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Joe Morton's Letters 1911-1917-1

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Surnames/tags: Gannicliffe Morton
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Joe's letters were transcribed by Tony Varey in 2016



Joseph Morton (born 1897) was the closest sibling of my Grandmother Edith (born 1899). He went to New Zealand in 1911 to work on Lawrence Holt’s ranch and then went to France in mid-1916. He was killed in action at the end of 1917.

Willian Henry (Harry) Gannicliffe (born 1897) was Joe’s best friend and my Grandfather, and he kept all Joe’s letters from New Zealand and France. What appears here are transcriptions of the majority of the content of the letters. One or two other documents also are included.

Recollections about Joe written by my Mother Joan Varey in 2004:

Joe won a scholarship to the Liverpool Institute. There was a master at the school who always sneered at scholarship boys, and one day, in a rage, my Uncle Joe knocked the blackboard over and said he wasn't going back! A different master came to try to persuade him to go back to the Institute, but he wouldn't go. My Grandmother was a poor widow, so Joe went back to his elementary school until he was fourteen (school leaving age). However, I think the Institute must have kept an eye on him, as he was offered a place on the New Zealand ranch of Lawrence Holt, a Liverpool shipping tycoon, who was a great benefactor of the school.

Joe left for New Zealand when he was fourteen years and one month old (ie very late 1911). My Father kept all his letters and the books Joe sent him, and also some boar's tusks. It was exactly the life my Father and Joe would have chosen. Well, the war came - 1914/18 - and Joe joined the New Zealand army and went to France. A friend of his went on leave to Liverpool and Joe told him to look up his family. He stepped off the boat at the Pier Head and went up to a Newspaper Kiosk, and thought the girl in it looked a bit like Joe, so he said "Are you Edie Morton?" She said "No, but I know Edie Morton! Come home with me when I have finished work!" Liverpool is a very big city. Joe got one leave from France and then went back.

My Father, his best friend, was in the RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps), when he found that his unit was relieving Joe's unit in the New Zealanders, so he walked up the road until he saw a man wearing the same badges as Joe, and said "Do you know Joe Morton?" The man said, "Yes, he's asleep in that tent". Dad hadn't seen him for six years, but he went in and sat beside him until he woke up. He didn't wake him. This was a very unusual meeting, as there were thousands of soldiers there, so they went and had their photo taken to show the people at home that they really had met. It never happened again. Joe was killed.

My Grandmother could have had a pension from the New Zealand Government as her son was killed in the war, and it would have been bigger than a British war pension, but she refused it. She said she didn't need it and always thought that there were others more in need than herself. In 1965 my parents came to stay with us in Holland, and we took them to the battlefields and cemeteries in Belgium and went to visit Joe's grave. In the little chapel at the entrance to the cemetery there was a book in which there was a potted biography of all the men buried there - the schools they'd attended, everything.  

A reference from Queens Road School dated 20 Oct 1911:

Joseph Morton has been a scholar here since infancy. He is a quiet unassuming and thoroughly good lad. He has considerably more than average ability and has shown evidence of strong and solid character. I have much confidence in him and can strongly recommend him. Last year he was awarded the School Prize of Honour for nobility of character. (signed J.F. Steinly)

A letter from Lawrence D Holt dated 8 November 1911:

India Buildings, Water Street, Liverpool

My dear Morton,

I am writing to remind you to drop me a line from the ports of call of the Arawa telling me how you are all getting on. Don’t forget that you must all learn to pull along together as friends and it is your duty, as leader, to give the example of manliness and comradeship to the others. There is a bright future before you all if you make the firm resolve to quit yourselves as men. Learn always to try to live a straightforward and wholesome life and then you cannot come to harm. We all make mistakes sometimes but as long as you try to put things right at once, all will soon be well again. But I know you will do your best so here is good luck to you.

Remember all of you to write kind letters home to your parents and brothers and sisters. Many of them will miss you more than you imagine, and don’t forget your home as you grow up to be men.

Good voyage and good luck to you all! Remember you have a friend at home in Yours very truly Lawrence D Holt.

Joe’s letters

15 November 1911

SS Arawa

Dear Harry,

We are just about to enter Tenerife… I have been seasick and ate nothing between Friday night and Monday… I am in a six berth cabin and we are called the “terrible five” because of the row we kick up at night. I hope you are well and I want you to thank your mother in my name as I had no time to do it myself for the penknife. I am pressed for time as tea-time is drawing near, so good bye. Joe Morton

February 1912

Dear Harry,

We are at Whangaparaoa now and are having a fine time. We are right in the backlocks of NZ and there are wild pigs, turkey and red deer. We went pig hunting on Sunday and stuck one with a sheath knife. We ride over the mountains till we see a pig then we loose the dogs. These chase the pig till it turns at bay. Then we come up and kill it with knives. We are always riding horse and fishing. The river Waikura runs past our house. We camp out often and boil the billy and bake fish. This is a splendid country and if you are thinking of going to one of the Colonies, come to NZ. You will always have a pal at Mrs Davies Whangaparaoa station, Cape Runaway.

15 March 1912

Whangaparaoa Station, Cape Runaway

I have been here 2 months and like the place fine, also the work. Your letter brought to Whan-etc. a whiff of Knowsley [Lord Sefton’s estate where the boys used to go]. When I left England there were only three things I felt much cut up about. They were leaving Mother, Knowsley, and the best pal I ever had. I wish you were here and we could go about boar-hunting. I have shot two pigs but not a tusker boar. The tusks of a full-grown boar are about 4 inches long. If I kill one the tusks are yours if you will. If you went to any Colony I advise you to go to New Zealand. If you did you could work on a station for a few years and then go fencing or bushfalling. I am a fairly expert axeman and can chop a 12 inch tree down in 20 minutes. We ride about the hills and bush on Sundays… The nearest church is in Auckland 249 miles away. The nearest town is Opotiki 70 miles away. It contains 2 stores, 1 hotel and about 50 people [2016: 9000 !]. Last time we went hunting we got 27 pig including five boars. We have a raft and I can swim and dive off it. There are many shags and wild ducks here and up the river. There are hundreds of wild turkeys and pheasants. It is post day on Wednesday, so I may write some more later…

(17 March): I got your tusks on Sunday and I hope you will hang them up in your pantry or house. You will not get them for some time as I have hung them up for the flesh to rot off them. In remembrance of England, home and Knowsley, I remain Joe  

25 July 1912

…on this ‘ere station there are two men and two boys ie Phil Davies, boss, GB Lennard, 2nd boss, Joseph Morton, 3rd boss, Frederick Hamilton, 4th boss. Well Lennard had a holiday and went to Opotiki to get drunk. Davies who drives the waggon up the river to Waikura, went up and as the bushfallers had felled some bush near the track he took Fred with him to help clear the track. That night it rained hard and the river flooded so that the waggon could not come down next day. I was nearly killed with work. Before breakfast I milked and got the draught horses in and fed them. After breakfast I fed the calves, turned the horses out and chopped wood till dinner time. After dinner killed sheep and had a rough time of it turning some bullocks onto the river bed. Then I got draught in and fed them and fed the calves… Dick Turei is almost dead with Typhoid Fever. He owns 40,000 acres of land just round here and tons more elsewhere. He was married 8 months ago to daughter of Manyhera and now he’ll probably die.

23 August 1912

Howard and Magee’s, Waikura

(written in pencil) …I am out of writing material excepting stamps. And we can only get stores etc. by waggon or pack horses once a week and the waggoner usually forgets small things… Nothing much has happened here. We went to a pig hunt on Sunday and I got a couple of sows. No tusks of course. I am out of cartridges too now and cannot get any till we finish this fence in about a fortnight when we go to Whangaparaoa.

My gun takes 22 short and 22 long. The long ones will kill pigs. They are 50 for a shilling. I will try to remember to send these tusks this post… A fortnight ago… I decided to go pig hunting. I took Howard’s dogs and went into the green bush. The dogs roused an old boar about a foot high at the shoulder and with long tusks. I gave him one in his shoulder but he charged and I went down. I had a vision of great hairy legs and could see his tail against the sky. Then I felt a pain in my leg and when I got up I discovered where he had ripped my calf. No more pig hunting that day. It is my great aim in life to slay that boar and secure his tusks…

I have no pen and ink till the waggon comes, and not then I suppose… Glad you passed the exam, but I think exams are an abomination on the face of the earth.

6 September 1912


…we are not troubled with motors here. They can’t get here and if they did they would bust all their tyres. We have finished the fence we were putting up and are starting another one. We have to split our own posts. We put four or five charges of blasting powder in a big log and split it. Then we split posts out of it with maul and wedges…

I have got another gun, an old muzzle loading shot gun found in the bush. It is quite serviceable. I load it with blasting powder ground small…  

February 1913


… have got a new gun off Mr. Lennard. It is a beautiful small light 22 calibre Winchester 12 shot repeater and I am making hay of the duck, grebe, pigeon and shags. I am going to a fencing camp to learn fencing. An experienced hand can get a pound a day and tucker for making fences. I am rather glad now that I left England, though… I have been almost homesick the last weeks. The other fellows are rotten. I suppose that they think me swanky but still I can’t bear them. Still, I will be by myself in camp so that will be allright.

The birds out here are very pretty and if I get any skins you can have them. Nesting time will soon be here in about 2 months - hooray…



I am having a good time out here, having splendid weather. We bathe in the river every night. Summer is drawing to a close now, however. I am a fairly good swimmer now. I am going up to Waikura on Sunday to get my pay. The track is along the river bed, the bank being covered with mature bush. …my pony is a good one. He has not been beaten yet in a gallop. I will gallop him a bit this year. Of course it is only for the sport of the thing. We have an open race twice a year, from one end of the Orete beach to the other. 2 miles. …he is a coal black standing 14 hands 3 inches. He has great quarters and two white socks.

I do not often go pig hunting now as I have no pig dog. I have two sheep dogs. I have started shepherding…

15 May 1913

Waikura Station

…I have left camp life behind me and have started the free and easy life of a station hand. Once more… I milk. I chop wood, though now I can chop in half a day enough to last a week. I pack sheep to the bushfallers’ camps and pack grass seed to the country which has just been broken in. I pack six pack horses and sometimes they play up and shed the load. I have a very easy time. But I sigh for the time when I was a fencer and had to work hard. Then at the end of the day I was satisfied with the amount of work done. Now I am not, as there is not enough for me to do. I also sigh when I think of the time when I shall have to sell my pony and buy a horse. A 131/2 hands pony is hardly strong enough to carry 12 stone and I am 10 stone 12 pounds now…

It is nearly a month since I received a letter from Ethel Robinson and I am inconsolable.

I would be greatly obliged if you could get “Two Little Savages” out of the library and send me some of the recipes concerning hides etc., and their uses, cures for hides etc. Here we use carbolic acid and sheep-dip. It makes the hides very hard.  

3 June 1913

Dear Harry,

Hallo. How are you? I just got a letter from you. I am in the best of health and I hope you are. I just send a little shearing song for your criticism. I think it is rather good. The shearers always sing while shearing… The songs are dying out now… There were thirty shearers singing. I asked an old timer about it and he gave me the whole song.

It is Tuesday today and I am on the sick list so that I can write a short letter. We were getting in the young horses one of which belongs to me. I sold my other for £8. I paid £6 for this, unbroken, and I will pay £2 to get it broken in. It is a fair snorter of a horse. Well, they were in a steep hilly paddock of about 1500 acres. By the way, you have no 1500 acre fields in England. We got them almost to the gates when they tried to back away on my wing. I galloped down that hill at a dangerous pace… I just turned them in time. My horse couldn’t stop and went head over heels and galloped over me. He was unshod luckily but I am so stiff that I cannot go out. Hoping all are well, I remain your loving chum Joe Morton.

My Mate Bill

(attached to letter of 3 June 1913)

That’s his saddle on the tie-beam, And them’s his spurs up there On the wall-plate over yonder — You ken see they ain’t a pair. For the daddy of all the stockmen As ever come mustering here Was killed in the flaming mulga, A-yarding a bald-faced steer. They say as he’s gone to heaven, And shook off all worldly cares But I can’t sight Bill in a halo Set up on three blinded hairs. In heaven! what next I wonder, For strike me pink and blue, If I see whatever in thunder They’ll find for Bill to do. He’d never make one of them angels, With faces as white as chalk, All wool to the toes like hoggets, And wings like an eagle-hawk. He couldn’t ’arp for apples, His voice had tones as jarred, And he’d no more ear than a bald-faced steer, Or calves in a branding yard. He could sit on a bucking brumbie Like a nob in an easy chair, And chop his name with a greenhide fall On the flank of a flying steer. He could show them saints in glory The way that a fall should drop, But sit on a throne — not William, Unless they could make it prop. He mightn’t freeze to the seraphs, Or chum with the cherubim, But if ever them seraph johnnies Get a-poking it like at him — Well! if there’s hide in heaven, And silk for to make a lash, He’ll yard ’em all in the Jasper Lake In a blinded lightning flash. If the heavenly hosts get boxed now, As mobs most always will, Who’ll cut ’em out like William, Or draft on a camp like Bill? An ’orseman would find it awkward At first with a push that flew, But blame my cats if I know what else They’ll find for Bill to do.

It’s hard if there ain’t no cattle, And perhaps they’ll let him sleep, And wake him up at the judgment To draft those goats and sheep. It’s playing it low on William, But perhaps he’ll buckle to, To show them high-toned seraphs What a Mulga man can do. If they saddles a big-boned angel, With a turn of speed, of course, As can spiel like a four-year brumbie, And prop like an old camp horse, And puts Bill up with a snaffle, A four or five inch spur, And eighteen foot of greenhide To chop the blinded fur — He’ll yard them blamed Angoras In a way that it’s safe to swear Will make them tony seraphs Sit back on their thrones and stare.

3 February 1914

Whangaparaoa, Cape Runaway

Dear Harry,

How’s things? I hope you are well as I am except that I am suffering from severe shock. I nearly lost the best friend I have in this country. He got kicked in the face by a horse with both feet, with heeled shoes. Horror ! He was unsaddling pack horses and walked behind his own hack, carrying a pack saddle. I think his hack must have been asleep and, wakened by the rattle and clatter of the pack saddle, lashed out, and George Callaghan dropped like a sack of oats. His face was battered out of recognition, his jaw and nose broken, and God knows what. We carried him inside on a camp bed and waited for the launch to take him to Opotiki. This happened last night and since then I have been acting like a kiddie. We do not know whether he will live or die yet. Though probably the former… George is about 30 years old, 6 ft tall and as strong as a lion. He is a splendid rider. He broke my pony in…

April 1914

…I am engaged at present in helping to build the boarding house which burnt down. The houses are made of wood. They make the frame, the roof of corrugated iron and then the floor, then the walls. I am helping to build the chimneys. I went over the sheep yard fence on Darkie my station hack. He is a fine hoss!...

16 April 1914

… What did you think of “Sport in New Zealand”? I thought it was a rather good book. I send you this time a bit of poetry entitled “The Outlaw”. I reckon it is a fine piece of work. I have a great sympathy for the outlaw who put up such a great fight. When I see a horse being broken in or if I help to break a horse, I have great respect for it if it is a “snag”. To see the brute rear and buck, plunge and jump until it is a lather of sweat and blood and foam, my first thought is always “he is fighting for his freedom”. The “Outlaw” was ridden but not absolutely quelled. Once a horse is beaten he is usually quiet and docile but some horses are always waiting a favourable opportunity to buck you off or kick. Please write and tell me what you think of the “Outlaw” and “Sport in New Zealand”…  

The Outlaw

Our realm was the fenceless ranges. We fed in the bluegrass swamps. The green of the branching wilga was the roof of our noonday camps. We drank at the pools in the lignum, where die mist and moonlight meet, Stealing like wraiths through the darkness with the dew on our shoeless feet.

I was the chief and warden. I watched while the shy mares fed. I herded the bitless yearlings—those proud, wild sons I bred. When a dry twig snapped in the forest, when a snake slid out of the grass, I called my mob together till I saw the danger pass.

For matchless speed and beauty and pride of blood and bone The bushmen of the Border had marked us as their own. All day they planned their stockyards and set their blue-gum bars, All night they wrought our capture as they dreamed beneath the stars.

They tracked us to our playgrounds. They hid to watch us teed. They matched their weighted walers against our naked speed; And when we broke and beat them, out-wiled them, and out-ran, I was the proud grey stallion that thundered in the van !

For long our speed defied them. We met and beat their best: The Border's swiftest horses and the picked men of the West; But Drought rode down the ranges and drove us worn and weak From out the sheltering mulga to the flats beside the creek.

Then with their corn-fed horses they chased us, frail and afraid, And forced us foamed and fretting to the yards that they had made; Within their ten-foot fences and behind their blue-gum bars They held us—kings of freedom whose fence had been the stars.

They broke my mares to harness. They saddled my splendid sons To round the cattle on drafting-camps on drought-bound western runs. These they bent to their bidding; but I was aware and awake; They broke my sons to service, but me they could not break!

I threw their famous riders one by one as they came: The lean, brown reckless bushmen that sought my heart to tame. I would not bear their burden, I who had never borne More than the dust of the noonday, more than the wind of the morn!

And then he came—my master I Lissome and iron-thighed, Lord of the earth's wild horses, riding as Centaurs ride. Boldly I battled beneath him; I matched my strength with his own. I had thrown a hundred riders. He was not born to be thrown !

He scored my ribs with greenhide. He spurred my flanks till they bled. He checked my mouth with the bar-bit till the foam came back to him red. I fought like a maddened wild-cat at the ceaseless sting of his steel, I turned like a tortured tiger-snake and bit at his rowelled heel.

I gave him no easy triumph. Stubborn, I would not yield Till my eyes were hot and clouded and my hide was wet and wealed; But at last my sinews slackened, my proud, wild spirit was spent, And I bent to the will of my rider as I never before had bent.

Then did he show no mercy, but for every stroke I had made Struck me again, and fiercely, with his splendid strength for blade. He spurred me out to the ranges then, dripping with blood and foam; And weary and blind and conquered, he flogged me bitterly home.

Day after day he rode me. I ceased from the useless fight; I could not face his courage and I could not match his might. I had marshalled in vain my cunning, I had pitted my strength and failed, And under the eye of the master at each new dawn I quailed.

But the fire at my heart kept burning. At last, as he stooped for a girth, I leapt with a scream of fury and struck my foe to the earth. I trod and trampled him under, I tore his breast with my teeth, My towering weight above him and his quivering flesh beneath.

Then I broke to the open ranges; there was none could stop me or stay. No creek in flood could toil me, no fence could bar my way. I tore his trappings from me on the boughs of the belar And, naked as I left them, I went back to wind and star!

The scrubs were gray as ever and the lignum swamps as green. I found the shady wilgas where our noonday camps had been. But the Bush was still and lonely; I had neither breed nor bride, When I whinnied down the ranges it was echo that replied.

Then came my fear upon me; a fear that fills my breast; A racking, ruthless terror that robs me of my rest; A shadow-shape that meets me where the wilga-shadows stir, The phantom of a horseman that rides with whip and spur.

My flanks are cleansed of blood-marks, my bit-torn mouth is healed, But again I meet my master and again he makes me yield. Beneath the moons of midnight and through the morning haze He flogs me, wet and trembling, down the old remembered ways.

I could not throw him, living, in my fierceness and my faith; And to-day I find no courage that will rid me of his wraith. With lean ribs lashed by terror, with flanks that fear makes red I carry through the ranges the Unrelenting Dead.

I feed not in the daytime. At night I take no rest. The sweat is on my shoulder and the foam is on my breast. I bear no bit nor bridle, but 'neath the open sky The wraith of him that rode me shall ride me till I die

First published in "The Lone Hand", this version was published in "The Overlander and other verses" by William Henry Ogilvie in 1913 by Fraser, Asher & Co., Ltd of Glasgow & Dalbeattie p37-43 © by owner, provided at no charge for educational purposes 

15 May 1914

…We have a big new stable here. It is built of concrete and contains twenty two stalls, two feed rooms, one harness room and a loose-box. The floor is of concrete and there are two chutes, one for chaff and one for oats and maize. I feed my horse in there and give him two good feeds a day. He is pretty poor now but will soon put on condition. I rug him at night. It keeps him warm and keeps his coat black and shiny. We have four Jersey heifers and a Jersey bull here. But we have a couple of thousand Black-polled Angus cattle. I go round the …sheep every day to see that none of them are “cast” ie on their backs. One of the rams cost 150 guineas. I feed him each day on chaff, oats and bran. Have you discontinued your Knowsley trips? There were some good Jersey cattle on Lord Sefton’s place. Well, good Bye. Your old chum Joe Morton.

6 June 1914

… I hope that by the time this reaches you, you will have gained your tenderfoot’s badge and passed your Spanish exam, the badge coming first. The 20th Liverpool [Boys Brigade?] will be in its element with you for woodcraft instructor.

This country is a great place for small birds… There is always a Hawk or two hovering round and sometimes I go Pheasant shooting. The season is now on, it being autumn here now. We shoot in a different style to Englishmen. Instead of having the game driven, we walk through the fern or scrub, the dog puts up the pheasant, bang, and down he comes. I haven’t seen any partridge in this country yet. There are no rabbits in this district; down south they are a perfect pest. The ducks as well as the swans are black. That is the native wild duck. There are imported mallard and teal. The small birds are very tame, especially a small variety of owl called the mopoke. They come out just at dusk and perch on small bushes. You can approach within a yard of them…

1 November 1914

… We have had a terrible series of earthquake shocks lately.

Excuse the pencil writing. I cannot get a pen in this district. Dear Harry, I hope you will excuse me writing more as I am in a frightful temper about things in general, and a dog that died, and a fair lady who refused to have anything to do with me.

I remain your affectionate chum…

8 January 1915

I spent a domesticated Christmas with Mrs and Mr Campbell at Waikura. I was plucking turkey and shelling peas and I rode out with Mrs C in the afternoon.

I am thinking of leaving Holt soon. I cannot get on with the manager. As soon as [Edward?] Holt comes back from his trip I will see him about it.

I will not be home in another year. I have not enough money to come home then. I get a pound a week here but I spend a lot on fancy clothes, saddlery, horse feeds etc.

I do not feel in a humour for writing tonight so I will bid you “Ow Reservoir”… 

[??  ??] 1915

… you ask me why I did not join the New Zealand contingent. The chief reason was my age. I do not know the age for enlistment but it is between the age of 18 and 21 up to forty. I am going to find out and I shall have a jolly good try in a few months if it is 18. I am not 18 till October. A lot of fellows tried to get in under age but now you must show your birth certificate.

I can assure you that all my good wishes are with Queen’s Road fellows at the front.

I will really have a try to get away. I shudder to think what my mother will say when I ask her. I think mothers expect nothing but rough times from sons about my age. They certainly seem to get them. Still, you know, I am farther away here than I would be in Europe or Egypt. And I swear that if I got as far as Egypt I would not return to NZ without a trip back home. I may return home anyway when I am eighteen and enlist from home. I will have some money when I leave Holt. But of this not a word to Mother. I do not want to raise false… I was going to say hopes but I will say expectations. I think it will be a long time before the War is ended, don’t you?...What is the minimum age for joining the Expeditionary Force at home?

Well Harry, we are in the thick of the shooting season here now, just as the Tommies are on the Continent. Pigeon, pheasant, duck (all the year), and all kinds of native birds, tui, kaka, fantail etc. I shoot a lot of hawks here. There are droves of them. Sometimes I see a dozen in the sky, duck down behind a bush with a 12 bore, and into them… How are you getting on with the game? I suppose you do not get many opportunities. The kingfisher here are three times as big as the English one, the robins are black with a white breast. The country is overrun with yellowhammers and goldfinch. They are as numerous as sparrows, which is saying a lot…

29 April 1915

Dear Harry,

I received your letter and was highly amused at your description of your philandering with a girl whose name you do not mention…

I may put a lot of private matter in here, so please do not let anybody read this. I know there is no need to tell you that but please burn this or destroy it in some way….

We went out pig hunting on Sunday and got three pigs, and also got lost for a while in the bush. I was in command of the party and to me it fell the post of guide etc. I had been in the bush before, though not far in at this particular part, and I was pretty confident. As a result of this I neglected my usual precaution, viz, to enter the bush with the sun over the right shoulder and come out with the sun still over the right shoulder… or to enter the bush with the sun behind and keep it behind (understand this if you can). Well, we got onto pigs and killed two, then the dog was heard barking miles away. Off we went and after a hard run we got him. Then I discovered that we had penetrated far into the bush and it was up to me to find the way out. My reasoning: Waikura is east of this bush, it being one o’clock the sun would be in the south. If I keep the sun on my right shoulder I would be going due east… That was alright but for a while I forgot that though the sun never shines from the north in England it never shines from the south in NZ. Consequently I was going in a westerly direction away from the station. We travelled for about an hour and I began to think something was wrong. Then it struck me all of a heap. I slowly struck off to the right till the sun was on my left shoulder and reached the edge of the bush after one and a half hours’ hard walking carrying the hind quarters of a pig. The fellows with me still have no idea that I was confused but they think a frightful lot of my bushcraft whereas I acted like a fool.

Very soon I am going to organise a party to run in a mob of wild horses of [off?] the Waikura river bed. I do not know if we will get any but it will be great fun… with the chance of a broken neck if your horse falls among the timber. I can get about three more young fellows and if we do not get any it will not be for want of trying and hard riding. I am going to break a couple in myself if we get any (first catch your horse). We will leave the station on Saturday afternoon and travel till we came up with them. Then we will camp. Early on Sunday morning we will be after them and if we have not rounded them up by dusk, that night we will camp and back to the station on Monday…

I may as well tell you that I am in a bad temper again today. I went up to Waikura yesterday and went pighunting. I saw the girl and she was very kind to me. I had promised to get her a rare fern called the kidney fern which only grows in the heart of the bush. I found an enormous bank of them and carefully took one leaf home and showed it to her as a proof that I could have got her some, but would not. Wasn’t that a mean trick. I will get her some next Sunday though. She is so nice and good and gentle. I first rode with her 9 months ago when she came here. I have ridden with her every Sunday since up to a month ago. I took her to Waihau 20 miles away (by the way, I taught her to ride) and came back by moonlight. Her nearest relation did not mind me riding with her but one man talked. You probably know how some men talk. I stopped his talk, being a fairly big fellow and handy with my fists, but she heard. I have not ridden with her since but she is very friendly with me. I am very sad and downhearted at times but she is perfect. She is an Irish woman and she came out to New Zealand 2 years ago immediately after she got married. Her husband is a fine fellow. She has no children. I flatter myself I wrote this in the dime novel style but it is all absolutely true.

Thank you very much for inviting my sister to your Boxing Day party. I had a decent Xmas. I spent it with the Campbells Mr and Mrs.

Your loving chum Joe.

PS For God’s sake burn this.

12 June 1915

Just a few lines hoping you are well and that the British are sloughing up the Germans. It is a fair time since I wrote but I am living pretty rough just at present. The drummer-boy at the front can write home on the eve of battle, with the aid of Price’s candles. But how about the ordinary private? He has no drum and he cannot use his bayonet as a writing table. I was in Whangaparaoa when Jack McAnally rang up and asked me to work with him. His mate had a poisoned hand and he was in a bit of a hole and so here I am at the back of beyond sloughing trees down and digging post holes once more. I like it alright. I am in the position of the backwoodsman you read of in novels. He works hard all day and at night comes home, has a wash and a feed and off to bed utterly exhausted.

I got a telegram the other day from Robinson the government surveyor, who offered me a job with him. Of course it is an outdoor job, surveying new roads into the back country and blocks of bush for settlement. He promised to help me to study up the subject so I accepted. In a few years I may be a full blown surveyor. Meanwhile the guineas mount up. I will probably come home for a spell soon. I telegraphed back asking if the job would still be open in 1 month and he said he would keep it open so I will be able to help my mate to the finish of the job. If R could not wait, I would have gone at once. I will take on my new job on July 1st.

Well I suppose England is still going on. My life out here has obliterated all my thought of her. You see, all my associations with the old country have severed and new ones have sprung up in this. I have friends and acquaintances all over this district and I know Cape Runaway better than I do Liverpool. Who do I know in England? Mother, brothers, sisters and you, nobody else.

… I am enjoying tiresomely good health. I have not had a day sickness in this country except of course minor accidents…

PS Of course all I have put in this letter depends to a large extent on circumstances and the war. I wrote this mail and sounded my mother on the subject. I shall have to break it gently.

23 July 1915

Waipiro Bay

… Well I think I have already told you that I was going to quit the delights of station life and cease to bask in the smiles of Miss King [?]. That change has occurred and you perceive me in camp again. I am in camp with surveyors outside Waipiro Bay which is 80 miles from Cape Runaway round the coast, or about half way between Cape Runaway and Gisborne. It is only about 40 miles from Waikura as the crow flies but there is an enormous range of hills between them. We are 12 miles from Tokomaru. There! You ought to have my position pretty well fixed in your mind or on your map. We are cutting up a station of 22,000 acres which has been leased by the whites but reverts to the Maoris. Of course just at present I will do just the manual part of the surveying such as measuring and setting up the theodolite and the other instruments…

I have done a lot of riding lately – about 200 miles. While riding down the coast I saw, at Te Araroa, the first motor, and bicycle, for nearly 4 years. I spent 3 days coming down the coast, staying one down with one of the other fellows who is working outside Te Araroa. I stayed at the hotel in Waipiro the first night, and next day I found a boarding house at which I stayed a week. We pitched camp and I worked with Robinson for a week. We have 2 more men now, however, and are right in the thick of it. This particular job will last about 5 months, till Xmas, but if I like it I may work here for a lifetime…  

13 September 1915

…I do not know why I have had no answer yet from my mother re: enlisting, but I suppose it will come. I think that by the end of the month I shall have £80 all told. It is not much to come home with but the war makes a difference. I think I could come home on £30 and the rest would do not harm at home. If Mother says I can go to the war, I will make tracks home and to the war that way.

I left Holt with £40 in the bank and £21 in cash. I spent the £21 on an outfit and horsefeed etc. I have been working for Robinson 10 weeks - £20 - + £40 = £60. I could get £15 for my horse and earn about £20 more… = £90 about. Excuse me going into figures but I thought they might interest you. Do not tell anybody of it, however. You are the only person I would tell it to except Mother. I think all is plain sailing if I get my mother’s consent and with luck I could perhaps be home by Xmas. I would like to see Old England again.

We have had flying camps lately, the names of them being Whereponga, Waihingemutu, Taafiti, Pawng-fa-kiro, and Maaka reka. We had a couple of days at Mariakakahua and Manuka-ta-fero and Mangapukeko but they were of very little account…

PS We’ll hope that by the time you answer this my address will be changed. I hardly think though as there are very few boats available on account of so many being used as troopships. One leaves on December 2nd. I might catch that but it might be full. Joe.

November [or December] 1915

Waipiro Bay

… While down in Gisborne I was embroiled in a common public house brawl… I was gently dallying over the bar, engaging the virtuous damsel who presided over it, in conversation when I found a combination of a cyclone and an earthquake trapezing around me. Some of my mates, all older than myself, had managed to fall foul of a dozen or so wharfies. There was skin and hair flying, I can tell you… Please do not think that this is the usual way I put in my time but it was my first holiday in four years. It was racetime and everybody bar myself was full of liquor and my mates were out for fun. The scrap lasted about two minutes… We separated and lo and behold between us appeared a lurid crimson streak of what I took to be fire and brimstone. It was only the barmaid swearing. I have never heard even a man swear like it. It was devastating. She cursed those wharfies high and low, their ancestors, their probable descendants, and all their relatives. I had to go outside, first finishing the squash and ginger ale I was drinking. Well I managed to get back to Waipiro with a whole skin and turned to work again.

While down there I got my photo taken. Not because I liked it. I felt a fool looking at that infernal machine. However, I got it over and I suppose I will send you one. My mother has been asking me to do it for a long time but I have not had the opportunity and because I am going to the war I thought I would risk it.

I have just been round the lagoon and bagged a duck with my rifle. If I had a shotgun I would have had three or four but they are deuced hard to hit with a rifle. They won’t wait to be shot at. They fly as soon as they see you. If I am lucky I get them just as they leave the water. If I am unlucky I do not get them at all.

10 December 1915

Gisborne East Coast

I am taking this opportunity to write to you as I may not have the leisure to do so in the near future. I have, after Herculean labours in the matter of taking tickets etc., arrived at Gisborne, a flourishing town on the East Coast of Gorzone [?]. Here I bask amid the delights of Metropolitan life, Gisborne having nearly a thousand inhabitants. That is merely guesswork, of course. It may be two hundred. There are 7 pubs, one church and three missions of different denominations. Gisborne is the terminus of a railway (one line) and possesses a tramway (one line) and one tram which appears at the post office at intervals of 15 minutes. I do not know if there is a Town Hall but I think the Garrison Hall is used for municipal purposes. There is also a small library…

I am staying at a pub just on the wharf and night and day are alike, made hideous by the din of two dredgers working in the river or harbour. It is just like Liverpool on a very very small scale…

On Sunday 12th I will leave Gisborne with about 50 other kindred spirits to go into camp down at Trentham. I expect we will get a long spell of training down there, about 3m at least. [He had his medical examination on 11 Dec and enlisted on 13 Dec]

Of course I chucked up what would later have been about as decent a job as is to be picked up. Because without being boastful I am jolly sure I would have got the necessary surveyor’s ticket. Even without, I could have earned a fiver a week in about 8 years or so. Meanwhile I was to have got eight shillings a day after Xmas. But that is nothing compared with the privilege of fighting for one’s country. I expect you remember enough of our talks to know how I think of it.

I sent you a book a while ago. I hope you like it but I never read it myself. I have, however, read several of his books including “The Harvester”, “At the Foot of the Rainbow”, “Freckles” and “A Girl of the Limberlost”, all jolly good books. [Gene Stratton-Porter was a woman!]

By the way, have you read any of Charles G D Roberts’ books: “House in the Water”, “The Backwoodsmen”, “Kings in exile”, “Neighbours Unknown”, “Feet of the Furtive”, “Kindred of the Wild” and “Hoof and Claw”. All books of wild animals, bear, lynx, fox etc. I sent the copy of the last named to my cousin Stanley. You would not know him, he being only a child when I was at home.

I will have to end now on account of shortness of space and breath, so wish me Good Luck. Your loving chum Joe.

It’s rough going to the war without seeing anybody. I will send you my address.

8 January 1916

Letterhead: The Salvation Army Institute Expeditionary Force Military Camp Tauherenikau N.Z.

Dear Harry,

I got your letter saying that you had joined the colours and of course I am glad to hear it. But I would have liked to have joined with you.

From what you say, the English soldier is treated rather better in the matter of equipment than we out here. We have to purchase all badges, boot polish, button polish, saddle polish etc., and if we do not wish to look sights, we must purchase belts etc.

I do not know whether you said you got 10/6 a week but it seems improbable: we get 35/- a week, but by Jove I need it all. You see, I send £1 a week home and that leaves 14/-. It takes all that to buy extras and lollies occasionally.

We are camped 5 miles from the nearest town which is about half the size of Caegrwle if you have ever been there. The motor fare is 4/-. It is a case of motor or walk. A fellow does not like walking after a hard day’s drilling, I tell you. You know anyway. For the past month we have been doing squad drill on foot. But today we took on the horses. We are to have them about a month. They are permanent… and do not leave New Zealand. We get our own horse in Egypt, or before we leave New Zealand which we expect to do in the beginning of March or even sooner. I have a regular Waler. A heavy chestnut horse and he is as vicious as they make them. He snapped a small piece out of my thigh only today. I won’t give him any more chances, I can tell you.

We have had extended order etc., musketing practice and visual training which I think they have cribbed from the Boy Scouts. We have headquarters parade every afternoon. All the squadrons and troop march to the parade ground and when all is steady a big fat man in a white coat steps forward. We call him “Peanuts” and “the Ice Cream man”. He yells “Mar-ar-ar-kers Steddddyyyy” and all B squadron is convulsed with laughter. He is the Regimental Sergeant Major. All the evening we hear voices from B squadron yelling at every conceivable pitch and key “Mar-ar-ar-kers Steddddyyyy” and we are convulsed again.

I hope you write soon and tell me a few more things about your work etc. Give my remembrance to your mother and all else and I will bid you Au revoir.

Your affectionate chum Joe B squadron, Mounted Rifles, 11th Reinforcement. New Zealand Forces, New Zealand  

13 April [May actually] 1916


Dear Harry,

Just a few lines to give you a brief insight into the manifold mystery and perils of a soldier’s life in that abode of love, dust and heat Egypt. We arrived at Suez about the third of May and took a three hours trip on a train to Tel-el-Kebir, the site of our camp. We had a very interesting trip up the Red Sea and anchored in the harbour amongst many other ships, transports and hospital ships. We landed the next day and were very interested in the natives on the wharves, as hard a lot of citizens as you could wish to meet. Boys diving for money and every child you meet crying for “baksheesh”. The buildings are very peculiar being composed of sundried mud with flat roofs. We travelled up the lines, passing many “tommy” camps on the way, often seeing long trails of camels or mules heavily laden.

After a long ride we reach Tel-el-Kebir and got off at the Australian camp from which we walk to our own lines. We are put 10 in a tent and we drew one days’ ration of 4 loaves and two tins of marmalade, which I abhor. Of course we cannot use the butter here on account of the heat.

All around us is a vast sandy desert on which nothing can live. Just by us is a small native village on the banks of a small canal which comes from nowhere and goes back again. We start drill at 5.15 till six o’clock. We have breakfast and start at 7 till ten o’clock. We start again at three and go on till 5.

The flies are tormenting the life out of me and I will have to close so Good Luck.

Joe 10246, Canterbury Company, 11th Reinforcement, NZEF

24 May 1916

Reply to H Gannicliffe, 2nd/3rd, RFA, RAMC, Wye, Kent (I don’t know where you are now)

Dear Harry,

If I had undergone any remarkable adventure since my last letter I would endeavour to write à la “Jim Hawkins” of Treasure Island but, since life here is as uneventful as that of a maggot in a Dutch cheese I will have to content myself with an ordinary common or garden method of spoiling paper.

Nothing very startling has occurred lately to disturb the even tenor of our ways and we are still at Tel-el-Kebir, that dull, depressing dust-laden camp in the desert. Our hours of drill altered on account of the increased heat during the day. Reveille sounds at 4 o’clock and we parade from 5 am to 8 am for trench digging and from 5.15 pm to 7 pm for a route march. Sometimes during the day we have about half an hour for a lecture, but they are seldom held now.

Another draft went away on Saturday and I unfortunately was cut out to make room for some officers’ orderlies. Still, better luck next time.

The latest latrine wireless says that all the New Zealand Infantry is to go to England at the end of the week, but the information is as unreliable as the promises of Kaiser Bill.

We had trench digging this morning in the comparatively small hours out on the desert. It is interesting, that rather arduous work and practically my first experience of trying to emulate the “little gentleman in the black fur coat”. Of course, as a mounted man, I should disdain to dig trenches, rather taking advantage of natural cover and the fleetness of my horse. But, having no horse, I must crawl on my stomach all day and dig like the devil all night. Oh for the day when the horseman, and his lance and sword, were the deciding factors in a war, when the soldier received little food and no pay, and afterwards was turned loose to be a murderer or a thief, and to be hanged at the King’s expense. He certainly had more fun in those days, a short life and a merry one, whereas our lives, though perhaps short, are certainly not merry. Do you know, Harry, that if I could catch the Kaiser at four am while a bugler was torturing a bugle and incidentally ourselves, I could cheerfully choke the life out of him. This is a dull drab dreary world at 4 am with the realisation that a new day is beginning, just beginning, to percolate through our jaded brains. I tell you, I am dead sick of this war and, after I have killed a few Germans, I will be heartily glad to know that it is over.

It is strange how the view becomes more roseate as the day advances until by eight o’clock a fellow does not care if it snows.

I have ceased writing to attend six o’clock roll call and were told that we would leave Egypt on Saturday 27th for which the Lord make us truly thankful. We think that we are going to England but it may be France.

I suppose you were inoculated half a dozen times after you joined. I have been done twice. A fellow doesn’t realise what he has to suffer for his country until he carries a pack after being inoculated.

I suppose you are by this time in France and doing your “bit” and doing it well no doubt. You know, before roll call I could have written pages, but the Muse has deserted me and the wells of information have dried up.

Give my respects to your mother and remember me to any of the boys you happen to meet…  

24 June 1916

Letterhead: On Active Service

The Salvation Army Chaplain’s Department NZ Division, BEF France

… Your letter was dated 20-6-16 and it reached me on the 24th which is rather better than during the last 4 years, with a fortnightly mail from Opotiki to Whangaparaoa and about six weeks from England to the Pig Island.

I have learned a lot since I joined the army which could be used advantageously in civil life in the backblocks. Do you know that also a slight knowledge of a system similar to semaphore would materially help in my own job - survey work. For example, when getting cross sections from two trig stations perhaps a couple of miles away, a little concerted signalling would be better than a mere haphazard waving of the hands. Several times after having got to our respective stations by a couple of hours hard climb we have had to abandon it for another attempt, in consequence of not understanding the signals.

Of course I could go meandering on all night in this strain but time presses and censors are human and need rest like everybody else.

I am sorry you are not in France yet and I think you are having rough luck. Camp life of soldiers in an ordinary training camp is no picnic is it? I have been heartily sick of camp life and yet I have had plenty of change. I was four months in NZ, one month on the troopship Maunganui [all of April 1916], one month in Tel-el-Kebir and about a month in France. Not forgetting a week’s trip through the Mediterranean with the chance of a submarine into us. So I have had plenty of change, as you can see.

I hope you come out soon and that I get a chance to see you, even if you only come for a bit more training. We finished out training in the “bull-ring” today and are now classed as absolutely efficient. We are only waiting for a draft to go up the line to join our mates in the first line.

It is strange to think that we are close to each other through no fault of our own, you being only 12 miles from Dover and we are not 100 miles from Boulogne.

How do you like the gas helmets! They are hot stuff aren’t they?

The camp we are in is principally a “tommy” camp so there is some likelihood of you coming here but if you do not come before August and September you are hardly likely to see me as we may move at any time. I may be forcing up daisies by then although you can bet your boots I will not poke my head where it is not wanted more than necessary.

Things are very quiet on the NZ front just now although some officers and men have been lost through the Germans shelling their billets.

I will send you a badge as you ask but I will have to ferret it out of my goods as I only wear a hat badge, which I lost the other day… I went up to the mess room for breakfast and left my hat there and somebody lifted it. Not having a hat, I could not go out on parade that day so I did not come off badly. However, I will send you one.

Four days’ leave is not much but you are lucky to get it. The fellows of the early NZ drafts are getting eight days leave to England but I cannot hope to get leave before Xmas unless I get a “backsheesh” wound.

If I get out of this war all right I am going to steal a rifle. They are just the thing for pig, cattle or deer hunting, though the sights are a trifle coarse…

Hoping to get a letter, I remain your loving chum 10246 Joe Morton Canterbury Company 1st NZ Brigade S 17 France

6 July 1916

…Tomorrow morning, about three o’clock, I leave this camp for, well it is not hard to guess where. May good luck attend me there and may the worst I get be a “backsheesh” wound which will send me for a spell to England home and beauty.

We seem to be waking up in France now if we can believe what the English papers are telling us, and may this Christmas see a cessation of hostilities. When peace is declared, if I can, I will throw my hat up in the air and cheer but till then I will do my best and say a hymn of hate against the Kaiser. We New Zealanders have a better hymn than the Germans, albeit it is rather humorous. It is droll and I am sorry to say rather indecent. It is addressed to the Kaiser.

I could not get you a hat badge as I find my base kit has been taken, with others, to I know not where…

17 July 1916

Just a few lines hoping that you are in the best of health as I am, barring a bit of a wound in the shoulder and an injection for Tetanus which the doctor gave me this morning… Not content with the arms and breasts, they now proceed to puncture me in the abdomen…

It was while I was supporting the front line that I got a bit of a shell in me. It entered the shoulder obliquely so that I got it out easily enough… It happened six days ago and they evidently forgot to give me an injection till today. It is going on very well and, though I am not a medical expert, I am afraid that very shortly I will return to the trenches. It is very dull here, that is all, and that is a pleasant contrast to the life in the trenches. I am in town here and I have not even one penny to buy a paper with and I think the chances of a pay before about Friday are very remote…

I hate this sort of fighting we have here. It is impossible for us to make any progress here until the rest of the line comes up into alignment and we just have to sit in our trenches and be shelled, while our artillery shells their infantry…

25 July 1916




I received two letters from you the other day, also two from Edith. Your letters you despatched to NZ and Egypt are beginning to roll up. I got one that was about six months up at Cape Runaway. You should have seen the postmarks on that letter. You addressed it to Whangparaoa, and there being two Whangparaoas in New Zealand, it went to the first. It arrived at the Cape eventually … It stayed there about a month in the rack when somebody thought to send it to Waipiro. From there it went to the hostel I stopped at in Gisborne, to Featherston camp [Tauherenikau], Tel-el-Kebir, Sling Camp England [Bulford, Salisbury Plain], then to S17 and so on to here. It was jolly hard to see the address on it when I got it and the envelope was frayed all round the edges. I don’t think that the censor will find anything to rouse about in the foregoing sentences, do you?

Well, harry, I am still in the same old spot, still within gunfire range of the Germans, and I am afraid that in a few days I will have to go back to the trenches. I was pronounced fit for duty this morning. The trouble was that the shell that hit me nearly missed me. If it had come about three inches nearer I might have got to England with it. It is no use making a hog of oneself though. I ought to be thankful it did not come six inches further. I have not had a bad time, however, during the last couple of weeks.

I received your letter and badge. It grieves me to the heart that I have not one to return to you. They are unprocurable, though if I remember I will enclose two NZ titles in this letter. As you have more facilities for cleaning than I, I will send them dirty. My titles are by far the brightest part of my uniform or equipment, so you can imagine what my buttons are like. I haven’t cleaned them since the fourteenth of April when we called at Albany [Western Australia?] on the way to Egypt.

Have you been through the gas yet as part of your training? If you stand in it for a minute, wearing your gas helmet of course, it turns all your buttons and all brass gear almost black.

I suppose you will soon be out here yourself now. For Goodness’s sake write to me as soon as you know you’re going. Of course it does no good but it will give great satisfaction to know that you have attained you heart’s desire.  

4 August 1916



Somewhere in France

Dear Harry,

…You will have to excuse the brevity and general untidiness of this letter as I cannot write decently or sensibly here. I ask nothing better than a table, chair, pen, ink, paper and an afternoon and I will be happy as the day is long putting my innermost thoughts and fancies on paper, to be transmitted to you per penny post.

However, we are in the trenches again and quite recovered from our grievous wound (King Arthur) . I have been three weeks away from the company so I have not done so badly. I heard that my mate who was wounded same time as myself has since died. He was a fine fellow and we got on pretty well together. Of course, when you eat, sleep and work with a fellow, it stands to reason that you become friends as long as you are fairly decent one to another.

We are not actually in the front line trench yet but we go in, I believe in three days.

Things have been very quiet here for the last three weeks, whereas the week previously was a nightmare of hell at times when the strafes were on [from machine guns or artillery?]. They say the reason lies in the troops that oppose us. That the Prussians who gave us hell at times with the artillery have been relieved by the Saxons who are gentle as turtle doves except when they get angry.

We are doing fatigues here at present, most of us going up to the front lines with rations, stores etc. I am on at night, on a pushing party, ie we load, and push into the front line, trucks on a light tramway. We have to do it at night as the line is exposed to snipers and machine gun fire during the day, whereas it is only by bad luck that a stray bullet hits you at night. There have been a fair number of casualties on this job but I think that hardly a man has been killed.

The [tram] line is in rotten repair, as they cannot very well mend it in daytime and the trucks are often running off the rails.

It is no use writing any more as it is only spoiling paper. I cannot write decent letters out here but I will write a long letter next time I am in [CENSORED] town. Till then, whenever it may be, short notes will have to suffice.

I received a parcel from your mother and sister and it was very welcome…

4 August 1916

Letter to his younger sister Edith Morton

… I have quite recovered from my backsheesh wound I got. By the way, what was the name of the man who wired from Wellington about it. I can only think of JS Robertson. Please tell me in your next letter who it was.

I received your two letters and also the Weekly Post. I was very glad to get it… I got the post card from Grace [elder sister] and answered. I am sorry to hear that Mother is not well and I hope she is quite well again by now. I got a letter from Miss Rowlands and answered her. So she is going to marry Arthur [elder brother] at Christmas. I would like to be there but I am afraid it is impossible. If we are out of the trenches by Xmas I might manage it, But it is no use expecting it. I wrote a letter for Uncle Arthur [Milburn b. 1869] but he has not answered yet.

I think that is all at present so I will close as it is uncomfortable writing here. So… Au Revoir. I remain your loving brother Joseph Morton.

10 October 1916

Somewhere in France

Dear Harry,

Just a few lines to let you know that I am still alive and kicking, and hoping that you are the same. I am still with the old company and going strong. It is some weeks since I wrote at all though I sent a field card to Mother a couple of days ago.

You will have seen by the papers that we have been in the fighting again but we are out of it for a while now, I think.

I got a couple of scratches and I have a shrapnel splinter deep in my shoulder now but I did not go to the MO with it. Of course a great many of our fellows were hit but the proportion of killed was very small… So I think I have been remarkably fortunate so far.

We moved into billets some days ago and there were many old women and some children there. The children pestered us for souvenirs, and got them too.

There was one rather nice girl there. She was twelve years old and we had a great conversation in a lingua franca which would have my old teacher’s grey hairs down in sorrow to the grave [Genesis]. I described the manner in which I had bagged all my pet Huns and also described the daring deeds of one “Starlight”, otherwise Cecil Doig who carries around with him a German helmet which is exhibited to admiring French ladies. I also let them know he had five wives and thirty five kiddies. And By Jove didn’t that yarn spread. It was all over the street in a couple of hours and he had an exciting crowd of children regarding him as a bluebeard. During the day several old ladies came up to me and inquired in a whisper: “Y a t’il trente cinq enfants et cinq femmes?” I replied that it was so and explained as well as I could that they had driven him to the war, and so the yarn spread.

We don’t get much money but we do get a bit of fun out of life.

I suppose you have no definite news yet as to whether you are coming out soon. I do not know about my brother Ben either. I rather hope he is never out here. Of course with you it is different. You are young and free and have little responsibilities.

In the fighting out here, everyone, without exception, awards the palm or laurel to the stretcher bearers and Red Cross men. They suffered heavily themselves and of course have little chance to have a smack back at the Hun.

The time is still far distant when I can get home I’m afraid, but Dame Rumour is busy here just as much as she is doubtless at home. I have very little more to say, or rather I don’t know whether they would like me to tell you all the important state secrets that have come into my possession (I don’t think). So I will bid you Au Revoir and hope that my armour-plated posterior will prove as efficacious as of yore. Your aff. Chum…

16 December 1916

… The last letter I got from you dealt to some extent with wounds inflicted by shrapnel. You were right about tetanus but what I meant by tetanus was gangrene. And the passage of the bullets through the air might render them sterile but I was speaking of High Explosive shrapnel which is merely an HE shell timed to explode in the air and consequently the splinters are coated with the various chemicals which go to form the explosive, particularly Phosphorus which is found in German shells to a great extent. That is a long and involved sentence but you might get a bit of sense out of it.

However, the dickens with all shells, Germans and cetera. How are you getting on? I suppose you are very anxious to get out here and if I did not know how hopeless a task it was I would try to convince you that you are better where you are.

We are have rather an easy time just now, doing our eight days in and eight days out of the trenches. We expect to be out for Xmas and I think we will have a jolly good time. Everybody will be drunk at times but while they’re drunk they are happy. I am not quite possessed by the devil of drink yet, I am pleased to say, but I don’t blame any man who gets drunk after coming out of the trenches. There is very little else to do.

I had two letters from New Zealand the other day, one from my old boss the surveyor and one from a young lad the son of some people who treated me very well in the pig island...

13 June 1917

No. 2 Australian General Hospital [Wimereux]

Just a few lines hoping that you are in the best of health and spirits, as I am myself despite a wee bit of shrapnel which hit me a while ago, surely by mortar, as I am very peaceably inclined and not in the habit of poking my proboscis into dangerous places. I have been hourly expecting an apology from Herr Fritz, through whose agency I was wounded but so far it has failed to eventuate and I can only conclude that he is unaware of the fact that, doubtless owing to the incompetence of his gunners, in aiming at an ammunition dump, he caused a fair amount of trouble and inconvenience to yours truly. Fewer words would have served, but the gist of the whole matter is that I wish to convey to you the fact that I am slightly wounded. No doubt you picture me charging over No-Man’s-Land with fixed bayonet and a cheer, stabbing innumerable Huns and at last falling before overwhelming odds and with a circle of enemy dead around me. No such thing. As a matter of fact we were lining up, if my memory fails me not, for boiled mutton and potatoes, our last meal before going over the top to the capture of Messines [7 June]. I was made aware of a heavy concussion and a decided smack on the chin. I got into a bivvy with more speed than dignity and found that I still had my compliment of arms and legs but had a smack at the base of the figurehead. However, I stood not upon the order of my going but went hell for leather for the seaside par motor car and train. I am now resting on my laurels or rather a beautiful white bed and eating of the Lotus flower and when I must rise and gird up my loins to smite the Amalekite (the Hun) once more, I will do it hard, even as those of Odysseus’s crew who tarried in the land of the Lotus. I am allright here and have been here nearly a week and I cannot see myself re-joining my unit yet awhile.

I sincerely hope that you have survived the heavy shelling which must have been your lot while the active fighting was going on and that you and I live to fight our battles o’er again with a foaming tankard of four ‘arf [a type of cheap beer?] in front of us in that little estaminet down West Derby…

1 July 1917

Letter to sister Edith

Miss Edith Morton 14 Pickering Street Everton

Dear Edith,

Just a few lines hoping that you are in the best of health. I wrote to Mother yesterday. In fact since I was wounded I have done more letter writing than any other time since I came to France.

I am all right here in Base Details still but am perfectly fit and ready to re-join my unit at a moment’s notice if necessary. It is very different here from up the line where it is, at times, impossible to write.

I am looking forward to seeing Harry again. I have not seen him since we were at Saint Omer which is a long time ago.

Hoping all at home are quite well, I remain Your Loving Brother Joseph Morton.

4 July 1917

Just a few lines which will effectually remove from your mind the idea that I was booked for Blighty. I am out of hospital now and have arrived at our Base from which I shall shortly be going up the line again, though I am not classed as “fit” yet. However, my wounds were very slight, though the one on the chin caused me a great deal of inconvenience in the matter of eating and speaking. Of course the old doctor was causing me a good deal of pain and blasphemy by drawing pieces of iron shard out of my neck along with an occasional bit of bone which got chipped off. Still, try as he might, he could not stop it from healing. The smack on the knee caused me far more trouble as it impeded my locomotion at erratic intervals, even up to now.

As to the word “eventuate” which you accuse me of coining, I advise you to get the Oxford and Cambridge Dictionary, at about page 1629, and you will maybe find it there.

I was sorry to hear that you had a mishap with a whiz-bang and can only remind you of my advice given to you on 22 April, ie to let that sort of thing alone unless highly provoked. [Was this the date when they met at St Omer?]

I am addressing this letter to your unit in case you are back there by now and you can do the same for me.

I got a letter from Edie with yours and she said you had not written to her for a month. I do not blame you. She wrote it on June 28th and says that if I do not come home soon she will come out here as a lady clerk. I sincerely hope not because if the lady clerks I have seen about Boulogne are an average specimen, well, I don’t think much of them.

I may be some time after I join my unit before I am able to see you as I don’t know exactly where the boys will be. So Au Revoir, and remember me to all your people at home…

13 November 1917

Letter to sister Edith

Dear Edie,

Just a few very belated lines to let you know that I am still going strong and carrying on to the best of my ability. It is a good while since I wrote to you and have been hourly expecting to be blown up by a letter from you. However, I have got in beforehand now and if I get a letter now, I will regard it with an air of injured innocence and pious virtue.

I hope you are in the best of health and that you are getting as much fun as possible out of life. This dreadful war has made a great difference to our modes of living. Even I have seen the difference between fighting the Hun and carrying on with hunting and fishing in New Zealand.

I got a letter from Harry today and he informs me that you owe him a letter. He says that my account of my leave is fuller than yours, and slightly more lurid.

We have had a fairly good time lately but all good times come to an end. We won’t have a bad time this winter, however.

I hope all at home are quite well and reasonably happy. I wrote a letter to Annie and am just about to write to Harry Gannicliffe. I will give him your best wishes etc.

We are billeted on the usual kind of French farm, with the pigs and the goats, the cows and the fouls all higgledy-piggledy.

I think that is all I can say at present so Au Revoir. I remain Your Loving Brother Joe.  

13 November 1917

Dear Harry,

At long last I seize my pencil with a frenzied zeal to communicate to you all the news. Already I can feel the aforesaid zeal evaporating and in a few minutes I will be cold. However, I will do my best.

You appear to be under the impression that Edie is an expert at wordy warfare. Let me disabuse your mind of that straight away, for I had her speechless whenever I wished. When I got talking, she was reduced to saying “Oh stop” and “Don’t talk like that, Joe”. I merely spoke in a more affected manner than usual, throwing in an occasional jaw-breaker, and using six words where one would suffice.

I am pleased to hear that you wrote her a “bosker” letter (alternatives bonzer, boshter and bonanza).

I am thoroughly ashamed of myself for my expressed intention of taking to the bush “après la guerre”.

I am pleased to tell you that I am still a “misogynist”... I did not see any girls in England that could not be classed as “flighty” or “stuck-up”, both dreadfully plebeian words, I admit.

Pleased to hear the items of news about the boys of the old school. I hope they are doing well.

I did not see Miss Ethel Robertson but after I left she got my address from Maggie Rowlands. Since then she has written about five letters including a photo of herself in one. She blew me up for not going to see her. You can imagine that I keep her photo next my heart. “What am I to do?” is the question. Answer her letters or discontinue to write. I will leave you to digest that. So, Au Revoir…

Joe was killed in action on 3 December 1917

Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Surname MORTON Forename JOSEPH Age 21 Date of death 03/12/1917 Rank Private Regiment Canterbury Regiment, N.Z.E.F. Unit/ship/squadron 1st Bn. Country Belgium Service number 10246 Cemetery HOOGE CRATER CEMETERY Grave reference XII. L. 18.

Additional information Son of Ben and Annie Morton, of 14, Pickering St., Everton, Liverpool, England. Won Liverpool Scholarship at Queen's Road School, Liverpool.  

From Joe Morton’s War Record:

Medical Examination Gisborne 11 December 1915 Enlisted Trentham 13 December 1915 Embarked NZ 2 April 1916 Disembarked Suez 3 May 1916 Posted… Tel-El-Kebir 4 May 1916 Embarked Alexandria 27 May 1916 Joined 1 Batt C’bury Reg’t 12 Coy Armentières 7 July 1916 Wounded in Action Armentières 11 July 1916 Admitted to No 1 NZ Ambulance Field 12 July 1916 Discharged to Unit Field 12 July 1916 Re-joined Batt. Field 17 July 1916 Wounded in Action Field 7 June 1917 Admitted No 9 AFA Field 7 June 1917 (Australian Field Ambulance?) Admitted No 1 Australian CCS Field 7 June 1917 (Casualty Clearing Station?) Admitted No 2 Aust Gen Hosp Wimereux 7 June 1917 Admitted No 1 Con Depot Boulogne 15 June 1917 (Convalescence?) Att Stgth NZ 1… Etaples 22 June 1917 Re-joined Batt. Field 20 July 1917 Det Leave England Field 28 August 1917 Re-joined Batt. Field 10 September 1917 Det to Div Dump Field 30 September 1917 Re-joined Batt. Field 7 October 1917 Killed in Action Field 3 December 1917  

Excerpts from an account of the events of 3 December 1917

(©Lemuel Lyes)

On 3 December, 1917 the men of the 1st Canterbury and 1st Otago battalions assembled along the front line opposite a German strongpoint that was backed with pillboxes, machine-guns, trenches; and at the heart of the position, the ruins of Polderhoek Chateau. At midday the whistles blew and the New Zealanders went over the top.

On the right the 1st Canterbury was tasked with taking out a series of pillboxes and other German defensive positions, while on the left the 1st Otago were to take the chateau on directly. At least, that was the plan.

The weary troops assembled in the forward trenches. Some were veterans but many were inexperienced recruits. At noon the signal was given and they climbed over the top and advanced towards the German positions. Unfortunately, the attack seemed doomed to fail from the start. Things first went wrong when Allied artillery shells fell short of their mark and landed among the advancing New Zealanders. This was followed by a hail of machine gun fire from the entrenched Germans, followed shortly by their artillery. Even the account published by the official war correspondent paints a pretty bleak picture:

“Officers and men strode forward with elan across the open ground towards the chateau and the tree trunks of what had been Polderhoek wood. Meantime the enemy had sent his S.O.S. soaring heavenward, and in six minutes his stopping barrage had come down, while his machine guns were spitting venomously from the chateau and the adjacent “pill-boxes.” The German gunners on the Chelevelt ridge added their streams of machine bullets to those already sweeping the position, and officers and men began to fall.”

Malcolm Ross, War Correspondent with N.Z. Forces, Hawera & Normanby Star, 22nd March 1918

The troops of the 1st Canterbury Battalion bravely advanced through the heavy machine-gun fire and assaulted the German pillboxes. Notably, one position was rushed by Private Henry Nicholas who single-handedly overwhelmed the sixteen defenders. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for this action. Despite the exceptional gallantry displayed by Nicholas and other soldiers of the 1st Canterbury, the assault came under concentrated enemy fire and eventually ground to a halt.

By the end of the afternoon both the Otago and Canterbury battalions were pinned down, trying to hold onto the ground they had gained. Total casualties were as high as fifty percent. The Germans were reinforcing the chateau. And it was snowing…

A more detailed account of the action can be found in The History of the Canterbury Regiment, N.Z.E.F., 1914-1919 Author: Captain David Ferguson Publication details: Whitcombe and Tombs Limited, 1921, Auckland


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