ALEXANDER WATT McMILLAN ~ Saltwater Creek farmer a casualty of New Zealand’s “Darkest Day”

24/2541 – ALEXANDER WATT McMILLAN    

In 2015 MRNZ received a memorial plaque from a confidential donor in the Waikato, named to Alexander Watt McMillan.  The plaque had been found in the possessions of a deceased pensioner, Albert King, who had apparently died with no known family.  Albert had also been a WW1 soldier but what the relationship (if any) with Alexander McMillan was, is unknown.  Whether Albert had known Alexander, or had served together, or acquired the plaque from some other source will now never be known.

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Henry McKewon McMillan (1850-1929) was born in Shanoguestown, Belfast, Co Antrim, Northern Ireland.  Initially a railway porter, Henry at 21 years of age in 1871 became a Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) policeman in Londonderry however, after a series of disciplinary actions bought against him he was dismissed from the RUC in 1874. 

Henry and Catherine McMillan – Saltwater Creek c1927

Henry McMillan had previously migrated to Tamworth, Ballymore, Australia but had not stayed long and returned to Ireland.  It is possible that whilst in Australia he had met an Irish immigrant girl, Catherine Orr MORRISON  (1882-1944) of Sydney NSW (late of Tamolaght, O’Crilly, County Derry).  Catherine was the eldest of the six Morrison siblings whose family had migrated to Australia from Ireland in 1855.  Catherine subsequently returned (followed Henry?) to Ireland.  

As soon as Henry had been released from the RUC, he and Catherine Morrison married in Belfast in Sep 1874 and four days later, boarded the Avalanche bound for New Zealand.  The Avalanche left Gravesend, Ireland on 27 Oct 1874 with 260 passengers, arriving at New Plymouth on 05 Jan 1875.   Henry and Catherine McMillan  settled on land at Saltwater Creek in the late 1870’s and had a family of 13 children – eight sons and five  daughters, in descending order: William Henry Morrison, Agnes Adam, John (Jock), Thomas, Elizabeth Morrison, Alice, Henry, Samuel, Catherine Alice Cameron, Gerald Robert, Elizabeth, Sydney Percy and Alexander Watt McMillan on 28 Dec 1893.

Alexander Watt McMillan’s home at Saltwater Creek is barely discernable these days.  Many readers will have driven (usually at high speed) over Saltwater Creek numerous times over the years without giving it a thought.  Saltwater Creek is a couple of kilometres north of Waikuku and Leithfield in North Canterbury on State Highway.   Once a small river port in the 1850s-60s small vessels loaded and discharged cargo for the North Canterbury farming community.  Today the location of Saltwater Creek is defined by only a bridge sign and a small cream-coloured building the size of a large garden shed, once a two pump garage which long ago closed down but remains memorable because of the clearly visible signage above the front door – “Saltwater Creek Garage” and remarkably emblazoned above that on the front of the cantilevered forecourt roof, a more recent declaration, “Jesus Christ is Lord” – this is Saltwater Creek, a shadow of its former self and very forgettable but for this eye-catching signage – you cannot miss it.

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11/1326 Pte. Sydney McMillan NZMC –  Featherston 1916

Alexander McMillan (known as Alex) like the remainder of his siblings was engaged in working the family farm with their father.  Sydney who had married in 1909 was working as a saw miller on the West Coast and later in the Catlins at Owaka, South Otago.  The brothers at Saltwater Creek had all been enlisted for war service in Christchurch, as had Sydney in Dunedin, and were enthusiastic and optimistic about the prospect of joining the Army and travel overseas.   

Alexander’s two older brothers, Gerald and Samuel, were the first to be called up for their training at Trentham Camp in April 1915 after which they embarked for Egypt from Wellington with the Canterbury Infantry Regiment’s (CIB) 6th

The McMillan brothers of Saltwater Creek, Canterbury – Egypt 1916

Reinforcements in Aug 1915.  Alexander would be next to go, and last to be called up for service was Sydney in July 1916.  Sydney left his wife Katie (nee FAULKNER) and their two children in Dunedin and headed to Featherston Camp for his training with the NZ Rifle Brigade reinforcements.  On arrival Sydney underwent the standard Army medical and was  discovered to have defective vision.  He was considered only suited to employment in the Army Service Corps, Medical Corps, Ordinance Corps or as a driver in the Artillery or Engineers.  Sydney chose the Medical Corps however after nine months at Featherston his chances of overseas service suddenly evaporated in April 1917 after a motorcycle accident resulted in a broken collar bone.  Sydney was put on leave without pay for  two periods of three months each after which an Army Medical Board reviewed fitness for service.  They concluded that his level of on-going impairment (shoulder pain and hand weakness) necessitated he be placed on indefinite leave.  Pte. Sydney McMillan was removed from the NZEF roll in Feb 1918.  Sydney re-enlisted in 1939 for WW2 service as 12009 Pte. Sydney McMillan – 26 Battalion (Canterbury & Otago), 2 NZEF – 3rd Echelon. He returned safely.

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Left to right:

6/2703 Sgt. Gerald Robert McMillan, MM – Canterbury Infantry Regiment, 6th Reinforcements, NZEF – WIA, Returned 

6/2704 Pte. Samuel McMillan – Canterbury Infantry Regiment, 6th Reinforcements, NZEF – Returned

24/2541 Cpl. Alexander Watt McMillan – NZ Rifle Brigade, 5th Reinforcements, NZEF – WIA, Killed In Action

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24/2541 Rflm. Alexander Watt McMILLAN, the youngest member of the family, was also the biggest.  At six feet tall and weighing 66 kilograms, the lean and tanned Alexander had served with the 13th North Canterbury Rifle Volunteers before he was summoned for war service in Nov 1915, shortly after his brothers had departed.  Unlike his brothers who were enlisted into the CIB,  Alex was placed in the 3rd Battalion, the 3rd New Zealand Rifle Brigade and embarked at Wellington with the 5th Reinforcements on 01 April 1916 (April Fools Day – an ominous date?).  Egypt was to be his home for the next six months, acclimatizing and training until May 20th when the 3rd NZRB was ready for battle and embarked the Ivernia at Alexandria for Etaples, France.

Pte. Alexander Watt McMillan – 1916

All was going well for Rflm. McMillan until June 1917 when the 3rd Battalion was in Arques, Northern France.  Not a person (of Irish heritage) to be mucked about Alex was involved in an incident with a superior that resulted in his being charged with disobeying a lawful command  –  he had failed to attend a physical drill class when ordered to do so which result in him being arrested and placed in 10 days of confinement (cells) until the charge could be heard.  A Field General Court Martial was convened, he was found guilty and awarded 28 Days Field Punishment No 1.  This was subsequently commuted to 8 Days Field Punishment No 2 since he had already spent 10 days in confinement.

Rflm. McMillan was obviously a capable soldier as he had been promoted to Lance Corporal by October.  Aside from that incident 1917 was did not start well – two bouts of Mumps in Jan and Apr, plus sustaining a bayonet wound to his left leg after the action in early October.  On 10 October LCpl. McMillan was promoted to Corporal, Section Commander.  The following day, the 11th October 1917, Cpl. McMillan and the 3rd Battalion NZRB took their place in the line for the next phase of operations in Belgium – the Battle of Passchendaele was about to commence.

The Battle of Passchendaele  would become one of the costliest in terms of New Zealand soldier’s lives.  On 4 October 1917, 320 New Zealanders died during the capture of Gravenstafel Spur, one of two spurs on the ridge above Passchendaele in Flanders, Belgium.  Although this attack was successful, it had a tragic aftermath. The British High Command mistakenly concluded that the number of German casualties meant their resistance was faltering and so decided to make another push immediately and so the New Zealanders, having barely recovered from their 4 October losses, were pitched against an under estimated and determined enemy, eight days later.  The result was a disaster.  The attack on Bellevue Spur on 12 October 1917 failed, being probably the greatest disaster in New Zealand’s military history in terms of  the numbers of Kiwi soldiers killed in a single day.

The NZ Rifle Brigade and all units taking part in the attack had begun their advance at 5.25 a.m. on the morning of the 12th and were immediately exposed to raking German machine-gun fire from both the front and the flank.  Unable to get through uncut barbed wire, the New Zealanders were pinned down in a landscape of shell craters.  Orders for another push at 3 p.m. (thankfully) were postponed and then cancelled.

Cpl. A.W. McMillan’s grave in the Passchedaele New British Cemetery

The troops eventually fell back to positions close to their start line. For badly wounded soldiers lying in the mud, the aftermath of the battle was a private hell; many died before rescuers could reach them. The day’s toll was appalling:  846 New Zealand soldiers were killed or missing by days end, and many more were lying mortally wounded in shell craters between the lines who could not be retrieved due to the maelstrom of counter-attacking German machine-gun and artillery fire.  Many more were simply swallowed up in the deep mud of the pulverised battlefield. 

One of those killed on this day was the gutsy Saltwater Creek farmer, 24 year old Cpl. Alex McMillan.  Almost 100 more would die from their wounds in the ensuing weeks.  In just 16 days the total of New Zealand dead exceeded 1260.

Cpl. Alexander Watt McMillan was buried in the Passchendaele New British Cemetery, Zonnebeke, Flanders, Belgium.

Awards:  British War Medal, 1914-18, Victory Medal; Memorial Plaque & Scroll

Service Overseas:    0 years  194 days

Total NZEF Service:   1 year  159 days

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Since the plaque had come to us as a ‘confidential donation’ there had been no hurry for me to tackle this case – the research could for a gap when I had no other pressing cases to research.  As I have also mentioned in previous posts any medal we receive is automatically  listed by the veteran’s name only, on the Lost Trails page of this website until we have an opportunity to research descendants.  The reason for this is occasionally a descendant will sight an entry of relevance which may lead to a return thereby reducing the need for extensive research.  A number of the medals we hold have been listed for over three years now without any hint of information from a descendant, or simply because I have not had the time to spare from the steady stream of finds that flow into MRNZ. 

This was the case with the McMillan plaque. Whilst I do not identify what items MRNZ holds of the veterans listed on the page, I do request that anyone recognising a name or knowing the veteran’s family or a descendant, to make contact with me to discuss the detail of how they might help.

Jason M. of Palmerston North had first recognised the name of Alexander Watt McMillan on the Lost Trails page as being a distant relative and so made contact to lay claim to whatever it was we held.  I had forgotten the details relating to this plaque and so checked my data base to refresh.  I soon recalled its significance – Alexander Watt McMillan had been killed in action on the first day of the Battle of Passchendaele – the 12th of October 1917.  I also realised that the 100th anniversary of that battle, and Alexander’s death, was only eight days away!  I wanted to resolve this case as quickly as possible to try and link the plaque’s return to a family with this significant anniversary.

This prompted me to short circuit my current cases, putting them on hold to focus solely on resolving the return of the McMillan plaque.  I needed to construct a family tree, compare it with the McMillan records and any research material that was available on-line, and then verify Jason’s claim as being the most appropriate (and entitled?) recipient of the plaque.

My research started with Ancestry trees of which there were quite a few.  My first observation was that the McMillan family had been a large one, four of the brothers having served during WW1 and one, Gerald,  decorated with the Military Medal for gallantry.  Sydney McMillan was the only one who had not gone overseas, serving in NZ only.

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In searching Ancestry and the internet I found that quite a lot of research of this particular McMillan family was on the internet, the most comprehensive by patseym.  After messaging patsym I made contact with Patsy McMillan of Waikari, North Canterbury.  Whilst comparing the various family trees on-line I concluded that Jason’s lineage was in fact junior to Patsy’ husband Ivor’s lineage.  Sadly Ivor McMillan had passed away in 2015.  Ivor was of the same generation as Jason’s father, Douglas McMillan, however Ivor had been the next most senior McMillan in the line, five years older than his cousin Douglas.   This meant that had I researched this case whilst Ivor McMillan was still alive, he would have been the recipient of the plaque and subsequently, the oldest of his three sons would have become the next custodian for their generation of the Saltwater Creek McMillans. 

Patsy had taken a great interest in Ivor’s family ancestry over the years and amassed much information and items of memorabilia.  She had researched the family extensively hence her authorship of the Ancestry family tree.  As a result Patsy McMillan has become the ‘font of knowledge’ for the McMillan families and by default has also become the ‘go to’ custodian of family military memorabilia.    She is currently focusing her attention on the McMillan men who served in both world wars and is in the process of writing a book about them. 

Patsy is also a staunch advocate of honouring the McMillan memory and an ardent supporter and participant in the Waikari community’s commemoration activities.  She has several sets of the McMillan men’s medals, originals and replicas of those that are missing – location unknown? and wears them proudly on appropriate occasions. 

Given the combined weight of these circumstances I concluded that Patsy, together with her and Ivor’s sons, were probably the most appropriate persons to receive Alexander Watt McMillan’s memorial plaque.  When I explained the situation to Jason who had recently had a battle claiming his own service medals, Jason wholeheartedly agreed the plaque should be added to Patsy’s collection of McMillan memorabilia.   

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On Thursday, October 4th I had an appointment in Christchurch and en-route was able to stop in at Waikari to meet Patsy.  She showed me photographs of Alex and his brothers – just as well as their identities had been mistakenly reversed.  In viewing a full size framed portrait supposedly of Alex, I was able to identify minor uniform embellishments in the picture that proved it was not a portrait of Alex.  We also compared facial feature differences of the brothers and together concluded the picture long thought to be of Alex was actually of his older brother, Sydney Percy McMillan.  That settled I was then able to give a thrilled Patsy the Memorial Plaque of Alexander Watt McMillan – in time for the 100th anniversary of his death at Passchendaele, 12th of October, 2017.  Lest We Forget

Thanks to Jason for his generous support. 

The reunited medal tally is now 168.

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