JAMES LYTHGOE – A gutsy young Central Otago man from Bald Hill Flat survived despite a heart condition.

61321 – JAMES LYTHGOE    

On July 17th I was contacted by Mr Wilson Lythgoe, a New Zealander now living in Tasmania.  Wilson had been looking through the MRNZ website when he spotted a name on the LOST TRAILS page that he recognised, that of 61321 Pte. James LYTHGOE N.Z.E.F.   James Lythgoe’s medals had come to MRNZ as a result of a private donation.

John Lythgoe, the older brother of James, and John’s wife Susan McALLISTER, were Wilson’s grandparents.  Wilson contacted me to confirm the connection and decided that by canvassing his surviving relatives in NZ, the family would collectively decide upon who would be the most appropriate person to act as guardian of the Lythgoe medals – cousin Antony was whose grandparents were also John and Susan, was selected.

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61321 Pte. James Lythgoe – 2nd Bn, A.I.R. – c1917

James Lythgoe was born on 18 April 1891 at Bald Hill Flat (renamed Friutlands in 1915) in Central Otago.  Fruitlands is on State Highway 8 about midway between Roxburgh to the north and Alexandra to the south.  The area had been originally settled as a gold mining town following the gold discovery at Gabriel’s Gully.  In August 1863 a gold rush was started in Bald Hill Flat area and a permanent settlement was established with post office, school, catholic church and the Speargrass Hotel (now the Speargrass Inn).  James’ mother Sarah Ann Elliot SHORT, an Englishwoman born in Dorset late of London, and Joseph LYTHGOE, a quarryman from Poulton in Warringtom Lancashire, had both arrived separately in New Zealand, Joseph by 1870 and Sarah by 1877.  Joseph and Sarah were married at Alexandra in 1879, raised a family of eight, lived their lives and died in the Tuapeka District of Central Otago, centred on the town of Lawrence.   Sarah died in April 1922 and Joseph a year later almost to the day in 1923.

James was the sixth child in a family of five boys – George,  Joseph (jnr), John, William and James, and three girls – Mary, Alice and Sarah (jnr).   James was educated at Bald Hill Flat School (now long gone) from 1896 until 1906, the school roll stating he achieved an educational level of ‘Standard Four’, and his ‘destination’ (on leaving school) described as: ‘home duties’.   Once old enough to work James like most around him became a gold miner, but the gold was running out by then and so he would work with his older brother George, mining coal.

31st Reinforcements hat badge

By 1914 James was employed as a ploughman at Spring Hill Station, Roxburgh and similarly in 1916 at Saddle Hill, Dunedin.  With Dunedin still rapidly expanding and very much in a growth phase pre-war, James had secured a permanent position with the Dunedin City Corporation as a ploughman.  There was no shortage of Corporation land that required ploughing once cleared of bush in preparation for new residential and commercial buildings as well as the need for food production to support the growing population.  James had also found time to join the 14th Otago Territorials however the Medical Officer recommended his discharge as being medically unfit, having a “weak heart” – a condition James was unaware he had been born but which would continue to haunt him over the next 18 months.   

In April 1916 James was called up and required to be medically examined for possible service in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.  26 year old James Lythgoe was not a big man by any stretch – he was described at his first examination as being 5ft 3ins (160cms), 135lb (61kg) with a ruddy complexion, blue eyes and light brown hair.  Having worked as a ploughman for the previous few years was something he hoped had cured his ‘weak heart’ problem – not so, again the Medical Officer rejected him on the strength of his documented condition.  

The Army’s need for soldiers in the later stages of the First World War was always wanting.  It was June 1916 and although previously rejected, James was re-called yet again to undergo a pre-deployment medical inspection – this time by a civilian physician in Dunedin.  Several doctors had been contracted by the Defence Dept. to conduct medical testing in the absence of the Army’s owm Medical Officers, most of whom were serving overseas.  James feared another rejection coming his way.  On James’ medical documents the doctor  had written, “Discharged  as medically unfit ”  and then directly under that he had written – “Fit – Class A’ !   So dire was the need for reinforcements for the Western Front, virtually any male whom had not yet been to war, provided they were upright and breathing, was almost a sitter to be ‘pushed’ (or in some cases shamed) into service.  

Some of the doctors contracted by the military had been given strict instructions in order to increase recruit numbers, and some had their own opinions the applied to those they thought should be fighting.  Complaints such as back pain, flat feet, a minor disability or weaknesses of any kind were considered by some hardliners as merely excuses to evade war service, and accordingly took an unbending line by deploying recruits with genuine ailments that would normally have precluded them being sent to war.  In short, if the condition was not visible the, ‘Tick’ – your off to war son !   It should also be understood that there was still a strong desire by many young (and older) men who for whatever reasons had been previously rejected for service, would conceal conditions and make up stories, anything to get overseas, to do their bit less they be thought of as a shirker or worse, a coward.   To have that war experience, particularly after hearing of the stories that were circulated by returned men, was something many just had to have whatever the cost; their’s was a compelling need to be part of ‘the show’ and to be able to identify with returning ‘heros’ – irrespective of  what may come their way.   

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Pte. Lythgoe’s British War Medal & Victory Medal

61321 Private James Lythgoe was duly attested into the NZEF and assigned to the 2nd Battalion of the Auckland Infantry Regiment (AIR) in July 1917.  Geographical location of ones enlistment did not necessarily mean soldiers would join their local unit, particularly towards the end of the war.  All available soldiers were pread around the deploying battalions to make up their numbers ensuring each had sufficient strength of numbers to function.  after four months of training and preparation at Featherston Camp in the Wairarapa  James was given a short period of pre-embarkation leave; home was 21 Gladstone Road in the North East Valley, Dunedin.  

The 2nd Battalion, Auckland infantry Regiment embarked HMNZT 97 (RMS Tahiti)  on 16 November bound or England along with the remainder of the NZEF units that made up the 31st Reinforcements.  Christmas at sea was probably not much fun given their trepidation of what was to come being in the back of each soldier’s mind.  However after an incident free voyage the ship reach Liverpool, Merseyside in the first week of January 1918.  Then it was a6-8 hour train journey down to the NZEF’s main training base, the Sling Camp on Salisbury Plain in Sussex, for more training and preparation for duty in France.

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The 2nd Battalion AIR arrived in France on 5 April and Pte. Lythgoe immediately found himself transferred to the 1st Entrenching Battalion – that would be fun, endless trenches – communications, supply and fire trenches !   After only three weeks in France Pte. Lythgoe was taken ill.

Three bouts of severe illness and and a weak heart condition hospitalized Pte. Lythgoe between April and August.  A relapse was followed by two more months, Aug-Sep, in the 12th (USA) General Hospital in a Rouen, France – the Rouen Military Hospital complex housed a number of multi-national hospitals from contributing nations – whilst Pte. Lythgoe struggled to recover from an epidemic that was sweeping the world in 1918 – “Spanish” Influenza, known as the Great Flu.  For all that his weak heart condition fortunately did not fail him, however evacuation to England on 03 September and admission to No 1. NZ General Hospital at Brockenhurst was essential if James was to have any chance of survival.   Once out of danger James was transferred to the NZ Convalescent Hospital at Hornchurch until 11 November 1918, when Pte. Lythgoe was finally released to go home – it was Armistice Day.

Pte. James Lythgoe left Liverpool for the last time, once again aboard the RMS Tahiti, and arrived back in Auckland on 12 January 1919; he was discharged from the NZEF on 09 February 1919 – James’ war was over !

Awards:   British War Medal, 1914-1918 and Victory Medal

Service Overseas:   1 year  58 days

Total NZEF Service:  1 year  201 days

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After the war James returned to live in Dunedin, his occupations being listed in the Electoral Rolls variously as driver, labourer, and in 1946 – horse driver.  On Christmas Eve of 1924 James married Amy Abigail SNAPE from Liverpool, and set up their home in Central Dunedin.  James’ 18 year marriage to Amy did not produced any children; Amy died in Nov 1942. 

James re-married in 1946 to Annie Grace STEADMAN, formerly Mrs Charles Albert RICHARDSON, a wicker-worker from Caversham whom she was married to from 1924-26.   James and Annie retired to Mornington in Dunedin until his death of heart failure at age 63, on 17th November 1954.  James Lythgoe’s ashes are interred at Anderson’s Bay Cemetery.  

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I have sent Antony the medals.

The reunited medal tally is now 150.

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