New Zealand and the Great War

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This page contains articles written by myself and published in various publications.

FINDING TIMOTHY MOYNAHAN - October 2010 - First published in the Western Front Association (NZ branch) newsletter

NEW ZEALAND SOLDIER IS BURIED WITH RESPECT AFTER 95 YEARS - February 2011 - First published on the Western Front Association Web Site 

PERSONAL INSCRIPTIONS - New Zealand Headstones - July 2011 - First published in the Western Front Association Newsletter



The Netherlands is not a country you tend to think of when you think of the Western Front.  It declared neutrality at the outset, and by doing so, managed to save itself from the destruction wreaked on neighbouring countries.

As I currently live in Belgium, I decided to undertake a number of projects relating to New Zealand and the Great War.  As part of this research, I was intrigued to find that there is one New Zealander buried in the Netherlands:  Private Timothy Thomas Moynahan.

Timothy was born on the 17 June 1893 in the small North Island town of Mangatainoka.  His parents had emigrated from Ireland 40 years previously and had been farming in the area since arrival.

On 14 June 1917, a few days before his 24th birthday, he travelled the 16km to Woodville and enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. The enlistment papers help us build up a picture of Timothy.  He was 5 feet 10 inches in height, 140 pounds with blue eyes, dark brown hair and a dark complexion.  The complexion no doubt assisted by the nature of his listed profession, farming.  He then travelled to Trentham Camp to undergo training before embarking overseas.  He was given the service number 62108 and joined G Company, 30th Reinforcements only to be transferred to the 31st Reinforcements on 7 September.

Whilst at Trentham Camp, Timothy was admitted to hospital with a severe bout of influenza. He was discharged from hospital on 7 November 1917, after a stay of seven days.  Just nine days later, on 16 November, he embarked from Wellington harbour onboard NZTS Tahiti and began his overseas service, from which, sadly, he would never return.

He spent Christmas and New Year aboard ship before arriving at Liverpool on 7 January 1918.  Nearly three months later, Timothy once again embarked, this time for France.  On 11 April he was posted to the 2nd Entrenching Battalion and the next day at 5pm the formation moved out of camp, in the direction of Meteren, France.

On arrival at the outskirts they received orders to dig in behind the village. However, several platoons were called upon to reinforce the defensive line held by the English troops.  On 15 April, the Germans attacked and surrounded Bailleul.  The next morning at daybreak the attack continued in strength against Meteren. Due to the ferocity of the attack, the New Zealanders had been notified that the English troops to their left would probably retire into the valley. If this happened, the New Zealanders were to retire to the newly constructed switch trench.  That was the plan.

As it happened, the English troops did retire during the night, but for some reason failed to let the adjoining posts know of their actions. New Zealand Headquarters were not able to let the advanced positions know of the expected attack until daybreak on the 16th. They were to retire if attacked, but ordered to check the advance as much as possible.

The attack came, preceded by heavy machine gun fire. The attacking Germans met no resistance on the left (due to the withdrawal of the English troops), and continued to exploit the advantage until the New Zealanders were under fire from three sides. Withdrawal was now impossible. The men, their ammunition expended and with no hope of escape, decided to comply with the demand of surrender. Timothy was among the 210 New Zealanders taken prisoner. This was the largest number of New Zealanders captured in one action. Timothy had been on French soil for less than a month.

On 24 May, the Poverty Bay Herald records Timothy as missing.  His family must have been distraught.

His service record reports him as missing between the 12th and the 19th but believed to be a prisoner. He was finally located on 5 July 1918, as being an inmate at Soltau POW Camp, northern Germany (Soltau was the largest German POW camp during the First World War). It is possible that he would have been put to work in one of the nearby work camps or salt mines.

At some point after the armistice, Timothy boarded a train headed for the coast. After a journey of around 300km he disembarked in Enschede, in the north west of the Netherlands, and was admitted to hospital, again with influenza. This time he did not recover, sadly dying on 19 January 1919.

In the early 1920s, his father was sent Timothy's medals, consisting of the British War Medal, the Victory Medal, and memorial plaque and scroll. It appears Timothy's father, John, died in 1929. His mother, Mary, died whilst the world was gripped by yet another conflict in 1943.

After completing this research I wanted to visit his grave to pay my respects and to photograph it for inclusion in a number of projects I am working on. Convincing my family that a weekend in the Netherlands was required, we travelled to Nijmegen, which had suitable accommodation and the added bonus of Second World War history. According to the CWGC website, the cemetery was in the town of Lonneker, an hour and a half to the northwest of Nijmegen, close to the German border.

On arrival at Lonneker, we drove to the churchyard that I had identified via Google Earth, using CWGC website instructions as being the location of Timothy's grave. I walked in, immediately noticed the CWGC headstone and went over to read the inscription. It wasn't Timothy, but a RAF pilot, killed during the Second World War. I searched every corner of the cemetery, but Timothy was not there. I asked around, but no one could help. Dejected and tired, I finally had to admit defeat and drive the hour and a half back to Nijmegen.

Back at the hotel, I posted a request for help on a forum I belong to and went out to see the city. On our return that evening I was very pleased to find a number of replies offering suggested sites. One of these was very promising, suggesting the correct site may be in the town of Enschede, ten minutes to the south of Lonneker. The following morning we drove to Enschede and located the cemetery.

Timothy is buried in Enschede Roman Catholic Cemetery. He is the only known New Zealander from the Great War to be buried in the Netherlands and the only Great War casualty in the cemetery. According to the CWGC database, he is also the only Great War casualty with the name Moynahan.

Whilst I stood in front of his well kept grave, I could not help but wonder if any members of his family had ever visited. I hope they did. But if they were not able, I'm happy to have done so on their behalf for I fear that he doesn't have many visitors. If you are passing through the Netherlands, perhaps you can pay your respects also.

finding-timothy-moynahan-1-300 finding-timothy-moynahan-2-600

Resources used:

-          Service file of Timothy Moynahan

-          New Zealand Rifle Brigade Unit History

-          Papers Past website


Click HERE for photographs.

On 16 February 2011, a cold foggy day, the remains of a New Zealand soldier of the Auckland Regiment were laid to rest in Caterpillar Valley Cemetery, Longueval, France.

In December 2009, Mr Blyr, a resident of the small town of Longueval, discovered remains, which on closer inspection included two Auckland Regiment collar badges. This was reported to the authorities and in turn the Commonwealth War Graves Commission who waited until January (allowing the ground to thaw) before removing them from the Somme soil that had held them for so long.

It is more than likely that this man died during September 1916, when New Zealand troops took part in the Somme Battle.

At the ceremony were: the New Zealand Ambassador to France, Ms Rosemary Banks; New Zealand Defence Attache, Brigadier Phil Gibbons; Commanding Officer of the Auckland Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Chris Powell; the Mayor of Longueval; Dr Chris Pugsley; Mr Blyr; and representatives of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Royal British Legion.

Rebecca Woodmore was in attendance to sing the New Zealand National Anthem, which she did beautifully.

His headstone carries the inscription "KNOWN UNTO GOD" and although we will never know his name he is amongst his countrymen again. Caterpillar Valley Cemetery contains the graves of more than 125 New Zealand casualties as well as the memorial to the over 1200 who died in the region but have no known grave.


PERSONAL INSCRIPTIONS - New Zealand Headstones

On visiting any of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries throughout the world you will likely see many poignant, heartfelt personal inscriptions adorning the headstones.  You may have wondered, like I did, why the New Zealand headstones did not contain inscriptions.  

The Imperial War Graves Commission (which changed its name to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in 1960) was responsible for the building and maintenance of the cemeteries and memorials for those who fell in the Great War.  Policy dictated that all headstones would be uniform and that no distinction would be made between officers and men.

It was also decided that the next of kin could choose a personal inscription, which was not to exceed 66 characters.  However, those who wanted a personal inscription would be charged three and a half pence per letter, including spaces between words, to a maximum of one pound.  It was this decision to charge which ultimately led to New Zealand being the only Commonwealth nation to remove this right from its citizens.

The Evening Post published an article on 3 June 1924 in which it reported Sir James Allen (New Zealand High Commissioner) giving the following reasons for not allowing inscriptions:

-          Possible unsuitability of inscription
-           Lack of uniformity
-          Plants would obscure the inscription
-          The cost (to next of kin) of the inscription

 The article countered these points as follows.  All inscriptions had to be approved by the IWGC, ruling out the possibility of unsuitable inscriptions.  All headstones were to be of a uniform size, but as every casualty’s details (name, service number etc) would obviously be different, uniformity regarding inscriptions was a moot point.  The cemeteries were to be maintained by skilled gardeners, so although inscriptions may be obscured at times, this hardly seems like a reason to disallow inscriptions.

As mentioned above, there was a cost involved with inscriptions, payable by the next of kin.  This appears to be the primary reason the Government chose to veto inscriptions as it was felt unfair on those families who could not afford to do so.  This decision was also applied after the Second World War.

Sir James felt so strongly about the decision that he made the following comments as reported by the Evening Post.

“It is perfectly true that the inscriptions have to be passed by the War Graves Commission, but if the Commission refuse to accept an inscription they lay themselves open to serious trouble.  I have protested as a member of the Commission to the principle of personal inscriptions in the case of the rest of the Empire, and I think the Commission has made a very grave mistake.  So far as New Zealand is concerned, we have definitely decided not to permit personal inscriptions, and we are going to stick to it.”

Although there was a large deal of public outcry, this small link the bereaved had to their loved one’s grave was denied to them.

One of the most vocal campaigners to allow inscriptions was Mrs Martin, whose husband Major Arthur Anderson Martin (author of A Surgeon in Khaki) died of wounds received on the Somme in 1916.  Mrs Martin travelled to the battlefields of Belgium and France and to London where she met Sir James on at least one occasion to discuss inscriptions, but he was not to be persuaded from his stance.

However, it seems that the decision was made after many had been told they would be able to add an inscription.  Some next of kin received a small Governmental booklet entitled The Graves of the Fallen, which stated that they would be given the chance to add an inscription.  Others received letters, such as that shown below, which can sometimes be found attached to the soldiers service file held by New Zealand Archives.  I have bolded the text regarding inscriptions.

Dear <NAME>

I have to inform you that advise has been received from overseas that the above named soldier has been buried at <CEMETERY>

This report has been received through the medium of the Imperial War Graves Commission which organisation has been appointed by Imperial Authorities.  The New Zealand Government is represented on this body by Sir Thomas Mackenzie, KCMG, High Commissioner for New Zealand, London.  Representatives of the Commission are now at work on the many battlefields searching for and identifying the graves of those of our soldiers who made the supreme sacrifice.  Where soldiers have been buried in isolated spots it is the intention to remove the bodies to Central Cemeteries, under which arrangement it is considered that the graves will receive better attention.  In each Central Cemetery a large Memorial is to be erected which will be known as the Cross of Sacrifice.  Over the graves headstones of a uniform pattern are to be raised, no distinction being made between officers and men.  The inscription on these stones will be the same in every case as far as New Zealand graves are concerned, but the relatives are to be given the opportunity of having a personal inscription of limited length on the stone.  You will receive further particulars concerning the personal inscriptions at a later date.  When the graves are completed, photographs will be taken and a negative and prints forwarded to you.

That would be the end of the story, were it not for a chance discovery whilst visiting the French communal cemetery of Courcelles-Au-Bois, where five New Zealanders are buried.  There, on the headstone of Private 55003 Norman Vivian Williams, was the following inscription.





I assumed that the presence of the inscription was due to his family residing in England, and somehow this had allowed them to circumvent the New Zealand policy.  Of course, in retrospect, there were large numbers of men in New Zealand with family still in England, so this alone does not appear to be the answer.

A few weeks later, I visited Doullens Communal Cemetery Extension No 1 and 2 and discovered five more inscriptions on New Zealand headstones.  

23/1 Brigadier General H. T Fulton CMG DSO – Died of wounds 29th March 1918


Buried in Doullens Communal Cemetery Extension No.1

10150 Serjeant H O Black – Died of wounds 29th March 1918


Buried in Doullens Communal Cemetery Extension No.1

38199 Rifleman A MacRae – Died of wounds 5th May 1918
Buried in Doullens Communal Cemetery Extension No.2
Note: Surname is spelt incorrectly on headstone – The CWGC have been notified

30624 Private D McLean – Died of wounds 29th March 1918


Buried in Doullens Communal Cemetery Extension No.1

 26/846 Rifleman J Mair – Died of wounds 12th May 1918


Buried in Doullens Communal Cemetery Extension No.2

The fact that these five men were all buried in the same town would seem to indicate that their families had applied for the inscriptions before the New Zealand Government’s decision came into force.  However, I have not located any definitive evidence to be able to confirm this.  The differing ranks for these men, from Brigadier General to Private, suggests that there was no favouritism there either.  I considered the possibility that next of kin where contacted alphabetically by cemetery, but there are over 50 cemeteries in France alone with no inscriptions, which rules this out.  Geographically, these three cemeteries are very close, it is a 20 minute drive from Doullens to Courcelles-au-Bois, which leads me to believe there must be some connection.

All of the men listed died between April and May 1918.  I have not been able to find any documentary evidence which might show a correlation between date of death, inscription request and acceptance of request.  Next of kin were sent a Final Verification Form from the IWGC asking them to check details and, if they agreed to the charge, to submit an inscription.  These forms do not appear in the service files of the servicemen which are available from Archives New Zealand.

The primary reason the Government decided not to allow inscriptions seems to have been one of equality.  Times were hard and many people could not afford to pay.  The irony is that the payment was not strictly enforced, and eventually it was scrapped completely by the late 1920’s.

I decided to contact the CWGC and ask about the possibility of having an inscription added to my relatives’ headstones the next time they are replaced, at my expense.  Two paragraphs of the response are shown below:

“As it was the New Zealand’s Government decision not to allow the engraving of a personal inscription on any New Zealand war casualty’s headstone, we regret we are unable to accept your request to have one engraved on the headstone. We are of course aware that there is a possibility that a few personal inscriptions may have been engraved before this final decision was made.  However, at this late stage I am afraid that we are unable to accede to any retrospective requests”

Every single New Zealander who died during the Great War will be forever remembered, but reading a personal inscription brings the human loss sharply into focus.  Not just of the man himself, but of the family left behind.


Papers Past Website
Great War Service files
Authors Photograph Library
Final Verification Form - Kindly supplied by Terry Denham



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