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The Hundred-Year Journey Home

Diary of WWI soldier Sgt. James Stanton reunited with family

by Toni Reid

Around midnight on May 3rd 1916 in the pretty French village of Morbecque, Private James Stanton picked up his fountain pen and began to write on the first page of a canvas bound diary.

“Now it’s my intention to keep a few notes of dates and occurrences… It’s started at a queer time in the night, but you see – my readers – I’m on guard and this is the way I’m filling in time…”

Born and raised in Amberley, Canterbury, twenty one year old James had been away from home since October 1915 when he sailed with the reinforcements from Wellington to Egypt, arriving just prior to the evacuation of the Gallipoli Peninsula by the NZ Infantry Brigade. Here he joined the 1st Battalion, Canterbury Infantry Regiment for a few relatively quiet months in the desert before heading to France in the spring of 1916.

During April and May the 1st Canterbury Battalion was billeted in Morbecque; accommodated in lofts, barns and byres with extra blankets being issued to those fresh from Egypt who were not acclimated to the chilly French spring. Any free time could be spent in the village, with the estaminets a popular destination for many. These were ‘pop up’ cafés run by women out of their homes or in outbuildings, offering soldiers a gathering place for a drink and cheap meal.

Despite the seemingly idyllic setting, the battalion was there to train – a large percentage of the troops had never been under fire and none had any experience of trench warfare in France. While the officers and NCO’s were sent to learn the use of grenades, Lewis guns, gas masks and effective deployment of snipers and observers, the remaining men practised musketry and bayonet fighting.

A few days before starting his diary, James learned the NZ Division would be heading to the front line on the 20th May. Maybe this news was an incentive to begin an account of his daily life, possibly as a memento for his family if he failed to make it home or perhaps writing in a diary was a daily routine which made him feel more normal, or it could have been simply a way to pass time. Whatever his motivation, James diligently recorded details of everyday life throughout the year of 1916 until May 9th 1917.

While the 1st Canterbury had a comparatively gentle introduction to trench warfare, spending May to July guarding the ‘quiet’ sector at Armentières, by August they were on the move south to the Somme. Here the battalion spent time in the trenches under artillery fire and took part in several successful attacks before moving to the Cordonnerie, another inactive sector. James was appointed Lance Corporal in August and promoted to Corporal in December.

The second Christmas away from home was spent in billets at the ancient French town of Estaires, during the severe winter of 1916/1917. As spring approached, Corporal Stanton was appointed Lance Sergeant around the time when the 1st Battalion was on the front line near the Wulverghem-Messines road.

Preparations for an attack to capture the vital area of Messines and Wytschaete Ridges had been underway since early in the year. Although these hills are only a few hundred feet high, the strategic importance of gaining the high ground on the Plain of Flanders could not be underestimated. It was also critical to retain control of the hills already in British possession, Mont Kemmel and Hill 63; to lose them could lead to the destruction of the majority of the British Second Army.

Ensuring the success of the offensive required months of planning, which for James’s battalion involved repairing old trenches, digging new ones, more training, attack rehearsals and taking turns at the front line. Finally zero hour was set for 3.10am on the 7th June 1917. Late in the evening of June 6, the 1st Canterbury left the tunnels of Hill 63 for their assembly trenches and were ready in position by midnight. At 3am the ground shook violently as thousands of kilograms of explosives detonated, hidden in tunnels by the entrenching brigades. This was designed to destroy the enemy trenches and wire defences, so that ten minutes later, at zero hour, the leading waves of the Battalion advanced under a covering barrage across No-Man’s-Land. Thanks to the rehearsals, they found their way without difficulty through the dust, darkness and clouds of smoke generated by their own guns. By 3.25am two companies of the 1st Canterbury managed to capture one of their objectives, the support line. The ensuing hours were similarly successful for the battalion and they began to consolidate their position by digging new trenches around the outskirts of the ruined village of Messines. Daybreak saw the trenches come under heavy fire from the enemy’s artillery for the next 24 hours, resulting in many casualties for the battalion. There was an unexpected promotion to Sergeant for James when Gallipoli veteran Sergeant William Mein was killed in action. Later the same day James came close to sharing the late Sergeant’s fate when he sustained gunshot wounds to the face and the abdomen. Taken from the battlefield and given medical attention, it was almost a week before he arrived at the NZ General Hospital located in Brockenhurst, England.

Meanwhile back in New Zealand, James’ older brother Herbert Stanton who had signed up in January to serve with the NZ Rifle Brigade, sailed for England on the 9th June aboard the troopship Willochra. Not long after Herbert left, the boys’ mother Annie Stanton, would have received news that James had been badly wounded.

Fortunately by August James was on the mend, leaving the convalescent hospital for the Codford Depot, where recovering soldiers were readied for a return to the trenches. His brother Herbert would follow in his footsteps, being taken to Brockenhurst Hospital after suffering shrapnel wounds to his leg, arm and face in late December 1917. For four days in April 1918, both brothers were at Codford, before James shipped out to France on the 8th May. It seems possible the two could have met up and spent a little time together before James was sent back to the front. A few days later, after almost a year away, James re-joined his battalion at Hébuterne, a small farming village which had seen heavy fighting due to its front-line position and now lay in ruins.

At the beginning of 1918 the war seemed to be going in Germany’s favour; the Spring Offensive had the British Fifth Army in retreat. However this came at a high price; between March and July a million German men were killed or wounded. Their replacements were 17-year-old conscripts. In addition, they struggled to replace weapons and equipment lost as the Allied Naval Blockade was starving German factories of materials. With the failure of further attacks in June and July, they attempted to fall back on defensive positions, but Allies saw an opportunity to turn the German withdrawal into a rout.

Now the NZ Division was constantly moving forward, pushing back the German line. In August plans were made to virtually surround the German occupied town of Bapaume, a crossroad for four main highways and several railways. Cutting the road access would isolate the town and with a brigade on either side the strategy was to drive out the enemy, thereby avoiding the loss of men resulting from street fighting. For James and the 1st Canterbury, the objectives set for the 25th August were to clear the small hamlet of Avesnes-lès-Bapaume and capture the junction of the Albert and Arras roads.

August is traditionally the time for summer holidays in France, the weather fine and warm. On the 24th the Allied infantry, tanks, artillery and cavalry were moving through open country while overhead planes droned, wheeling and circling in the brilliant sky.

At 2am on the morning of the 25th the 1st Canterbury left its bivouac near the Albert-Arras railway, assembling under a clear moonlit sky. The advance began at 5am under the cover of a creeping artillery barrage and aided by a heavy ground mist which hid their movements. The German defenders were ready, but by 7am the 1st Canterbury had achieved their objectives and were dug in near the Albert Arras Road junction.

However this success had come at a cost; many lives were lost that day. While heading for the Albert Arras road, Private John Jacobs of the 1st Canterbury crossed a railway line and was killed by a single shot to head, possibly from one of the notorious snipers known to be operating in the area. Later, upon reaching the road junction, the battalion had the misfortune to be caught out in the open when the mist suddenly lifted, leaving the men exposed to intense machine gun fire. These two locations mentioned are the most likely places where the short life of Sergeant James Stanton was ended. The records state he was killed in action and buried by the Rev. G.T. Robson, half a mile west of Bapaume and east of Grevillers – the exact same location as Private Jacobs. Later his body was reinterred at Beaulencourt British Cemetery where it still rests today.

But what became of James’ diary? He was buried by a military chaplain which suggests his personal effects would have been collected and returned to his next of kin. Yet somehow the diary came to be in the possession of Private Fred Elder of the 2nd Battalion, Auckland Infantry Regiment. Although Fred’s regiment fought alongside the Cantabrians as part of the NZ Division, it is unknown how Fred and James came to know each other. Prior to the war James lived in Canterbury and Fred was born in Tuakau near Auckland, so it seems unlikely they met beforehand. Fred was posted to his company in December 1917, but at this time James was convalescing in England after his injury at Messines. They could have met after May 1918 when James returned to France although the battalions were often billeted separately or had their own bivouac, so the chances seem fairly slim that they would have struck up friendship which would have resulted in Fred being entrusted with the diary.

Another possibility is when Fred suffered a gunshot wound to his nose on the 24th August, James might have seen him being carried out and given him the diary to pass onto the Stanton family, thinking that Fred would be sent home. Although Fred’s wound bled copiously according to military records, he didn’t merit evacuation to England. After being patched up at Rouen General Hospital, Fred was transferred to the cyclist battalion in October, eventually returning home in March 1919.

The diary remained with the Elder family for fifty years until the time of Fred’s passing in 1971, at which point his daughter Betty handed the diary to next door neighbours the Raits of Larchwood Avenue, Grey Lynn. The Raits now became the custodians of the diary, in due course entrusting it to their daughter Audrey Gibbs, who gave it to her son Phil twenty years ago. It became somewhat of a family treasure. Phil pored over the pages, sharing parts with his children and reading pages aloud at local Anzac services. However, he had drawn a blank when it came to locating the Stanton family and even toyed with handing the diary over to the Auckland Museum. At the last minute he changed his mind and bought it back home with him.

Then in April this year a neighbour mentioned an upcoming Anzac Edition of elocal, so Phil passed the details to the editor to see if some publicity might reunite the diary with the original owner’s family. Due to Covid-19 lockdown, there was no paper edition, instead the story was shared online and quickly spread to the South Island, highlighting the reach of the magazine’s digital version.

Several people helped to connect the dots, Ian Martyn of Medals Reunited NZ and Bill Scott from the Manchester Unity Friendly Society put in time to find the owners. But first past the post was Natasha Wells of Kaikoura who came across the story of the Stanton diary shared on a Facebook genealogy group page, her interest piqued by the mention of the surnames Stanton and Gibbs in tandem. These names were among those of her ancestors and Amberley was close enough to where they had lived for Natasha to search on her family tree. “I thought the reason a Gibbs was given a Stanton diary was because they were likely related”.

Although it turned out that James wasn’t related, she didn’t stop there. A dedicated family history researcher likes nothing better than a good mystery to solve, even if they’re not one of your own. Natasha investigated further by accessing James’ service records online where she found his date of birth and mother’s name. Using this information, the next stop was historical birth, death and marriage records online where she was able to find the name of his father and siblings. Entering this information into another website, Ancestry.com, Natasha traced James’ lineage back to Staffordshire in England and hit the jackpot – the owner of the family tree was listed as being a New Zealander and had been active on the site in recent weeks. With the aid of Google and Facebook she was able to bring up the profile of a person she believed to be the nephew of Sergeant James Stanton. Thanks to the internet, all this research was accomplished in under two hours.

On the 26th April a message popped up on elocal editor Sally Sumner’s email and she was able to contact James’ descendants Richard Chalklen and his sister Bronwen Green. They were surprised and delighted to find out about the diary, having no idea it even existed. Richard has kept James’ war medals and has a photo of him on a camel.

They look forward to meeting with Phil Gibbs and holding the diary that travelled to the trenches of France with Sergeant Stanton over a hundred years ago and has at long last found its way home.

‘Whatever his motivation, James diligently recorded details of everyday life throughout the year of 1916 until May 9th 1917.’

‘Somehow the diary came to be in the possession of Private Fred Elder of the 2nd Battalion, Auckland Infantry Regiment.’

‘A dedicated family history researcher likes nothing better than a good mystery to solve, even if they’re not one of your own.’

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elocal Digital Edition – November 2020 (#236)

elocal Digital Edition
November 2020 (#236)

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