The Bible that went to war …

Some of us who inherit more copies of The Bible than we’re ever likely to need, tend to store them, politely and respectfully on a bookshelf, in sentimental acknowledgment of their former owners. Collectively, they express unique aspects of those former owners’ histories:  records of achievement at Sunday School, or the day school Scripture class; departure from a congregation or community; a wedding gift; or a school-leaver’s presentation copy, complete with school crest embossed on the front cover.

There’s one particular bible which sits almost inconspicuously among just such a collection; its brown leatherette cover shows signs of wear and its size belies its significance. On the fly leaf there’s an inscription which reads, quite simply, “John Fergus Ross with love from Mother 24.6.43”. The only indication of provenance is a retailer’s sticker, “Hyndman’s, Dunedin” on the front recto endpaper.

Then, in an altogether different hand, not the exquisite fountain pen of ‘Mother’ but in post-war ballpoint, the recipient appends: “Carried by me in my battledress pocket throughout the war” followed by “William Thomas Fergus Ross, Love from Father Feb 1977”.

In these few tantalizing lines we are made aware that this small copy of the Scriptures has passed through the hands of three generations. John Fergus Ross did indeed survive the war, returned home to raise his own family and was still living in 1977. So much for the obvious. But what of that which isn’t obvious and raises more questions than there are immediate answers?

The date, 24.6.43, appears to lack any significance beyond its falling within the period of the Second World War. It was neither John Ross’s birthday (23 October), nor his wedding anniversary (1 July 1939). However, there is a letter in the family’s personal history collection, dated 1st July 1943, which offers a clue.  It’s an intensely personal and poignant letter from an adoring aunt to a special nephew, likely penned in a quiet moment of reflection after a family celebration of his wedding anniversary.

She writes: There were one or two things I wanted to say to you if there had been an opportunity – (though probably I wouldn’t have said them even if there had been!) … I know it is a satisfaction for you to go overseas & that you have to go – but you are leaving some very sad hearts behind you … There is no man in the Army, Navy or Air Force who will receive a warmer welcome on his return than you. John – you have no idea how we hate you having to go. You will always be in our thoughts. I am convinced that whatever happens to one the only thing to do is to hold on to one’s trust in God. Much love from Aunt Z.

Another letter in the family’s personal collection  – this one from Army Headquarters, Wellington – solves the date problem. On 23 December 1939, Ross, John Fergus, 611199, was commissioned in the New Zealand Scottish Regiment. The day before he resigned that commission on 25 June 1943, to join the ranks on 26 June 1943 as Private Ross in the 23rd Battalion, 2nd NZ Expeditionary Force, his mother inscribed the little bible. Her only son was off to war!

John Ross’s army serial number proved a lucky one. Or was it the bible that never left his battledress pocket, together with the wedding anniversary day letter’s entreaty to trust in God, that ensured his safe return? Not least among this soldier’s survival stories was the Battle of Monte Cassino.

By Dr Jennie Coleman

The soldier’s watch still ticks

As we prepare to observe Anzac Day this Sunday, 25 April, I remind myself it’s time to wind up and wear the silver wrist watch my paternal grandmother, Nell (nee Eleanor Mary Emmett) Coleman, gave me when I was in my mid-teens. She had kept it safe for more than 50 years as she continued to mourn its former owner, her favourite brother, Arnold.

The watch, she told me, was presented to him at his soldier’s farewell in 1917 by the people of Shirley, then a farming district on the northern bounds of Christchurch. But Rifleman Arnold Emmett, 51831, 3rd Battalion, New Zealand Rifle Brigade, already had a wrist watch which, according to my Nana, he took with him; the fine presentation model he chose to leave behind.

Just weeks before the Armistice was declared on 11 November 1918, Arnold Emmett was at the Somme where, on 31 August, 1918, he died of wounds in one of the Gezaincourt Casualty Clearing Stations. He is buried with 180 other New Zealanders in the Bagneux British Cemetery, just south of the town of Doullens and about 20 kms north of Amiens in north-west France.

Bagneux British Cemetery, France

On the day in June 1987 when I visited that cemetery, there too were three Commonwealth War Graves Commission employees doing the work they do so well. It was an enormous privilege to thank them, in my then relatively fluent French, for their part in maintaining the dignity and respect of a family member’s final resting place. Their gracious response was to pose behind great-uncle Arnold’s headstone for this photo.

Text & photos by Dr Jennie Coleman

Lines from behind ‘The Front’

While he was on a spell from the front line at the Somme, Rifleman Arnold Emmett scribbled a couple of pages to his future brother-in-law, Harry Coleman, back in New Zealand. These pages look to have been torn from a small exercise book, are written in purple ‘ink pencil’ and signed ‘From your old cobber, A.E.’ The address from which he writes is officially vague and quite simple: ‘France, 6 June 1918’. They are all that seems to have survived this soldier’s service to his country on the battlefields of France.

Apart from not unreasonable complaints about New Zealand mails not reaching them in the Somme, Arnold Emmett reveals something of his soldier’s social life behind the line. He describes meeting up with the recipient’s brother, Gunner Tom Coleman and three other young men, Ted Treleaven, Willie McFadden and Harold Wilson –names from the greater Marshland district, north of Christchurch. Although the Coleman family had left that district in 1912 and moved to a much larger property at Ladbrooks, old friendships remained intact, not least on the battlefields of France.

McFadden & Wilson, both drivers in the 5th Reinforcements, left Wellington on 13 June 1915; Treleaven embarked with the 9th Reinforcements, Wellington Infantry Battalion (B Company), on 8 January 1916; and Tom Coleman, with the 17th Reinforcements, New Zealand Field Artillery, on 23 September 1916.

But the network is wider than is at first apparent: Sapper Dunning Nigel Treleaven – likely a close relative of Ted Treleaven – embarked with the same body and on the same day as Drivers McFadden and Wilson; another Harold (Roy) Wilson (likely a close relative of Driver Harold (Twentyman) Wilson) enlisted in Dunedin and embarked on 9 October 1915 with the Medical Corps attached to the 1st Battalion, New Zealand Rifle Brigade.

Arnold Emmett and one Joseph Edward McFadden – possibly a close relative of Driver Willie McFadden – embarked the same troopship, HMNZT 86 (Maunganui) as Riflemen in Reinforcements, H Company, of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, on 12 June 1917. When Arnold Emmett wrote on 6 June 1918, one cannot help but wonder whether or not he knew of Rifleman McFadden’s death on 27 March 1918.

By the time his ‘old cobber’ received this letter,Rifleman Emmett had returned to the front, been wounded and subsequently died.

The Treleavens, Drivers McFadden & Wilson, and Gunner Tom Coleman all survived.

When Tom Coleman died just two months short of his 90th birthday in 1978  he was buried in the All Saints’ Anglican Church Cemetery, Prebbleton, beside his local-born wife, Nan (nee McNally). Although he gave his enlisting address as Ladbrooks, Tom Coleman’s name is included on the Prebbleton war memorial, just a few hundred metres south of his burial place.

And so fate decreed that I was deprived of one great-uncle and privileged to know another.

By Dr Jennie Coleman

An honourable hour off school in Dunedin

I  dashed out to take just a single photograph of a building – because the sun was shining so gloriously –  when I spied a more seriously worthy ‘photo-op’. One digital click later I recorded a special moment in our seasonal preparation for Anzac Day. Two very polite and well-spoken young ladies wearing the uniform of New Zealand’s oldest state secondary school for girls, Otago Girls’ High School, had exchanged their first hour in the classroom this Friday morning for the honourable title of New Zealand Returned Services Association ‘Official Collector’.

And so it was that they were ‘standing guard’ over a collection box and a tray of poppies, fulfilling a role that dates from the first ‘Poppy Day’ in 1922, six years after the establishment of the RSA in New Zealand. The first watch of the day was almost over so when the ‘relief’ arrived, I found myself in conversation with four, uniformed, young ladies.

Typically, their inherited personal histories reflected war service: one never knew a grandfather because he was killed when her father was three; another knew a grandfather who had served in the Air Force. They had studied the First World War poets as prescribed in the New Zealand secondary school English curriculum and readily volunteered their understanding of the symbolism of the poppy.

I don’t imagine for a moment they expected their photo to be taken by a random passer-by, nor to have been engaged in further conversation. And I certainly wasn’t the only one to reward their hour off school with such comments as ‘Keep up the good work’. As the first two collectors posed in the mid-morning Dunedin sun, with dignity and respect for their part in Poppy Day, I smiled through the camera. The cafe and bar, outside which they were stationed, is called “Alibi (genuine)”.

This morning, these young ladies had the most honourable alibi of all.


They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow…

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

“For the Fallen” by Laurence Binyon (1869-1943) stanzas 3 & 4