GEORGE GRIFFITHS – Gisborne horse-breaker’s war medal found in a Nelson garage.

9/1560 – GEORGE GRIFFITHS    

In November 2016 Trish L. was in the process of packing up her house in Nelson for a new life in Auckland. It had been five years since Trish’s husband Kevin passed away, and Trish’s  daughter Bridget and son- in-law Kal had come across from Blenheim to help her with the pack-up.  During the packing and moving of boxes in Trish’s garage Kal spotted what looked like a medal (no ribbon) and retrieved it.  The medal was in a pretty sad condition, corroded, rusty, no ribbon – just a ribbon ring somewhat distorted.  On closer inspection, being an ex-RNZAF man, Kal immediately recognised it was a war medal by the name impressed on the edge: 9/1560 L.CPL. G. GRIFFITHS N.Z.E.F.

Trish had no idea where the medal had come from, certainly Kevin had never ever mentioned it.  After 20 years service in the RNZAF Kal Quaife had left the RNZAF but not gone far; only about 300 yards in fact to take up a similar job as a civilian aircraft mechanic for  SAFEAIR Ltd.   I had known Kal from when he joined the  RNZAF as I had been one of his instructors when he underwent his recruit training at Woodbourne, and during the intervening 30 odd years since then we had both been vaguely aware of where each other was, having met very briefly in passing, maybe twice?  Kal had heard of Medals Reunited NZ and that I was involved so told his mother-in-law Trish he would try and find a home for the medal.  Kal contacted me and the search began.

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George Griffiths (1893), 22, and his elder brother (by one year) Harry (1892), 23,  were both very fit and experienced bushmen who were working for a Mr Murphy at Tokomaru Bay on the East Cape when they had registered for war service in 1915.  Their parents William and Alice Griffiths lived in Gisborne.   George, a Horse Breaker and his brother Harry, a Station Hand, enlisted together on the same day in August of 1915.  They even had sequential service numbers, George was 9/1560, and Harry 9/1561 and both were made Troopers of an Otago Mounted Rifles.  Six weeks of preparation at Featherston and Trentham camps, a little pre-embarkation leave and then both brothers were on their way – George left in August 1915, and Harry in October, their unit making up a good proportion of the 7th Reinforcements which was destined for the port of Suez located on the western edge of the Suez Canal.  As their parents were aging, both men listed their only sister Delia Griffiths as their next of kin.  Aware that the Gallipoli campaign against the Turks was well under way, the Griffiths had expected that to be their first taste of action.  On arrival however, both of the brothers were promptly transferred to No 1 Field Company, NZ Engineers (Pioneer Battalion) and made ready for deployment to France.  

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In Feb 1916 the George and Harry embarked for France and the Western Front.  Being an Engineer meant their lives would revolve around a pick and shovel, wire cutters and sledge hammers.  They could be working with the Tunneling Companies digging trenches (firing, supply, or communications) as well as saps – trenches or tunnels dug toward the enemies frontage to either secretly place mines under enemy positions, or for siting defensive machine gun posts in.  Being well forward of the friendly fire trenches, these sap machine gun posts were used as early warning, to launch covert (night) patrols or attacks from, and for provide covering fire to their own advancing troops.  In addition as Engineers they could be called upon to fill sandbags, build revetments to provide overhead cover in the trenches or to reinforce trench walls to prevent them collapsing during enemy bombardments, erect barbed wire obstacles or cutting paths through enemy wire, and so forth – hard and never ending work, day and night.

Trooper George Griffiths was the first to be promoted, to L/Cpl. in Nov 1916 and both brothers remained in France until Sep 1917.  George had been beset with Myalgia (muscle pain) shortly after his arrival in France from which he recovered but was apparently a precursor to a bout of Rheumatic Fever in Dec 1917 which necessitated an extensive period of hospitalization.  Having made his way back to health by may 1918, in June George was taken ill again, this time with Spinal Meningitis.  Another long period in hospitalization resulted in George’s re-classification as “no longer fit for war service on account of Chronic Rheumatism”.  That was his ticket home. The Armistice had been declared on November 11th, 1918 and so George returned to NZ on the “Maunganui” in January 1919, and his brother Harry, in February.  Aside from their sicknesses the brothers arrived home in one piece however it would take its toll on George Griffiths long term health.

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Once back in New Zealand George and Harry went straight home to their parents at 39 Adair Road in Gisborne. After a period of rest they then branched out working as a pair on various farms around the Bay of Plenty (Tuparoa) before eventually returning to Gisborne in the mid 1920s and Adair Road as their base.  They both continued there farming work but operated from home in order to be able to assist their ageing parents.  

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Awards:    1914-15 Star, British War Medal, 1914-18, and Victory Medal (awarded to both brothers)

Service overseas:    3 years 90 days  (Harry – 3 yrs 160 days)

Total NZEF Service:    3 years 166 days  (Harry – 3 yrs 235 days)

Footnote:  266677 Pte. Harry Griffiths (48), a labourer/cheese making in Tarua, Hauraki Plains, re-attested in 1940 for service during WW2.  He was assigned to a position with Camp Staff and worked at various training camps that had been established in the Hawkes Bay/Bay of Plenty area to train soldiers going overseas.  Harry was finally discharged in 1948 and was awarded two additional medals: War Medal, 1939-45 and the NZ War Service Medal, 1939-45.

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L/Cpl. George Griffiths’ grave in the Ruatoria Cemetery

My research of this case had started with a rebuild of the Griffith family tree for which their was nothing on line for this family.  Harry, George and Delia had all been born in Auckland and when the two boys had gone to the East Cape to work, their parents and Delia had followed to Gisborne.

There was a distinct shortage of information regarding the family up to the WW1 years and only marginally better afterwards.  Because of the condition of the medal I focused on the likely hood of who may have initially found the medal.  Kal had told me that Kevin and Trish Lynch had lived in Gisborne and had known the Griffiths. So my thinking what was that possibly Kevin had been given the medal ?  
 
I checked Google Earth to get the feel of the location of the house at 39 Adair Road and surrounding area in Gisborne; I then looked for Kevin Lynch’s family home.  Imagine my surprise when I checked the electoral roll, located their address and then Google Earthed their old house at 142 Russell Road – it backed on to 39 Adair Road !
 
I’ve cracked it I thought, somewhat prematurely as it turned out.  Kevin Lynch had grown up at 142 Russell Street together with his brother Christopher and together they would no doubt  have played in the general area, more than likely knew Harry, Kate, Brian and Cushla and others who intermittently stayed at 39 Adair Rd over the years.  Seemed like a logical answer – but who could I return the medal to ?  Harry had not married, Kate did not re-marry after George died, George and Harry’s sister Delia had died young in 1935;  George and Kate’s children were also all gone – Cushla was unmarried and died in 1968 at the age of 38, Terry had remained a bachelor. That left only Brian and Kevin who had both married, as had Patricia (McGRORY).  So my challenge was to first find any children born to Brian Boru Joseph Griffiths.  Finding a living link was obviously going to need much more work so at this point I put the search on the back burner for a while.
 
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A month or so ago I started to review all of my notes with a fresh set of eyes.  When I had first started putting the family tree together all names appeared linked through a reference to Adair Road and so tracing their lives until each died (or married) was relatively easy, however there were a large number of Griffiths families in Gisborne around this time (many unconnected with each other) which served to confuse the issue.  I found it necessary to go back and carefully re-check all the Griffiths I could relate to Adair Road to ensure the were connected to George and harry’s family, then those who had married and then to identify those who had had children.  By going back over every Electoral Rolls and BDM records that contained a “Griffiths” in the Hawkes Bay/East Coast area also did a cemeteries check to confirm deceased spouses.  Brian Boru Griffiths was a name that had first attracted my interest mainly because of his name, “Brian Boru” being known to me as a popular name for hotels in New Zealand during the late 1800s, early 1900s which were usually run by Irishmen who had immigrated to new Zealand seeking their fortune in the goldfields, or the trade it generated.  “Brian Boru” was an Irish king who ended the domination of the High Kingship of Ireland in the 11th Century.  Brian Boru made himself King of Munster, then subjugated Leinster, eventually becoming King of Ireland.  Brian Boru was also the founder of the O’Brien dynasty.
 
Brian Boru Joseph Griffiths was George and Kathleen’s first born in 1927.  Brian had become an engineerhad been an engineer and later a garage proprietor in Gisborne.  Brian’s name had appeared regularly in the ERs but I could not link him with a BDM birth record, by parents or by marriage.  Although he had lived at 39 Adair Road in the mid 1950s there was nothing to identify whose child he had been – there were no records of him at all!  Where did this man fit in ?  In checking the cemeteries I made a breakthrough – the photograph below. 
 
The photograph of Brian and Iris Griffiths’ headstone was very helpfully as it not only included the names of their children, Ramon and his sister Karen, but also the names of  their three grand children – Brent, Kelly and Mitchell.  The grandchildren I located quickly on Facebook however none of my messages were answered.  I then took another look at the FB pages for their places of employment.  Ramon’s daughter Kelly was the first I located and called.  She confirmed yes, her dad was alive and was still living in Gisborne.  Ramon George Griffiths (named after George) was George Griffiths grandson and Kelly his great grand daughter (and great-grand niece of Harry Griffiths).  
 
The medal, in spite of its somewhat rough condition will couriered to Kelly in Gisborne this week.  I have given Kelly the name of a medal restoration specialist who also just happens to reside in Gisborne who will restore the medal and re-ribbon it.  Kelly plans to surprise her dad Ramon, George’s grandson, with the medal.  No doubt the medal will at some stage make a nostalgic return journey to 39 Adair Street which was so key to its history and solving this case.  
 
I think it might be a big ask to find the remaining pair of George’s medals, let alone Harry’s medal trio as well ?
 
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My thanks to a sharp-eyed Kal for finding and sending the medal to me, and to Bridget’s mum Trish who provided useful background which assisted in the writing of the back story for this post

The reunited medal tally is now 139.

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