Ghosts of Anzac by Onesimus William Howe


ISBN 978-0-473-32206-9

[UPDATE: “Ghosts of Anzac” has now sold two print runs, congratulations to the Langsfords]

By Doreen Langsford
(To order this book, click here)



On and on went the shouting, my father’s voice ringing through the stillness of the night in the old farmhouse. We were jerked awake by the desperate yelling.

“Mum! MUM! What’s wrong with Dad? MUM! MUM!”

My mother appeared at the bedside. “Sh-sh-sh— It’s alright. Sh-sh. Go back to sleep. Dad’s back in the trenches. It’s alright, It’s only a nightmare, go back to sleep, he’ll be alright”.

And he was. The memories of the terrible things he had seen years before once more slipped back into the subconscious mind and life went on.

Although this is a factual document it is not written by an historian or a professional writer. It is the personal record, copied word for word, from the diary of a young 21 year old soldier, written while serving with the New-Zealand Infantry forces on the Somme battle fields in France, in the year 1916.

Written in pencil, often under the most terrible conditions, it is understandable that some words have become indistinguishable over the years.

This is only one of the diaries written by my father during the 1914-18 war. There were three others, one of which was written while on Gallipoli, 1915. Unfortunately they all became lost over the ensuing years as my father became a sharemilker and we moved from farm to farm to farm in the 1930s and 40s. This is the only one left and it is a part of New Zealand history that should never be forgotten.

My father, Onesimus William Howe, had been brought up by his mother. His father had left his young wife and two sons when he was only three years old, in 1898. How my Grandmother managed to give him a good education is another story. There were no hand outs in those days.

He did his teacher training at an early age and when 20 years old he was trying to stay alive in the massacre on Gallipoli.

As I progressed slowly through the diary I came to realize there was much to read between the lines, and I became amazed and wondered at how anyone could have had the strength and inclination to write up the daily entries whilst going through some horrific times, but my father seemed to have an almost supernatural ability to shut out all of the misery going on about him and focus on anything that was positive. Such as “a beautiful day” or “there’s a good film in the little French town”. An inbuilt strength. Indeed wherever he laid his head, be it bivvy, billet or trench, he called it “home”.

He made friends easily with the French people, and many a young Mademoiselle wrote to him. I remember my mother saying he was always popular with the opposite sex and that was because he treated them as ladies, even if they were not! Of course the Madames mentioned here were certainly not the keepers of the brothels! Just the respected wives of the local farmers.

At the back of the diary is a record of letters received and sent. Very methodical! My father was a great correspondent. Isa’s name stood out amongst all the rest and she was the recipient of many a letter. Her name and address are still there clearly written with the indelible pencil which was all he had to write with.

“Isa B. Golder, Linwood, Perth Road, Condenbeath, Scotland.”

The last entry in the diary written on the 31.12.1916 ends with the words “at 10 a.m. I left to go to Scotland. The train left Kings Cross at 11.45 p.m.” He was on his way up to see Isa Golder.

Isa was the sister of a Scottish soldier my father had met up with in Egypt on the way from Gallipoli to France. His address is also in the diary: Pte. R. B. Golder, 2360 Royal Scots, 52 Low Div., B.E.F. Egypt. Alongside this military address is the same address as the one given for Isa. What happened to Isa and her brother? We probably will never know. My Father never returned to Scotland.

There were other addresses. Both men and women. Among them was the address of Mary, from the Training College in Auckland, and addresses for London, Egypt, Malta etc., and an address for a Mlle Elise Lebreque, 25 Rue de Merville, Hazebrouck, France. The Lebreques, he visited often when away from the front line action. They became a family to him away from home.

There were many incidents not recorded. That he had shrapnel scars on his head, behind his left ear, a large scar on his back and another on his leg bear witness to wounding from which he was sent to various hospitals. Recovering quickly he was soon back on the front lines again and in the thick of the battles.

In this diary it is obvious he enjoyed practicing his French with the numerous families he came in contact with but nowhere is it mentioned recorded ( military records) that in the two years following, he was often called in as an interpreter between the English and the French in the Military Courts.

One interesting fact. Fighting in the trench (and I’m not sure which battle) there was a young German man whose parents had settled in New Zealand. They had probably been interned as others were. One night this young man suddenly got up and said casually “I’m going over to fight for the other side”. He got up out of the trench and walked off toward the German lines. His mates watched in disbelief until he disappeared into the darkness. He was never heard of again.

He kept himself ‘alive’ by the interest he had in others, the writing of the many letters, playing cards or going to the pictures in the little towns behind the lines while on ‘a pass for the town’.

He could detach himself mentally from those terrible conditions. The noise of the battle raging around, the sticky, clinging mud, the lice, the rats, the screams of the wounded. With death all around he writes of ‘going into the town for a bath’, or to ‘meet up with some mates’ or to ‘have a good feed’. How he seemed to enjoy those rare ‘good feeds’. How many of the restaurant goers of today would think that a piece of roast mutton and potatoes would constitute a good feed? But to those young men who often went without, it must have been a little bit of heaven.

“July – Sunday 9th – 1916: German bombardment at 9 .00 p.m. Stopped at 11. At the Mushroom (one of the battle sites) the Canterbury’s got hell. We were relieved by the Wellington’s. Then hurried into town for beers and eggs and chips”.

“Monday 10th: over for a bath in the town at 8.30 a.m. Really good after 18 days in the trenches. Met up with 3 of the Auckland Grammar boys. I had not seen them since leaving there. Mac. gave us 60 francs (pay) the night before and as usual, of course the boys lapped it up.”

Then, the entry for Saturday 15th, only five days later we read, “—all told to be ready for the trenches again. Went around to the restaurant by the station for a last good feed. We left for the trenches at 4p.m. and relieved the Canterbury’s at the top of Port Egal”.

And so it went on. His best mate, Bill Mold, was shot through the head right beside him, and reading between the lines it was a great loss to him:

“Sunday Sept. 17th. During this battle, Bill Mold while giving the order was sniped through the head. He collapsed right back beside me. He only lived for about an hour and could not recognise anyone. Everyone is very cut up about it. He was the best man you could ever meet – anywhere. That night we stayed in the gun posi and kept watch. It was a very miserable night.”

An understatement, typical of him.

As I copied out his diary a picture of the young man he must have been became clearer to me. Tall, over 6ft. A good-looking man with reddish hair and blue eyes. While enjoying the odd drink with his mates he was not into excessiveness as many of those soldiers were, getting themselves into much strife in the process. He enjoyed the company of all, men and women alike, different nationalities etc.

I, over the years, never heard him swear or blaspheme in vain. He was a man of integrity.

As the war went on, he moved up through the ranks. He was a Second Lieutenant when it all ended.

The citation when, as a sergeant, he was awarded the Military Medal, read thus:

“M.M. Onesimus William Howe, 17th December 1917:

“For conspicuous gallantry on the field. East of St. Julian on the 4th of October, this N.C.O. went into the attack as commander of a mopping up platoon, which he handled with capability and coolness throughout. At the commencement of the advance severe opposition was met with at Aviatic farm and it was largely due to the capable manner in which this N.C.O. handled his platoon that the garrison of this strong point was overcome and accounted for. Very severe fighting occurred here, and throughout he exhibited extraordinary coolness. His actions throughout the day until wounded showed him possessed of splendid courage and fine leadership.”

There is a Sgt. Gould mentioned in the diary and reading mostly between the lines, he didn’t appear too popular. There is also an entry where my father suffered a disappointment when one George Hume was recommended for the Victoria Cross. This reads:

“Wednesday, 4th October. Rumours are about that George Hume is to be recommended for the Victoria Cross. Not quite fair. Why should he be picked out? He got over with only one casualty. I lost all my men and was the only one left on my gun.”

That was all, and being the man he was, he would have soon forgotten it.

In Professor Alexander Aitken’s book, “Gallipoli to the Somme,” there is a clear account of going straight from the defeat on Gallipoli to the trenches of France. Professor Aitken was badly wounded there on the 27th of September 1916 and was then out of the remaining years of the war. He served with the Otago Regiment and as accounted in the diary, “the Otago’s and the Aucklander’s paths often crossed as they relieved one another from the front line trenches.”

In chapter eight of his book, Alexander Aitken describes the long 57 hour journey from Marseilles to Armentieres in detail (also in the diary), and in chapter ten he gives a comprehensive description of the trenches on the Somme, “The curving salient front line, with the parallel supports, the subsidiary line, the communication saps and the mushroom”. Words in the diary which were obscure to me.

He reveals to us the meaning of the ‘dump’. The place where the supplies were kept. Those who were sent for supplies would find themselves out in the open, often under machine gun fire. His graphic description of the “dug out” trenches says it all:

“The foul smelling water, feet deep in the bottom and the large well conditioned rats that infested the lines at night, scampering along the parapet and gnawing at haversacks in the dug outs, supplementing their vampire meal”.

On the 24th May 1915, a truce was called between the Turks and the allies on Gallipoli, for the burial of their dead. In Peter Liddle’s book “Gallipoli 1915: Pens, Pencils and Cameras at War” there is a letter written by a G.C. Grove, Sapper 2nd Field Comp. 1st Australian Division which describes the conditions on that day. This is part of that letter:

“It seemed very queer all day with everything so quiet, no firing or anything all the time Our men and the Turks were exchanging cigarettes and tobacco while others were burying the dead. The smell was something cruel, most of the bodies being almost totally decomposed. The sight was most queer. Men sitting around in bunches smoking and sharing their food with the enemy, amidst the dead bodies, amputated arms and legs and heads and general horrible surroundings”.


In Christopher Pugsley’s book “Gallipoli, the New Zealand Story”, there are two excerpts from letters which were sent by my father back to New Zealand. One of these quoted in the book came from a letter dated 7th September 1915 and described part of the night advance on Chunuk Bair and the attack by the Auckland Battalion on the morning of the 7th August 1915.

“Gallipoli – The New Zealand Story” speaks graphically of the horror, the mistakes and the terrible slaughter of thousands of young inexperienced men who were thrown into a situation beyond their control.

That they had no idea of what they were going into is summed up in the words on a postcard which my father sent his brother, from Egypt on his way over to Turkey. On the front of this card is a photograph of ‘The Heliopolis – Palace Hotel’ across which he has written “Near the Cairo Camp, The Palace Hotel , now used as a hospital for the wounded” . On the back was the letter:

“Mr. A .Howe , Alfriston, Auckland, New Zealand. We arrived here two days ago after a lovely sea trip. We can realize now the reality of this thing. Some of my Hokianga mates have been killed and others wounded. We leave for the front tomorrow. If there’s any chance I will write from there. We are all looking forward to the fun. From Willie.”

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