Family research brings surprises

23:40, Apr 22 2012
LOOKING AT THE PAST: Jared Morgan scans the list of the dead for his great-grandfather's name.

Like many offspring of the thousands of young men who left New Zealand to fight for King and country in World War I, reporter JARED MORGAN'S view of his great-grandfather's service in the Great War was rose-tinted. The reality, he discovered, is more scarlet.

Little more than two years after his shotgun wedding, Private Colin Charles Mathieson, of Bluff, was dead of complications from a gunshot wound to his neck.

The origins of the "war to end all wars" is writ large in New Zealand, yet, like all history, time condenses events and distils individuals down to a part of the overall picture.

MEMORIAL: Colin Charles Mathieson's name etched on the Bluff War Memorial.

I knew the history.

The war was sparked by the assassination of an Austro-Hungarian archduke and was to spiral into a global conflict.

The war took more than 100,000 New Zealanders overseas and would ultimately claim the lives of 18,500, wounding a further 50,000.


Private Colin Charles Mathieson.

My great-grandfather was one of the dead.

I knew little about him growing up. My concept of the man I knew as "Nana's father" was formed from stories my grandmother told, which were few, given he had left for war before she was born, photos, two service medals the British War Medal and the Victory Medal and a large bronze disc.

The disc depicts an almost forgotten symbol of the Empire, Britannia, her head bowed in respect, and is engraved with the name of its recipient.

Known as a "dead man's penny", it denotes one thing; the man it represents never made it home.

Sure enough, Private Charlie Mathieson never came home.

Home for Mathieson was, before now, unclear. I knew he was Australian, knew my grandmother and her mother had spent time in Victoria in the 1920s, but I also knew Nana was born in Bluff.

Like all history, scratch deeper and you uncover surprises.

Any illusion I had of a pregnant and pining wife, a husband desperate to return home to see his child, has been clouded.

The marriage between Colin Charles Mathieson and Margaret Ethel Owen Gilson (nee Cooper) on August 16, 1916, may not have been the greatest of love stories.

My grandmother, Edna Morgan, now 92, takes up the story.

"I suspect she (her mother) was pregnant when she married him."

It's a prospect she finds amusing as her references to her mother testify.

"I think she was a bit of a hard case."

Nana proves to be right.

My grandmother was born on March 15, 1917, the fourth child of her then 31-year-old mother who, before the wedding to Private Mathieson seven months earlier, had been a Bluff widow with a son and two daughters.

My grandmother's conception appears to have coincided with Private Mathieson's enlistment.

Born on May 13, 1892, six years after his wife-to-be, in Warrak Mt Cole, 25 minutes from Ararat in Victoria, Australia, Mathieson was the seventh of 10 children five boys and five girls to a Scottish father and his Ararat-born wife.

According to my grandmother, he became a shearer and later moved to New Zealand with his four brothers. Why remains a mystery and, again, my illusion that he had moved to New Zealand alone has been shattered.

It turns out I have scores of relatives in Bluff and throughout Southland I never knew existed.

Charlie Mathieson was joined in Bluff by his older brothers Alec and Bill, who stayed and raised families there, while Jim settled in Timaru. Angus also followed his brothers across the Tasman but later returned home.

In 1916, two years after the King's declaration of war, which automatically extended to all his dominions including New Zealand, Mathieson enlisted at Trentham, near Wellington, on June 28.

On his enlistment attestation, question 10 is probably most telling.

"Are you married?"

In cursive script the answer is simple: "No."

Any reference to his wife is added to the records later.

My grandmother, her mother, half-brother and sisters, settled in Timaru in the early 1920s.

According to his military service records, Mathieson was posted to D Company of the 18th Reinforcements of the Otago Infantry Battalion to the rank of private and finally sailed for overseas duty on the steamship SS Willochra on February 2, 1917.

Exactly where in the world he was between leaving New Zealand and active service is a grey area dotted with the odd illness and, more alarmingly, the "clap".

Mathieson was transferred to London after a brief stay in the town of Etaples in the north of France. He had been treated for laryngitis in the town, which during the war became a vast Allied military camp and then a giant "hospital city" established by the Australians, New Zealanders and British. Wounded or sick soldiers were often sent to Etaples to recover or en route for Britain.

He was also again admitted to hospital in London for "pyuria", a urinary infection.

In April 1917 he reported to the Hornchurch military depot it was also one of the largest of the New Zealand depots set in the grounds of Grey Towers Manor, 32km from London.

From there he reported to the Codford training camp in Wiltshire, England, on April 18, 1917. Codford was home to training and transfer camps established for the tens of thousands of troops waiting to move to France.

It was here, 10 days later on April 28, 1917, that he was diagnosed with venereal disease.

It is unclear where he picked up the disease, but he was not alone. VD cast a long shadow during World War I and was a leading cause of disability and lost manpower.

Gonorrhoea, in particular, has been estimated as third in the causes of non-effectiveness among troops.

Mathieson's treatment extended over 10 months at various army hospitals and depots, culminating in measles in December 1917 before he was sent to a military hospital in Rouen, France.

Action of the military kind eluded him until the following month.

His time on the Western Front was to be eight months of his total deployment.

In August, he was shot in the shoulder and neck, causing paraplegia.

His records document his decline. Admitted to hospital in London on August 26, 1918, he was listed as "dangerously ill" throughout September.

On October 12, Colin Charles Mathieson died of his wounds at No2 New Zealand General Hospital at Walton-on-Thames.

News of his death travelled by cable almost 20,000km and reached Bluff two days later.

He was buried three days later at Brookwood Cemetery, the largest cemetery in Britain, 48km southwest of London.

The cemetery was laid out in 1854 as the London Necropolis. In 1917 a 14ha area was set aside for the burial of men and women of the Commonwealth forces and Americans, who had died, many of battle wounds, in the London district.

The news of his burial and final resting place, would not reach his wife until January 15.

Mathieson's name is recorded among the dead on the Bluff War Memorial, something I made a point of checking out when I moved to the deep south in late 2005.

Mathieson was clearly no hero but, in part because he was fallible, I hold a level of respect and admiration for him and will honour him on Saturday.

The Southland Times