23 March 2009

Each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds

In November 2007 I visited the World War One Western Front with friends, to pay our respects at the sites that were so important to New Zealand's military history.  As most tourists do, we attended the solemn Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate in Ieper (Ypres), and we enjoyed the hospitality at Le Quesnoy, where every Armistice Day the town celebrates its liberation by New Zealand forces in 1918.  We were also able to visit the farming country a short distance northeast of Ieper to see the massive war cemetery at Tyne Cot near Zonnebeke, where many of the remains from the vicious bloodletting at Passchendaele are buried. 

The visit to Tyne Cot was particularly significant for me, as I was able to find the name of my grandfather's uncle, who was killed on the first day of the battle.  Eric Claude Tucker died on 12 October 1917 at the age of 27, and in his memory my great grandparents would later name both my grandfather Claude and his younger brother Eric.  Both men, who are still kicking, are in some small way a living testament to the Tucker family's loss, over 90 years after the event.   

I knew little of Eric Claude Tucker's life when I visited Tyne Cot - in fact, just enough to find his name engraved in Panel 7 of the New Zealand Apse.  This sweeping crescent of stone in a Belgian field is marked with hundreds of names from the farthest corner of the world. 

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I was grateful at the time for being able to discover even that much, but in the time since I have been able to locate more details of Eric's life from his military records, some of which are now available online and free of charge.   

The Auckland War Memorial Museum's Cenotaph Database contained a summary of his military record with plenty of useful leads to investigate, and details of the troopship that took him to war.  Archives New Zealand's website provided marvellous scans of a four-page Casualty Form that detailed a chronology of his military service.  The National Library's Papers Past site supplied scans of local newspapers of the day, which helped to reflect the world Eric left behind and the reportage read by the New Zealand public at the time.  And NZHistory.net.nz published a superb letter written by a New Zealander who survived Passchendaele.  These resources enabled me to form a clearer picture of the relatively short life of my grandfather's uncle, and they contained a few surprises too.   

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Eric was born on 24 September 1890 in the small Hawkes Bay farming community of Clive, which is located between coastal Napier and inland Hastings.  The Tucker family was well-known here, having left New Plymouth, their original port of arrival in New Zealand in 1841, and resettled in the Hawkes Bay.  The town was occasionally referred to as 'Tucker-town', due to the prevalence of the family name.  There's sleepy Tucker Lane off the main road leading to three dozen properties, and Clive's unassuming war memorial near the bridge displays many examples of the Tucker name amongst the fallen. 

Eric was the son of Sarah Ann and Joseph Tucker of West Clive.  Sarah Tucker (nee Cheer) was 23 when she gave birth to Eric, her second child of what would eventually total a brood of seven.  (The first child, Oswald Langham Tucker (b.1888 d. 1987), was my great-grandfather.  I remember meeting him when I was a small boy). 

Eric grew up to become a butcher, perhaps working in a local shop or in a nearby freezing works.  His military record helps to fill in some blanks: he was of middling height at five feet five-and-a-half inches, and weighed nine stone ten (62 kilos).  He had a fair complexion, grey eyes and light brown hair. 

It appears that he volunteered for Army service, because his date of enlistment was 7 March 1916, and the Military Service Act 1916 did not require enlistment until 16 September 1916.  Issued the serial number 14886, Rifleman Tucker was initially declared unfit for service due to a traditional Tucker affliction: bad teeth.  Given the dental techniques of the time, it is likely that the Army's approach to poor dental health was full extraction and fitting for dentures.  This would have been Eric's first taste of discomfort in his Army career: the extractions would have been particularly painful.

Assigned to the Trentham Military District, Eric spent three months learning the trade of soldiering, probably at Trentham Camp in Upper Hutt.  He may well have spent time in Wellington on leave tickets, and might have been given a few days back in the Hawkes Bay before he embarked for Europe.  Six weeks after enlisting he was reported Absent Without Leave (AWOL), which began what would become a long series of encounters with the military justice system.

On 26 June 1916 Eric embarked on the Union Steamship Company's RMS Tahiti, as a part of 5th Reinforcements, 4th Battalion, H Company.  The troop transport (HMNZT 57) carried the men out of Wellington harbour, and the ship's newsletter, The Tahiti "Truth", later reported the scene:

Handkerchiefs were waving, relatives, sweethearts and friends calling their last good-byes, and as the troopships slowly drew away from the crowded wharf the excitement reached its highest pitch and -- we were gone.  Since that evening the vessels have steamed far over the oceans, but the memory of the farewell will never be effaced.

 

The "Truth" also reported that 'the sea was inclined to be boisterous and the days before we reached our first port of call were somewhat stormy', which is unsurprising given the wintertime journey. 

The Tahiti called at Cape Town en route to England, and after a passage of three months arrived in Devonport, Plymouth on 22 August 1916.  In the weeks before arrival Eric had gotten into more trouble, with the ship complement's Army commanding officer Captain Hubbard twice requiring him to forfeit pay for misdemeanours (eight shillings on 3 August and 10 shillings on 17 August).  

The day after arrival in England, Eric was housed in Sling Camp on the Salisbury Plain, which became home for thousands of New Zealanders in Britain during World War One.  Troops waiting to be repatriated to New Zealand after the Armistice later carved a large kiwi shape into the chalk above Bulford, which remains to this day as a reminder of the New Zealanders' presence.  View the second clip in this NZ Film Archives collection for an idea of what life at Sling was like – or at least how it was portrayed to the public back home in New Zealand.  

Eric was at Sling for a month, and during this time another AWOL listing was recorded against his name (12 September), for which he was docked a week's pay.  Then it was time to cross the Channel to France.  On 26 September he crossed to Etaples, the principal depot and transit camp for the British Expeditionary Force in World War One.  A few weeks before his arrival, Etaples had been the scene of a major mutiny of troops fed up with the scourge of inflexible military discipline and harsh punishments.  (An Australian serving in the NZEF, Private Jack Braithwaite, was later shot by firing squad for mutiny).

Fortunately for Eric, his time at Etaples was limited as he joined his battalion in the field on 11 October.  He was soon in more trouble with the authorities though, and the punishments for his actions were significantly more severe on the Western Front.  In the first half of 1917 he was listed AWOL three times (24 February, 3 April and 27 May) and was also listed as late or absent from parade on 8 and 10 May.  It is unclear whether this indicated that Eric was a habitual troublemaker or merely one incapable of obeying orders, but in either case the results were serious.  He was given 28 days of Field Punishment No.2 on 26 February and 14 more days on 9 April.  This was a serious development - Field Punishment No.2 involved hard labour in chains.  (Field Punishment No.1 was the same with the addition of being chained to a heavy object).  In addition, for his parade-ground infractions he was fined a total of 14 days pay.      

The month after being absent from parade, Eric was wounded in action.  On 7 June 1917 the British Second Army detonated 19 enormous mines under the Messines Ridge (in an explosion that was reputedly heard in London and Dublin), killing 10,000 German troops in the front line and destroying the village of Messines.  The assault on Messines, more than a year in the planning, succeeded in all its objectives.  The New Zealand Rifle Brigade, operating as part of the New Zealand Infantry Division, seized what remained of Messines village, and in doing so Lance Corporal Samuel Frickleton earned one of the Brigade's two Victoria Crosses in the following manner:

...although slightly wounded, [Frickleton] dashed forward at the head of his section, pushed into our barrage and personally destroyed with bombs an enemy machine-gun and crew which was causing heavy casualties. He then attacked a second gun killing all the crew of 12. By the destruction of these two guns he undoubtedly saved his own and other units from very severe casualties. During the consolidation of this position he received a second severe wound.

 

Eric was not so lucky.  At some stage on the day of the battle, probably after the successful attack as the German artillery bombarded the newly captured territory, he received contusions and was reported to be suffering from shell-shock.  He was evacuated the next day and admitted to the nearest field hospital to the firing line (the Australian No.2 Casualty Clearing Station), some five-and-a-half miles away in northern France.  His wounds must have been reasonably severe but not life-threatening, because two days after the battle he was transferred again to No.8 General Hospital in Rouen, and the day after that (10 June) to the No.2 Convalescent Depot in the same city.  Here he remained for 10 days, before moving to the nearby village of Buchy and the No.11 Convalescent Depot on 20 June.  By the end of June the Brigade's casualty figures were daunting: Officers, seven killed, 35 wounded and two missing; enlisted men, 157 killed, 912 wounded and 163 missing. 

Eric's return to fitness was a long process, because he remained away from the front lines until August.  On 14 July he moved to an Army depot at Etaples (the base name is unclear in his written record), where he remained until 29 August, when he rejoined the Division.  His Brigade was acting as the Division's reserve, and his battalion (2nd Battalion) was billetted in the town of Borre, on the outskirts of Hazebrouck in Belgium.  The Brigade's official history wrote that:

By this time the men, whose cheerfulness had never entirely deserted them, were beginning to regain their wonted appearance of physical fitness, and were looking forward to a comparatively enjoyable period of training. Their hopes, however, were doomed to disappointment, for a long month's digging under fire, and mostly by night, was about to commence.

 

Three battalions of the Brigade, including Eric's, were set to work burying signalling cables in the vicinity of Zillebeke, southeast of Ypres.  The 2nd Battalion remained there until 16 September, when it moved back over to the French side of the border to the town of Stein-Je, where it remained for five days until returning to its digging on the front line five days later.  

For some reason at this point Eric, whose military career had not been distinguished by any means, was then shipped back to England for a period of leave, departing on 27 September.  Perhaps the leave was granted to an entire unit rather than just him.  A fortnight's respite from the front lines, particularly in an English-speaking country, must have been a great relief, particularly after having been wounded in action.

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After his leave Eric rejoined his unit - 2nd Battalion, D Company, 3rd Platoon - on 8 October.  Everyone must have been gearing up for a big offensive, so his time would have been fully occupied in preparation.  Perhaps he found some time to write a letter to his mother in Clive.  There had been no further black marks on his disciplinary record since 27 May, so his injury may have affected his behaviour, or perhaps the pressure of front-line operations had upped the stakes for bad behaviour to such a degree that it was vital to keep out of trouble.  

Just before Eric's return to the Division it had provided cover for an Australian division's assault on the Broodseinde Ridge.  The New Zealand Division aimed for the Gravenstafel Spur, and advanced 1000 metres to take the position after a successful artillery barrage disrupted the German defences.  There were more than 320 New Zealand casualties, including the former All Blacks captain Sergeant Dave Gallagher, whose resting place is now visited by touring All Blacks teams when they play in Europe.  However, the success of the operation and damage it inflicted on the German Army convinced the Allied high command that another attack was needed to follow up the momentum gained at Broodseinde.  This was to prove a fatal mistake. 

At 5.25am on 12 October 1917 a huge artillery barrage opened up on the German lines at Bellevue Spur, a tributary of the Passchendaele Ridge.  The barrage was less effective than that at Broodseinde, and in some places was misdirected so it fell into the allied lines instead of the Germans', which caused considerable casualties.  The German defences, including barbed wire and numerous concrete pillboxes, were not destroyed by the barrage, and as a misty drizzle turned into heavy rain the New Zealanders and the seven other divisions involved in the assault, which later became known as the Battle of Passchendaele, were pinned down by machinegun crossfire and uncut barbed wire.  Throughout the morning and into the afternoon there were hundreds and hundreds of casualties and no progress could be made towards their objectives. 

On the same day, the Grey River Argus newspaper in Greymouth was reporting the humdrum existence of a small New Zealand town.  Charles Uddstrom's of Mackay Street was staging a closing down sale 'owing to war conditions'.  An advertisement for Watson's Whisky depicted two bearded Scotsmen - Donal explaining to his friend that he had lost his 'luggage' because 't'cork cam' oot, and - my! - 't was Watson's No.10 Whisky!'.  And at the town cinema, Peerless Pictures, the evening's entertainment was to be a film of Romeo and Juliet featuring the famous actress Theda Bara (‘The Vamp’) as Juliet: the film was advertised as being 'in eight reels, length 8000 feet'.  According to IMDB.com, this 1916 American production apparently told the tale 'with the camera focused whenever possible on Juliet, draped in especially skimpy nightgowns'.

The events at Passchendaele were as far removed from the peaceful life of New Zealand as can be imagined.  A week after the first day of the Battle of Passchendaele, the New Zealand soldier Private Leonard Hart wrote to his parents to reassure them that he was alive.  As his letter was being posted by a comrade heading to England, he was able to be more frank than most in his letter, without the fear of the military censor wielding his scissors:

Through some blunder our artillery barrage opened up about two hundred yards short of the specified range and thus opened right in the midst of us. It was a truly awful time - our own men getting cut to pieces in dozens by our own guns. Immediate disorganisation followed. I heard an officer shout an order to the men to retire a short distance and wait for our barrage to lift. Some, who heard the order, did so. Others, not knowing what to do under the circumstances, stayed where they were, while others advanced towards the German positions, only to be mown down by his deadly rifle and machine gun fire.

At length our barrage lifted and we all once more formed up and made a rush for the ridge. What was our dismay upon reaching almost to the top of the ridge to find a long line of practically undamaged German concrete machine gun emplacements with barbed wire entanglements in front of them fully fifty yards deep. The wire had been cut in a few places by our artillery but only sufficient to allow a few men through it at a time. Even then what was left of us made an attempt to get through the wire and a few actually penetrated as far as his emplacements only to be shot down as fast as they appeared. Dozens got hung up in the wire and shot down before their surviving comrades’ eyes. It was now broad daylight and what was left of us realised that the day was lost. We accordingly lay down in shell holes or any cover we could get and waited. Any man who showed his head was immediately shot. They were marvellous shots those Huns. We had lost nearly eighty per cent of our strength and gained about 300 yards of ground in the attempt. This 300 yards was useless to us for the Germans still held and dominated the ridge. We hung on all that day and night. There was no one to give us orders, all our officers of the Battalion having been killed or wounded with the exception of three, and these were all Second Lieutenants who could not give a definite order about the position without authority. All my Company officers were killed outright one of them the son of the Reverend Ryburn of Invercargill, was shot dead beside me.

 

The 2nd Battalion under Major W.G. Bishop was in the vanguard of the assault, and Eric's company was led by Temporary Captain Daniel Cornelius Bowler (serial 14025), who was also a Hawkes Bay man.  Bowler lived in Davis Street, Hastings, when he enrolled, and his former profession was as a school teacher.  Bowler had travelled to Europe on the Tahiti on the same trip as Eric, and had been awarded the Military Cross (MC) during the course of the war.  At some stage during the assault, Bowler was killed.  His wife would have received an official telegram or letter to her home address, which was now 15 Buller Street, Wellington, a house that was later demolished to make way for a motorway bypass.   

Mrs Tucker of Clive also received such a communication, because at some point on 12 October her son Eric was killed in action, only four days after returning from leave.  His body, like those of so many other soldiers who died in that assault, was not recovered.  There is now no-one alive who knows any personal details of his life before he joined the Army.  Both Eric Tucker and his captain have no marked grave.  Their names are recorded on the same slab of stone in the Tyne Cot cemetery, a meagre testament to lives cut so short.

 

There were more than 2700 New Zealand casualties, of which 45 officers and 800 men were either dead or lying mortally wounded between the lines. In terms of lives lost in a single day, this remains the blackest day in New Zealand’s post-1840 existence.

- NZHistory.net

 

The British war poet Wilfred Owen, who later died a week before the war ended in 1918, wrote these words in 1917:

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
    Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
    Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
      Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
  Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
      The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
  Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
  And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

 

Eric Claude Tucker (pic)

Eric Claude Tucker

Born in Clive, 24 September 1890

Died at Passchendaele, 12 October 1917

Aged 27

 

[Photo: Auckland Weekly News, 1917]

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