Post by Summer Scholar Max Nichol
Over the 2016/17 summer, I have been digging into a sample of documents from War Office files held in The National Archives in London. The documents come from the WO 97 series, which holds the products of an extraordinary exercise in bureaucracy.
The series contains the discharge documents of thousands of imperial soldiers who served in Her Majesty’s army during the nineteenth century. The documents were created at the time soldiers applied to leave their regiment, as it was necessary for them to gain authority to be ‘discharged’ from their oath of service. The sample I have analysed contains 118 of those documents, all relating to soldiers who served in the New Zealand Wars in the 1860s. Specifically, this sample is drawn from the 50th and 65th Regiments of Foot, and the 68th Light Infantry. These documents contain a concise overview of a soldier’s time in the army: where they were born, where they enlisted, where they served, whether they were reprimanded (and for what), their reason for being discharged from service, and more.
Some of the richest, most interesting information is contained in the reports completed by military surgeons as part of the application for discharge. Inspections were necessary for those men applying to leave the army on the basis of being found ‘medically unfit for further duty’. Not all soldiers had such an examination performed – for just under half of the sample who were discharged after completing their term of service (usually twenty-one years among this sample) this document is left blank. For the rest of the sample, these medical records offer a fascinating insight into the misfortunes which befell soldiers serving the British Empire.
What stood out to me as I looked at these reports seems obvious with hindsight – the life of a soldier presented so many more opportunities for bodily harm than simply injury in battle. Certainly, injuries sustained in battle account for a reasonably high number of injuries resulting in discharge. To name just a few, Richard Colebrook and Francis Horne, both of the 65th Regiment, received wounds at the battle of Rangiriri in 1863, and John Moffet of the 68th Regiment took a musket ball in his right leg at Gate Pa Pukehinahina in 1864. However, the battlefield was far from the only places where soldiers sustained injury.
The case of John Smith is particularly intriguing. He received a bullet through his left buttock in September 1864, leaving him permanently lame in that leg. However, the wound was not inflicted on the battlefield, nor even by the enemy. While transporting provisions to Te Awamutu, the wound was inflicted by ‘a comrade with homicidal intent’ – one of John’s own cohort. Frustratingly, the report does not elaborate beyond this. Who took a shot at poor John Smith, and why? Revenge for a long-standing grudge, or for some perceived slight perhaps? Or maybe tensions flared in the dangerous and uneasy environment of the Waikato in 1864. I like to think that somewhere deep in the stacks of the National Archives in London exists an accompanying document which tells the other side of this story. In its absence, we are left to imagine.
The effects of disease also contributed heavily to the discharge of soldiers. The British Army did not suffer so many casualties to disease in New Zealand as in other colonies, like India, where diseases such as malaria, cholera, and dysentery wreaked havoc on European troop numbers. Nevertheless, many soldiers in the sample suffered from respiratory diseases such as bronchitis and tuberculosis, often attributed to exposure to the elements and the New Zealand climate. Some soldiers contracted illness elsewhere, and continued to be plagued by its effects during service in New Zealand. John Wilson and William Hyde were both discharged for chronic dysentery in New Zealand, but had contracted the disease while on service in the ‘East Indies’ (Rangoon) and India respectively. In this way, the effects of a soldier’s route through the Empire could have ongoing effects on his health for the rest of his service, and indeed his life.
In some cases, the reason for discharge was not a specific incident or illness, but rather the cumulative effects of performing the duty of a soldier. In many cases, this manifested as chronic rheumatism. John Collins for example served for almost twenty-two years, and was discharged in 1861 with rheumatism and palsy of the hand. Charles Gallagher discharged with rheumatism in 1867 after twenty-two years of service. His medical report describes him as an “Old worn out man”. Alexander Crow also served for twenty-two years and was discharged in 1866 with chronic rheumatism attributed to “long service in New Zealand”. These men managed to avoid any significant injury or illness during their lengthy periods of service. Nevertheless, marching through rugged terrain with packs over their backs and rifles over their shoulders for over two decades clearly took its toll on their health.
The imperial soldier’s purpose was ultimately to be engaged in battle in order to secure the sovereignty of the British Empire. However, it is worth considering that active participation in battle comprised only a fraction of the experience of an imperial soldier. The WO 97 files are once removed from the individuals that they catalogue – they exist as an attempt by the bureaucracy of the British Army to keep track of its soldiers for its own pragmatic purposes. Despite that abstraction, these records enrich our understanding of the lives of imperial soldiers in New Zealand with personal information and experiences which might otherwise be obscured or omitted from the historical record. As well as looking at the outcomes of certain battles and the movement of troops through New Zealand, we can consider the outcomes of actual soldiers who served in those battles and made those journeys while acting as agents of the British Empire.
Images from the first and last forms in Sergeant John Knight's WO 97 file. WO 97/1587, TNA
In November 1863, 22 year old Spencer P.T. Nicholl farewelled his family and friends and his dear, darling Evie, departing Gravesend to sail for New Zealand. Nicholl was an Ensign with the 43rd Regiment of Foot. His purchase of a junior officer commission two years earlier was typical for a younger son in a middle class family. In the months leading up to his departure, and for nearly a year after his arrival in New Zealand, Nicholl kept a journal that survives to this day as MS-1712 at the Alexander Turnbull Library.
Nicholl treated his diary as a highly private account, keeping it locked. He inscribed its title page with the injunction: ‘In case of my death I wish this book to be sent to my friends without being read by any one’. Unlocking the journal, we find a source that gives us a very personal view into day to day garrison life as well as events such as the Battle of Gate Pa/Pukehinahina (where he was injured). Such an account provides a more ‘flesh and blood’ account than the official War Office records. It is the view of a young officer experiencing war for the first time, a man who wonders if he will ever shoot anyone with the revolver he has just purchased. It is also the view of a young man who wishes he ‘had not brought such a large box of books’ with him, entertains himself on the voyage to New Zealand ‘by going up and down the rigging’, and pines for the woman he would like for his sweetheart, wondering ‘if she thinks of me ever now’.
Over the 2015/16 summer John McLellan worked on a Summer Scholarship ‘Developing digital narratives’, a partnership between Victoria University and the Alexander Turnbull Library. John produced a full transcript, and created a digital narrative enabling a new form of access to the journal. Excerpts from the transcript have featured in our Twitter feed over the past few months; the StoryMap below and accompanying transcript provide the larger picture behind those Tweet instalments.
The 1860s wars were battles of economies as well as of weapons.
Keeping soldiers fed and adequately supplied involved huge expenditure. Troops fighting for the Crown were supported by the Imperial Treasury and resources of the colonial government while Maori were sustaining livelihoods, crops and stock at the same time as campaigning.
Over the 2015/16 summer Angus Crowe worked on a Summer Scholarship investigating the scale and economic impact of provisioning the thousands of British soldiers stationed in New Zealand.
Each man was entitled to 1 pound of bread (around half a kilo), 1 pound of fresh meat and a quarter pint of rum per day. Supplying these rations meant big business. Auckland’s economy boomed with huge spikes in the quantities of supplies landed and traded.
Cattle, wheat and rum came in from New South Wales and Victoria, and further afield. Local merchants vied for lucrative contracts from the Commissariat; bakers and butchers had their hands full. Rivalry and rumour as to who got the best price was rife. And in the field, men complained often about the quality and quantity of food they received.
Getting food supplies from Auckland wharves to inland redoubts and camps was also a major undertaking.
In the StoryMaps that follow Angus has provided an overview of ‘the stomach at war’. ‘The role of the Commissariat during the Waikato Campaign, 1863 – 1864’ contains links to full statistical tables of some of the economic patterns in evidence in wartime New Zealand of the 1860s.
When the majority of British troops departed in 1866 Auckland fell into sharp economic recession.
Everything from the most mundane to the exceptional feature in the army record.
A unique perspective on the day-to-day conduct of war can be found in the 1864 Garrison Order Book held in Puke Ariki’s research collection. (ARC2002-811)
Over the summer Samantha Hunt, a Summer Scholar co-funded by Puke Ariki and Victoria University worked her way through the Marsland Hill barracks Garrison Order Book – all 456 of its large pages. Covering the period 8 January to 18 October 1864, the Book details the movements and activities of men serving with the 57th and 70th regiments, the Taranaki Militia and Military settler volunteers. Samantha created an index to the Book listing people, events and topics. The index enables greater access to the Book’s extensive contents.
The format of the Order Book is consistent: each daily entry begins with the date, duty officers for the day and a table recording the guard and picquet placement at the numerous outposts through the region. This is followed by the daily garrison and general orders, which is where we have a window onto the conduct of the conflict. The work of the garrison can be seen for example in the order issued on 27 March 1864 noting that “The Deputy asst. [Quarter Master] General will be pleased to hand over without delay to the [Commissariat] Department the whole of the Crops, Potatoes etc. taken from the Rebels at Kaitake on the 25th Inst, these crops to be stored by the [Commissariat] at the Kaitake and Oakura Redoubts, By Order S Brutton, Lieut. + Garrison Adjutant”.
As well as indexing the Order Book Samantha produced an array of short accounts for a popular readership featuring significant events and themes from entries in the Book. These provide a view of garrison life in the raw. They are available on the Puke Ariki website. A recurring theme throughout was alcohol and problems arising from its consumption. The order book begins with a note that “A Board of Officers will assemble at the [Commissariat] Store at 11am tomorrow for the purpose of testing the quality of some Rum offered for the use of the troops” – a most important duty!
Tēnā koutou, welcome to the blog for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Settler – our research project on garrison and empire in the nineteenth century.
Here we’ll be sharing discoveries from the archives, stories from our networks, and news of what is going on in the project.
The summer months have seen work on 4 strands of the project. We have gone ahead in leaps and bounds with the wonderful work of 3 VUW Summer Scholars and a summer research assistant. More on these strands in future posts, but in short: Fiona Cliff has been making connections between men who served in Crimea, India, and in New Zealand; Samantha Hunt has been busily indexing and analysing the New Plymouth Garrison Order book for January to October 1864 at Puke Ariki; John McLellan has been transcribing the 1863-1864 diary of Ensign Spencer Perceval T. Nicholl and developing it into a digital narrative at the Alexander Turnbull Library; and Angus Crowe has been investigating bread, meat and rum and the economic impact of the war in the early 1860s.
Rebecca spent much of February transcribing WO100/18 files – War Office files recording who received the New Zealand Medal. With just a few regiments left to go we’re almost in possession of a list of the 12,000 or so men who served with the imperial regiments in the 1860s.
Charlotte worked across all aspects of the project over the summer. She spoke at the Wellington Branch of the New Zealand Society of Genealogists at the end of January, and with Samantha Hunt at Puke Ariki in New Plymouth at the end of February. Two of her articles appeared in the latest issues of the Journal of New Zealand Literature: ‘The First World War and the Making of Colonial Memory’ (33:2), and Law & History. Journal of the Australian and New Zealand Law & History Society: ‘People of the Land, Voting Citizens in the Nation, Subjects of the Crown’ (2015: 2).
Charlotte and Rebecca presented papers at the New Zealand Historical Association Conference at the University of Canterbury in early December 2015 in a session ‘Rethinking New Zealand in the ‘redcoat’ empire.
A visitor via the Peninsula War
Dr Huw Davies, (Defence Studies, Kings College London) dropped by for a visit on 7 and 8 February. A scholar of, among other things, the Wellington our Wellington is named after, Huw had been in Sydney and Canberra for research and the ‘New Directions in War and History’ conference. He made a detour to see us in Wellington, arriving at our offices via the Peninsula War (or, at least, Talavera, Clifton, and Salamanca on the Wellington Cable Car).
His research focuses on 19th and 20th century warfare and in particular on military thinking, innovation, knowledge transfer and networks, so our several hours of discussion on various topics passed by all too quickly. Huw contributes to ‘Defence-in-Depth’, the research blog of the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London, and you can see his post about his trip Down Under here.