Old white man of the day

On Tuesday we honoured an ordinary guy from World War Two; today an ordinary soldier from World War One,?Bright? Williams.

Why Bright? He was just an ordinary Rifleman who lied about his age in order to enlist. Quote:

Williams was born the son of a?blacksmith?in Rissington, north of Napier. While a shepherd working on a farm in Hawke?s Bay, he increased his age by three years in order to enlist in the?New Zealand Army?in March 1916. By 1917, he was on the?front lines?in?Belgium?working as a runner with the 3rd Battalion New Zealand Rifle Brigade at Messines, before being severely wounded in the?Battle of Passchendaele?on 12 October 1917. As he and an officer tried to move forward in front of a German?machine gun?post at Wolf Farm, both were peppered by machine-gun bullets. The officer was killed, while Bright Williams remained out overnight in a muddy shell hole with three bullet wounds, one of which had shattered his thigh.?During the Battle 845 New Zealand soldiers of the?New Zealand Division?were?killed in action, with over 2,700 being?wounded. In total for that battle, the allied forces suffered 508,800 casualties, while Germany suffered 348,300 casualties. During a 2001 interview, Williams spoke of suffering through mud and freezing rain, and sheltering in?trenches?among the?corpses?of dead?German soldiers. No longer fit for service Bright Williams returned to farming in Hawke?s Bay where he continued to be troubled by his wounds.

To mark the 80th anniversary of the end of the War in 1998, French President?Jacques Chirac?granted approval for the award of the?L?gion d?honneur?to an estimated 1200 surviving foreign soldiers who had fought alongside the French on the Western Front. This commemoration started with a visit to New Zealand by the French Minister for War Veterans Jean Pierre Masseret in April 1998, to enlisted help from the Government in locating our surviving Great War veterans. Only nine New Zealand survivors were located and eight were still alive when presentations were made around the country by French Ambassador Jacques Le Blanc in October and November 1998. Most of the recipients were over 100 years old and gratefully accepted the awards in recognition of their lost mates and the high price paid by this country in the First World War. Bright Williams received his Croix de Chevalier of the L?gion d’honneur from the French Ambassador at the Napier RSA in 1998, and wore “it on parade to honour men who did not come back from France, who were buried there in known and unknown graves”. End of quote.

Williams, recalled the events clearly, although he did not talk about them often.?But in 2000 he told Roger Moroney in a Weekend Herald article how his job as a messenger was fraught with danger on the shell-torn mud and barbed wire of the Western Front.?Quote:

Opposite his position at Passchendaele were German machine gun posts, so familiar that the soldiers called them by names – Wolf Farm, Waterloo, Peter Pan and Ogilvy.

Williams was cut down by three bullets about 8.30am on October 12. A piece of one of them was to remain in his thigh beside an artery for almost 83 more years. [He survived an operation in 1999 to remove the last piece.]

“It was either Wolf Farm or the Peter Pan lot that clobbered me,” he said. “The colonel saw me go down and asked, ‘Are you hit, runner?’ I said that I was and he said, ‘Take care of yourself and I’ll see what I can do’.”

The situation at the time for the New Zealanders was horrendous. The casualty figures recorded for Passchendaele on that day have varied over the years. The massacre, which occurred after orders to take an objective (which was said to have lost any strategic value) in impossible conditions, was played down in New Zealand at the time. […]

Williams endured 24 hours in the mud and freezing rain. His only company in a ditch where he sought shelter were the decomposing remains of a couple of German soldiers. He crawled a short distance in the long day and came across a cobber who had also been hit.??”He wasn’t good. He had got it in the guts.”

Williams found himself thinking about having one of the old dog kennels from the farm at Rissington “to keep the rain off”.?But at no stage did he think he would die.

“Hell, no … I didn’t go there to die … I never once thought about it.”

After being found he was sent back through the lines for treatment and returned home in 1918, complete with shrapnel souvenirs, to go back to shepherding. The return to Rissington had a special moment: “Both the dogs I had left behind were there to meet me.”

He harboured no regrets about joining up and when asked three years ago whether he would do it again, replied quickly, “Oh, hell, yes.”

Williams, once asked how he felt when he got home, said quietly: “I thought, ‘This is something those mates of mine will never get’.”?End of quote.

So why was Bright our old white man of the day?? Simply because he was, at the time of his death on 13 February 2003 at the age of 105, the last New Zealand veteran of the?First World War.
At that time Prime Minister Helen Clark said: “We of a younger generation can only marvel at what these men went through and it is important we never forget the contribution they made.”
Hansard records:
Hon KEN SHIRLEY (Deputy Leader?ACT NZ)?:?I move,?That this House records its sadness at the passing of Mr Bright Williams, the last survivor of 100,444 New Zealanders who left this country to serve in the First World War, and acknowledges the sacrifices that they made.