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Volume 9 (2016)

GEORGE JOHN FISHER

8 June 1894 – 2 Oct 1916

by The Fisher Family


Lance Corporal George John Fisher 10/628
Killed in Action: 2 October 1916, France.
Click to enlarge the photo.

George was born in Kopu, Thames on 8 June 1894, the son of George John Fisher and Mary Fisher (nee Hutchison). He was the youngest of eleven children.

His father, George John Fisher, was born 21 November 1843 at Bentley in the Parish of Bentley with Arksey, Yorkshire, England. On 15 November 1875, he married Mary Hutchison in Shortland, Thames. Mary was born 20 May 1855 at Birkenhead, Cheshire, England.

After the marriage, George and Mary lived in Paeroa. It was at this time that he was operating a passenger service/livery stable, called Fisher’s Nonpareil, during the Ohinemuri gold rush. He owned/leased part of the township of Paeroa, and they lived at the northern end of ‘Fishers Hill’ behind the site of Paeroa Furniture and Flooring (formerly Faber’s Furniture). Paeroas first twins, Jessie and Thomas Fisher were born on the hill.


George John and Mary Fisher
Parents of George John Fisher.
Click to enlarge the photo.

Fishers Hill: Red triangle denotes Paeroa Furniture & Flooring.
Red star denotes ANZ Bank
Click to enlarge the photo.

Thames Star, 15 March 1875.

George was a distinctive individual and, with his polished manner and the white suits he preferred, this may have led to him being chosen to take part in two very important events for the area.

Karangahake was visited by the Governor- General of New Zealand, the Marquess of Normanby, in April 1876, and George was engaged to provide transport for the vice-regal party. On 5 October 1876, he was the Waitekauri Mining Company’s ‘horseman’ and transported the first shipment of gold from Waitekauri to Paeroa in his saddlebags. Unfortunately gold mining in the area dropped off, and traffic through Paeroa declined. This, along with George’s dependence on his whiskey flask in his hip pocket led to them losing the land.

In the following years, George worked at several sawmills as a mill hand. Birth and school records show the family lived in Thames, Turua, Kopu (Kirikiri and Parawai Schools), Auckland (Wellesley Street School), Aoroa in Northland (Aoroa School) and Netherton. It was at Kopu that the youngest, George John, was born.

Four of the boys in the family followed their father into milling, including George, and they worked at many mills, from Rawene and Te Kopuru in the north to Putaruru and Taringamotu/Taumarunui further down the island.

George and his brother Edward were both working in the Taringamotu/Taumarunui area when WWI started. Their mother Mary was housekeeping for them.

In George’s army records, it shows he enlisted on 18 August 1914 in New Plymouth. There is a record that shows Edward also tried for enlistment with his last address as Taringamotu, so it is possible they went together. No further records have been found for Edward.

Their elder brother, David also wanted to enlist but he had respiratory problems from an earlier illness which prevented him from doing so. He wanted to be able to ‘watch over George’. He went to Australia and enlisted there in the Australian Military on 30 October 1915, embarking on the “HMAT Aeneas A60” from Sydney on 20 December.

At the time of enlistment, George was a member of the Taranaki Territorials and so became a member of the 11th Taranaki Company (shortened to Taranaki Company) of the Wellington Infantry Battalion. They were sent to camp at the Awapuni racecourse in Palmerston North for training. On the 22nd September, after very strenuous training, they travelled to Wellington to embark on their transport ships. Taranaki Company was on the 'Arawa' and the other companies on the 'Maunganui' and 'Limerick'. With the fanfare of a final parade and speeches, the convoy started out but then sailing was cancelled due to the lack of a sufficient naval escort. Three weeks later on the 16th October, when suitable escorts had arrived, they departed once again for the Red Sea and Suez.

The troops must have felt great excitement, especially the young men like George who had lived their lives in small towns, often working in the bush. After the enlistment and parades, travel to places they had never been lay ahead of them. The residents of Hobart gave them drinks, cakes, fruit and bouquets of flowers. There was the excitement when one of their escorting warships the “Sidney” went after the “Emden”, a German cruiser, and they then learnt she had caught it, the crossing of the equator with its associated ceremonies, Colombo with its ‘seething mass of humanity clad in all colours of the rainbow’, the amusement caused when upon reaching Aden when the 'Arawa' failed to drop anchor within the prescribed limits, and promptly got a shot across the bows. The 'Arawa' men then claimed the distinction of being the first contingent under fire. Finally they arrived in Suez with its ‘Egyptian light and colouring, the golden sands of the desert, and the brown of the hills’, a sight for those seeing Egypt for the first time. They looked upon it as a great adventure, not realising the terrible horrors that were to come.

On the 3rd December, they reached Alexandria where they commenced training in the desert. In February, they proceeded to the Suez Canal to assist Indian soldiers against the Turkish Army, their first taste of being under fire. There was training at Lemnos, where they had relentless training at climbing up and down the ship’s side on rope ladders with a rifle and full marching order,and then on 25 April 1915, George and the regiment arrived at Anzac Cove at Gallipoli. Their positions there being sufficiently stabilised, they then sailed from Anzac Cove and landed at Cape Helles where they fought in the 2nd Battle of Krithia. After heavy losse,s they returned to Anzac Cove in May.

Conditions here were now atrocious with heavy rain ‘melting bivvies’ down the hillside. There was the constant threat of Turkish snipers, and trenches were very insanitary. Fina;lly Colonel Malone turned the post from the most dangerous, insecure and insanitary into a clean, well organised post.

In August, the NZ Infantry Brigade, including George, were involved in the Battle of Chunuk Bair. It was here that George was wounded. His papers show he received a spinal concussion. He was admitted to St Georges Hospital in Malta on 13 August 1915, and then on 21 August moved to St Patrick’s which was used for minor walking cases.

Ii is not certain whether this worsened as he was admitted to the Church Lane Military Hospital in Tooting, England in November, and then after being discharged was transferred to the Hornchurch home depot.

When the orders came to withdraw from the Gallipoli Peninsula, the casualties had been very high. The battalion left for the defence of the Suez Canal but no attack eventuated while they were there so they were able to train for a different type of fighting in France and get some much needed rest. It was to here that George rejoined his unit in early March 1916.


An extract from the WWI sercice record for George John Fisher 10/628
Source: Archives New Zealand.
Click to enlarge the photo.

In February, the New Zealand Army decided, with the reinforcements they had received, they could organise a full Division. The old battalion became the 1st Battalion of the Wellington Infantry Regiment, and to form the 2nd Battalion ‘only officers and N.C.O.’s of ability’ were drafted. George was transferred to the new Battalion on 13 March 1916.

On 9 April, George and the 2nd Battalion embarked on the 'Llandovery Castle' troopship and reached Marseilles, France on 18 April 1916. They entrained for the British Sector in the North of France the same day.

They moved to the front line in Armentieres on 14 May. They fought under very heavy shell fire in positions such as 'Pigot’s Farm' and 'The Mushroom' which jutted into No Man’s Land within a few yards of the enemy front line.

On 14 June 1916, George was appointed the rank of Lance Corporal. His brother David voiced the opinion that George was a very good soldier and would have continued to rise through the ranks if he hadn’t been killed.

In August, the 2nd Battalion withdrew from the Armentieres sector for training at Airaines for the coming offensive in the Somme area.

From 14 September to 3 October, the New Zealand Division fought in three battles. The first was the Battle of Flers-Courcelette 15-22 September, the second the Battle of Morval 25-28 September and the third was part of the Battle of Transloy Ridges 1-3 October.

During the first, the 2nd Battalion started in the Tea and Carlton Trenches and moved forward into Seaforth Trench then Otago Trench. They moved into Flers also. In the second battle, the 1st Battalion captured Grid Trench, Grid Support Trench and Goose Alley, and 2nd Battalion relieved them later. In the third battle, the battalion was involved in the attack and capture of the ruins of Eaucourt L’Abbaye which was identified as a key German strongpoint. This consisted of a large farm complex built on top of an old Augustine Abbey, and one report said the immense cellars hadn’t been cleared properly and some soldiers were cut off as the enemy was still in their rear in the Abbey buildings. Whether George was one of these, it will never be known but on 2 October 1916, a miserable wet day, he was reported missing. The next day, the New Zealand Division’s infantry, having been relieved, turned its back on the Somme Trenches.


The ornate entrance to Eaucourt L’Abbaye.
Click to enlarge the photo.

New Zealand on the Somme, 1916.
Click to enlarge the photo.

The division had been relatively successful in achieving its objectives, but at a cost of some 6000 casualties, including more than 2100 fatalities.

At a Board of Enquiry held at Sailly- Sur-La-Lys on 4 December 1916, Private Hector Duncan George stated: 'On the afternoon of 2.10.16 at Eaucourt l’Abbaye, I saw this N.C.O. lying dead with a wound in the stomach. I knew this N.C.O. well and am sure of his identity'. The Enquiry's finding was: 'Dead, Killed in action in the field, France, October 2nd 1916.'

According to family, the Commanding Officer for George’s unit knew his brother was in an Australian unit so he contacted them to let David know his brother had been killed. David’s Commanding Officer showed a lot of compassion and allowed him to take a couple of days to go and bury George. David made a wooden cross and carved his details into it. Thankfully it survived, and George was exhumed and reburied in the Warlencourt British Cemetery on the road to Bapaume. Graves from surrounding cemeteries were concentrated into Warlencourt.

Another family account tells of a letter the officer, who was recording the grave positions to be exhumed, wrote to the family. He was so moved by what David had carved that he drew a picture in the letter so that they would have a record of it. Unfortunately at some time over the years, this was lost. George was awarded the 1914-15 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. He was only 22 years old when he died, one of around 18,000 New Zealand soldiers who died in or because of the war.


Lance Corporal George John Fisher,
Warlencourt British Cemetery, IV.H.9.
Click to enlarge the photo.

Click to enlarge the photo.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

We pay tribute to two relatives who have helped make it possible to trace the lives of George and his family:
  • The late Mida Dittmer, a great great granddaughter of George and Mary Fisher.
  • The late Shirley Wilton, the daughter of David Kennedy Fisher.
  • Also our thanks to the many others who have helped: A little here and there and together we have put together a family.

APPENDIX

  • George John Fisher Snr's parents, Thomas and Ann Fisher lived and farmed on a farm known in Bentley as Manor Farm in England. They were fairly wealthy farmers and George John had apparently completed 4 years of medical training. But with one too many drinking bouts at the local pub, which caused him to crash the family carriage after picking the family up from church, he was sent to New Zealand as a remittance man. He sailed from London on the British Empire on 15 May 1864 aged 20 years and arrived in Lyttleton 6 September 1964.

    He was very good with horses, and upon arrival in New Zealand started working for Dr Parkinson, with his horses, in Christchurch. He then owned stables in Temuka for a time before moving to Thames where he was employed in Grahamstown in a livery stable. In early 1875 he was a business proprietor in Paeroa operating a passenger service (coach and horses for hire) between Thorp’s Landing, Puke Landing and Paeroa.

  • Mary was the daughter of David and Grace Hutchison, both from Perthshire, Scotland. David Hutchinson was a ship builder but lack of work in the Scottish yards caused them to move about a good deal as indicated by the children’s birthplaces, Perth, Dundee and Birkenhead. Also for work, David decided to migrate and sailed from London to Auckland, New Zealand in 1859 where he established a ship building yard at Onehunga on the Manukau Harbour. Grace followed with the 6 children (Mary was 4 years old) on the Avalanche, leaving London in February 1860 and arriving at Auckland on 7 May. They lived comfortably until David’s death in 1867 in Fiji from a bowel complaint with no medical help available. The family was told he died intestate which they did not believe when they knew he had made wills but the eldest boy was under 19 years and too young to battle the lawyers so everything was sold. Mary’s sister Margaret married and moved to Thames in 1870 and other members of the family, including Grace and Mary, joined them over time.

  • The Commander-in-Chief sent the following tribute to the British Fourth Army:-
    Fourth Army,
    October 7th, 1916.

    I desire to express to all ranks of the New Zealand Division my hearty congratulations on the excellent work done during the Battle of the Somme.

    On three successive occasions (15th and 25th September and 1st October) they attacked the hostile positions with the greatest gallantry and vigor, capturing in each attack every objective that had been allotted to them. More than this, they gained possession of, and held, several Strong Points in advance of and beyond the furthest objectives that had been allotted to them.

    The endurance and fine fighting spirit of the Division have been beyond praise, and their successes in Flers neighborhood will rank high amongst the best achievements of the British Army.

    The control and direction of the Division during the operations have been conducted with skill and precision, whilst the artillery support in establishing the barrage and defeating counter-attacks has been in every way most effective.

    It is a matter of regret to me that this fine Division is leaving the Fourth Army, and I trust that on some future occasion it may again be my good fortune to find them under my command.

    H. RAWLINSON, General,
    Commanding Fourth Army.

REFERENCES

  1. GLEANINGS FROM THE THAMES ADVERTISER AND MINERS' NEWS 1875. Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 2, October 1964.
    8.2.75: The number of tents at the Paeroa and elsewhere increases daily. Mr Fisher has started to run a `bus' (coach) between Thorp's landing and the Paeroa.
  2. PAEROA’S EARLY BEGINNINGS Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 56, September 2012.
    Owned or leased? Family accounts have George as owning a significant portion of the town but the article above raises doubts about this.
  3. THE PHYSICAL TOWN CENTRE OF PAEROA [& FISHER'S HILL] Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 14, October 1970.
    ‘Fishers Hill’ – Paeroa was divided by a low hill into two townships, Paeroa and Ohinemuri. One end of this hill was in the area of the swimming baths and Ohinemuri Club and the other end was by the Fire Station.
    The footpath today is about 10 or 12 feet lower than it was in 1897 and there is no longer the need for the "post and wire fence" to save pedestrians from sliding down the steep bank to the road beneath.
  4. The New Zealand Herald, Saturday, April 22, 1876. Colonial Outcasts by Nell Hartley.
  5. The Wellington Regiment, N.Z.E.F., 1914 – 1919: an official record of the progression of the Regiment starting from the beginning of WWI through to demobilization. The Wellington Regiment (NZEF) 1914-1919. Cunningham, W.H., Treadwell, C.A.L., & Hanna, J.S. (1928). Wellington: Ferguson & Osborn Limited.
  6. Auckland War Memorial Museum Online Cenotaph Auckland War Memorial Museum Online Cenotaph Records.
  7. 'New Zealand on the Somme, 1916 - map' 'New Zealand on the Somme, 1916 - map' (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 14-Sep-2016.



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