They answered the call to arms

17:00, Aug 01 2014
William Mannix
DESCENDENT: William Mannix’s great-niece Petrena Thomson visits his grave at Waihi Cemetery. Mannix, a goldminer, served as a World War I tunneller in France.

William Mannix didn't make old bones. His tombstone at Waihi Cemetery records that he died in 1919, aged 26, his ill-health the legacy of World War I.

Mannix, a Waihi goldminer, was one of more than 100,000 Kiwis who answered the call to arms a century ago, when New Zealand joined Britain in war against Germany on August 5, 1914.

He served as a member of the New Zealand Engineers Tunnelling Company, took his mining skills to France, working with pick and shovel to provide safe passage to Allied troops, and also to destroy the enemy by packing caverns with explosives and blasting them.

The tunnellers' work has largely gone unsung, it slipped out of history. While more than 500 civic memorials nationwide honour New Zealand's huge losses at Gallipoli, Passchendale and other battlefields, no memorial has been raised to the miners, although there is one in Arras, France, where their handiwork is still remembered.

Waihi Heritage Vision, a group dedicated to preserving local history, aims to change that. For the past few years, it has been researching the war records of the tunnellers, about 90 of whom had Waihi connections.

Now the group is fundraising to build a memorial to the Tunnelling Company at Waihi's Lake Gilmour. It is a $150,000 project, scheduled to be unveiled in March 2016, to mark the centennial anniversary of the company's arrival on the Western Front in France.


The tunnellers were brought to the attention of Kit Wilson, who chairs Waihi Heritage Vision, by his wife, researcher Sue Baker Wilson.

"The story was essentially unknown," he says. "People didn't think miners went to war because mining was an essential service. But the more we delved into it, the more we learned, and the more incredible it was."

Heritage Vision has provided a number of tunnellers' families with information about their ancestors, among them William Mannix's great-niece Petrena Thomson, from Tauranga. She is grateful, and has since discovered Mannix's grave at Waihi Cemetery.

"It would have been so easy to have visited it, I just didn't know," she said.

Mannix was a victim of German gas. The poison acted on his stomach, he spent months in bed, weakened and emaciated by his inability to take solid food. He died in 1919 of a pre-enlistment disability aggravated by the gas poisoning.

He'd married on his return home, and his only child, a son named after him, was born a week after he died. Mannix's wife died 18 months later. Their son served in World War II, and died during the Western Desert Campaign.

Hamilton artist and playwright Campbell Smith heard Mannix's story from Waihi Heritage Vision, and was inspired to write a poem about him.

We publish it today, as we salute the tunnellers' story, and the thousands of other New Zealanders who fought, died, suffered, in the Great War.

Waikato Times