WILLIAM HENRY MARCH – A schoolboy’s conscience prompts him to return his ‘treasure’ to a Christchurch family.

6/3090 – WILLIAM HENRY MARCH

Trevor P. is a Kiwi in paradise – Trevor is not only a former RNZAF airman, and a recruit whom I had some responsibility for training some 40 odd years ago, but he is also a very accomplished artist of 20 plus years who produces some exquisite works with nature themes, teaches art and runs a very successful gallery.  Living in coastal Queensland and commuting to Hamilton Island to run art classes for aspiring young artists is not everybody’s idea of a lifestyle but I would be perfectly willing to swap with Trevor anytime, just to rake the sand !

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In March 2016 Trevor saw the MRNZ website not long after it went “live” and sent me a 1914-15 Star (minus ribbon) he had had since a lad.  Trevor said in a note that for a long time he had felt somewhat guilty about holding on to the medal as long as he had, since he believed it should have rightly been with its owner or family however he had not been to sure of what to do with it – and, as we all do, forget about such things until prompted to cross that bridge at some later date.  The MRNZ website motivated Trevor to ‘cross that bridge’.   Trevor had found the medal as a primary schoolboy whilst living in the Halswell area of Christchurch.  He could not recall exactly where he had found the medal but did recall he and a school friend had been ratting through some abandoned sheds in paddock when he came across the medal.  The medal, the WW1 1914-15 Star, was clearly impressed on the back with the recipient’s name: 6/3090.  CPL. W. H. MARCH  N.Z.E.F.

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The March family ancestors migrated to Canterbury from Devon in England c1850.  Whilst the remainder of his immigrant family remained in Christchurch, Nathaniel March secured labouring work at Longbeach, a sparsely populated area of Canterbury (even today), SW of Ashburton on the Pacific Ocean coast, just north of the Hinds River.  In 1886 Nathaniel married Margaret Ann WILLIAMS and together the increased the population of Longbeach by five – William Henry March (ka ‘Billy’) born at Waterton, Ashburton in Dec 1886 was followed by; Edith Lois, John Edward, John Nathaniel (Jock), and Annie Jane March.  In the early 1890s Nathaniel secured a piece of land at Waterton which would evolve into the family farm.  Nathaniel’s father William Henry March (snr) and mother Hannah Elizabeth HOUSTON also joined them initial from Christchurch as did Nathaniel’s brother Edwin William March, to help break in the land.  

Waterton had been established in second half of the 19th Century and by 1888 had a school, hotel, post office, general store and library.  Its reason for existence was agriculture, it also had an abattoir and a flour mill.  At its peak Waterton’s population topped 235 but decline set in after the effects of the Great Depression receded by the 1940s – today it is a ghost town. 

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1914 -15 Star

Throughout 1914 and into 1915, like the rest of the population, Billy and his family had been closely following the events leading up to and the subsequent landing and battles on the Gallipoli Peninsula by the Anzacs.  Having  registered for war service, all three March brothers had expected to be called.  John Nathaniel was the first to go in 1914, Billy followed in June 1916 and then John Edward in December 1916.  Billy had been working for a Mr J. Grigg, a farmer back at Longbeach, when he got the call.  By 12 June 1915  the 29 year old 5’10” 6/3090 Pte. William Henry March had been passed as (outstandingly!) physically and medically fit for overseas service and reported to the King Edward Barracks in Christchurch.  An overnight ferry trip from Lyttelton to Wellington, the train to Trentham and Pte. Billy March along with his new comrades of the Canterbury Infantry Battalion’s 7th Reinforcements, arrived for their basic training.  Three month later, a weeks home leave at Waterton then all the tears and farewell wishes the family had rehearsed at older brother John’s departure a year earlier, it was back to Trentham Camp to await embarkation on 09 October 1915.  The family had good cause for concern since they had been advised John Nathaniel March was severely ill and currently on his way back to New Zealand.

Pte. Billy March embarked the HMNZT 33 NAVUA at Wellington bound for Suez and the NZEF base at Camp Zeitoun, Egypt, arriving in early Feb 1916.  On arrival at Zeitoun he found himself reassigned from Infantry to the Army Service Corps as a Driver and placed with the NZ Divisional (logistics) Train, as it is called – not actually a ‘train’ but a unit of horse drawn wagons.  Now Dvr. March was detached to various casualty evacuation units, casualty clearing stations, the Otago Regiment, and the NZ Field Ambulance for driving duties during the following 12 months he was in Egypt, tasks which spread geographically from Zeitoun (30km south of Cairo) to Alexandria, Ismailia and Suez.

Dvr. Billy March’s turn for front line duty arrived in due course and he left the relative safety of Egypt arriving in France on 08 April 1916.  Now ‘Pte.’ March once again, he and fellow reinforcements were moved to the  epicentre of the battle front on the Belgian border – Armentieres, to be placed with the 1st Battalion, Otago Infantry Regiment.

A gunshot wound to the back on June 22nd fortunately was not serious and Pte. March was back to duty after two weeks in hospital.  A relatively incident free six months of driving duties followed.  In Jan 1917, it he was back to the Divisional Train and the NZASC for duties in France.  Pte. March must have done a reasonable job as he was promoted to Lance Corporal on 18 October and further, was elevated to Corporal five months later on 31 March 1918.  Rank promotion was not necessarily an accolade for good work or leadership but also the need to fill gaps as persons holding the rank in the unit were killed or died (or busted fro disciplinary reasons).  Billy’s was possibly a combination of his being an older, mature and quiet man, a nearly six foot well tanned and solid specimen of soldier who few would be likely to mess with.  

Cpl. Billy March completed his tour of duty in France and came out of the line on New Year’s Day, 1919.  Back to Egypt and then to England for demobilization and some rest and Rest & Recreation at the Torqauy leave centre before boarding the SS KIA-ORA at Liverpool for New Zealand on 29 March 1919 (an appropriately named month).  Cpl. Billy March was discharged from NZEF on 09 Sep 1919 after more than three and a half years away from home – at least he came home ! 

Awards:   1914/15 Star, British War Medal, Victory Medal

Service Overseas:   3 years 312 days

Total NZEF Service:   3 years 360 days

Footnotes:   Both of Billy’s March’s brothers also served.

  1. 2/195 Gunner John Nathaniel March, 1st Battery, NZ Field Artillery, embarked with the Main Body on 15 August 1914;  John had planned on continuing in the Army after he returned to NZ.   On 15 May 1915 John was invalided back to NZ with Pulmonary Tuberculosis and died at home in Waterton, on 24 July 1915 – he was 22.  John March is buried in the Ashburton Cemetery and commemorated on the town’s cenotaph.
  2. 34699 Cpl. John Edward March, ‘C’ Coy, Canterbury Infantry Battalion, 20th Reinforcements embarked in December 1916 and served in France for over two and a half years.  In Sep 1917 he sustained a shell wounded in the abdomen, recovered and returned to home in July 1919.

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Billy March went back to Waterton and picked up where he left off, on the family farm.  He also did stints on several other farms in the district during the years following wars end including his grandfather’s, also William Henry March (confusing!), at Eiffleton near Temuka.  Nothing much changed for Billy in these ensuing years, work, work and more work until at close to 60 years of age, he and his cousin Gladys Mabel HUMM (formerly Mrs James CALVEY) decided to marry in 1944 – understandably, their ages probably precluded the desire for children so no family resulted from their union.   

Billy and Gladys March gave up life on the farm at Waterton once Billy’s parents had passed away and  it around 1928 the relocated into Christchurch and a house in Days Road, in what was then known as the Selwyn District, now the suburb of Halswell.  Billy had labouring jobs in this area for the next twenty or so years.  His last job listed in the 11957 Electoral Roll was Linesman (electrical) for the Christchurch Electric Power Board.  Billy’s nephew Noel Gordon March, a gardener and later rotary hoe contractor, had also taken a house in Days Road after WW2.  Noel, a gardener, acquired some arable land behind his house in Days Road which he developed to produce large quantities of vegetables for commercial and private sale.  Noel, later his wife Brylee, Gladys and Billy lived quite comfortably in Days Road until it was scheduled for re-development in the 1960s.  Billy was still working part-time in the gardens whenever he could right up until the end of his days.

Cpl. (Rtd) William Henry (Billy) March A.S.C. died suddenly at home on 13 February 1959 at the age of 67, and is buried in the RSA Section of Ruru Lawn Cemetery in Christchurch.  Gladys March would live another 40 plus years alone before she died at 93 years of age in Christchurch in 1991. 

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My initial scan for MARCH families still living  in Christchurch produced just four, one in Halswell – I phoned hoping for an obvious link but alas, no connection whatsoever.  In fact of the four remaining March families in Christchurch I discovered after phoning them all, one (Halswell) had recently arrived from the North Island and the other three were all descended from a seafarer who had Captained one of Canterbury First Fleet ship’s, and who had also gained a deal of notoriety for having completed an expedition with Captain James Cook – just a wee bit more notable I guess than Billy March’s family connections to farming migrants from Waterton.  With no children to trace all I had left to go on was the fact that Billy and Gladys March had lived in Halswell from about 1928.  Even Billy’s nephew who had also living in the same street had no living relatives for me to try and trace.  Perhaps there was an old neighbour who could remember the March’s ? – some 57 years had elapsed since Billy and Gladys had lived in Days Road so I was not very confident of that line of inquiry.  I then pulled out a Christchurch map to find Days Road in Halswell – no such street or road , not even anything close.  At this point I shelved the research for another time – the connections to Billy and Gladys March’s families appeared to have petered out, and their address had vanished – so no chance of neighbours either !  I had more pressing research cases to attend to.

It was around April when I returned to the case to review all the information again, and in June received a (coincidental) phone call from Diana Humm of Taupo, the NZ Genealogists Society Taupo branch secretary.   For those who follow my posts you may recall the account I published recently of the George Ernest Everard WALDRON Memorial Plaque being reunited with the Humm family.  It transpired that when Diana contacted me in regard to George Waldron, she also identified not one, but THREE families listed on the LOST TRAILS page of the MRNZ website to whom the Humm family were connected – George Waldron, William March and ….. I’ll save that one until the research is complete (refer TROTT post).

Diana’s husband Peter Bernard Humm, a retired Warrant Officer Class 2, Chief Clerk in the NZ Army, had a direct connection to William Henry March’s family.  Billy March’s wife Gladys Mabel Eleanor, nee HUMM, was the daughter of Frederick HUMM and Sophie Annie MARCH – Sophie being Billy March’s aunt, and sister of his father, Nathanial March.   Peter is a great-grand nephew of Billy March.

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Being ever curious over where the medal had been originally found, before I handed it over to the Humms, I wanted to complete the information trail by connecting the dots of Trevor’s account of finding the medal, to an actual location.  I contacted Trevor in Queensland but he could not place the location other thans he thought it was somewhere near “Oaklands” as he had lived and schooled in that area as a child, but being so long ago ?? – I mentioned Days Rd – it did not ring any bells with him.  I had also Days Road to my partner who had lived in Halswell for a number of years in the early 1970s – vaguely recalled the name but no idea where it was.

I resorted to scanning Christchurch maps on the web – since Oaklands and parts of the now much larger Halswell were relatively new, road map detail of the area known as Halswell in the earlier years was very scant.  I located Oaklands, the Oaklands school and thought I had narrowed down a possible general area where Days Road might have been – but nothing.  I next considered the possibility that days Road had been re-named as Halswell expanded. at last on a 1946 topographical map of Christchurch which covered a portion of what is now known as Lincoln Road, close to its junction with Halswell Road there, in the bottom left hand corner of the map was a one centimetre partial ‘ D’ shaped line which said …. ays Rd.  This must have been it.   More older maps checked … what appeared to have happened was when the then new subdivision of Oaklands had been built, Halswell Road, a narrow dual carriage road to Akaroa, had been considerably widened and the small ‘D’ shaped Days Road located along it, together with the houses where Billy, Gladys, Noel and Brylee March had once lived, had been demolished to accommodate the widening.  Further the road opposite where Days Road had once been had lead to a former ‘wayward’ single mothers facility (Mt Magdella, later the St. John of God handicapped care facility) but had now been re-named and moved.  This I had found on the 1946 map but could not reconcile it with the altered layout after a relocated and much wider entry had been constructed in the late 1990s to what is now Aidenfield and the Anthony Wilding retirement village.  Days Road it transpired had been opposite the old St John Road.  I went back to Trevor with this information, the location, the fact that Billy and Noel March were both listed in the Electoral Rolls as living in Days Road, one as a gardener and the other a labourer, and so forth.  Trevor then recalled an acreage that was used for cultivating veges and could now relate it to the close proximity to Oaklands school – the abandoned sheds hed had recalled had probably been implement or storage sheds which had belonging to Noel March for his rotary hoeing contracting business, but when Trevor found the medal had not yet been demolished since they set back from the houses in Days Road,  in what were once the gardens.  It all made sense – before or after Billy March had died the sheds might well have been used to store belongings.  Trevor and I both agreed that this was the location he had found the medal – satisfied, I could start writing this post.

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Thanks to Trevor for safeguarding the medal all these years, and for sending it to me – after a long wait and a little coincidental luck we arrived at the right result.

The medal is now with in the hands of Peter and Diana, joining the Waldron plaque, as they have assume responsibility for the preservation of their ancestor family’s military service memorabilia, which incidentally, are will all be returning to Canterbury with the Humms who are now in the process of re-locating to Christchurch – well done Peter and Diane.

The reunited medal tally is now 151.

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