Harry Norton  — Volume 5

The fifth volume of War Letters 1914–1918 is based on the letters of thirty-five year old Harry Norton, a married father of two from New Zealand, who fought with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force on the Western Front and died in the Battle of the Somme. It will be published in November 2014.  Below is a a selection of material from the book.



Most people wouldn’t have questioned Harry Norton if in June 1915 he had decided to stay at home in Wellington, New Zealand, rather than enlist to fight in a conflict on the other side of the world. Harry was thirty-five years old and had been married to his wife Florence (Florrie) for fourteen years. A deeply religious couple, they had two children, Leonard, twelve, and Jean, eleven, to whom they were both devoted. Harry also had a job he loved.

As soon as he had left school, he had followed his father into the boat-making business, specialising in the making of rowing sculls for the boat clubs and rowers who regularly raced in the waters off New Zealand. He had every reason for wanting to remain in Wellington with his family, but as news of the increasing death toll at Gallipoli began to appear in the New Zealand papers, Harry decided that he, too, should volunteer.1

Almost a year earlier the announcement of war had been met with a spontaneous chorus of the National Anthem from a crowd of thousands gathered in the square outside the old parliament buildings in Wellington. ‘New Zealand,’ declared the governor, Lord Liverpool, to the cheering multitude, ‘is prepared to make any sacrifice to maintain her birthright and her heritage.’ 2

Lord Liverpool’s sentiments were echoed by the prime minister, Robert Massey, and the opposition leader, Sir Joseph Ward, who also addressed the crowd.3

As a dominion of the British Empire, Britain’s declaration of war meant that New Zealand was also at war. Like the other dominions of Australia, Canada and South Africa, however, New Zealand exercised a considerable degree of independence within the Empire. While the decision to go to war was Britain’s, the contribution New Zealand made in terms of men and materials was a decision for the New Zealand government. In August 1914, in a country that saw itself as the ‘Britain of the south’, that support was never in question …4

[The introduction in the book continues until ... ]

… It seems highly unlikely that Florrie, who had only recently recovered from a serious illness, would have welcomed Harry’s decision. Sometime around early August, when Harry was allowed home for weekend leave, she had become pregnant.  By the time she accompanied her two children down to Wellington harbour on 8 January 1916, she was starting her sixth month of pregnancy. Marching as part of the 9th Reinforcements, Harry was among the 2,500 men who were making their way through the city before embarking in the early evening on their waiting ships. The next morning Florrie and the children came down to the harbour again as the ships prepared to set sail.18



[The following is a short selection from Harry's letters. It includes the first four letters he wrote home to his family and one of his many letters from France. Accompanying notes are included for the first two letters.]

At Sea

Last night I saw you all waving the white sheets, and again this morning. I do hope you did not break down when the ship rounded the point and went out of sight. You were so brave when we left the wharf and I was so proud of you my Chum, and the children. Leonard marched all the way with us and I was so glad of his company. His heart was full too.

I am realising how hard it was for you all. You were all so brave and strong that it helped me to keep up too.

Tuesday – Last night we had a storm at sea and the lightning was very vivid. It was a glorious sight but very creepy. It would be pitch dark and then we would hear a great crash of thunder, and the lightning would zig-zag right across the ocean and light up all the sea. It was very beautiful but awesome.

Wednesday – It was fine today.

Thursday – Fine.

Friday – We have been and passed Victoria and Tasmania and are now in the Australian Bight. I have just been promoted Ship’s Quartermaster. It is a very responsible position and I was surprised at getting it so rapidly. I am kept pretty busy and do not have much time to myself, but after the first week things will be easier.

We expect to reach Albany on Thursday morning and I have to go ashore to purchase about 2 pounds of fruit and sundries for the canteen. I am taking a sergeant and 20 men with me. When we get to Suez I will probably remain some time with the ship, perhaps for about a week, so I will be able to see a few sights and learn something.1

Dearest, I hope you and the children are keeping well and strong, and I am thinking of you so often and wondering what you are doing. I will write to you again from Suez.

God bless and keep you all and pray for your Dear Boy.

Your loving Husband and Daddy

At Sea

Last Thursday we sighted Cape Gardi Pui, the first land since Albany. It is the first point of Africa to be seen on the run from N.Z. We are now in the Red Sea with plenty of other shipping and are just passing the islands called 12 Apostles. There are 2 ships ahead of us. I think they may be the Australian troopships.

We have had a splendid trip and I will be sorry in a way to leave the ship. I have got a nice cabin which I share with the ship’s S.M. It is exactly under the rail where I stood and waved to you. I have had such a good rest and lots of time to swat hard for the exams. Capt. Thomson helps me a lot. I often go to him with a lot of questions written on paper and he says, “Hullo, more questions? What is it this time?” 2

I have also had a splendid report sent on to Headquarters in Egypt from Capt McCristell and I am not worrying about the future. I know I will get the better promotion. My word he was a good friend to me. 3

We expect to get to Suez on Wednesday 9th. Just 3 more days. I have to take charge of 50 men and leave the ship in good order, and I am responsible to take them from Suez to the camp at Zeitoun near Cairo.4

We will have about a week in Suez and then go by train to camp. Can you imagine your boy marching 50 men into a British camp? We will be in training for at least 6 weeks, and possibly longer, and then we must go to reinforce the 8th.5

9pm – We have just had church and I went to communion. It is such a comfort to be able to pray and receive help and strength for the day’s battle, and I feel so very much stronger and better for only a few words of prayer. I feel very near to you Dear when I pray for you.

We have been so very happy together Sweetheart and I love you so. I am thinking of you all the time and I feel sure you will be very brave and have a dear little “Cuddley” waiting for me. How I will spoil you all and what a happy time we shall have when I come home Chum. We will build the sweetest and quaintest little cottage and have love and biddies to fill, won’t we? But if I should happen to be among the missing “Dear Heart”, I would not like anyone else to take my place. I would like to meet you just as I left you Dearie. My wife and my Chum.

God bless you all and keep you strong and well and trust in Jesus always.

Your loving husband,

Harry Norton

Red Sea

My Dear Leonard Boy,
I am just wondering how you all are at home. I am sure you are keeping your promise to me and looking after Mother. You can do such a lot and be a be a great help if you are only thoughtful for Mother and Jean, and I am quite sure you are. It will make home so happy if you are bright and cheerful, and speak nicely, and behave like a gentleman.

You would be surprised how easy it is to pick out the gentlemen in our D Company. All the boys who have had good home training, and have thought of the good and kind actions they can do for others, have grown up fine men, and it is a pleasure to talk and work with them.

When I come back home I want to find you a fine boy and be proud of you. You know you can fight for your King and Country by being a good boy. Just as much as I can in Egypt.

Be very good to Mother and Jean and take my place all you can and don’t let Mother miss me.

Now Laddie, I will close and send you my love and kisses.

God bless and keep you,

Your Soldier Daddy


Dear Little Toddles,
I am just writing a few lines to you, as I have written to Mother and Leonard. We will soon be in Suez now and glad to have a run on dry land again. There are a lot of steamers about here coming from the Suez Canal.

This afternoon we had 7 in sight and they were so close that we cheered them and they cheered back to us. We could have spoken had the ships stopped. We have passed Mt Sinai. You will remember something about Moses and the Commandments, and Mt Ararat is quite close too. I don’t know if I have spelt the names correctly, but you will see by the map in your Bible they are close to the shores of the Red Sea.

My dear little girl, I am depending on you for looking after Mother and Leonard. You will be very thoughtful I know and do lots of things for them. I can just picture you doing the dishes and dusting, and Leornard filling the coal box and chopping the wood and weeding the garden, and a 100 and 1 other things, and I know you will both do your practising, and I want you to both be able to play well when I come home again.

God bless you both my Biddies and give Mother a nice gentle kiss and hug from Daddy Boy.

Lots of kisses and hugs from your Soldier Daddy

[Harry wrote several more letters from Egypt and continued to write regularly when they had left. This is one of his many letters from France.]


My Dear Wife,
Well here we are in town for a week’s rest and have just returned after having twelve days in the trenches.

It is so hard to write and not be allowed to tell you what I have been doing and experiences we have had, but I will have lots of time when I get home. I can only say that it is a lot more nerve trying than I expected. We are under an awful strain of expectation all the time and sleep is impossible for the first few days, but after a while one snatches an hour or two here and there.

Night time is the worst, as we can only guess what it going on across the barbed wire. It is Hell upon Earth at times, but we are getting used to the ping, ping of the bullets and the screech and whistle of the shells.

I must admit I was awfully funky in the legs for the first night. I was not frightened, but very nervous in the head, and my legs and knees kept shaking and knocking together for quite an hour. Du was the same the first hour we were under fire. I said to him, “Buck up Du, your legs are shaking,” and he swore at me and said, “Damn you, and what about yourself?” and then we started to laugh. The other boys were just the same. Some admitted it and others tried to look brave, but all had the jumps.

Lieutenant Boyes stopped one right along side of me, on the night of the 17th I think it was. I had moved from this spot 3 seconds before and warned him it was dangerous. It was my first start to bandage up a man and the Red Cross said it was well done. He went right out. Well that steadied me up, and I am now all right and fit as a fiddle.

It is wonderful how one’s nerves get steadied up after the scrap, and when we hear of a lad going to hospital we laugh and say “lucky beggars”. After all it is only a seven day wonder, and we are laughing and joking to hide our real feelings.

But I have been so fortunate, there is no doubt I am being protected. I have had several proofs already that someone is guiding me. Oh, I am so sure. Yesterday I stopped a piece of shrapnel on my helmet. It made my jump but only gave me a bad headache. I have had men shot, killed, wounded and go sick along side me, but Psalm 91, verse 7. “A thousand shall fall at your side, and ten thousand at your right hand; but it shall not come near you.” So I do my work with all my might and am quite happy.

I spend most of my spare time cleaning my rifle and wondering how many I can plug before I go to sleep at night. Do you know that I crawled right close to their trenches trying to overhear their conversation, and I heard one man called Carl and tried to plug him, but I could not stop to see the result of the shot, as they saw the flash of my rifle. I can assure you the snipers have some exciting moments at times. Talk about the lust for blood. Well they try it on us.

It is so lovely today, bright sunshine and the birds chirping in the trees, and then a rotten shell comes and spoils the harmony of nature with its screech and crash. Well all things have an end, and so we will hope that this war will soon be over and we can get home again to our loved ones.

Your loving Soldier Boy


Notes to Introduction

[These are the notes to the first part of the introduction.]

1. ‘As news of the increasing casualties at Gallipoli began to appear in the New Zealand papers …’ The first news of New Zealand casualties had appeared in the local papers on 3 May 1915. There was then an almost daily list of new casualties issued by the New Zealand Department of Defence.

On 8 May 1915 the number of casualties was reported as 513. New Zealand Herald, 8 May 1915, p. 8, http://bit.ly/18g3F0e

Just one month later the figure had more than trebled to 1,792. New Zealand Herald, 9 June 1915, p. 9, http://bit.ly/13k2kQ9

For a population of just over one million, these were already significant numbers.

2. ‘ “New Zealand,” declared the governor, Lord Liverpool, to the cheering multitude, ‘is prepared to make any sacrifice  …” ’ The report of Lord Liverpool’s speech outside the old parliamentary buildings in Wellington on 5 August 1914 is taken from the Ashburton Guardian, 6 August 1914, p. 5, http://bit.ly/14KhlO8

The now famous scene and the words of Lord Liverpool are widely seen as one of the defining moments in New Zealand’s history. The cheering, singing crowds reported in the newspapers, frequently cited as evidence of what many historians have seen as New Zealand’s overwhelmingly enthusiastic response to the war.

But just as historians in other countries have begun to question the idea that their country went to war in a wave of popular enthusiasm, so an attempt to start a debate has also been made in New Zealand.

Ian McGibbon, one of New Zealand’s leading military historians, has suggested that such demonstrations ‘may not have reflected the feelings of the general population.’ McGibbon, I, ‘The Shaping of New Zealand’s War Effort’, p. 51 In support he quotes Hew Strachan’s seminal work, The First World War, in which the most common response of Europeans is described as ‘passive acceptance, a willingness to do one’s duty’ with the demonstrations of enthusiasm the ‘conspicuous froth, the surface element only’. Strachan, H., The First World War, Vol. 1, The Call to Arms, p. 162 McGibbon suggests ‘Something similar probably existed in New Zealand.’

A detailed look at the initial response of New Zealand to the outbreak of the war can be found in Tucker, G., ‘The Great Wave Of Enthusiasm – New Zealand Reactions to the First World War in August 1914 – a Reassessment’, www.nzjh.auckland.ac.nz/docs/2009/NZJH_43_1_04.pdf (PDF 0.22 MB)

3. ‘Lord Liverpool’s sentiments were echoed by the prime minister, Robert Massey, and the leader of the opposition, Sir Joseph Ward …’ Although fierce political rivals, Massey and Ward were both united in their support for the war. Massey told the crowd: ‘That we will be called upon to make sacrifices goes without saying, but I am confident that those sacrifices will be made individually and collectively and willingly and in a manner in accord with the highest traditions of our race and the Empire to which we belong.’

Following Massey, Ward declared: ‘Everyone recognises the horrors of war, but a time arrives in the affairs of nations as of individuals when they must fight in defence of honour and for their existence, when blessings of peace have to be foregone and all grief that sacrifice of human life entails has to be borne with fortitude and resignation.’ Feilding Star, 6 August 1914, p. 1, http://bit.ly/16L8s8q

4a. ‘a dominion of the British Empire…’ Having previously been a colony of the British Empire, New Zealand became a dominion on 26 September 1907. The importance of this new status, however, has been much debated. Some have seen it as being a change in name only, while others have seen it as being an important step on the road to independence. A good, brief overview of the origins and history of New Zealand’s status as a dominion can be found in McIntyre, D., ‘The Development and Significance of Dominion Status’, http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/files/documents/DavidMcIntyre-Dominion-Status.pdf (PDF 50 KB)

4b. ‘Britain’s declaration of war meant that New Zealand was also at war …’ Speaking at the Imperial Conference in 1911, Britain’s prime minister outlined the decision making process across the Empire regarding any future declaration of war. It was a decision that was the sole preserve of the British government with no role for representatives of the dominions or the colonies. ‘

The British Cabinet, at present, is responsible for the conduct of our relations with foreign countries,’ explained Asquith to the leaders of the dominions. ‘We carry on, of course, with all the secrecy that diplomacy requires, these negotiations in the interests of the Empire as a whole. We get to a point, or we might conceivably get to a point, in which it was a question whether or not there should be a rupture between us and a great foreign Power. At present the Cabinet decides that on its own responsibility. Parliament dismisses them if they are not satisfied that they have acted rightly.’ Minutes of Proceedings of the Imperial Council, 1911, p. 66, http://archive.org/stream/1911minutesofpro00impeuoft#page/66/mode/1up

Sir Joseph Ward, then prime minister of New Zealand, had put forward a motion at the same conference calling for the creation of an Imperial Council in which representatives of the overseas dominions would also have a say in the decision to go to war. Ward described it as an ‘Imperial Parliament of Defence for the purpose of determining peace or war.’ Ibid, p. 56, http://archive.org/stream/1911minutesofpro00impeuoft#page/56/mode/1up

The proposal was unanimously opposed by all those attending the conference and withdrawn by Ward. As a consequence, in 1914 the British government still retained the sole right to make declarations of war for all countries in the Empire.

4c. ‘In August 1914 that support was never in question …’ Although having no say in the decision to go to war, the New Zealand government and people made a huge contribution to the war effort. Some historians have seen this as a ‘colonial reflex’, others as a more conscious act of economic self-interest, while others have described a more complex combination of factors to explain the country’s response.

An excellent summary of the different arguments can be found in Kay, R., In Pursuit of Victory: British-New Zealand Relations During the First World War, pp. 32–55, http://hdl.handle.net/10523/352 (PDF pp. 44–69) (25 MB)

4d. ‘in a country that saw itself as the “Britain of the south” …’ In 1914 most white New Zealanders took great pride in their identity as the ‘Britain of the south’ – a phrase made popular by Charles Hursthouse, a 19th century colonist. Hursthouse, C., New Zealand or Zealandia, the Britain of the South, http://archive.org/details/newzealandorzea01hursgoog

This sense of identity is underlined by the fact that just before the war nearly 20% of the population were British born. According to the 1911 census, the population of New Zealand, excluding 49,844 Maori and 7,060 ‘half-caste’, was 1,008,468. Of this figure, 133, 811 (13.28% ) were born in England, 2,206 (0.22%) Wales and 51,709 (5.13%) Scotland. New Zealand Official Yearbook, 1914, http://www3.stats.govt.nz/New_Zealand_Official_Yearbooks/1914/NZOYB_1914.html#idsect2_1_33066


Notes to Letters

[These are the notes to Harry's first two letters.]

1. ‘We expect to reach Albany on Thursday morning …’ When the three New Zealand ships carrying the 9th Reinforcements arrived at Albany, several Australian ships had left Adelaide, Brisbane, Fremantle, Melbourne and Sydney around the same time. Tregarthen, G., Sea Transport of the AIF, pp. 128–30, http://anmm.smedia.com.au/olive/am3/anmm5/

Unlike at the beginning of the war, however, when Frederick Muir (War Letters 1914–1918, Vol. 3) had sailed as part of a single convoy escorted by naval warships, the ships didn’t wait to sail together. With Admiral von Spee’s East Asiatic squadron having been defeated at the Battle of the Falklands, the route was now seen as relatively safe, and ‘transports were dispatched sometimes in groups, sometimes singly as they became ready, without naval escort of any kind.’ Jose, A.W., Official History, Vol. IX, The Royal Australian Navy, 1914–1918, ch. XIII, p. 414, http://www.awm.gov.au/histories/first_world_war/AWMOHWW1/AIF/Vol9/ (PDF. p. 9) (1.4 MB)

This unescorted sailing continued until January 1917 when the German government declared unrestricted submarine warfare on all Allied shipping. The Australian and New Zealand transport ships then returned to sailing in larger escorted convoys. Ibid., p. 418 (PDF p.13)

2. ‘Capt. Thomson helps me a lot …’ Refers to Captain Donald Thomson of the 2nd Otago Battalion. Unlike many in the battalion, Thomson would survive the Battle of the Somme but was invalided home to New Zealand in the summer of 1917.

3. ‘a splendid report sent on to Headquarters in Egypt from Capt McCristell …’ Refers to Captain Thomas McCristell, camp quartermaster at Trentham. McCristell, who had wanted Harry to remain with him at Trentham, stayed in New Zealand for the duration of the war and was awarded an OBE for his services. Poverty Bay Herald, 3 June 1919, p. 6, http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast?a=d&d=PBH19190603.2.63&l=mi&e=——-10–1—-2–

4. ‘the camp at Zeitoun near Cairo …’ Zeitoun, just to the north-east of Cairo, was the location for the main training camp set up by the New Zealand Expeditionary Force when they had first arrived in Egypt in December 1914.

As had happened with the Australian camp at Mena (see Frederick Muir, War Letters 1914–1918, Vol. 3), Zeitoun soon developed many of the characteristics of a small town.

Major Alexander Wilkie of the Wellington Mounted Rifles observed how ‘The lines of the camp had been laid down with commendable foresight. Broad streets intersected the various unit areas, to which they gave access and facilitated the distribution of supplies. A water-supply system was installed throughout the camp; canteens, cinemas, and shower baths were erected, and separate areas were leased on rentals to trades people to ply their various callings. In short, a thickly-populated town sprang into being in a few days where a barren desert had previously existed.’ Wilkie, A.H., Official War History of the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment, 1914–1919, p. 10, http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-WH1-Moun-t1-body-d1-d4.html

5. ‘We will be in training for at least 6 weeks, and possibly longer, and then we must go to reinforce the 8th …’ The 8th Reinforcements from New Zealand had arrived in Egypt on 12 December 1915. After initial training at Zeitoun, they had moved to the camp at Moascar, near Ismailia, where they joined men from the Anzac division, who had recently been evacuated from Gallipoli.

The thousands of reinforcements arriving in Egypt from Australia and New Zealand, in addition to the men from Gallipoli, meant that some reorganisation of the Anzac forces was essential. General Godley’s solution was the creation of several new divisions, one of which was to be a stand-alone New Zealand division.

‘As commander of the New Zealand force,’ explained official Australian historian Charles Bean, ‘he [Godley] had long hoped that it might some day be possible for that Dominion, instead of providing only a part of a composite “New Zealand and Australian” division, to furnish a complete division of New Zealand troops.’ Bean, C.E.W., Official History, Vol. III – The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1916, ch. II, p. 32, http://www.awm.gov.au/histories/first_world_war/AWMOHWW1/AIF/Vol3/ (PDF p. 1) (1.60 MB)

That process of reorganisation was already underway as Harry arrived in Egypt, and the New Zealand Division officially came into being on 1 March 1916. Alongside the Australian 1st and 2nd Divisions they were to form I Anzac Corps.

An additional corps, II Anzac Corps, was then formed from three new Australian divisions: the 4th and 5th Divisions being raised in Egypt and the 3rd Division being raised in Australia.

For fuller details of the overall reorganisation of the Anzac forces see ibid., pp. 32–68, (PDF pp. 1–36).

For a more detailed look at the reorganisation of the New Zealand forces in particular see Stewart, H., The New Zealand Division, 1916–1919, pp. 1–16, http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-WH1-Fran-t1-body1-d1.html