Douglas William Batt

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Uncle Dick's Story-October 1915-March 1916
Douglas Batt as soldier 002

Douglas William Batt 1915. Photo courtesy John Douglas William Batt

It was a little over a month after his 21st birthday that Rifleman Douglas William Batt of D Company, 2nd Battalion of the Trentham Regiment, No. 24/968 found himself on board Troopship No. 31 about to “cross the line” en-route to Egypt. It is 30th October, 1915.  With dark hair and brown eyes, standing 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighing 9 stone 7lbs, this 3rd child from a family of 6 had voluntarily enlisted leaving his 59yr old father, two sisters and younger brothers to manage a small fruit farm at Wai-iti, two miles south of Wakefield.  Valued for his work on the farm after leaving school at 14, he later thanks his father in a letter dated June 4th, 1917 for not “making a fuss about me coming away.”

In this early letter, one of the 21 surviving and addressed like most of the others to his mother, Douglas William (or Uncle Dick as he was known to us) gives no hint of anxiety or even anticipation of the events which were to unfold for him.  It is as if he is on a leisurely voyage to visit relatives overseas.  He had no inkling of the horrors which, as a field ambulance officer, he was destined to face, but even when we know that he must have experienced scenes of indescribable carnage his letters home give no trace of that. There was, after all, little point in causing his mother and two sisters added anxiety which they could, unaided, easily conjure up.  Reassurance as to his safety and well-being was what they needed.

Enjoying shipboard life with a “lively crowd of soldiers”  and getting “as fat as a pig” he sent his best wishes to his younger 13 year old brother Carl who he suggested should “practice shooting with that gun of his for I think that he will be wanted before we have done.”

By November 28th, and after spending two days in Cairo, he found himself in the desert guarding the railway, nine miles from Alexandria. He was “quite well and happy” but unimpressed by the squalor of the natives’ lifestyle who lived and cooked in the streets.  His time was spent in shooting swans or ducks and “wandering over the desert all day in chance of getting a shot at a nigger.” His only real complaint seems to be the problem of getting tobacco.  He wishes he could buy a better camera to take some good pictures but he is only drawing a shilling a day and “most of it goes on tobacco.”

By December he is thinking of New Zealand.  He asks for photos to remind him of home, is getting very fat with a double chin, is as brown as copper and is learning the natives’ language – but the flies are driving him mad.  He hopes to be home by next Christmas and has proved himself a “dead shot” with a rifle.  “I think that every shot I fire will account for a Bedouin or I will be very disappointed.”  Mail deliveries are somewhat irregular.  He gets twelve letters at once but only every three weeks.  Sometimes one whole train is devoted to mail alone.

January 1916 sees him in Alexandria.  He has been in hospital for two weeks convalescing for an unspecified illness.  When he is discharged he visits a fortune teller who tells him that he will be home for next Christmas.  He is not going to get hurt but will cause great losses on the enemy. (One wonders how many times she told this story to those who wanted to believe it.)

In March he is asking again for photos of family to see if they have changed.  He has enjoyed the sights of Cairo and Egypt - the pyramids and the old churches but he finds the heat a burden and misses the green fields of home.  In a month, he says, he will be in France.

April 24, 1916 – Sept 3, 1917

It is towards the end of April, 1916.  Douglas William Batt has left the heat of the Egyptian desert for the Western Front.  With “many Nelson boys” he is billeted out with a French farming family and “trying hard to learn French.”  He has seen “many wonderful places” and wants to go to Paris.  What amazes him is the way that the people carry out  their daily work with no heed to the fighting that is going on close at hand.  His concern continues to be with his family at home.  Karl is told to “…help Dad all he can as he is the only son he can now depend on.”

By May 3rd he has received six letters and two parcels since Christmas.  The big guns are “very noisy.”

In December he is due for ten days leave and has had to cable home for some money to enjoy it.  (He hopes to get to England.)  Asking after the Coles (a local family) he supposes the baby has grown a little.  The cold has come and they have had several snowfalls. 

Christmas has been spent out of the trenches in a little French village and he has had a good time.  The Battle of the Somme had raged from 1st July to 18th November and he supposes that they “got a fright to see the casualty list of NZ boys”  but that they were “spoken well of wherever we go.”  (This was the first and largest battle faced by NZ troops in WWI.  Out of 15,000 men in the division, 2,000 were killed – one in seven,  and four in ten were wounded.) He hopes to be home for next Christmas and thinks the Germans have had enough.

Battlefield at the Somme September 1916

Battlefield at the Somme September 1916. www.anzac-france.com

 By January 18th, 1917 and with only one oblique reference to the carnage of the Somme he was thinking of home.  “No doubt the spring must be lovely over there. I often wish this old war would end and I were home. I never want to see another day like that one.”  Then his thoughts turn to more familiar things: “You will soon be in the thick of the fruit picking…how I wish that I were there for the fruit.  I haven’t seen any decent apples since I left…I hope to be home by next Xmas if I am lucky.”

On February 6th his letter includes thanks for the pound note that was sent to enable him to go on leave.  Once more he focuses on the positive aspects of his situation.  “I have had a wide experience out here more than money could buy and I shall never regret  it.  With America about to enter the war he reflects that he is “fed just as well as if there was no war on: meat, butter, vegetables , a meal of eggs and chips for a franc…I can get a hot bath and clean clothes within 4 miles of the firing line.”

June 4th in France is “lovely and hot.”  He is near a “nice swimming hole.  We spend a good deal of time in it although it is close to the trenches and we often have to run for our lives.”

Even in the midst of a great war he can see beauty among the carnage.  “I was out motoring last night all around the front and it was a pretty sight to see all the different coloured lights and rockets going off and the big guns hammering all the time.”

But the risks he is taking daily and the uncertainty of his situation compared with those 12,000 miles away doesn’t go unnoticed.  “Thelma tells me that old R.E. has a car.  I think it is about time he came out hear, it is very hard to see what our boys put up with out hear and hundreds of them are loafing around their homes.  And the worst of it is they will be thought just as much of as the ones that came out hear and died for there countrie.” [original spelling retained].

However, it is not in his nature to remain bitter or bemoan his situation for very long.  In the same letter he adds: “Tell (Dad) I am having a great experience out hear and am very pleased that he made no fuss about me coming away.”

July 21st 1917 – September 3rd  1917

Half way through Uncle Dick’s third year of war service comes the opportunity  he has been waiting for.  He manages to take some leave and travels to London and then Scotland -  first Edinburgh and then Glasgow.   His letter of July 21st sees him in a very happy mood.  “I have had the time of my life.  Everywhere I went they gave me such a time it was hard to leave.”  But he doesn’t care for London – “too much bussel” and he asks if they have received the table centre that he sent and the German belt.

 He thinks that Edinburgh is “the prettiest  place I have ever seen,” and in Scotland he has spent “some of the happiest days of my life – the people treated us so well.”   As if to restore some balance,  in a letter written the next day he adds, (You)” are lucky to be living in a beautiful little country like NZ where there is not a bluddy war raging at your door.”  His father, who recently had shown some proficiency  at bowls comes in for praise and congratulations:  “He will (by now) be a dabster I bet.”

Working in a dressing station photo by Frank Hurley

Working in a dressing station. Photo Frank Hurley

And now after nearly three years of active service he feels able to express some deeper emotions.  “Mother, I shall never forget the day that I sailed away from that beautiful shore and left my dear Mother and sister standing there.  I went and cried a little but then I got brave and have faced everything since then, even the bayonet charge.  I am so glad that you were both brave and never broke down, I could see what you were thinking and now just what a mother felt like.  I am much different in my ways now mother.  I can’t help noting it myself, it has made a man of me…This is such a cruel war Mother and I see all the suffering and misery of it the poor fellows often dye in my care and the suffering is horrible and I have got that hard-hearted and used to it that I have seen myself sit and watch them dye, and think nothing of it, it seems a very cruel thing to say but it is quite true.  Well, I will say au revoir for the present with heaps of love to all,  Douglas.”

Uncle Dick in Dovedale resized001

Uncle Dick (bottom left) among Dovedale friends in happier days. Roger Batt

A letter dated September 3rd 1917 is the last surviving letter he wrote to his mother from France.  It is soon to be his birthday (20th Sept) – his third away from home.  The autumn rains have returned with unsettled weather but a “kind French lady (with whom he is billeted) gives me a nice hot bath and a good feed and a nice feather bed when I come out of the line.  She is just like a mother to me.”  All of this when they live within a few miles of the line and are under shell fire all the time.  He is learning  French much quicker and teaching the Mademoiselle to speak English -  which she is doing well.  He promises that “She is going to write you a letter soon and you will see how she is getting on.”

From his war records we learn that eventually he was invalided home with severe PUO1 in February 1918 – first to a convalescent depot in France and then to England where he embarked from Plymouth on the Ionic on 24th August having been declared no longer fit for active service.

We have no accounts of his homecoming but he was fortunate to be able to take up farming in Dovedale on a “rehab” farm2  where he married and brought up three  children.  He was indeed one of the lucky ones to have survived.3 

This story was first published in "Windows on Wakefield" a community newsletter for the town of Wakefield, Nelson. Also published in the Waimea South Historical society book "The way we were".

Sources used in this story

Personal letters and conversations - the Batt family

  1.  PUO – an abbreviation for pyrexia (fever) of unknown origin (commonly called “Trench Fever)  affected up to one third of British troops.  Characterized  by a sudden raging fever, loss of energy, intense headache, skin rash, pain in eyes, dizziness, muscle aches and constant severe pain in shins.  Would break after 5-6 days but come back several days later and then be repeated.  Recovery  was slow over several months and relapses would occur.  Some sufferers could experience problems up to 10 years later.
  2. Special re-settlement  farms in various areas of the country organised by the government for returned servicemen
  3. New Zealand had one of the highest per capita casualty rates of any country involved in the war.  16, 900 died (plus 1,000 more within 5 years), 41,317 were wounded.

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