‘I (being senior)’

July 1st, 2016 By Peter Ireland

A New Zealand officer in World War One

The officer concerned is William James Clachan, a young man from Wellington who served with the Middlesex Regiment of the British Army. The Turnbull Library holds his letters, photograph albums and diary (Ref: MS-0508, which can be read online), donated by Clachan’s younger brother Martin in 1969. I came across this material when researching the Library’s WWI exhibition A Contemporary Conversation, and decided to write about it because Clachan’s war, which culminated with service in Portuguese East Africa, is uncommon in our WWI holdings. I also found Clachan’s photograph albums compelling.

Publication of this blog coincides with the 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of The Somme on 1 July 1916. William Clachan took part in the opening advance, and gave a description of this in a letter to his mother. His account of the first day of the battle forms the centrepiece of the blog. The New Zealand Division saw action at the Somme from September 1916, sustaining 8000 casualties, of whom 2000 were killed.

WW100: A Contemporary Conversation exhibition, National Library, 2015.
WW100: A Contemporary Conversation, National Library, 2015. Photographer: Neil Pardington

I chose to title the blog, ‘I (being senior),’ to denote Clachan’s privileged position as an officer, and give a sense of his preoccupation with his place in the complex hierarchy of rank. The quote itself is from Clachan’s diary, and is a comment made when he and fellow officers were transferred from the Arawa to the Athenic in Alexandria for passage to England, ‘We are certainly travelling saloon here. I (being senior) have cabin 4 to myself.’

William James Clachan was born in 1891 at 2 Charles Street, Glebe, Sydney, where his father William Adam worked as a warehouseman. The Clachans moved to Wellington and lived in the generously proportioned double bay villa Aberfoyle at 22 Ohiro Road, just off Aro St. Clachan went to Te Aro Primary School, Wellington College, and Victoria University, with the intention of studying medicine. When war was declared in 1914, he was employed by the Wellington Education Department. Before Clachan left New Zealand with the NZEF, he sat a competitive examination for a commission in the Imperial Army.

The earliest image of Clachan in the collection shows him as a 2nd Lieutenant in 27 Company, Senior Cadets – champion rifle team, with his dog, Prince.

William Clachan, 2nd from left.
William Clachan, 2nd from left. Photographer: Zak studios. Clachan papers, ATL: ms-papers 0503

The Diary

William Clachan was a diligent diarist and letter writer. He made a copy of his diary to send home, and was careful about the impression it gave. On at least two occasions he asks his parents to destroy some of the content, because he considered it to be ‘rot’ and the perspective of the ‘uninitiated.’

Clachan’s diary begins with his embarkation on the Arawa at Wellington on 24 September 1914. He was attached to C Company of the Wellington Regiment, of the NZEF. The diary ends with the prospect of hand-to-hand fighting at the Battle of Hill 60 in 1915.

Delayed by the late arrival of other troopships, the NZEF does not leave until mid-October. There are route marches and shooting on the range at Trentham. Clachan attends a Patriotic Ball, having ‘procured a pair of dancing shoes.’ He has his 22nd birthday on 27 September. The fleet eventually gets away on 15 October.

Have heard from ship’s officer that we sail tomorrow Friday at 6am. First port of call Hobart. Then Freemantle, then Colombo as Minotaur draws supplies there…

Mother came out in the Duchess & handed me a parcel from ? also £1 sterling. Managed to get on to Duchess to talk to Mater but was very nearly left behind. Sent goodbye message ashore about 10pm. Had a good night’s rest. Got up at 5.45am, boats filed out of the harbour, leaving at 6am. We passed Cape Terawhiti & Durville Island etc during the morning. About 4pm away to the north we saw Mt Egmont. At about 6pm we passed Farewell Spit, a long low neck of land with a lighthouse at the point, the last land to be seen.

There are 53 officers on the Arawa who are given cabins. Life on board for officers settles into a comfortable routine. The first notable event is the burial at sea, of Private Gilchrist, on the Ruapehu.

It was a beautiful clear day. At 3.45 all flags were hoisted half mast, all troops stood to attention facing Ruapehu. All troopships came to a standstill. Everything was absolutely quiet; in fact you could hear a pin drop. Even the horses were quiet. The boats fairly wallowed in the swell; we thought some ships would roll over. The Ruapehu held her service over one of their privates (pneumonia I think the trouble was). At 4.15 flags were hoisted to the mast tops again & boats went ahead.

More typical of the routine on board are the following diary entries.

Friday 30 October

A lecture on reconnaissance by Colonel Meldrum. The usual percentage, 75%, slept… The 2nd subs are not quite as well fed as the main mess. The difference being that we don’t get fowl etc, as often as they do... Although we are fed in first saloon we are something between 1st & 2nd saloon menu…

The four doctors on board have their hands full, but on the whole, health is good. One man from our ship went ashore at Albany for appendicitis. The horses of course, also have their ailments.

Then on 8 November, occurred the most dramatic event of their voyage.

The Minatour went full speed ahead to the rear today & the Melbourne took the lead. Lights were extra heavily masked tonight as a strange cruiser the German raider, Emden is about… Putting ice down one another’s necks is a very amusing pastime. No socks or pants & shirt are the best clothing for this weather. White suits look good.

Monday 9 November

11.41 “Sydney to all stations. Emden beached and done for.” Noon - British casualties, 2 killed & 13 wounded, so evidently the Emden got at least one shot on board.

Next day Clachan records,

We had physical parades in the morning but on hearing the result of the battle towards the end of the morning we all went mad and danced hakas.

They receive their share of prisoners off the Emden – 30 men.

I can understand the German fairly well. They tell us that the sights were awful. The Emden was blown to pieces. Legs, arms, heads etc went sky high. Bodies were washed ashore. Five sailors were picked up on the beach with live crabs in the rents in their bodies, but enough…

In late November the rumour is that all troops will disembark at Suez for training in Egypt. The quality of the food declines as supplies run low. The Arawa arrives at Suez in the early hours of 1 December. The main force lands at Alexandria and thence to Zeitoun camp, ‘thus dodging the severe weather at home’ England.

Clachan and some fellow officers transfer to the Athenic.

We are certainly travelling saloon here. I (being senior) have cabin 4 to myself. Godfrey and Clayton have cabin 5 & the 4 Sandhurst boys are quartered in cabins 17 & 1. I sleep in the bottom bunk, the top one is unused. The cabin has a big floor space, a fine wardrobe & hat rack etc, a bosca couch & buttons & bells for everything.

Then on Saturday 5 December, Clachan hears the outcome of his examination for a commission.

At 5.30 Colonel Braithwaite called us into lounge & notified us by a telegram from Gen. Godley that Clayton was appointed to Royal Sussex, Godfrey to Gloucesters & I was appointed to Middlesex. The telegram also said to proceed immediately to England and join our Regiments, reporting our arrival in England, in writing to the War Office…

The remainder of Clachan’s journey to England is in fits and starts. He transfers from the Athenic to the Orari and is nearly at Malta when they are ordered back to Alexandria. There, another change of ship - to the Australian transport, Wiltshire. The passengers include a ‘Miss Findlay.’ There are also German and Turkish prisoners and among these.

are two international tennis players (Otto Froitzheim & Oscar Kreuzer) who have either just played for Davis Cup, or were just going to play for it when they were grabbed.

Sunday 13 December

It is now 5.30pm and I have been all day sitting on the deck writing this diary from p.88 in other book up to this point. I am heartily sick of writing… John Godfrey and Clayton making horrible parts in their hair. Will now dress for dinner, ahem. Splendid sunset this evening.

The Wiltshire finally delivers Clachan ‘home’ at the end of December. The ship berths at Plymouth and Clachan proceeds by train to London and then to his Aunt Bella’s in Wallington. On New Year’s Eve Clachan catches the 8.17a.m. train for London Bridge.

Walked over the bridge and there were hundreds of men and a small % of girls just going to work. Got into a tube at the Monument for Paddington. It was rather a foggy morning and the Thames looked very grey.

Friday 1 January 1915

Books 3rd class rail fare – ‘A mistake.’

An officer in uniform at home must never travel third. Second is abolished. The train was full of Tommies & I was the centre of attraction being an officer in 3rd class.

Clachan receives orders to join 5th Reserve Battalion, Middlesex Regiment at Chatham asap. He reaches Chatham and,

finally settled in an officer’s mess in an old farm house built in the thirteenth century… I was given a top storey room and a servant Marvan… sharing him with my OC, Company Captain Vinen.

In early February Clachan learns he is likely to be drafted soon, and readies himself.

Wednesday 27 February

Received goods from Lawn & Alder today:1 map case 13/6, 1 folding table 9/-, 1 aluminium soap box 9d, 1 sponge bag 1/-, 1 kit bag 2 10/-, Painting name on trunk – 29 letters 3/7, 1 revolver lanyard, 1 coat carrier 6/6, 1 pr Jaeger wool gloves, 1 pr wire cutters 4/6, Total 5 10/- 7d.

Thursday 4 March 1915

Going back along High St, to the mess, when I was seen by Parsons. He saw me in the distance, started walking towards me he broke into a trot and finally ran. After quietening him down I elicited the information that the two of us along with four others had to leave immediately for France… Went and saw Captain Storey. Captain Vinen struck me off all duties. Set Marvan to work to pack my foreign kit and to pack everything else up to be sent to Wallington.

The Western Front

Two days later Clachan is in France, and in the Harfleur valley.

Tuesday March 9th.

Will be in trenches before daylight. Catch train tonight. Valise has gone. Love, Bill…

Wrote letters home & also one to Aunty Bella. I think I have made everything plain and correct now.

Everything is absolutely dark. Only the constant sniping of rifle fire of both sides. The Huns are about 70 yds opposite us on a small hillock… I didn’t sleep at all during the night. A machine gun of ours kept up a good fire all night to our rear, left. No casualties.

Sunday 14th March

We stood to arms with bayonets fixed at 5am… We had breakfast and had a fairly quiet morning. However trouble ahead. All day and last night big shells of both sides had been travelling overhead. About 10 we watched the Germans shelling the next trench to us. Then suddenly I was using a periscope when a German 6’ Howitzer came and blew a great gap in our trench, blew a man’s head off, blinded another chap & knocked about half a dozen over. Then another shell 5 seconds later came through in the exact position I had been sitting for half an hour… During the night our people on the left made three different attacks of an hour each and eventually regained the seven trenches they had lost earlier in the afternoon.

A few pages on, Clachan coolly notes that 700 Germans and 1200 Allies had been killed on that day, and then writes, ‘So you see, we have to be thankful we are still going.’ In the midst of these privations, he enjoys bacon & eggs for breakfast cooked by his servant, while the men in the trenches make do with bully beef and biscuits.

During time in the reserve lines, Clachan goes horse riding with fellow officers and takes photographs, but learns, ‘…am jolly annoyed at present as an order has arrived that all cameras have to be returned to England.’ Reluctantly he sends his camera and several films to be developed to Dr Allardice an English family friend.

William Clachan, France 1915.
William Clachan, France 1915, Photographer unknown. ATL: PA1-o-095-99

Friday 2 April

No hot cross buns. About dusk it commenced to rain. Just about this time I had one of my lance corporals shot through the left ear. The bullet didn’t come out. He had being joking two minutes before, was a very brave man & had the Somaliland ribbon. Although his head was bandaged he only lived about 10 minutes. My word the men fairly rocked it to the Huns after that. I personally accounted for one or two & landed a beautiful shot into their trenches with a rifle grenade. It exploded with a beautiful bang. We buried King in the rear of our trench & put a cross up containing a tin with his regimental particulars… It really seems at times that there is someone looking after you, you get so many close ones.

From the closing pages of the diary we learn that Clachan is hit in the temple by a bullet, and is ordered back to a dressing station. He recovers but sports ‘a permanent bump.’ He is pleased to learn that he is now the senior 2nd Lieutenant in the battalion, ‘I will probably have my second star up soon.’

The final entry in Clachan’s diary reads.

Wednesday noon. We are just falling in to go to Hill 60. Hand to hand fighting there. Love, Bill.

There are about 40 letters by Clachan in the Turnbull’s manuscripts collection. Half of these take up from where the diary leaves off, describing the rest of his time in France and Belgium, convalescing in England, and recovering on light duties with his regiment. The remaining letters record his time with the King’s African Rifles. Clachan is wounded in the head at Hooge and is operated on in England, the surgeon also recovering the bullet lodged in his temple from his earlier wound.

‘August 1915. On roof of 17 Park Lane, after bandages were removed.
‘August 1915. On roof of 17 Park Lane, after bandages were removed. Taken by Inky.’ ATL: PA1-o-095-99
‘My nurse, ‘Inky’ Nurse Inkeson, since gone to Serbia – a treasure to me.’ August, 1915.
‘My nurse, ‘Inky’ Nurse Inkeson, since gone to Serbia – a treasure to me.’ August, 1915. Photographer: William Clachan, ATL: PA1-o-095-99

Clachan’s letters in the Turnbull Library are mainly to his mother, Margaret but also to Aunt Bella. The first letter describes the attack on Hill 60, and is graphic in detail,

We then went for 14 days to Hill 60 where we had many adventures. After three day’s rest we switched back to Ypres salient where we simply had to dig ourselves in among thousands of our own dead. For weeks we were burying them and for five nights we found wounded. We wound up with a big attack in which our division lost 4000. The Huns surrendered and were straight afterwards killed in hundreds.

The Somme

1 July 1916 dawned on the Somme with promise of a warm day. It would reach 26 degrees C. By 7a.m. 88 battalions – 66,000 men – faced the German lines. Thirty thousand were either dead or wounded in the first hour. By the end of the day, total casualties were 57,470 out of 66,000. When the Battle of the Somme concluded in November 1916, losses on both sides were 1,500,000.

Clachan, now a Captain, was serving in the 2nd Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment. From Lady Carnarvon’s Hospital for Officers in London two weeks after the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, he wrote the following letter to his mother:

My dear mother

At the present moment I am in here, a machine gun bullet having thought fit to go through my right ankle. As this happened on 1st July during the great advance, I hope to leave the hospital within a few days’ time and go to a convalescent home.

On 1st July our Battalion went over in the first line. We left our trenches exactly at twenty two minutes past 7am. In spite of the fact that our heavy artillery and trench mortars had been pounding the Hun trenches for days, immediately we got up from ours we were met by a perfect hail of bullets. To describe the battle to you would be impossible. You have first of all to imagine rather hilly or undulating country. Behind the British line for miles left and right there were simply hundreds of guns of all sizes. On top of this the great thing was unlimited ammunition. We all felt that we had the necessary support behind us.

In our own part of the line we had about 900 yards to go before we reached the German 1st line trench. Along the majority of the line our troops had about 200 yards before coming to close combat… With our men we decided to walk it, the men couldn’t double all the way heavily laden as they were… We went over in four lines… The whole of this place was swept by the most cruel machine gun fire. Everyone simply carried on ahead with a growing hatred for the Bosch.

Clachan’s wounded soldier’s identity tag.
Clachan’s wounded soldier’s identity tag. Clachan papers, ATL: ms-papers 0503

There was nothing theatrical about the men, everywhere as they were hit they simply dropped with a silent plunge, onto their faces; crumpled up is the correct description. The further we went the thinner we got. About half way over we ordered the double. By this time in the right half of our Battalion only the machine gun officer and little me were left of the officers, followed by such a handful of men, probably about fifty, still following grimly. As our wounded lying about saw us going on, many looked up at us, smiled and followed even though they were already hit once or twice… As we reached the wire my servant, who had been following me like a faithful dog was hit through the stomach. As I turned to look at him one went through my boot. A quick scalding burn and my foot refused to work. Twenty yards and I would have been in their trench. A Lance Corporal rushed to me. As he did so he fell hit in about five places. He was the last left in the company. A shell hole about two yards off sheltered us. I looked at my watch, 7.30. Eight minutes exactly and our Battalion was wiped out. Poor old 77th Foot. I won’t try and describe my sojourn in that shell hole with seven wounded men from 7.30am to 10.30pm. The Lance Corporal above, Webster by name, died at 8am He was perfectly black by 5pm. The sun scorched down all day… We had our water bottles full. I had a flask of whisky, two cakes of chocolate, a tin of cigarettes and matches… The Germans amused themselves all day in riddling our wounded…

At 10.30pm I started my half mile crawl to our lines... Out of our shell hole I was the lucky one, all the others were hit again on the way back. It was a great relief to tumble in to our front line trench. Out of twenty three officers, we had nineteen killed, so my luck was in. I’m beginning to think that I was born to be hung...

Africa - ‘This country is full of interest and essentially a man’s show.’

William Clachan left England in May 1917, assigned to the King’s African Rifles. He was one of nearly 300,000 troops used to check the guerilla campaign of German General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck in East Africa. Lettow-Vorbeck’s force of never more than about 14,000 held the Allies at bay, and successfully diverted resources from the European theatre of war.

Clachan landed in Sierra Leone, and by December of 1917 was part of General Northey’s force on patrol.

Uniform badge, King’s African Rifles.
Uniform badge, King’s African Rifles. Clachan papers, ATL: ms-papers 0503
William Clachan, 2nd from left, with other officers, on board the Osterly, en route to Africa.
William Clachan, 2nd from left, with other officers, on board the Osterly, en route to Africa, 1917. ATL: PA1-o-095-99

1 August 1917

Sierra Leone 18th May on the Osterly. Meet Granville. Here we caught first sight of the African natives. To me they appeared rather uppish, not at all like the Eastern people. They all have the pure monkey face and are mostly descended from African slaves. Sailed from Sierra Leone to Capetown, arriving 4 June. To Durban 5 June. Berthed on 9th. The men went into camp in a foot of water, majority of officers taking to hotels. I put up at the Edward on the beach, 16/6 per day… In Beira, we stayed at the Savoy hotel. Beira is interesting in this way; the streets are of heavy sand. Result, only mode of locomotion is by a series of small narrow trench tramways which run criss-cross everywhere. Every resident in Beira owns a chair on four wheels which is placed on the lines and pushed along by two boys…

Beira Hotel Savoy.
Savoy hotel and Beira tramway, 1920. Source: Wikimedia Commons

15 August 1917

At Durban, about the second week, Granville blew into the tent to announce my promotion to Captain. It was in the London papers in Plymouth… so in future there will be no further argument about three stars… I am about 15th junior captain in Regiment – in other words half way up the captain’s list. Paid £350 p.a. I have been given command of a company of over 400 Askaris here, for this job, I draw an extra £50 per year duty pay so at present my pay is £400… wish I had Prince here, everyone has a dog but I haven’t seen one I like yet.

23 September 1917

My dear mother,

Am now in command of the training company here, about 220 Askaris. They are all trained soldiers and we are just putting the finishing touches to them. They are chiefly from the Yoo tribe and are very intelligent. 25% of the company are marksmen. Off parade they are like so many children & one has to treat them as such. They like their officers to know and settle all their little troubles, family and otherwise. The men average about 5’5” and are mostly powerfully built. They are paid 1 1/- 4d a month. They are very keen on their pay… This country is full of interest and essentially a man’s show. The wily Hun, cut off from the sea, has put up a great show, but sooner or later his days are numbered.

Askari troops of the King’s African Rifles, 1917.
Askari troops of the King’s African Rifles, 1917. Photographer: William Clachan. ATL: PA1-o-095-99

5 November 1917

Nyasaland Field Force

My dear mother,

Enclosed you will probably find some photos of interest, which will convey to you a fair idea of our native soldiers. 10 days of our trek are over. The Resident at Luwande is one named Vassel who played football for an English team which toured NZ. He married a Miss Chase-Morris; I think the Chase- Morrises used to own Wonderland at Miramar. Young Chase-Morris was at school for a short time when I was there... Our send off from Zomba was great. Am beginning to think my whole life has been send offs for war… Marching by night natives would rush to one side every now & again and set the high buffalo grass on fire. They did this in order to drive lions, etc, away.

The Chute, Wonderland, Miramar, Wellington, 1909.
The Chute, Wonderland, Miramar, Wellington, 1909. Carte postale, Aldersley series. ATL: Eph-A-Postcards-Goldsmith-02

11 December 1917

My dear mother,

This is my first sickness in 3 yrs of war so can’t grouse. Clachan has been in hospital with dysentery.

The letter ends with Clachan describing his life insurance cover.

My premium is paid to Cox & Co London… they deal with AMP. I am only insured for £500 & already I have paid them £100. The war won’t end for another year or so yet and they haven’t got me so far. However, it will be well worth it if anything happens…

Am afraid my news has run dry for moment so cheerioh, Best love to all, Bill.

Final letters

‘Zomba, Nyasaland, 1 January 1918

My dear mater,

… When I last wrote I think we were at Fort Johnstone. Well we left rather suddenly and have been on trek ever since away up through Portuguese East chasing up the remains of the Hun army.

We have made ourselves quite comfortable here. Have built a hut each, a mess room, kitchen, fowl house. We have twenty fowls and at present get 2 eggs a day. Some stunt isn’t it. Well, the order of the day is patrolling…

Am afraid my news is exhausted so cheerio to all & Best Love, Bill.

Zomba, 3 January 1918

‘Dear Aunt Bella,

… Am afraid my news is nil. We started off the year by losing a couple of fine chaps killed. A Captain Fowler (S. African) in D Coy and a Lt Kelly of a home kilted regiment. I liked them both very much.

On 6 January 1918 the British attacked a German force at the junction of the Lumbala and Lugenda Rivers. William Clachan was killed when the company he was leading came under a heavy enfilade fire.

His family received news of his death via a cable and personal letter from his commanding officer. The family received a second letter, written in October 1918, in response to an enquiry from Clachan’s mother asking for more information about what had happened to her son.

Nyasaland Field Force

Portuguese East Africa

5 October 1918

He was killed instantaneously while leading his men in the front line of an attack on a strong German position at Lumbala. The attack took place in the late evening and in pouring rain. We were not successful as we came under heavy cross Maxim fire.

Your son was buried next day, but there was no ceremonial parade as we were still occupied with the enemy in close touch. Action took place on the 7th, not the sixth as stated in the cable.

Lt Colonel Baxter

Stained glass window at William Clachan's home in Aro Valley, Wellington.
Stained glass window at William Clachan's home in Aro Valley, Wellington. Photographer: Peter Ireland


Included with William Clachan’s letters home are the envelopes addressed to Aberfoyle, 22 Ohiro Road. I was curious to see if the house was still there and visited the address one Sunday morning in 2015. The house still stands and is a rental property. Its solid grandeur has faded. The resident kindly invited me in, and I took this photograph of the lovely stained glass window in the front door. William Clachan’s last visit home was on 13 October 1914, after which he noted in his diary ‘I went home for last time & fixed things up.’ He then walked through town to his ship.

Post a blog comment

(Your email will never be made public)
John Clachan
21 August 2019 7:29am

I guess he must be a distant relative of mine as Clachan is an unusual Scottish name.

National Library of New Zealand
28 September 2018 9:50am

Thank you for this information Anne; a further valuable postscript to William and the many others who died fighting in Africa in WWI. In a short paper I'm giving at the Canterbury100 conference in Christchurch in November this year, I will include William, whose story I found among the most affecting I encountered in researching the WWI collections of the Alexander Turnbull Library. - Peter Ireland

Anne Samson
26 September 2018 6:39am

Thank you - William Clachan's name has been added to the Great War in Africa Association In Memory lists with reference back to this site. (www.gweaa.com).
The Association and the King's African Rifles & EA Forces Association will be remembering all those involved in the African campaigns at a ceremony at Mbala (Abercorn) in Zambia on 25 November 2018 - 100 years after the Germans finally laid down their arms. They had left Portuguese East Africa about 2 months prior to this.

Jocelyn Chalmers
12 July 2016 2:18pm

Beautifully researched and written thanks Peter

8 July 2016 10:22am

Agree with all comments. Transparent view of William and WW1 through his own descriptions. Incredibly good writing.

Tony Willis
5 July 2016 9:31am

Absolutely fascinating. A real sense of the time and of the military in battle. So sad to hear the end.

All very moving. Thank you so much for publishing.

Paula Green
5 July 2016 6:46am

The little details that stand out in the diary entries deliver you to much greater issues - hierarchies, the cost of war, the strategies of war. So much that is unfathomable is brought closer by these letters and journals. Very moving. Disturbing.

Helen Smith
4 July 2016 10:46am

Thank you for writing this. Well done.

Barbara Lyon
2 July 2016 10:28am

Appalling and revealing. Constants of social structures and of mortality. Thanks for bringing the collection to light

Kirsty Willis
1 July 2016 3:28pm

Very moving and awfully well written. Thank you.