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Death in the Spring

By Gail Romano
Associate Curator, History

In the late afternoon and evening of 26 March 1918, a cool spring day, the men of the Auckland Regiment were engaged in fierce fighting in the vicinity of Mailly-Maillet[1] in the Somme Valley. The Regiment had just moved south at short notice following news that the British Fifth Army had been overcome by ‘a great enemy attack opening on the Somme’. This was the German spring offensive of 1918.

According to the regiment’s record of their experience:

‘The British line on the Somme was broken and the grey tide, sweeping on over the old battlefield, was surging on toward Amiens to cut the railway communications, isolate the Channel ports and destroy the British Army…. The New Zealanders had marched straight into the gap that had developed [in the British line]. Somewhere ahead of them were the enemy, who had found the weak spot, and were racing desperately to pass through before it should be closed. If they succeeded the fall of Amiens and of Doullens would be almost a certainty. At all costs this gap had to be closed, and closed without an hour's delay. Everyone was in the highest spirits, and fit for anything. No one was in the least daunted by the events of the last few days. The Tommies had broken, but what of that? This was the New Zealand Division going in to save the day’.

Source: Burton, O. E. The Auckland Regiment. Whitcombe and Tombs Limited. 1922. Pp 193, 196-7

The ’Boy’s Own’ flavour of that narrative styles their entry into the action as a ripping yarn. But they were frantic hours. And sometime on this late March day, during those first engagements, Private Lemuel John Bagnall known to family and friends as Jack, was killed. His body was never recovered but, along with 445 other New Zealanders who died in the Somme region between March and August of that year and whose resting place is unknown, he is commemorated on the New Zealand Memorial at Grevillers, close to the place where he lost his life.

Private Lemuel John Bagnall, of Ponsonby. Image kindly provided by Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections AWNS-19180606-41-4.

Private Lemuel John Bagnall, of Ponsonby. Image kindly provided by Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections AWNS-19180606-41-4.

Earlier in the year, Frank H. Simonds, American correspondent, war commentator and associate editor of the New York Tribune, widely acknowledged winner of the very first Pulitzer Prize for editorial awarded in 1917 for an uncredited editorial published by the paper in 1916, had predicted that the next German push would not be in the west. ‘The Germans have announced their forthcoming attack is to be made in the West,’ he wrote. ‘They have heralded it with brass band and a blare of trumpets; but their attack upon Verdun, upon Russia in April, 1915, upon Italy, all these were surprises so far as German publicity was concerned. If Germany contemplated an attack in the West, would she talk about it, giving her foes due warning, the chance to make the last preparation and search their own fronts yet once more for some one weak point? It seems to me, and this is the conclusion I find in most of the European journals, that a German offensive in the West is unlikely.’ But on 21 March that prediction proved ill-founded.

Jack belonged to a prominent and publicly-minded Auckland family which had business interests in Auckland and the Hauraki Plains and counted a former city councillor and Mayor of Auckland, his uncle Lemuel John Bagnall, among its senior members. Jack’s mother Jessy had signed the 1892 suffrage petition and his father, Horatio, was also a councillor and member of the Auckland Institute.

Jack’s paternal grandparents George Bagnall and Martha Stevenson migrated to New Zealand in May 1864 with their children and an entrepreneurial spirit. In their former home of Prince Edward Island, a province off the east coast of what was then British North America but in 1867 was to become part of the confederation of Canada, they had been part of family-run timber and ship building businesses and George had been a member of the Island’s Legislative Assembly.  

Prince Edward Island was reportedly similar to New Zealand in climate, geography and resources, and the Bagnall family seem to have made the transition easily, quickly picking up where they had left off. Initially George worked as a shipbuilder in Auckland but the family soon settled in Turua, where George and his sons leased and eventually bought the Hauraki Sawmills. Their mill was fed from the extensive kahikatea (white pine) forests which covered the area at that time.

After George’s death, his sons set the business up as a company and in the late 1890s took over a box making factory in Auckland for which they supplied timber from their own mill. The Bagnall Bros. and Company factory produced kegs, casks, honey boxes, beehives and hive foundations. But their most lucrative output was butter boxes for the new refrigerated export trade. Kahikatea was ideal for butter boxes as it was virtually odour free and did not taint the butter. By 1902 Bagnall Bros. supplied nearly the whole of the province’s export trade in timber and milled product. The demand was such that the kahikatea forests were worked out by 1919. Ultimately, their success as businessmen means the Bagnalls will be forever associated with the destruction of the Hauraki Plains’ great kahikatea forests.[2]

Fig 1. Classified advertisement, Auckland Star \u003ca href =\"https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/AS18981201.2.58.34.1\" target\"_blank\"\u003e1 December 1898.\u003c/a\u003eFig 2. Company exhibit at Auckland Exhibition showing boxes, crates and barrels stacked to give the impression of a building.

Fig 1. Classified advertisement, Auckland Star 1 December 1898.Fig 2. Company exhibit at Auckland Exhibition showing boxes, crates and barrels stacked to give the impression of a building.

Auckland Weekly News Supplement, 24 February 1899. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-18990224-3-2.No known copyright restrictions.

The brothers’ families were large and close. Jack and a cousin, Lemuel Alan Weston Bagnall, were both born in Turua in 1894 and named after their uncle Lemuel who was active in public life and would become Mayor of Auckland from 1910-11. In Auckland, the cousins lived across the road from each other in Mason’s Ave, Ponsonby. Both were to go to war - but only one returned.

Horatio Nelson and Jessy Bagnall (26 Mason’s Ave, Ponsonby), and family, mid-late 1900s. Jack Bagnall is standing, far right. Collection of Auckland Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira, \u003ca href=\"https://www.aucklandmuseum.com/collections-research/collections/record/am_humanhistory-object-760738\" target=\"_blank\"\u003e2014.34.4.\u003c/a\u003e Gift of Vyvien Palmer and Warwick Bagnall.

Horatio Nelson and Jessy Bagnall (26 Mason’s Ave, Ponsonby), and family, mid-late 1900s. Jack Bagnall is standing, far right. Collection of Auckland Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira, 2014.34.4. Gift of Vyvien Palmer and Warwick Bagnall.

© Auckland Museum CC BY

Jack Bagnall’s war

When war broke out in 1914 Jack Bagnall was working as a porter with the New Zealand Railways Department. While porters were not paid at the same level as engineers, as customer service staff (helping passengers with baggage and with boarding the carriages) they had the possibility to supplement income with tips. In addition, porters could, and did, assist with a variety of station duties. One of New Zealand’s earliest railway trade unionists, Matthew Joseph Mack, described his work as a junior porter in the late nineteenth century as 'everything from car-cleaning to shunting'. 

When word reached NZ that Britain had declared war on Germany, the government called immediately for men to sign up. The mechanism had been set up twelve months prior propelled by European tensions and the lessons learned from recruitment for the Anglo-Boer War. First to go would be the permanent forces, followed by Territorials over the age of 20, and lastly those in civilian life with military experience. 

Railway men were among those favoured as they were perceived to have experience that would contribute positively in a war setting. Canadian research has suggested that this was because railway hierarchy and operations modelled themselves on the military model.

‘In the mid-19th century, railways employed unprecedentedly large numbers of employees, and it was essential that workers followed regulations precisely and punctually. The army was the obvious example of an institution that organized and controlled large numbers of men, so railway employment was patterned on military service. Uniforms were styled on military uniforms and terminology was also derived from the army. A man who left work without notice, for example, was said to have "deserted the service." With the outbreak of war, it seemed obvious to senior managers that railwaymen should enlist, and that the company should encourage their patriotism.’

Source: MacKinnon, M. ‘Canadian Railway Workers and World War I Military Service’. Labour/ Le Travail, Volume 40 / Volume 40e (1997). 220.

New Zealand Railways ran an active Territorial force. Jack Bagnall was a member of the North Island Railway Battalion and had previous experience with No 3 Company NZ Field Engineers. 

Training camp for officers and senior non-commissioned officers of the North Island Railway Battalion, New Zealand Engineers. Auckland Weekly News, 2 July 1914. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19140702-52-3

Training camp for officers and senior non-commissioned officers of the North Island Railway Battalion, New Zealand Engineers. Auckland Weekly News, 2 July 1914. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19140702-52-3

No known copyright restrictions.

The New Zealand Railways Officers’ Institute immediately declared their support for New Zealand's war effort, offering ‘a contingent of 200 men from the Railway Engineers’ for the proposed advance expeditionary force. Although many railwaymen were frustrated at being rejected for this first contingent, Jack was selected.  

‘The assembling of the 258 officers and men of the Railway Engineers … presented no difficulties, owing to the fact that they were all members of the N.Z. Railway Department and of the well-organised and equipped N.Z. Railway Battalions. Within 24 hours of the call being made for volunteers they paraded in Wellington, completely uniformed, armed and equipped.’

Source: S.J. Smith. The Samoa (N.Z.) Expeditionary Force 1914–1915. Ferguson & Osborn Limited. 1924. Pp. 19–20.

Jack signed up in Wellington on 11 August and found himself a member of the NZEF Advance Party which sailed from Wellington a few days later bound for a destination unknown. This first force of nearly 1400 keen men soon understood they were headed for Samoa to wrest control of that island nation from the German empire, including the new powerful state of the art wireless tower that had been erected only a few months before. 

New Zealand Railway Engineers for Samoa parading at Wellington, 11th August, 1914. In : S.J. Smith. \u003ca href = \"http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/WH1-Samo-fig-WH1-Samo019a.html\" target=\"_blank\"\u003e The Samoa (N.Z.) Expeditionary Force 1914-1915. \u003c/a\u003eNew Zealand in the First World War.

New Zealand Railway Engineers for Samoa parading at Wellington, 11th August, 1914. In : S.J. Smith. The Samoa (N.Z.) Expeditionary Force 1914-1915. New Zealand in the First World War.

New Zealand Electronic Text Collection, CC BY SA 3.0

In Samoa, the Railway Engineers renovated and re-purposed a narrow gauge railway that had serviced the wireless tower.

‘On arrival in Samoa they found a narrow-gauge railway running from the jetty at Apia to the German wireless station, a small petrol Telefunken locomotive and some wagons. The Germans had tried to sabotage the locomotive but it was quickly fixed and painted with the letters ‘NZR’, and was in operation the day after the landing. New tracks were laid to connect the main camps and New Zealand engineers assembled a second little locomotive, using an old motor from a launch. A trip to the wireless station by the Apia Express soon became a recognised Sunday outing for the troops on leave.’

Source: S.J. Smith. The Samoa (N.Z.) Expeditionary Force 1914–1915. Ferguson & Osborn Limited. 1924. 73.

Camp of the New Zealand Railway Engineers with railway track running alongside. Apia, Samoa. Photographed by Alfred John Tattersall about 1914.  Alexander Turnbull Library \u003ca href=\"https://natlib.govt.nz/records/22690177\" target=\"_blank\" \u003ePAColl-1046-06\u003c/a\u003e

Camp of the New Zealand Railway Engineers with railway track running alongside. Apia, Samoa. Photographed by Alfred John Tattersall about 1914. Alexander Turnbull Library PAColl-1046-06

However, the lack of action soon made the New Zealanders bored and and tired of Samoa. Most hoped to get home quickly and go further afield. In early 1915 a relief garrison of older men was sent to Sāmoa to replace those members of the Advance Force who were keen to join the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in Europe. 

Jack returned from Samoa in March 1915 but he did not immediately re-enlist. He went back to his railways work and appears to have been attached to Remuera Railway Station. When he signed up again on 7 March 1916, his last known address was recorded as ‘C/- Station Master Remuera’. 

Postcard of Remuera Railway Station tentatively dated 1910, showing a porter on the platform (arms akimbo). While it is unlikely to be Jack Bagnall, he was 5’11” and slender so it is tempting to imagine like this on the Remuera platform a few years later.  Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 6-BUC105.

Postcard of Remuera Railway Station tentatively dated 1910, showing a porter on the platform (arms akimbo). While it is unlikely to be Jack Bagnall, he was 5’11” and slender so it is tempting to imagine like this on the Remuera platform a few years later. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 6-BUC105.

Image may be subject to copyright restrictions.

After three months training in New Zealand, Jack Bagnall embarked for the war as a member of the 14th Reinforcements. He arrived in the UK in August 1916 and finally joined the 1st Battalion, Auckland Regiment in the field on 1 October that year, towards the end of the First Battle of the Somme. The Aucklanders spent that winter in a quiet sector and managed to have Christmas Day in billets and not on the line, although they experienced ‘the hardest, coldest, most terrible winter known in Europe for half a century’.[3]

We have no knowledge of Jack Bagnall’s specific war experience. However, Jack was with his unit until August 1917 so presumably was present throughout the Battalion’s activity in the Le Bizet-Ploegseert sector which culminated in the Battle of Messines in June of that year and the Third Battle of Ypres which began on 31 July. In August Jack received two weeks leave in the UK. He had barely returned to his unit when he was evacuated sick and spent the next three months in and out of hospital. After he returned fit in January 1918, Jack spent a week attached to the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company which was engaged building dugouts for infantry.[4]

1st Auckland spent the remainder of January and February cold, but ‘nothing of consequence took place’,[5] and on 10 March the New Zealand Division embarked on what was intended to be a month of training. This period of refreshment included the Brigade football competition in which 1st Auckland won the preliminary rounds but lost the final to 1st Wellington.  

This interlude was interrupted by the German spring offensive, during which Jack Bagnall lost his life. 

Six of Jack Bagnall’s cousins also went to war.[6] Albert Eric Ralston Bagnall and his brother George Stevenson Bagnall, both of Ponsonby, died in 1918 as a result of their war participation – Eric in France in August 1918 and George in Auckland in November of that year from influenza complications.[7] Jack’s father Horatio received his son’s final pay in 1919 and his medals, the British War Medal and Victory Medal, by July 1922. These now reside in the Auckland War Memorial Museum collection along with his Memorial Plaque.

Well before the First World War Jack’s cousin Stanley Wellington Bagnall who also served  wrote a lament for the passing of the timber trade and the keen sense of loss felt by the town of Turua. How fitting is the ending of that lament as a memorial to the lost members of a family which years later, in the language of the times, definitely did ‘their duty’.

‘And the little town is lonely

For the ships and for the men

That went sailing to the northward

And shall ne'er come back again’. 

S. W. Bagnall, ‘Timber Ships’.


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REFERENCES

[1] Half-way between Arras in the north and Amiens in the south, west of Bapaume

[2] Science researcher Anne Ball has written an interesting blog article on the Bagnall businesses: ‘Bagnall Family and Turua – Timber town of yesterday year’.

[3] Burton, O. E. The Auckland Regiment. Whitcombe and Tombs Limited. 1922. 120.

[4] Military personnel file, Lemuel John Bagnall. Archives New Zealand; Australian Imperial Force Unit Diary 1914-18 War. Tunnelling & Survey. 1stAustralian Tunnelling Company. January 1918

[5] Burton, O. E. The Auckland Regiment. Whitcombe and Tombs Limited. 1922. 190.

[6] Seven confirmed Bagnall cousins from Auckland went to WW1, three of whom didn’t survive:

49066   Albert Eric Ralston Bagnall (KIA); father: Albert Edward Bagnall

36766   Arthur Errett Bagnall; father: William Henry Bagnall

7/934   Frederick William Cecil Bagnall; father Horatio Nelson Bagnall

13/271   George Stevenson Bagnall (died of wounds); father: Albert Edward Bagnall

2/2775   Lemuel Alan Weston Bagnall; father: Albert Edward Bagnall

4/70, 15093 Lemuel John Bagnall (KIA); father: Horatio Nelson Bagnall

17362   Stanley Wellington Bagnall; father: Richard Wellington Bagnall

[7] Contradictory death notices for GS Bagnall confuse his story. His death has been recorded as ‘in camp’ and ‘at his mother’s residence’. He was discharged and invalided home in 1916 following a severe spinal wound in the middle of the year that left him paralysed below the shoulders. He was reported ‘dangerously ill’ for months. It seems unlikely he would have been in camp towards the end of 1918.

Cite this article

Romano, Gail. Death in the Spring. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 21 March 2022. Updated: 25 March 2022.
URL: www.aucklandmuseum.com/war-memorial/online-cenotaph/features/Death-in-the-Spring