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