World War 1 affected most New Zealand families in a multitude of ways. North Otago’s Frew family was no exception, as Murray Frew tells Oamaru Mail reporter Sally Brooker.
Murray Frew rescued his family’s historic portraits from under the tank stand on an Enfield farm.
The Glenavy upholsterer did not know much about the wooden-framed black-and-white photographs, but he realised they needed to be stored somewhere more appropriate.
So he has become the custodian of the family lore that includes two World War 1 tragedies and another in a later generation.
One of the portraits is of his great-uncle John Frew, who lived on a farm on the Herbert road named after the family – Frew Rd.
The other is of his grandparents at their wedding in 1919. They “got a good start in life” by inheriting the family farm after William Frew’s two older brothers were killed in Europe, Mr Frew said.
John was born in 1889 and attended Otepopo School at Herbert. He was working as a farm labourer for the Holmes Brothers of Waimahaka, Southland, when war broke out.
He enlisted for military service in February 1915 and trained at Trentham. Four months later he was shipped out and on August 9 went ashore at Gallipoli to join the Otago Battalion.
The late North Otago author Lindsay Malcolm, in The Waiareka Warriors, noted that was the “very day the New Zealand Division was making history on the heights of the Sari Bair Range at Chunuk Bair”.
“Though it was possible John was on the heights on the ninth, it is more likely he was being held in reserve until the remnants of the Otago Battalion came down off the blood soaked heights.”
Just six days after his arrival, John had enteritis. He was evacuated to the island of Mudros then taken 10 days later to Malta and on to the Royal Victoria Hospital in London.
Having recovered quickly, he was shipped to Alexandria in Egypt to rejoin the Otago Battalion at Moascar Camp in January 1916.
To prepare for the New Zealand Division men for trench warfare on the western front, they were sent to Armentieres in the north of France for three months. A party of 180 from the Otago Battalion took part in a trench raid on the night of June 13. But a security lapse meant they walked into a prepared trap.
There were 35 killed, 122 wounded and six missing.
“Throughout the night and the following night the battalion salvaged as many of the wounded and dead from no man’s land as they could,” Mr Malcolm wrote.
John Frew was one of the latter, later buried in the Cite Bonjean Cemetery on the outskirts of Armentieres with 452 other New Zealanders.
His older brother, James, born in 1883, was a “ratbag”, Murray Frew said. He had moved away from North Otago and got into trouble with the police for offences likely including brawling.
At the age of 31, the Public Works Department labourer enlisted from Tauranga under the name James Henry Francis. Army records contained both names and a statutory deed filed in August 1920 declared that he was to be known subsequently as James Frew, Mr Malcolm’s research revealed.
James landed in Egypt with the Auckland Battalion 3rd Regiment in late March 1915 and in Gallipoli on April 25 – the fateful Anzac Day. The tall, strong soldier was known for his courage and his expertise as a bomb thrower and trainer.
He rose rapidly through the ranks, from Private to Lance Corporal on the first day, then to Corporal, then Acting Sergeant. That rank was confirmed after the Gallipoli campaign.
James was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, as confirmed in the London Gazette in June 1916.
He became an instructor with the Divisional School attached to the New Zealand Division headquarters.
More action was to follow when he went with the Auckland Battalion to the front lines in April 1917.
James was killed in July and buried by the battalion chaplain in Mud Corner in Belgium – just over the border from Armentieres.
Mr Frew said official certificates of his great-uncles’ deaths were sent home, John’s to Ardgowan, to the farm where his family had moved while he was away, and James’ to Tauranga.
Mr Frew has the original postage tube containing John’s certificate and smaller ones from Buckingham Palace.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has sent him photographs of both graves, which he hopes to be able to visit in the near future.
Mr Frew can “barely remember” his grandfather, William Frew, whose fortunes as a farmer grew from the tragic loss of his brothers.
Just three years after his marriage in 1919, he bought a farm at Enfield.
The couple had four sons and two daughters. Murray Frew’s father was the third son, who left school at the age of 12 and spent his first working week cutting a gorse hedge. His payment, a pound note wrapped around an ice-cream, was enough to buy a pair of boots and give a sum of money to his mother.
Mr Frew lived at Windsor for 57 years, just up the road from where his father was brought up. He suffered his own tragedy in the death of his 16-year-old brother, also named John Frew, in a car crash at Tapanui.
The name has not been given to any more of the family.
Mr Frew’s own son, Tony, is now interested in the family’s war legacy and ensuring the sacrifices made so far from home were not in vain.