Thames woman makes timely WWI discovery

Gwenda Beilby with the WWI memorabilia of her father-in-law Harold Beilby.
Jill Cleave

Gwenda Beilby with the WWI memorabilia of her father-in-law Harold Beilby.

A Thames woman has made a timely discovery ahead of Anzac Day while doing some general sorting and tidying up this week.

Gwenda Beilby, 91, found her father-in-law's war medals, a memorial plaque and scroll tucked inside a crimson fez Harold Beilby brought home from World War I.

"I never even knew we had them.  My [late] husband Laurie would of known but they were never mentioned," she said.

The memorial plaque, cast in bronze and individually named, was issued after World War I to the next-of-kin of all British and Empire service personnel who were killed as a result of the war.  

Along with the plaque, referred to as dead men's pennies, a commemorative scroll was also issued with the words: "He whom this scroll commemorates was numbered among those who, at the call of King and Country left all that was dear to them, endured hardness, faced danger and finally passed out of the sight of men by the path of duty and self sacrifice, giving up their own lives that others might live in freedom.  Let those who come after see to it that his name be not forgotten", followed by his name, rank and regiment."

Harold Beilby was among the landing forces at Anzac Cove and was wounded when furious fighting broke out on a summit called "Baby 700".  

He recounted to his brother in later years that when he was shot he rolled down a steep hillside into an Australian trench.  He was evacuated to the Australian General Hospital before arriving at the NZ Military Hospital at Heliopolis near Cairo on April 30, 1915.

While Harold returned from overseas duties, the effects from the wound he suffered worsened and he died in 1925 aged 30 leaving behind a widow, Victoria, and four children aged between six months and eight years old.

"He had been shot in the head and suffered partial blindness, headaches and periodic fits as the bullet was left in the brain and covered with a steel plate.  His wife used to keep a wooden peg handy to place between his teeth," said Gwenda.

She said Harold's three sons, Harold (Hank), Laurence and Ronald, all served in World War 2, two in the army and one in the navy.

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"My own father, who also served in World War I, died in 1970 from the effects of mustard gas," she said.

Gwenda has a lot of remembering to do come Anzac Day and will share it with her eldest son this year who is coming from Tauranga to take her to the civic ceremony and then they will visit the Totara Cemetery.

"It just looks so lovely up there at Anzac with all the white crosses on the graves, very emotional," she said.

On a lighter note Gwenda also remembers some of the first Anzac parades in Thames.

Her house was on the corner opposite the Junction Hotel and the service in the mid 1930s was held in the middle of the crossroads as there was no war memorial hall then.

"I can remember standing on our verandah wondering how the cenotaph got there as it wasn't there when I went to bed but it was there in the morning.  I can still see Mr Hastings leading the parade riding his horse," she said.

 - Stuff

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