Private William Arthur Ham

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The ANZACs were formed at Gallipoli, right? Wrong. Although they first fought as a unit at Gallipoli, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps was created several months earlier in Egypt,1 where a short, fiercely contested battle between the Allies and Turkish forces for control of the Suez Canal gave the New Zealanders their first taste of war. Playing a significant part in routing the Turks were men from the Nelson/Tasman area;2 members of the 12th (Nelson) Company, Canterbury Infantry Battalion, of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. For one, the price of victory was high. Twenty-two-year-old Willie Ham from Ngatimoti became the NZ Expeditionary Force’s  very first WWI battlefield casualty.

Ham-Happier-Days.pngHappier days: pre-War picnic at "White Rock". As they sailed off to war, the Ngatimoti recruits caught a glimpse of iconic Ngatimoti landmark, White Rock Hill, a last poignant reminder of home. Motueka & District Historical Association 1980. Fergus Holyoake Collection, 774/1.
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Private-Ham-leaving-Motueka-1914circled.jpgFarewell muster at the old Motueka wharf. War was declared on August 4, 1914 by 11th the first Motueka volunteers were ready to set off. William Ham is circled. Photo courtesy Motueka & District Historical Association 1980. Fergus Holyoake Collection, 1173/1 WAR 1914 Click image to enlarge

When the troopship RMS Athenic set off from Wellington on October 16, 1914, on board were several men from Ngatimoti who had joined up straight after war was declared with Germany, excited to be underway at last. They included Private William Ham and Major (later Lt. Colonel) Cyprian Bridge Brereton, battalion commander of the 12th (Nelson) Company, whose memoir Tales of Three Campaigns gives a lively account of the voyage to Egypt and Battle of the Suez Canal.

The New Zealand convoy was joined en route by transports carrying the Australian Imperial Force. They were all bound for France, but Turkey's entry into the war as a German ally meant a detour to Egypt. After disembarking at Alexandria on the 3rd of December, the Australians and New Zealanders encamped at Zeitoun, just outside Cairo. Operating as a joint contingent, dubbed the ANZACs, they underwent intensive training. Off duty, they took in the sights, with Cairo's fleshpots proving a particular eye-opener for the country boys.3

Fighting began at the Canal near Ismailia in the early hours of Wednesday February 3, 1915. The 12th Company was stationed at Serapeum on the west bank, right at the centre of the Turkish attack. At around 3.30 a.m., the 62nd Punjabis to their left came under fire from Turkish artillery. Thirty men from 10 Platoon were doubled over to assist them and at an undefended gap made a startling but timely discovery; several pontoons full of Turkish soldiers heading across the Canal towards them. The handful of Nelsonians immediately opened fire and drove back the boats. Soon supported by enfilading fire from 9 Platoon, they kept the entrenched Turkish infantry on the opposite side at bay with a steady close-range fusillade. They were later commended for their efforts, especially given that they had only rifles at their disposal; due to an operational oversight, their machine guns had been left at camp, 10 miles away. The Turks succeeded in crossing at two other sites, but during a day of intense fighting were repulsed, with heavy losses, by the combined efforts of Allied infantry and field artillery, backed by gunfire from British and French warships.4

Suez-Canal-February-1915.jpgSuez Canal, February 1915 (NZETC)
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1166-Private-Ham-in-stable-group-Tapawera.jpgWilliam Ham (standing 3rd from right) at the annual Territorials camp, George MacMahon's Tapawera farm, April 1914, attended by 11,000 men from the top of the South Island. The Territorials were the backbone of the NZEF. Photo courtesy Motueka & District Historical Association 1980. Fergus Holyoake Collection, 1166/1 WAR 1914.
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Ham-William-Arthur-WWI-1914-1918RT.jpgWilliam Ham. Photo by Wm Bridle, Motueka, courtesy Auckland War Museum
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That afternoon, the 12th Company was exposed to enemy fire while closing on the 22nd Indian Brigade Headquarters. William Ham was hit; a chance bullet ricocheted off his rifle and struck his neck, breaking his spine. He died of his wounds at Ismailia Hospital on the evening of the February 5th1915.5 His funeral took place on the morning of Sunday 7th, with the whole Company in attendance. Major Brereton and the 12th Company did William Ham proud. Rather than the mass grave accorded other casualties of the battle, he was buried with full military honours at a plot in the Ismailia European cemetery.6 Today he lies at the Ismailia War Memorial Cemetery.

So, who was William Arthur Ham, the young man described by Major Brereton in a letter of condolence to his mother as "an ideal soldier... in action splendid, happy and cool"?7 Remembered as quiet, capable and possessed of great physical strength, he was 5' 10'', had black hair and blue eyes and was the oldest of a close-knit Irish Protestant family of six boys. Born on 14 April 1892, in Bray, Co. Wicklow, Ireland, he emigrated with his parents, William and Hester (née Barnwell) Ham and brothers Harry and Jack, arriving in New Zealand October 1903; a move prompted by hopes that his father's chronic weakness of the lungs might benefit from a change of climate. The family travelled on the RMS Athenic, the very ship that would transport William to Egypt 11 years later. They first lived in Gisborne, then Wanganui, before shifting south, in 1905, to the small rural settlement of Ngatimoti, near Motueka.

William enrolled at Orinoco School in May that year8 and no doubt the family attended St James Anglican Church, hub of community life in the Motueka Valley. Mr Ham took work at a sawmill. He later drove a horse-drawn grocery van servicing the area for Rankin & Sons of Motueka, and the Hams possibly ran a general store themselves at some point. They moved about the district as they followed work, living variously in Ngatimoti, Pokororo and Motueka township, but settled for some time at two Waiwhero properties; near White Pine Swamp and also at the converted creamery by the foot of Church Hill, next to the Orinoco Stream, where William taught his younger brothers to swim.9 By now he had three more siblings, born in New Zealand - Cyril, Ralph and Ernest. At sixteen William started work as a farmhand for George Beatson at the Ngatimoti Peninsula.10  He was a labourer for the Waimea County Council survey team at the time of his enlistment.

Sorting-Kitbags.jpgSorting kitbags alongside the Athenic. at Lyttelton.(NZETC)
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Patriotic support for the British Empire was at an all time-high throughout New Zealand in pre-War years. The province of Nelson was no exception, its enthusiasm for the war effort drawing particular praise from Prime Minister William Massey: "The response of Nelson's men has been worthy of that district's name, worthy of the brave pioneers of Tasman Bay, worthy of the British Empire." 11 There were many army connections on his father's side, and William Ham was a keen member of  the 12th (Nelson and Marlborough) Regiment of the Territorial Force.

Having already lost four relatives back home to the War, the news of William's death hit his family hard, the shock contributing to his father 's own death just a month later.12 Nevertheless, his brother Thomas Henry (Harry), also joined up and survived to complete his service, but would die in 1942 while fighting in the Pacific during WWII. He lies at the Suva Military Cemetery in Fiji. Left with little income and children to support, Hester Ham remarried in 1916, but her new husband, Cyril Bartlett, enlisted not long after and was killed the following year in Belgium. After the war Hester moved with her family to Dunedin, where she lived till her death in 1947.

William-Hams-Grave.jpgThe First Man Killed in Action. 
The last resting place of 6/246 Private William Arthur Ham, 12th (Nelson) Company of the Canterbury Infantry Battalion (NZETC)
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Meanwhile the 12th (Nelson) Company went on to fight first at Gallipoli and then the Western Front. What about those other Ngatimoti men who went off so eagerly to serve King, Country and Empire? Throughout the war, over forty local men set off on their big adventure from the Motueka Valley. Of those, twenty-eight returned home to New Zealand, leaving behind a score of brothers, cousins and friends who had been killed in action, or died of wounds and sickness along the way. A memorial erected by friends and relatives at St James Church, Ngatimoti, honours the sacrifice of fifteen of these men; still others are commemorated on a brass tablet inside the church itself. 

Upon receiving the news of the Suez Canal victory and William Ham’s death, New Zealand’s Minister for Defence, James Allen, hoped that it would be of some consolation to Ham's parents that their son was “the first upon the roll of honour of the New Zealanders to die in action for their King and country in upholding justice and right.”13 Although fiercely proud of her son, it’s debatable whether William’s mother, Hester, found this honour sufficient consolation for the heavy price she had to pay.

2012 (updated August 2014)

Additional information (supplied by author December 2014)

A note on the Structure of the 12th (Nelson) Company of the Canterbury Infantry Battalion.

The terms 12th (Nelson) Regiment and 12th (Nelson) Company tend to be used interchangeably, but they were in fact two quite separate entities.

 The 12th (Nelson) Regiment (also known as the 12th (Nelson-Marlborough) Regiment) was officially raised on 17 March 1911, one of 16 regionally based infantry regiments formed as part of the new Territorial Force (TF). This part-time Territorial Force and a tiny regular force of professional soldiers formed the basis of New Zealand’s army at the outbreak of the First World War.

 Rather than mobilising the TF, however, the government decided to raise a separate force to send overseas to fight – the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF). The new infantry battalions of the NZEF were given provincial names corresponding to the military districts in which they were raised – Auckland, Wellington, Canterbury or Otago.

The NZEF infantry battalions were instructed to affiliate the companies under their command with the corresponding TF infantry regiments from their military districts. To foster links with these TF regiments, which would remain based in New Zealand, each company was issued with its associated TF regimental badge. The first men who enlisted with the NZEF from the 12th (Nelson and Marlborough) Regiment (see list below) were assigned where possible to the 12th (Nelson) Company of the Canterbury Infantry Battalion and carried the 12th Regiment’s stag badge into battle with them.

There is a list of Infantry Published in The Colonist, 17 August, 1914

On formation, the Canterbury Infantry Battalion was organized into four double companies of a strength of two hundred and fifty each, with each company divided into four platoons and commanded by a major, with a captain as second-in-command, and with a subaltern to command each platoon. These companies were not numbered 1 to 4 as might be expected, but kept their affiliated Territorials Regiment numbers.

The four companies of the Canterbury Infantry Battalion, NZEF, in order:

  • 1st (Canterbury) Company, known within the Canterbury Infantry Battalion as “A Company” (Platoons 1-4).
    Affiliated with the 1st (Canterbury) Regiment of the Territorial Force
  •  2nd (South Canterbury) Company, known as “B Company” (Platoons 5-8).
    Affiliated with the 2nd (South Canterbury) Regiment of the TF
  •  12th (Nelson) Company. known as “C Company” (Platoons 9-12).
    Affiliated with the 12th (Nelson and Marlborough) Regiment of the TF
  •  13th (North Canterbury and Westland) Company, known as “D Company” (Platoons 13-16).
    Affiliated with the 13th (North Canterbury and Westland) Regiment of the TF.

Platoons 9-12 within the new 12th (Nelson) Company (aka “C Company”) of the Canterbury Infantry Battalion were the equivalent of Platoons 1-4 within the 12th (Nelson and Marlborough) Regiment of the Territorials. It was 9 Platoon, and particularly 10 Platoon, of the 12th (Nelson) Company who played a significant part in the Battle of the Suez Canal.

BreretonOfficers of 12th (Nelson) Company who landed on Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. Left to right: Lieut. Fred Starnes, Lieut. Jarvis, Captain Griffiths, Lieut. Sandy Forsythe, Major Brereton and Lieut. Harry Saunders. Major Brereton lead the 12th (Nelson) Company in Egypt during World War 1. Nelson Provincial Museum, Copy Collection: C3720. Click image to enlarge

Officers of the 12th (Nelson) Company at the time of the Suez Canal Battle, with their home towns of origin (and pictured right):

  • Officer Commanding  -  Major Cyprian Bridge Brereton (Ngatimoti ). He had also served as OC of the 12th (Nelson and Marlborough) Regiment of the Territorial Force before the War.
  • Second in Command  -  Captain George Cruickshank Griffiths (Blenheim)
  • Subalterns:
    Lieutenant Harry Saunders (Nelson) - commanding 9 Platoon;  2nd Lieutenant Alexander Elder (Alister) Forsythe (Motueka)- commanding 10 Platoon; 2nd Lieutenant Fred Starnes (Lower Moutere) – commanding 11 Platoon;
    Lieutenant Vincent Gordon Jervis (Dunedin)  - commanding 12 Platoon

All were from the Nelson-Marlborough area and had previously held equivalent positions with the 12th (Nelson and Marlborough) Regiment of the Territorial Force apart from Lt Jervis, a career soldier who was seconded to the 12th Company from the NZ Staff Corps.

Note: Men from the top of the South Island who had trained with the 10th (Nelson) Mounted Rifles Regiment of the Territorial Force before the war, generally chose to enlist with its equivalent within the NZ Expeditionary Force, the 10th (Nelson) Squadron of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles Brigade.

Sources used in this story

  1. Ferguson, Cpt. David (1921) The History of the Canterbury Regiment, N.Z.E.F. 1914-1919. Auckland, NZ: Whitcombe & Tombs Ltd.  Chapter II, p. 13
  2. Waite, F. (1919) The New Zealanders at Gallipoli. Auckland, NZ:  Whitcombe & Tombs Ltd,  Chapter IV,p. 50 
  3. Brereton, Major C.B. (1926) Tales of Three Campaigns, London: Selwyn & Blount Ltd, Chapter II,  pp. 13-15
  4. Waite,  pp. 53-56
  5. Brereton, p. 49
  6. Forsythe, Alexander Elder, of Motueka, 2nd Lt., 12th (Nelson) Company. Letter dated Sunday, Feb 7th, 1915. Excerpt published in The Colonist, 9 April, 1915.
  7. Brereton, C.B. Excerpt from a letter written to Mrs Hester Ham, published in The Colonist, 29 March, 1915.
  8. Wright, K. (2008) Nelson's Turkish Pontoon. Nelson Historical Society Journal, 6(6)pp. 4-13
  9. Private records and personal communications: Mr E. Stevens (Ngatimoti) and Mrs L. Mackenzie (Dunedin).
  10. Beatson, C.B. (Pat) (1992) The River, Stump and Raspberry Garden: Ngatimoti as I Remember Nelson, NZ: Nikau Press, 1992, pg 52.
  11. First war death was from Motueka. In Holyoake, F. (1984, April 26) Historic Motueka. Motueka Golden Bay News.
  12. Price, M. (2009, February 3) Dunedin family's pride as soldier honoured. Otago Daily Times 
  13. McAloon, Jim (1997) Nelson: a Regional History. Whatamango Bay, N.Z : Cape Catley in association with the Nelson City Council, p. 149.

Note: Text from material made available online by the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre (NZETC) may be freely reused, as long as attributed correctly. Reuse of photographs from special collections such as Alexander Turnbull and Archives NZ is subject to permission.

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  • Thankyou for your research on Willy Ham. My grandfather was Harry who was killed in ww2.(willies brother) Very good family history to save and pass down the generations..Thanks again

    Posted by Roger Patterson, 21/04/2015 6:59pm (3 years ago)

  • Some valuable new information has been added. Thank you Ann. This will be useful for WWI researchers

    Posted by Nicola Harwood, 19/09/2013 3:50pm (4 years ago)

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  • For original sources of information relating to Wm Ham's life and background  see the citations in the following article, which also covers the movements of the 12th (Nelson) Company from the outbreak of war to the Battle of the Suez Canal and its aftermath:
    Wright, K. (2008) Nelson's Turkish Pontoon. Nelson Historical Society Journal, 6(6) pp. 4-13.

Web Resources

By incorporating the efficient regional Territorial units already in operation throughout New Zealand before the war, the New Zealand Expeditionary Force was able to mobilize quickly when WWI broke out. With conflict between England and Germany looking more and more likely, the Territorial Camp held at Tapawera in April 1914 was a serious affair.