Parliamentarians and World War I
It is the 90th anniversary of the World War I Armistice. There was hardly a family in the country which was not affected and parliamentarians were no exception.
The Armistice was signed in a railway carriage near Compiègne in France and came into effect at 11 am on 11 November 1918. It brought to an end four years of carnage. New Zealand showed a strong commitment to the cause and contributed one in ten of its population to its Expeditionary Force and suffered a high casualty rate. There was strong bipartisan support in the House to help the British Empire in its hour of need.
Four members of the House of Representatives (JG Coates, JB Hine, TEY Seddon and WD Stewart) enlisted while retaining their places in the House. Another (WHD Bell) enlisted before resigning his place. Seddon and Stewart (from opposite sides of the House) ‘paired’ for the duration of the war so that their absence would not affect voting and enlisted as privates to encourage recruiting. Prime Minister Bill Massey was not keen on those from his side enlisting because of his wafer-thin majority but eventually relented. One member of the Legislative Council (WE Collins) also enlisted.
All survived but Coates and Hine were wounded. Seddon (son of previous Premier Richard Seddon) was accompanied by two of his brothers in service – one was killed in action in France. Stewart had to be invalided back to New Zealand, having become crippled with rheumatoid arthritis. Coates was appointed Major and awarded the Military Cross and Bar. His brother was killed in action.
Many sons and brothers of other parliamentarians served in the forces – some were to die in action or from disease, or were wounded. Captain Frank Massey, son of Bill Massey, was seriously wounded in the battle of the Somme and was awarded the DSO and Military Cross. Sir James Allen, Massey’s deputy, had a son killed at Gallipoli. Sir Joseph Ward (previously Prime Minister and Finance Minister in the wartime National coalition government) had two sons in service. Legislative Council Speaker CJ Johnston lost two of his sons – Captain O Johnston on the Somme in 1916 and Brigadier-General F Johnston at Ypres in 1917. Sir John Findlay had one son suffer serious wounds on the Somme and another die of his wounds after the battle of Ypres.
Sir Francis Bell had three sons in service; one of whom was Captain WHD Bell (see above). Sir Francis in August 1914 urgently negotiated a special loan from the Parliamentary Library of two volumes on international law for his son who was part of the secret New Zealand invasion force which took Western Samoa from Germany. When Sir Francis tried to return the heavily marked volumes the library said he should keep them because of the extensive annotations. In 1917 Captain Bell was killed in action in France. The two volumes made their way back to the library, but they were rebound and presented to his father as a memorial.
Lesser known parliamentarians were equally affected. WT Jennings lost two sons and a third was wounded. HJH Okey also lost two sons. J Barr had three sons in service – all were wounded. D Buddo had two – both were wounded. Both TH Rhodes and GW Russell had three sons who served, with (respectively) one killed in action and one wounded. In total at least fifteen sons of parliamentarians were killed or died of their wounds as a result of the war. Others were gassed or suffered from shell-shock.
A number of parliamentary staff joined the forces – GF Bothamley, senior clerk, W Collings, accountant and clerk, and P de B Brandon, Hansard Supervisor, as well as five committee clerks, a library assistant, two attendants and two messengers.
It is little wonder that the New Zealand Parliament (and along with it the nation at large) experienced a traumatic four years and that the war did so much to shape New Zealand’s identity. The battles in which New Zealand forces were involved are all commemorated around the walls of the Debating Chamber of the House of Representatives.