Soldier gets headstone after 80 years

A tramp's death but a soldier's funeral

TERESA HATTAN
Last updated 10:11 28/07/2014
firing salute, Joseph Skelly
TERESA HATTAN/Fairfax NZ

REMEMBRANCE: Privates Viliami Taliauli, XG Zhao and Jacob Marchioni firing a salute at the service for Clement Skelly.

Joseph Skelly
TERESA HATTAN/Fairfax NZ
RECOGNITION: The life of Private Clement Joseph Skelly was celebrated as his headstone was unveiled at Matamata Cemetery. Skelly’s body was found by the roadside 80 years ago and he received a pauper’s burial.

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By all accounts, Clement Joseph Skelly was a scallywag.

He died on July 6, 1934 from exposure after he was found on the roadside between Waharoa and Matamata. Police estimate he was aged about 48 or 50 but with no family to claim him, no-one was ever sure.

A Waikato police file notes that when he was found, his only possessions were three war medals and a pencil in his pocket. His clothes and boots showed the wear of someone down on their luck.

Skelly, who served in both the Australian and New Zealand military, seemed destitute and appeared to have "insufficient means of support," according to a newspaper report at the time.

Private Skelly had gone AWOL at least four times after he was wounded in August 1916, but that doesn't mean he didn't deserve respect after he completed service to his country. That respect was granted to him in a military service at Matamata Cemetery earlier this month, where his headstone was unveiled more than 80 years after he had died.

Veterans' Affairs New Zealand provided the headstone while dignitaries from both the Australian and New Zealand armed services were present for the send-off Skelly never received when he died.

Matamata Piako Mayor Jan Barnes was also at the service and welcomed Skelly home, thanking the armed services for identifying Skelly so the military service could finally be held.

Little is known about the path that took Skelly to a lonely death on a Waikato roadside, but more is known about the time he spent in service.

On January 14, 1902, he enlisted in Australia for service in the Boer War.

When the Great War came, he again answered the call and on August 24, 1915, Skelly enlisted in the 1st Battalion, Auckland Regiment and embarked for Egypt as part of the 8th reinforcements on November 13. He arrived in Egypt on January 15, 1916, and after a short stay he sailed for France on April 6, 1916.

Skelly was wounded in a night attack in France on August 13, 1916, when he received a gunshot wound to his right leg. A period of rehabilitation followed.

In January 1917, Skelly was admitted to hospital with bronchitis and discharged as fit but admitted again in February 1917 with chest complaints. He had surgery that resulted in the loss of a number of his "digits".

He remained in hospital until July 6, 1917, when it was recommended he be evacuated to England for recovery and discharge.

On January 10, 1918, he embarked on MS Arawa and returned to Auckland on March 7, 1918.

He was discharged on May 20, 1918, a man seemingly broken by the war. By then he had completed 156 days on home service and two years and 115 days of active service.

Here the trail of Skelly's life runs cold until his body appeared on that roadside and hence in police records 18 years later.

All to show of his life was that stub of a pencil and the three medals he clung to through the grind of Depression-era poverty.

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Waikato police arranged for a pauper's funeral with two police constables digging the grave to avoid the 2/6 sexton's fee.

Skelly's remains have lain in block five, plot 58 of the Matamata Cemetery ever since, with only lawn and a bare concrete border to mark the spot.

WWI historian Professor Glyn Harper said Skelly's story was sad but by no means uncommon as many veterans died penniless while grappling with physical and psychological issues from the war.

"There were many veterans who had no assistance when they came back and many were dealing with issues like shell shock."

While some men received assistance onto a rehabilitation farm, many lived a hand to mouth existence in the Depression years and Skelly was probably one of these.

"There were stories of veterans going around doing odd jobs and anything they could," said Harper.

Even highly decorated veterans fell on hard times, with Victoria Cross recipient Jack Grant's appearance at a relief camp for unemployed men in Paeroa causing outrage in newspapers of the time.

Speaking at the service, Lieutenant Colonel Julian Sewell said it was a privilege to see Skelly had a proper send-off: "We have found one of our own and we will remember him."

WAR BY DAY, WINE AND WOMAN BY NIGHT 

Clement Skelly's experience of war was likely a mix of the horrors of trench warfare interspersed with surreal moments of gentile French civilian life.

A history of the Auckland Regiment in which Skelly served shows the unit spent much of Skelly's stint on the Western Front in the Northern French sector of Armentiéres.

According to Lieutenant O E Burton who penned the account, the sector was considered almost a rest place on the lines, especially once the titanic Battle of the Somme began raging largely to the south.

The details of how Skelly was wounded are unknown, but Burton's description of a night attack by another party of Auckland Regiment troops only a day earlier gives some clue as to the sort of gritty infantry raiding Skelly would have been involved in to keep the Germans off guard.

"The party assembled in No-Man's-Land under a covering barrage, moved up toward the gaps in the enemy wire, dashed in the instant the barrage lifted, bayonetted a few Huns, captured a machine-gun, the first taken by the New Zealanders in France, and two prisoners, and then, having achieved their purpose, withdrew without loss."

So common was this sort of raid it is the only one Burton thought worth recording in such detail, with what he calls the "only other incident of any importance" during the time the discovery of a large cache of red wine in an abandoned building at nearby La Chapelle d' Armentieres.

Burton describes the town as all quaint red brick buildings and medieval cobbled streets, but largely deserted of all but a small number of mainly poor women and children because of the trench-bound conflict raging only 20 minutes' walk away.

Troops billeted in the town could begin a night under machine gun fire on the lines before retiring to a bunk in town where French women would drop by selling coffee, eggs and the morning newspaper. He could then head down the road to the famous baths at Pont Nieppe, emerging steaming and refreshed with a laundered uniform.

Armentieres sported a number of cafes and drinking spots and the Kiwi troops found a welcome distraction in the arms of local ladies, who, Burton recalled with a touch of melancholy as he wrote after the war, had since returned to their own men as the Kiwis had to their own women.

"Fate and chance sent you the New Zealand men for a little while. For a brief space you were their womenfolk. You opened your hearts and your homes. You said that the 'soldats de la Nouvelle Zelande étaient beaucoup bien aimés. (The New Zealand soldiers were very well loved.)' They thank you, and do not forget."

It was all the more tragic when German shellfire wreaked it's indiscriminate toll on the town.

"Every day some of them (civilians) were hit. The sight of a woman horribly dead, lying in the shattered smash of her home was terrible; to hear the groans and cries of a girl who half an hour before had been the life and soul of a crowded estaminet (cafe) and to realise that she was dying in agony was very terrible; and to find a little maid of six, goldenhaired and blue-eyed, the very picture of hundreds of the little sisters of our own homes - dying on the stones of the street from shock, was most terrible."

"War is horrible," Burton wrote. "Imagine the tragedy of this French town, with its shattered and desecrated homes, its silent streets, its long roll of women and children killed and wounded. But tragedy was never allowed to obtrude itself. The French folk were far too brave for that. Armentierès was for the New Zealanders a most cheerful place." Skelly was one of 2500 new Zealand casualties from Armentières, which included 375 killed.

- Waikato Times

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