Hated at home, dead on a foreign field

TOM HUNT
Last updated 09:15 02/08/2014
George Bollinger
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REMEMBERED: George Bollinger.

Rozel Pharazyn
CAMERON BURNELL/Fairfax NZ
KIWI AS: George Bollinger's niece, Rozel Pharazyn, at home in Paekakariki.

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Half-German, half-Irish New Zealander George Bollinger died for a country that didn't trust him.

On August 4, 1914 - a century ago on Monday - Great Britain declared war on Germany, and New Zealand was along for the bloody ride.

Just nine days later, Bollinger signed up to fight for king and country. Three years later, when he was fatally wounded at Messines, eight of his German cousins were in the opposing trenches. "They were shooting at each other," Bollinger's great-niece, Rozel Pharazyn, of Paekakariki, says.

At the time, neither branch of the family knew this. The connection was made only after the war when Max Bollinger - the only one of the three brothers to survive the war - took his new wife to Germany to meet the family, she says.

Max and wife Nesta Brown, from Khandallah, would return to New Zealand and start a family after the war. It would be hard to think of a more Kiwi family than their direct descendants.

Acclaimed cinematographer Alun Bollinger helped create some of New Zealand's favourite movies - Goodbye Pork Pie, Heavenly Creatures, and Home by Christmas among them.

Nick Bollinger, a member of Wellington band Windy City Strugglers, is one of the country's top music writers.

But as historian Jock Phillips writes in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, the life and death of George Bollinger "illustrate the extremes of nobility and prejudice engendered in New Zealand by the experience of the First World War".

The Bollinger boys' father, Max, emigrated from Germany in the late 1870s. In Taranaki in 1884 he married Margaret Irvine Smith, a young widow from Northern Ireland.

The Bollingers had four daughters and three sons. The third, Herman, would follow George to the Western Front and die in the war.

The family were living in Taranaki when war broke out. George was quick to volunteer but, within a month of his enlistment, complaints were already being made about his "supposed German sympathies".

The false allegations were dismissed by the army, and, on October 16, 1914, he was shipped off to war. His diary, donated to the National Library by the Bollinger family, offers graphic descriptions of Chunuk Bair on Gallipoli: "All up the gully was the frightful smell of dead."

It talks of a rare day without snipers and shelling. "This evening the Maoris conducted a church service. Everything seemed so quiet & peaceful & as those 40-odd voices sang those songs we usually sing at the front (Lead Kindly Light, Abide with me, Nearer my God to thee etc), our thoughts were drawn from war & care towards home."

Phillips notes the diary starts with the "unqualified enthusiasm for battle", shifts to facing "the smells and the flies and the constant presence of death" and then to bitterness about "mismanagement and the betrayal of his mates' self-sacrifice".

But his loyalty to the British Empire remained. In early 1916 he returned to New Zealand for officer training, becoming a second lieutenant. He took a posting as an instructor at the Trentham camp.

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The haters wouldn't let up. In Taranaki, the Bollinger family had rocks thrown at their home, partly spurring their move to Khandallah. MPs and the Women's Anti-German League started accusing George of being pro-German. The army again stood by him, pointing out his promotion was for "exceptional gallantry and faithful conduct".

But Phillips said: "Bollinger himself was more affected by the campaign against him. To quieten the rumours, so his family claims, he once more offered his service overseas, although under no obligation to do so."

BOLLINGER'S is just one of more than 141,000 World War I soldiers' files that have been painstakingly scanned and put online this week by Archives NZ.

The files range in size from a few pages to more than 600. More than four million images were created. "This is the largest and most complicated digitisation programme undertaken by Archives New Zealand and possibly the biggest of historical records, to date, in New Zealand," an Archives spokesman said.

The project began in 2008 and scaled up in 2012 when a team of people began working up to 20 hours a day, seven days a week.

Many of the records - of rank, last address, date of death - offer little clue to the horrors of war.

George Wallace Bollinger, Protestant, a bank clerk, died "from wounds received in action" on June 10, 1917, the file notes. He was buried in a military cemetery in Bailleul, a French town near the Belgium border.

Letters in the archives have more to say. A soldier's mother claims: "The father, Mr Bollinger, is a German of the Germans and the mother is a disloyal Irishwoman."

A soldier wrote: "He was one of the most popular fellows in the company and a fine example of a soldier, and a New Zealander."

In Omata, a small settlement on the outskirts of New Plymouth where George was born on April 10, 1890, a war memorial sits out the front of the church.

"Lest we Forget," it is engraved, followed by the names of the local lads who died in the Great War.

Omata's sons, the Bollinger boys, don't get a mention.

- The Dominion Post

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