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Three Generations of Service

Nelson Bennett
Collection Technician - Research Support

In many ways the McFarlane family story is reflective of the experiences of many early New Zealand families. The wars abroad and the difficulties at home that marked the family were experienced by so many like them. Their stories put a personal face on the struggles of New Zealanders through the tough years of the late 1800s and early 1900s. By looking at the lives of the McFarlanes we can begin to understand what forces drove people from such humble roots to serve their country overseas, and what it cost.

War through this period was not a distant thing like it so often is today. Many New Zealanders had personal war experience in the late 1800s. Whether it was the legacy of the New Zealand Wars or their service in foreign wars, conflict marked these early generations of New Zealanders. Andrew McFarlane was one of these men.

Andrew was born in 1835 in the small town of Auchterarder in Scotland. He joined the British Army at only 19 and almost immediately shipped out to the Crimean War with the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders Regiment. For many at the time the army was a way out for young men with few decent employment prospects in their area. Scottish Infantry like the 93rd were highly prized at the time and formed a key part of the British army.

A photograph of the 93rd Regiment officers, taken in 1864. Image kindly provided by Kathryn Ryder.

A photograph of the 93rd Regiment officers, taken in 1864. Image kindly provided by Kathryn Ryder.

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Unfortunately for Andrew, the Crimean War (1853-1856) was unlike the conflicts that had come before. The modernisation and industrialisation of Europe meant that the conflict was poorly led and lacking in focus, with military and government leaders unsure of their objectives and how to adapt to the new realities of warfare. The confrontation between the Imperial Russian forces and the allied forces of Britain, France, Sardinia, and the Ottomans degenerated into a slog of destructive battles and disease filled sieges. Andrew and his comrades in the 93rd saw some of the worst fighting of the war.

At the bloody Battle of Balaclava the 93rd earned the nickname ‘The Thin Red Line’ after they had been left to stand against a massive Russian assault on their position. Distinguishing themselves by pushing back the Russian cavalry, they soon after took part in the famous Siege of Sevastopol. Both were terrible occurrences in a brutal war. The unit was finally shipped back home in June 1856.

Only a year later Andrew re-joined the 93rd as they sailed to India. Most of the fighting of the Indian Mutiny was over by the time the regiment arrived in Calcutta, but the operations to mop up the last vestiges of resistance were still fierce and bloody. Andrew was badly wounded in one of these missions and spent seven months in hospital before being shipped back to Stirling Castle, Scotland, in 1866. Six months later he was discharged from the Regiment and he found work as a prison warden at Perth Penitentiary.

In 1871 Andrew (aged 35) married Susan Young Edwards (aged 21), who had been raised in rural Forfarshire, Scotland and then had become a linen weaver in a factory in Arbroath. Susan’s grandfather (Alexander Young) had served in the Napoleonic Wars and Andrew and Susan instilled in their children a deep sense of patriotism and pride in battlefield valour.

Photograph, likely of \u003ca href=\"\"\u003eAndrew\u003c/a\u003e and Susan with their two eldest children Hannah and \u003ca href=\"\"\u003eJoseph\u003c/a\u003e in Scotland. Image kindly provided by Kathryn Ryder.

Photograph, likely of Andrew and Susan with their two eldest children Hannah and Joseph in Scotland. Image kindly provided by Kathryn Ryder.

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In 1878 Andrew and Susan emigrated to New Zealand and settled in Dunedin, raising a family of seven children: three daughters and four sons.

The legacy of the wars he had seen cost Andrew and his family dearly. He had developed a dependence on alcohol, not uncommon for service people at the time. He and Susan would divorce in 1887, unusual for the time, and she was left to raise five of their children (including their three-month-old baby, Andrew) mostly by herself. For a single mother in post-gold rush Otago, this would have been an incredibly difficult task, and the family was extremely poor throughout the period. Her eldest son Joseph turned 13 later that year and his wage, however low, would have been a great help for the family. Susan took in boarders to help pay their bills, though she did not tolerate any hint of drunkenness.

Susan in Dunedin with her two youngest sons, \u003ca href=\"\"\u003eHerbert\u003c/a\u003e (right) and \u003ca href=\"\"\u003eAndrew\u003c/a\u003e (middle). Image kindly provided by Kathryn Ryder.

Susan in Dunedin with her two youngest sons, Herbert (right) and Andrew (middle). Image kindly provided by Kathryn Ryder.

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Joseph spent his entire career working on the railroads. Norman became a bootmaker, and Herb and Andrew both became plumbers. Andrew encouraged his sons to join the volunteer Caversham Rifles in the late 1800s, and he took a keen interest in the events unfolding in southern Africa. He died in 1904 and was given a military-style funeral in recognition of his Crimean war service.

War would once again come into the lives of the McFarlanes around the turn of the century. Rising tensions in southern Africa began to be felt across the British Empire as colonies like New Zealand supported the British and their imperial ambitions in the area. A short war had already been fought between the British forces and the Boer republics in 1880-81, resulting in a Boer victory and the return of independence to the South African Republic and Orange Free State. The discovery of gold in the Transvaal however, changed British priorities in the region. British settlers flooded into the South African Republic, to a hostile reception from the xenophobic and suspicious Boers. After a failed uprising and raid by a member of the British South African Company in 1895, the region was a powder keg waiting to explode.

War broke out in 1899, after the South African Republic demanded British troops be removed from their borders and foreign reinforcements be taken from the region. New Zealand’s Premier Richard Seddon and the House of Representatives had already authorised the formation of a contingent of mounted riflemen to send to South Africa, even before the outbreak of war. Despite the hugely rushed schedule, thanks to Seddon’s determination that New Zealand troops would be the first to arrive, and difficulties with both training and procurement of horses and equipment, the Kiwi soldiers distinguished themselves on the battlefield. Soon New Zealand’s mounted riflemen were in high demand as the British struggled to combat the irregular Boer commandos and their guerrilla tactics.

Joseph, Norman, and Herb were among the thousands of New Zealand men who signed up to fight. Patriotism was at an all-time high and the war was popular at home, despite the rising death toll. Learning their lessons from the Crimean War, the British kept a tighter leash on the press, meaning stories of British atrocities were suppressed and most got a rosy view of imperial involvement in the conflict. The situation on the ground, however, was very different.

The three McFarlane brothers joined the Ninth Contingent and arrived in Durban in 1902, the last year of the conflict. At this point the cruel practice of concentration camps of Boer civilians had been abandoned, instead letting the families return to their looted farms to serve as burdens on the commandos still resisting. New Zealand forces served both as garrisons in the fortified blockhouses that the British had constructed across the veldt (plains), and as flying columns that hunted groups of commandos.

\u003ca href=\"\"\u003eHerbert\u003c/a\u003e riding a pony as a child, on the back someone has written, \u0027Napolean hisself without his hat\u0027. Image kindly provided by Kathryn Ryder.

Herbert riding a pony as a child, on the back someone has written, 'Napolean hisself without his hat'. Image kindly provided by Kathryn Ryder.

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The Ninth Contingent was in the thick of the difficult campaign. Often pushing themselves and their mounts hard to chase the highly skilled Boer horsemen, conditions were terrible. Most soldiers spent much of their pay on food, since the rations were of poor quality. They were poorly equipped for operations on the veldt as well, with burning hot temperatures during the day and freezing cold at night. The Boer commandos were difficult opponents too - expert marksmen as well as riders and they had become increasingly desperate after years of conflict and were hardened by both their own experiences and the horrors their families had suffered. Many Boers had died in the crowded concentration camps, and many more in the ruins of their farms.

Joseph, Norman, and Herb exemplified the model New Zealand soldier that had so impressed the British officers. Despite a lack of training and experience, the New Zealanders proved not only tough but effective soldiers. Herb’s great-granddaughter recalls that he was already a crack shot with a rifle as well as an accomplished sportsman. The hardscrabble childhood they had suffered, and no doubt their father’s martial example, would have made the McFarlane men into quick studies for the unique nature of warfare they were in. New Zealanders also tended to be less urban and healthier than the average British soldier, and the massive numbers of volunteers meant the cream of the crop could be picked for service, counterbalancing their poor training and equipment.

The McFarlanes and the Ninth Contingent served until the bitter end of the conflict. The final New Zealander to die in the conflict was one of their officers, Lieutenant Robert McKeich. He and his friend had ridden out into the countryside to hunt four days after the peace treaty had been signed. They ran into three Boer commandos, who refused to believe the war was over. They shot Lieutenant McKeich, while his friend escaped after killing two and wounding the last.

The South African War was an odd conflict. While over 6,000 New Zealanders had served, which was significant when compared with the colony’s small population, it was still far less than would go on to serve in the later World Wars. Where veterans of the World Wars are celebrated to this day, the South African War is largely overlooked. It was a bitter and destructive war, fuelled almost entirely by imperialist ambitions. But the men and women who served felt pride in what they saw as their part in defending the honour of the British Empire, and the bonds of camaraderie they forged would last the rest of their lives.

\u003ca href=\"\" target=\"_blank\"\u003ePrivate Herbert McFarlane\u003c/a\u003e (bottom left) and other soldiers during the South African War. Image kindly provided by Kathryn Ryder

Private Herbert McFarlane (bottom left) and other soldiers during the South African War. Image kindly provided by Kathryn Ryder

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Of the McFarlane brothers the only one who didn't serve in South Africa was Andrew, the youngest. Born in 1886, he was just fifteen when his brothers left for war. Instead, Andrew would serve in New Zealand’s most famous campaign, Gallipoli. Enlisting at the start of 1915, Andrew shipped out of Wellington aboard the Willochra. He joined the Otago battalion months into the campaign at Anzac Cove.

\u003ca href=\"\"\u003eAndrew John McFarlane\u003c/a\u003e (1886-1956). Image kindly provided by Kathryn Ryder.

Andrew John McFarlane (1886-1956). Image kindly provided by Kathryn Ryder.

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Andrew first arrived at the famously disorganised Sarpi Camp on Lemnos, where ANZAC forces recuperated from their ordeal. On 15 August 1915 Andy wrote from Lemnos to his mother, Susan: “There are not many of the boys who went away left. It makes one almost weep to see them that are left. Nothing but mere shadows and yet they are fit for duty – more like a grave, They call this a rest camp. I fail to see where the rest comes in for those who have been fighting for so long.”

A month later Andrew wrote from the Gallipoli Peninsula, underplaying the Turkish shelling and snipers’ fire. Wounded, Andrew returned home in 1916, and was reunited with his beloved wife Katie and their eight-year-old son Allan. But while this second generation of McFarlanes managed to survive their battlefield ordeals, like their father before them, they did not have easy lives back home.

Catherine (Katie) Stewart (1884-1917). Image kindly provided by Kathryn Ryder.

Catherine (Katie) Stewart (1884-1917). Image kindly provided by Kathryn Ryder.

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Relieved to have survived Gallipoli, Andy’s reunion with his family was short lived. In 1917 Katie passed away in the Spanish Flu epidemic that ravaged the world. She was 33. Still processing the horrors of war, his young wife’s death affected Andrew deeply and like his father, he turned to alcohol to cope.

Joseph had married Catherine Jane Rainger in 1899, before his service in South Africa. Together the couple had eight children but, tragically, six died over the following decades, mostly of tuberculosis. Catherine herself died in 1920 of a kidney disease. In a letter to Herb in Invercargill, their mother Susan commented on the awful situation, not long after Catherine’s death.

A letter from Susan to her son \u003ca href=\"\"\u003eHerbert\u003c/a\u003e in Invercargill, talking about \u003ca href=\"\"\u003eJoseph\u0027s\u003c/a\u003e difficult times. Image kindly provided by Kathryn Ryder.

A letter from Susan to her son Herbert in Invercargill, talking about Joseph's difficult times. Image kindly provided by Kathryn Ryder.

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Sometime after fighting in South Africa in 1902, Norman had moved to Victoria, Australia, where he met his future wife, Beatrice Hollingworth. They married there in 1910 and went on to have six children, eventually moving back to New Zealand. The war years were tough, though, and Norm spent much of them working as a labourer before enlisting once again and serving in the Home Guard.

Disaster also struck Norman’s family, with two of their sons dying in their infancy. Norman eventually found work as a confectioner, possibly at the Cadbury factory, but in 1942/43 he and Beatrice divorced. Upon their deaths their children wrote kindly about the loving relationship they had once had.

Brothers and South African War Veterans, \u003ca href=\"\"\u003eNorman\u003c/a\u003e and \u003ca href=\"\"\u003eHerb McFarlane\u003c/a\u003e in their sixties, c. 1943. Image kindly provided by Kathryn Ryder.

Brothers and South African War Veterans, Norman and Herb McFarlane in their sixties, c. 1943. Image kindly provided by Kathryn Ryder.

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Herb and his wife Elizabeth Ferguson had married in Dunedin in 1907. By 1913 they had moved to Invercargill where they raised a large family of six boys and six girls in a simple, three-bedroomed cottage. They suffered greatly through the economic struggles of the interwar years, often relying upon Herb’s substantial vegetable garden, orchard and their cows to supplement their diet.

Herb was a hard-working and intelligent man and, having won a national apprentice plumbing championship, he might have expected a successful career in his chosen field. Prior to his marriage he had been self-employed and was doing well. However, the Great Depression impacted his business and like thousands of other men, Herb was detailed on to labour schemes, working every other week for the unemployment benefit. Herb was part of the labour crew who drained Duck Creek in Invercargill. Some men laboured all day in the cold and the rain with no rations, too poor to bring a lunch. Herb asked his daughter Myrtle to add an extra sandwich to his own lunchbox on the days he worked, to help a man who had none.

\u003ca href=\"\"\u003eHerb\u003c/a\u003e and Bess McFarlane, with the first eight of their 12 children on a family picnic, 1922. Image kindly provided by Kathryn Ryder.

Herb and Bess McFarlane, with the first eight of their 12 children on a family picnic, 1922. Image kindly provided by Kathryn Ryder.

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The struggles of the McFarlane men and their families show the difficulties many veterans faced upon their return to civilian life, with little support and tough times to weather.

By the time the Second World War broke out most of the second generation of McFarlanes were too old to serve again. Andrew, at 54, enlisted in 1940 but only served in camp in New Zealand. Instead, the new generation stepped up to continue the family’s legacy of service.

Joseph’s daughter Areta volunteered and served overseas. Serving with the trailblazing Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps, Areta would survive the war, get married, and live to be 93.

Herb’s son Andrew, named after his uncle and grandfather, would not be so lucky. Andrew was born on 31 August 1915. He was a champion boxer and had found employment as a wool classer and rabbit skin grader. A quiet man, Andy lived with his parents in Invercargill until 1938, but enjoyed the company of his fiancée, Margaret Davidson. When war broke out Andrew enlisted and joined the New Zealand Artillery as a Gunner. After a short time in the Pacific, he embarked for Egypt and the ongoing North African campaign. It was there he was killed in action on 1 December 1941 at age 26. He now lies in the Knightsbridge War Cemetery in Acroma, Libya.

Photograph of \u003ca href=\"\"\u003eAndrew\u003c/a\u003e, son of Herb and Bess, in uniform. Image kindly provided by Kathryn Ryder.

Photograph of Andrew, son of Herb and Bess, in uniform. Image kindly provided by Kathryn Ryder.

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The loss of Andrew hit Herb and his family hard, especially his closest sibling Myrtle. She kept many pictures of Andrew and told many stories to her family, which now populate his Online Cenotaph record. Myrtle died at the age of 101 and had missed Andy for 75 years. She and Andy’s fiancée Margaret remained life-long friends.

While extraordinary in their commitment to service, the generational experiences of the McFarlanes mirror the experiences of many New Zealand families. For the generations who came before the end of the Second World War, conflict was the norm rather than the exception. While conflict would obviously continue after, with many New Zealanders serving bravely overseas, the scale of New Zealand’s commitments would continue to shrink. This has allowed multiple generations of New Zealanders to grow up mostly free of the scars of war.

The experiences of the McFarlanes also demonstrate the changing motivations for service throughout history. When Andrew volunteered at 19 in Scotland, military service was an opportunity, if not the opportunity, to leave in hope of a better life down the road. For his sons in the South African War it was patriotic sentiments that would spur them on, and these would persist until their younger brother’s service in the First World War. By the time their children served in the Second World War service was less idealistic and more dutiful, fighting mostly against the rising tide of fascism that threatened their way of life.

\u003ca href=\"\"\u003eHerb\u003c/a\u003e at 90 with his friend and comrade Alex Adam. Image kindly provided by Kathryn Ryder.

Herb at 90 with his friend and comrade Alex Adam. Image kindly provided by Kathryn Ryder.

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Whatever their motivations, each generation faced the horrors of war and the hardships that followed with remarkable resilience. But the story of the McFarlanes is not just one of tragedy and the costs of war. Herb lived to be 95, eventually becoming Invercargill’s oldest surviving South African War veteran. Throughout the toughest of times and in his older years he still travelled across New Zealand to various reunions with his old comrades in arms. He attended Invercargill’s ANZAC Day commemorations up until his 90th year. He and his brothers often spoke of their service with pride, reflecting on the good times. The story of the McFarlanes reminds us that amongst the horror and tragedy faced by generations who served, pride and camaraderie still shine through.

A huge thank you to Herb’s great granddaughter, Kathryn Ryder, for her amazing work supporting this article and filling her family’s Online Cenotaph records with pictures, biographies and heartfelt messages.

Cite this article

Bennett, Nelson. Three Generations of Service. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 13 April 2023. Updated: 27 April 2023.