Southern military history
LETTER TO THE EDITOR
The Southland Times
November 14, 2001
My father fought in World War 1 and often spoke with
bated breath of the exploits of Dick Travis, who was
regarded pretty much as a living legend by the troops.
He was given a roving commission which meant that
he was not attached to any unit but could come and
go as he pleased.
He was usually to be found in the thickest of the
fighting but never on the parade ground, so beloved
by the military brass of the time.
Night patrols going across No Man's Land with the
purpose of harassing the enemy would often find
that Dick Travis had joined their unit.
He appeared to lead a charmed life until the day of
the fatal shell burst near the end of the war.
My Dad often spoke of the day when one of his
mates came along the trenches with tears rolling
down his cheeks and spoke just three words:
"They've got Dick."
M W Mathieson Heddon Bush
One-time Southlander Dick Travis was a capable killer, at home on the battlefields of World War 1.
Read any account of his war history and the anecdotal evidence suggests he was the archetypal strong and silent Southlander who got on with the job.
Travis was sergeant of a non-commissioned and highly decorated group; with four or five hand-picked men roamed No Man's Land to harass the enemy and gather information.
This specialist in death made it through the bloodbaths at Armentieres, the Somme, Messines, and Passchendaele while others were killed and wounded around him.
Equally capable of killing with rifle, bayonet or bomb - Travis' reputation is of a highly decorated hero who was killed in action in the closing months of the war.
Search the Commonwealth War Graves register and you will not find a mention of Dick Travis. That is no mistake, for his real name was Dickson Cornelius Savage and he is listed by it on the register.
The son of James and Frances Savage, of Opotiki, Travis was labelled a Southlander, having worked at Ryal Bush as a horsebreaker before World War 1 began in 1914.
Awarded the Victoria Cross, the Distinguished Conduct Medal, the Military Medal and the Croix de Guerre, he was New Zealand's most famous soldier of the war.
Only months before he died, one Southland veteran of the war, Bill Ramage, spoke of how he remembered seeing Travis at work on the Somme in 1916.
"He leaned against the sandbags and shot a German in the face about a hundred yards away, then he walked away, " Mr Ramage said.
At Armentieres, Travis silenced a German machine-gunner nicknamed Parapet Joe and on another occasion ended the stalking days of an enemy sniper with a carefully aimed bullet.
"There'll be no more trouble from him, " he said briefly, and walked off.
When a German prisoner protested at the way he was being treated, "Travis, in a cold rage, drew his revolver." A New Zealand soldier stopped Travis shooting the German who, it later turned out, had been soon to go on leave and be married.
Travis was in his element lying out in No Man's Land, cleverly camouflaged, waiting for some unwary German to show himself above the parapet or at a gap in the sandbags.
"If an enemy sniper was taking his toll of our own chaps, Dickie was the one usually sent out to stalk him, " an unidentified contemporary was quoted as saying in a 1950s RSA Review.
"Sometimes we would see Dickie returning to our lines, still wearing his camouflage, a mirthless grin on his darkened face and another notch on his rifle, " the soldier said.
Trench service in France brought quick promotion for Travis, who was placed in charge of the Otago Battalions Snipers and Observers Section - a role for which he was ideally suited.
Yet a letter home showed that Travis, too, felt the pressures of war.
"I have seen and experienced sights never to be eradicated from the tablets of my memory but am happy to state I have come through unscathed and am enjoying the best of health, " he wrote.
Travis' biography, written in the 1960s, shows alcohol played a significant part in his soldier days.
"Take it [an operation report] to Bishop [an officer] and get a bottle of whiskey from him." Piece the references together and it would appear the highly decorated sergeant found more reward in a swig of beer, champagne, wine or whisky than in the decorations bestowed him.
He had a genius for patrol work, as he appeared completely fearless as well as clever in all he undertook.
Travis was never out of the line while the Otago Battalion was in - he was with the battalion in everything.
Three times he was decorated and many times recommended, the commander of the New Zealand Division said.
ACCORDING to one soldier Travis was not a reckless daredevil; he planned everything he did down to the smallest detail and that was the reason for his success.
But there was another side to Travis - he would on occasion taunt his enemy, or even jerk them into response at his antics.
Locating German strong-points by rattling enemy barbed wire and drawing machine-gun fire could hardly be described as cool and calculating.
Nor could scrambling around on ice-covered shell holes in full view of the enemy, an episode that nearly cost Travis his life.
Illicit drinking, partying, singing and little regard for spit and polish, Travis was not a model parade-ground soldier and yet the Otago Battalion History says his behaviour was impeccable.
The legend persists.
- © Fairfax NZ News