War is hell, here's my family's story


I think I'll pull out a long dead grandfather I never met and use him to make a point of some sort. 

Everybody else seems to do around it this time of year. It's usually done to somehow validate a rickety opinion endorsing the need for, and glory of, war.

You know the drill. "My grandfather didn't fight in the trenches to so that X can get away with Y".

My paternal grandfather served in the trenches at Passchendaele for almost a year. He took no leave, was constantly in the firing line, and bore witness to the gruesome deaths of many men during that time. There is little doubt that he was exposed to mustard gas.

Soon after leaving the trenches he was hospitalised with neurasthenia, otherwise known as shell shock. Essentially it means that the central nervous system is completely exhausted and fatigue, depression, irrationality and anxiety take over.

After months of recuperation he was declared medically unfit for service and put on a ship home. His war was over. He headed back to his wife and five children, with number six (my father) making an appearance in 1919.

He purchased a small dairy farm just east of Whanganui and the family moved in on Boxing Day 1920. Was it The Waltons? Not quite.

By all accounts the man who went to war came back a very different person. He was restless and scary. His children lived in constant fear of upsetting him, and his wife felt the sting of his fists with monotonous regularity.

Legend and local gossip has it that he had a peculiar habit of bi-annually heading to a particular pub in town and hitting the sauce. Once suitably liquored-up he set about finding bald men to slap the heads of. Such actions ensured an out and out brawl. He loved to fight.

He was big, he was mean and he was a law unto himself. But he was also a returned World War 1 veteran - meaning he was cut a lot of slack in those early post-war days.

Having three daughters he became increasingly fixated with the lone market-gardening Chinaman who lived a quiet and stoic life a few paddocks away. He was obsessed with the notion that he was illicitly meeting his girls under the bridge of a creek that flowed through his dairy property.

Of course, his neurosis coincided perfectly with the 'yellow peril' sentiment towards the Chinese which was hugely prevalent at the time.

And so it was that 66-year-old Chow Yat was shot at point blank range in the face, and other extremities, outside his whare on the evening of   May 31, 1922.

Despite a massive head wound he still managed to escape on foot, stumbling down the dusty lane, before falling into a ditch on the side of road close to my grandfather's driveway. This is where he bled out and died.

Later, and rather obviously, he was physically carried away from the spot – presumably so as not to point to the proximity of his murderer's home – to about a mile back down the road near a stand of native bush.

To call the ensuing police enquiry an 'investigation' would be stretching it. My grandfather, despite being Chow Yat's closest neighbour, was not spoken to for some weeks after the murder. 

Other farming neighbours even nervously pointed the finger at him but were too scared to put their suspicions officially into police statements due to fears of retaliation.

So it was that a Hungarian immigrant was jumped on within days as the murderer. The police pursued the guilt of the man vigorously and without any evidence whatsoever – other than he was seen passing by on the road that day. A trial quickly led to an acquittal, and the police looked incompetent.

Too much time had elapsed by now and my grandfather was interviewed in slightly more depth, but the outcome was the same. Police notes are favourable towards him based on very little. Circumstantially, at least, he was a guilty as sin.

He died in 1948 after a pretty miserable life, and one of never having to answer to any higher power for what he'd done. He is buried in the Aramoho cemetery – not far from the grave of Chow Yat. 

In her dotage his daughter, my aunt Molly, told me how he came into her bedroom one night and held a knife to her throat. He'd been drinking heavily and leaned over her slurring that he would kill her if she ever breathed a word about the murder. She knew he'd murdered the Chinaman and took that knowledge to her grave.

The ramifications of his war experience were dire for everyone who knew him.

My grandfather came back from France a broken, beaten shell of a man. He beat his wife, tormented his kids, and killed a man in cold blood. And got away with it.

War is hell. Lest we forget.

This true story was turned into a 2009 book written by Joan Rosier-Jones called 'The Murder of Chow Yat'.

 - Stuff

Ad Feedback
special offers
Ad Feedback