JOHN SMITH – Samoan (NZ) Relief Force soldier’s Diary found in roadside rubbish.

37627 – JOHN SMITH    

Pte. John Smith – photo credit “Free Lance” 1917

This is a reasonable long post as it relates not to the return medals but in this case a Diary – military ephemera, items which have belonged to a veteran which MRNZ will also undertake to research and reunite with descendant family.

13 year old Terry Foster curiosity got the better of having noticed a pile of rubbish at the front fence of a vacant house at 10 Arthur Street, Tokoroa.  The house had obviously been cleared out and stpped one day to ferret through the pile for potential treasures.  All he found of interest was a small, soggy and slightly rotted book (minus cover) which promptly fell apart when he picked it up.  Terry salvaged what he though worthwhile and took the book home.  He dried out the pages and found it to be some sort of diary, half of it written with an  indelible pencil and half in black ink.  Terry read it through noting it was something about soldiers in Samoa during WW1 and then promptly forgot about the book, putting it away with his other keepsakes.

Fast forward 49 years (2015) — Terry, now working in the printing industry in New Plymouth re-discovered the diary and re-read it this time with more than his original passing interest.  


The Diary

The Diary

Terry conducted as much research as he could in relation to the diary’s author but had come to a brick wall as far as identifying a potential descendant to return it to.  He contacted me at MRNZ for help and sent me the diary.  My initial review of the information indicated the soldier, John Smith (somehow I knew this was not going to be easy with a ‘unique’ name like that), had immigrated to NZ in the early 1900s however since he had not appeared to marry I could not find any immediate family connection.  As a result, I put the diary on the back burner as I had a growing list of medal research cases I was attempting to resolve.  Last month I again reviewed Terry’s and my material.  Following several dead-ended phone calls and internet inquiries, at last I made a break through ….


The Diary was written by 37627 Pte. John SMITH – 6th Samoan (NZ) Relief Force.  John Smith, a 5’ 3” Scotsman born in Edinburgh in August 1872, was the oldest of seven siblings born to Henry James and Catherine Smith (nee Lafferty).  All of John’s siblings had been born in Edinburgh however three had died either at birth or at a young age.  Of the surviving siblings John entered the printing trade becoming a “Machineman Printer”, his younger brother James became a Lithographer, and sister Mary also became a “Machinegirl Printer”. 

John’s sister Mary had died in 1901 aged 35 years.  After his remaining sister Frances (Fanny) Theresa Smith, a Tailoress, had married Andrew Donald McLean (a Photographic Engraver), and his remaining brother James had married, bachelor John contemplated emigrating to New Zealand, a place he considered well suited to his skills as an experienced Printer.  

John Smith was 34 years of age when he arrived in Wellington in 1907.  He got work labouring initially whilst seeking out a permanent residence which he eventually did at 261 Tinakori Rd in central Wellington.  After a year or so of labouring, being a qualified and experienced Printer, John secured a position with the Government Printing Office.  

John’s letters to his sister and her husband back in Edinburgh no doubt extolled the virtues of climate and opportunity in New Zealand since Frances and husband Andrew also decided to emigrate following the death of her and John’s mother in 1910.  The McLeans arrived in Wellington c1912 and established themselves in the suburb of Kilbirnie, firstly at 19 Cam Street and then 7 Bay Road.  Andrew Mclean opened a photographic engraving business there.  And what of the remaining Smith brother, James – he and his wife remained in Edinburgh until the death of their father Henry James Smith in 1920 and then left Edinburgh to take up permanent residence in Leicestershire, England. 

Samoan (NZ) Expeditionary Force (SEF)

Pte. Burdett dressed for patrol, is mentioned in the Diary

In 1914 the war clouds had gathered to the point that once war had been declared with Germany, NZ was immediately asked by Britain to occupy and administer German Samoa (now known as Western Samoa).  The first element of the Samoan (NZ) Expeditionary Force (SEF) was mobilized and on 29 August 1914 Colonel Robert Logan led a 1400 man Samoan Advance Party (SAP) to Upoulo Island not far from the Samoan capital, Apia.  The SAP landed unopposed without a shot being fired and quickly secured the surrender of the occupying German civil, military and compliant Samoan population.  The SEF occupation continued as the war in Europe ramped up and so the manning of successive contingents of relief soldiers, known as Samoan Relief Force (SRF), became necessary after the SAP was withdrawn in March 1915.  360 SRF soldiers arrived in March 1915 with another 300 being supplied for the garrison before the end of the war.

Compulsory military training had been initiated in New Zealand in 1912 and as a result John Smith was among those called up to serve in the SEF.  Pte. Smith’s opportunity for active service came on 29 January 1917 when he entered Trentham Camp for clothing and equipment issues, briefings, and tasks they would undertake.  After just four days of preparation, Pte. Smith commenced his tour of duty when he embarked the SS Talune for Samoa on 05 Feb 1917 together with the ‘A’ Squadron of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles, 8th Contingent, North Island Regiment.  Pte. Smith arrived in Samoan on February 12th was a member of the Machine Gun Section however once settled into Garrison routine he was transferred into the Garrison Cyclist Section (bicycles were used to supplement horse for patrolling due to their ease of movement and accessing confined village areas). During his second year Pte. Smith was transferred to the Garrison HQ Radio Office whilst continuing to do rostered mounted (horse) patrols.  


It could be assumed that Pte. Smith had diarised more of his time in Samoa than the partial diary record Terry Foster found as records only four months of Pte. Smith’s two years in Samoa, from Saturday 19th May 1917 until Friday 2nd October 1917.  Pte. Smith documented a fairly busy although somewhat repetitive daily routine made up of such tasks as – periods of guard duty at the Songi POW camp in Apia (all German nationals interred here) and the island’s Wireless Station, rostered SEF sentry duty, radio watch in the Garrison HQ, conducting mounted patrols, the maintenance of and exercising their horses & harness (his mount was called “Topsey”), cleaning stables, attending drill and Mounted Parades for visiting officers & dignitaries, endless kit inspection parades, machine gun & semaphore training, range shooting, and “scrub outs” of the accommodation rooms and the Garrison Guard Room.  Periods off duty usually entailed soldiers washing clothes, cleaning equipment, rostered mess fatigues or otherwise amusing themselves with cards, playing billiards at the Market Hall, writing letters, resting/sleeping or just doing nothing.  Other opportunities when off duty to swim, beach walk, shop at the markets were available.  The soldiers would also go to local dances (sivi sivi), or sing-songs (pese) where, as John says … “there was always any amount of Arva (sic) to drink” (we know this as Kava, a popular pacific island drink with numbing/anesthetic like properties made from the root of the kava plant which when concocted resembles muddy water or Brasso)

With so many potential opportunities for garrisoned soldiers to get themselves into strife, discipline in the SEF was strictly enforced – he recalls an occasion in August 1917 when “.. the Mounted Rifles, Machine Gun Section, Cycle Section and Wireless Guard were all paraded at the Market Hall, to hear sentence passed on Priv. Campbell, for assault.  He was sentenced to 90 days (detention in a military prison) on the first charge and 30 days on the second, the sentences to be served in NZ & when he serves his term he is to be drummed out of the Army.” 

Pte. Smith also made a couple sketches in the back pages of his diary – one of his lodgings (“the Cottage” as he called it ) and one of a Sergeant bawling out a soldier.  He also wrote out the Morse Code, no doubt useful when working on Wireless Guard in the Radio Room. 

The “Cottage”

The ‘Sarge’









The most significant event Pte. Smith recorded in his Diary was a major earthquake of magnitude 8.0+ which struck Samoa on 26 June 1917 at 5:49PM in the early evening .. “ boy it was a dandy”..  Pte. Smith wrote.

The following is a Wikipedia summary of that earthquake:

The 1917 Samoa earthquake occurred on June 26 at 05:49 UTC. The epicentre was located in the southwest of the Samoan Islands. The earthquake had a magnitude of 8.3, at a depth of 15 km, one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded in this region.

Many subsidences were reported. In the mountains, masses of rocks were hurled down.  In Apia, violent shaking lasted for about a minute and half. In american Samoa the LDS Church in Pago Pago and the Catholic Church in Leone were partly demolished. A tsunami was triggered by the earthquake, which affected both American Samoa and German Samoa, which was then under Allied occupation. The tsunami reached a maximum height of 40 feet. The maximum range of the tsunami in Apia was about 80 cm. Many houses were destroyed, and a bridge was washed away in Palauli. The tsunami was also recorded in Honolulu and on the west coast of the United States. Just five days later on May 1, 1917, a large earthquake of magnitude Ms 8.0 occurred in the Kermadec region. The earthquake occurred to the southwest of the Samoa Islands, along the Tonga Plate boundary and the resulting tsunami caused by this earthquake also hit the Samoan Islands.

The Melbourne “Argus” carried the following article on July 17th:


Extraordinary Effects.

Wellington (N.Z.) Monday.—Particulars received of the earthquake and huge sea wave in Samoa reported on June 25 show that there were alarming earth tremors extending over two minutes.  Buildings were violently shaken and the Customs house a concrete building was considerably damaged.  Residences and stores also suffered.  Many subsidences (sic) occurred, one near the principal stores being about 30 feet square.  The earthquake reached its maximum intensity in the mountains of the interior where the ground was agitated like waves of the ocean.  Acres of trees were uprooted and masses of rocks were hurled down the mountain sides.  The great sea wave followed, its full force being experienced on the side opposite Apia.  The Mormon church at Pago Pago was demolished.

Fortunately the garrisoned Relief Force were domiciled on the North East side around Apia whereas the majority of damage occurred had along the South West side of the island.

More quakes

On August 6th Pte. Smith records another major quake which this time affected Apia and the northern side of the island to a much greater extent.  Several entries in Pte Smith’s diary speak of on-going ‘ground shakes’ – aftershocks as we know them which, “took me all my time to stand  and it seemed hours to me before the shake stopped although the actual time was only 2 minutes, but quite long enough for me.” – sound familiar?  He also makes mention that the quake “had stirred the natives up …. and found them in an excited state …. one old woman had died of shock and another had gone off her head.  I don’t think there were many of them went to bed last night, they were praying and crying all night…..Yes, August 6th 1917 will not be forgotten in a hurry by those that felt the big earth shake.”  

Next day (7th)  it was business as usual and the daily routine – his diary records “… Machine Gun drill 6.30AM. Fatiques at QM Store 8AM … etc …”

On the 4th September Pte. Smith wrote ..”Today I entered my 28th year, I hope I have a good year & that War is over before this time next year.”  – not too far out was he?

Island friendships

One of the common practices among those in the printing trade is to make themselves known to the local printing fraternity, particularly if in a small town or village and so John made himself known to a New Zealand print facility manager at a Mission School who had been in Samoa for 18 years – ”Went to the Printing Office and made myself known to “Mr (Harry Strong) Griffin who is a Napier boy, having worked for Bull & Co, a number of years ago.  He has been out here 18 years & of course does not know me still he showed me around his printing shop & I was very much impressed with the work he is turning out.”

Throughout his Diary Pte. Smith makes mention of various soldiers and officers he was serving and living with.  He also frequently recalls a local (native) friend, a man by the name of “Mosile” whom he would often visit on a Sunday after the Garrison Church Parade, take him newspapers and small gifts, or just talk.   He states in his diary that they would sometimes go to the pictures together and ..”during the interval, a great deal of fun was caused through a little boxing by the Natives.”

Pte. Smith’s attention to the local island females had not escaped him, as he comments after attending a dance and singalong “… by jove, what fine girls they were.”  

On September 13  he recalls one of his frequent trips to see his native friend Mosile and while there meets … ”a fine half-cast girl about 20 years old, by jove she is pretty & it is a treat to hear her speak” …   At one point in the Diary it seems Pte. Smith may have had the opportunity for an island ‘liaison …  the next day he records ..” went back to Mosile’s this afternoon and the sweet half-cast girl was there, I had a ripping good time, her name is Miss Knuth half-cast German, but without a doubt she is a jolly fine young lady !”

… and on 15 September – “Tonight I took Miss Knuth to the pictures, but she did not care about them so we came out and sat on the waterfront for a while.  She half hinted that she would go to N.Z. with me, but I am afraid that I am not in a position to take her as a life time mate, much as I would if I were a free man.  Returned home at 10.15 PM after spending a pleasant evening.”

… and that was the last entry to make mention of the “sweet half-cast girl, Miss Knuth.” ?

The Diary after this time until his last recorded entry in October 1917 is light on detail with each entry reduced to just a few words of routine.


Pte. Smith arrived back in NZ on the SS Taluna on 04 December 1919, two years to the day that he departed New Zealand after a relatively peaceful but not uneventful tour of duty.  As the result of his having suffered a back injury during his service in Samoa, Pte. Smith was medically boarded and declared “no longer physically fit for war service” at the age of 44 years & 5 months.  For his two years of military service in Samoa Pte. Smith was awarded the British War Medal, 1914-1918.

John returned to civilian life and his position in Wellington with the Government Printing Office. Whomever else he had in mind after meeting Miss Knuth, when he wrote in his dairy re his not being “a free man” must have come to nothing as he remained a bachelor until his death in Wellington on 16 September 1933, aged 58 years.   John’s occupation at death is recorded as “labourer” (no doubt a result of the Depression years) and he is buried in the Karori Cemetery, Wellington …. however, thanks to Terry, John Smith and his slice of life in the Army in Samoa lives on through his Diary.


Solving the Case

The resolution of this case came through John’s sister Frances and her husband Andrew McLean.  Together they had had three children – John Joseph (photographer), Henry Joseph (soldier & company manager), and Andrew Alexander McLean (photographer).  Of the three McLean siblings Andrew Alexander’s line was the one I was able to trace a descendant from.  A series of internet questions enabled me to locate Andrew Alexander’s only child, Leslie Peter McLean.  A 2003 internet record showed that a horse named “NOVENA” had been trained by a LP McLean of Woodville and owned by Mrs MA McLean.”  I had a lead – Electoral Rolls until 1981 showed the McLeans had resided for a good part of their married life in the Manawatu-Wanganui region, most lately in Woodville.  Phone records and Facebook had failed to identify the McLean’s current location.

 I then discovered a Stuff newspaper article which related the circumstances of a car accident that had occurred in the Manawatu Gorge in October 2015.  A car had been hit by another vehicle with the result that “78 year old Mavis McLean died” – the one survivor of the crash I guessed may have been her husband.  But this was insufficient for me to locate Mr McLean. Armed with this information  I started a newspaper obituary search for help.  An on-line tribute site named Mrs Mavis Anna McLean however other than her name all I could read (without payment) were small parts of two on-line tributes, one of which referenced “Aunty Mavis… & Uncle Peter”.  The tribute also carried the authors name, Diane and Eric W. of Hawera.  My subsequent call Diane confirmed their connection, and husband Eric was able to put me in touch 78 year old Leslie Peter McLean (ka Peter), a former Woodville horse trainer.  Peter’s only means of contact was a mobile phone – he told me that he had been hospitalized since the accident, had made good progress in recovery and only recently relocated permanently from Woodville to Palmerston North (the reason I could not locate an address for him earlier).  Peter McLean, grandson of Frances Theresa Smith & Andrew Donald McLean, was able to fill in some of the information gaps I had regarding his grandmother and her brother Pte. John Smith.  Peter was thrilled to hear of the existence of John’s Diary and is eager to read it.  


How the Diary got to Tokoroa is unknown.  There appears to be no known connection that could be ascertained between the Smith or McLean families and Tokoroa.  My thanks go to Terry for firstly saving the Diary and entrusting it to MRNZ, and secondly for his patience pending my slow resolution of this case.

The Diary of 37627 Private John Smith will be couriered to his grand-nephew Peter McLean, this week.

Samoan Relief Force & Mounted Rifles soldiers with native child c1917 – Pte. James W. Burdett on far left, back row