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