair. His eyesight, hearing and fitness were 100%. He had a scar from a left lingual hernia operation he had had two months before.

He entered Trentham Military Camp on 26 July 1916. Whether it was at this time or later in England that this photo was taken is unclear. Also, I am not sure whether the nurse, Pat Isherwood, was Fred’s fiancée or she was someone he hoped to marry after the war. This appears on the back and as its not Fred’s writing it must be Pat!

I remember how the family felt for her in her grief at Fred’s death. I seem to get the feeling that, like many women, she remained true to Fred’s memory and never married.

On 15 November he sailed from Devonport as a member of the Canterbury Regiment in Troopship 69. They arrived in England on 29 January 1917 and were marched into Sling Camp on the Salisbury Plain. From here he sent two letters to my mother. The first written a fortnight after they arrived, speaks of the strenuous time they were experiencing; the snow and frozen ground which left them with sore and swollen feet; cold that caused ice to form in the huts; their desire to get away from “the lot of rot they go on with here” to “more freedom” in France. There is also the nostalgia for New Zealand and for summer days

There are no further letters until 11 August, but what he says there implies that others were sent. Whether he was in the Ypres sector during this time is unknown. The letter he wrote says in part: “Things here are jogging along in the same old way, same old noisy guns, same old whiz-bangs and H.E.shells and sundry other lovely things. We have had a fair amount of rain lately and it has made things pretty moist and there is plenty of mud about. We were out the other night on some rather interesting work & I came upon a Fritz post card which I am sending you. I’ll be able to tell you all about it when I get home again. Poor young Preston, who was in my company was killed the other day. A shell lobbed over the top & got three of them. Rather sad for his people in Sumner. I think he was married just before he came away … I am squatting in a dugout about three feet high & it isn’t the best attitude for letter writing…  Its funny to see the sparrows building in the remains of trees right in front of the trenches, gunfire doesn’t trouble them a bit and they carry on with their domestic affairs just the same as ever…”

On 28 September he was taken by No. 4 Field Ambulance to Arques Hospital with scabies – a contagious and irritating skin infection caused by a minute mite. He was there for a week, and I’m sure he must have been more than glad to be away from the horror, mud and noise of the trenches, with the added bonus of some female company!

The first battle of Passchendaele occurred on 12 October, with a further Allied attempt to gain ground around Poelkapelle. There were 13,000 Allied casualties including very many New Zealanders.

Fred was killed on 16 October, aged 38. The above letter that he wrote on 11 August arrived in Akaroa (according the Post Office date stamp on the back of the envelope) on 19 October. I can imagine the joy my mother and the family would have felt knowing that Fred was alive and well.

But, of course, he had been killed three days before. This news did not reach the family until the 30th.

His name is recorded on the Tyne Cot Memorial, Zonnebeke, Belgium, N Apse, Panel 2. His body was never recovered.  There are 520 graves of New Zealanders, 322 whose names are unknown. The memorial to the missing records 34,857 names, of which 1,166 are New Zealanders whose remains were never recovered from the battlefield – such were the conditions. His name also appears on the Akaroa War Memorial.

My daughter Joanna and her husband Kevin visited the battlefields in 2007, and found Fred’s name on the New Zealand section of the Tyne Cot memorial, along with a relative

Fred’s death appears in The Press of 2 November 1917 among those killed in action. Also on the same page were hundreds of names of men from Otago and Canterbury who were killed in the main battle on 12 October.

Fred mentioned the mud, as did all who wrote about Passchendaele. It was more like brown soup in many places. Wooden duck boards provided the only safe means of passage, and wounded men slipping off them were often drowned. In this regard, here is an excerpt from a German General, Erich Ludendorff: “The horror of the shell-hole area of Verdun was surpassed. It was no longer life at all. It was mere unspeakable suffering.  And through this world of mud the attackers dragged themselves, slowly, but steadily, and in dense masses. Caught in the advanced zone by our hail of fire they often collapsed, and the lonely man in the shell-hole breathed again. Then the mass came on again. Rifle and machine-gun jammed with the mud. Man fought against man, and only too often the mass was successful”.

The 1 November 1917 edition of the Akaroa Mail is on film in the Christchurch Public Library.  I found the obituary for Fred, but unfortunately the original had been damaged and the most interesting section is partly illegible.  Here it is. I have tried to guess at the damaged section and have indicated this in italics.

Word was received yesterday morning by Mr A H Westenra of Akaroa that his second son Fred had been killed in action on October 16 He…. with..Nth..en…ol..months, and had, therefore been…ha ..for some time. He was a very.. g..d..and a great favourite among his comrades..N..e..z.Col..d a out of his Company to join the Specialists “..(the King’s Own), a high honour. He was brought up in Akaroa, where he was well known and…He was a good athlete, and won many races for the A.B.C., being a fine oarsman. He was associated for a number of years with Mr H R Newton in the senior pairs, winning championship honour's on one occasion.  He took up farming, and was engaged in this work when war broke out.  Much sympathy is felt with his family in their loss, and the opening the Bowling Club was postponed yesterday out of respect to his memory, his father being the hon. secretary of the Club.  He was 37 years of age. The flag at the A.B.C. sheds was flown at half mast yesterday out of respect to his memory.

N.B. He was actually 38 years and 2 months at the time of his death)