New Zealand's Darkest Day at Passchendaele Still Felt Strongly by Manawatu Family

Bringing aroha from Aotearoa to a grave in Belgium, Warrant Officer Class 1 Hone Dalton, his brother-in-law Ben Reedy, sister Denise Dalton-Reedy and brother Ben Dalton.
Bringing aroha from Aotearoa to a grave in Belgium, Warrant Officer Class 1 Hone Dalton, his brother-in-law Ben Reedy, sister Denise Dalton-Reedy and brother Ben Dalton.

11 October 2017

When the call to arms was sounded in New Zealand at the beginning of the First World War, thousands of young men from all over the country rushed to recruitment offices to enlist.

It wasn’t uncommon for a number of members of the same family to sign up.

This was certainly true of the Johnson family, of Hukerenui in the Bay of Islands, who contributed five members to the war effort.

One hundred years later, a proud great-grandson and serving soldier from Manawatu has travelled to Passchendaele with his whānau to reflect on what was given by his family during this battle – and what was taken away.

Warrant Officer Class 1 Hone Dalton, Training Warrant Officer for Headquarters Joint Forces New Zealand, has travelled to Belgium with several members of his family to attend commemorations to pay respect to family members who fought during the First World War.

His great-grandfather, Henry Johnson, was of English and Scandinavian descent – a fisherman, ship’s captain, expert horseman and adventurer. He married Emerina, the daughter of Ngāpuhi chief Wi Kaire, and together they had 12 children.

“Three of these ended up enlisting and served with pride and distinction at Gallipoli, the Somme and Passchendaele,” Warrant Officer Dalton said.

“Not to be outdone, Henry, aged 56, joined the New Zealand Mounted Rifles and served with the New Zealand Veterinary Corps in the Sinai-Palestine campaign.”

All members of the Johnson family who served overseas made it back to New Zealand, with one exception.

Emerina and Henry’s son Rifleman Henry George Johnson served with the 4th Auckland Battalion, 3rd New Zealand Rifle Brigade and was wounded at Passchendaele on the 12 October, 1917, New Zealand’s darkest day.

“For two days he lay on the battlefield in the most appalling conditions among artillery and machine gun fire from both sides before finally being evacuated by a New Zealand Field Ambulance unit to the No 2 Canadian casualty clearing station,” Warrant Officer Dalton said.

“It was here that he died from his wounds at the age of 20. We wonder if he would have survived if he had received medical attention sooner but we know it wasn’t for the want of trying by the stretcher bearers, who did everything they could for our boys.”

Rifleman Johnson is buried at Ligssenthoek, near Poperinge in Belgium.

His family will remember him and others on the day he died as New Zealand commemorates the Battle of Passchendaele on 12 October.

“My family’s story is no different from others during this period,” Warrant Officer Dalton said. “The loss and sacrifice we experienced was repeated in thousands upon thousands of households throughout New Zealand.

“But for our whānau, in the Manawatu, Ruatoria, Northland and Auckland, the opportunity to visit Henry and stand alongside his headstone and give thanks for what he did is something we will always treasure.

“We’ll be at the Battle of Passchendaele commemorations to remember all those New Zealanders from all those families who signed up, travelled halfway across the world, fought and died for something bigger than themselves.”

The New Zealand National Commemorative Service for the Battle of Passchendaele centenary is at Tyne Cot Cemetery at 11am on 12 October. On the same day, the Sunset Ceremony will be held at Buttes New British Cemetery at 7.15pm.

This page was last reviewed on 12 October 2017.