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William Smallfield

Rifleman William Mandeno Smallfield.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

Rifleman William Mandeno Smallfield (New Zealand Rifle Brigade) joined the New Zealand Rifle Brigade in 1916. After two and a half years on the Western Front he returned to his family in Auckland, but he had left something behind.

In 1914 the First World War started. William joined the army when he was 20 years old . His training started at Trentham Military Camp in March 1916. In August, 1916, Smallfield left New Zealand with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force for France. He was discharged in April, 1919, on account of illness contracted whilst on active service, after serving two years and 166 days abroad. Smallfield returned to New Zealand and worked at his pre-war profession of printing until changing careers by becoming ordained in the Anglican Church. He married Eva Millicent Law on 26 December 1921.

Ninety years later, while cleaning out their uncle’s garage in England, John and Pam Robinson discovered a leather jerkin. Marked on the inside was a name, No 17735, Rifleman W.M Smallfield, B Coy, 5th Platoon, 1st Battalion, 3rd N.Z. (R). B.

Feeling that the jerkin should be returned to its country of origin, if not to its owner, John and Pam contacted a friend in New Zealand for help. Liz contacted Auckland Museum. Yes, we would love to have this for our collection, and will see whether we can track down the family of Rifleman Smallfield.

Starting point was the WWI Nominal Index which indicated that W.M. Smallfield was William Mandeno Smallfield, a printer by trade, and the son of Rev. P.S. Smallfield of Auckland. Our own Online Cenotaph database had much more information – showing that William Smallfield had survived the war, returned to New Zealand, married and became a Clerk in Holy Orders, dying in 1969 at the age of seventy four. There was also considerable information about his father, Rev. P.S. Smallfield, in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Next stop the White Pages – and two phone calls led to one of William Mandeno’s two sons, both living in Auckland.

Following a family visit to the view the vest, it was agreed that it should be presented to the Museum. The vest would join William Smallfield’s wartime diaries and a typescript, “A soldier’s life in World War One from letters and diaries – William Mandeno Smallfield", which the family donated in 2007.

William, aged 20 years when he enlisted, wrote to his mother every three or four days, and here we learn more about the waistcoat – a Christmas gift from his grandmother in 1916, received along with silk shirts from his mother.

“The leather waistcoat arrived yesterday, and I am writing a short letter to Grandmother thanking her for it... The silk shirts which you sent me, while being too late to use on the voyage over, are of the greatest use to me now. Silk next to the skin, quite prevents the trouble common to us in the trenches, and for that reason they are worth many pounds to me now.” (28 December 1916)

In February 1917 William Smallfield was wounded and spent some days in hospital – 11th Feb.

"Went out on a fighting patrol to Fritzs’ front line. Bombed out and three of out of four wounded, including myself. Went to the hospital at Sailly, arriving there at 12.30 pm. Put to bed, but slept little"

At this time all his kit went astray, including his silk shirts, but not, apparently, the leather waistcoat which he wore continuously – so much so that by March 1917 the seams had coming apart.

“I am still wearing the woollen waistcoat and leather waistcoat. They have been indispensable in keeping out the cold. The stitching in the leather has given way, and I have had to splice the seams together with wire and other odds and ends.” (5 March 1917)

The waistcoat found by the Robinsons is in remarkably good condition – suggesting that it may have been replaced by a newer version although this isn’t mentioned in his letters. And how it came to be stored in a garage in England remains a mystery.

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