Genealogists and historians alike have apparently been quite excited by the public release earlier this month of the 1940 US Census, and with good reason. There is a great deal of information available about a pivotal time in the history of the world. Compared to the 2010 census, the 1940 might also be more revealing, as families were asked about 65 questions compared to an average of 10 questions most recently. However, those 65 questions will probably not help me very much, as my family did not come to the United States until 1969. Oh, it’s possible I’ll find something of interest in there when I begin to seriously look at some branches that had forays to the US prior to my own emigration, but meanwhile all the excitement seems to be passing me by.
That’s all right, however, as this month did drop a nice little present into my lap as well, so I needn’t feel completely left out.
My grandfather, John Fraser, born and died in New Zealand, was a war veteran. While the 1940 Census may be of special interest to those researching the Second World War, John was a veteran of the First, or as it was known in his time, the Great War. I knew this, and from family oral history I knew that he was a veteran of Gallipoli and France, and that somewhere along the way he was wounded, a wound which would give him pain for the rest of his life. This, however, was about all I knew. I never did get to meet my grandfather; he died five months before I was born.
Discussions with my father and my uncle have shed a little light on John’s character and history, but much about him remains unknown to me. I know that he was born in 1894 in Tauranga on the Bay of Plenty. I know that his father died when he was only 11, and although his father appears to have had a little money, none of it seems to have been left to the family after his death. I know that by the age of 12 he was working to help support the family, and probably he never got much in the way of a formal education after that point. A few years later, probably about the time he was 17, his mother emigrated to Australia, where she would spend the rest of her life, but it isn’t entirely clear if John went with her. His two sisters both ended up living in Australia as adults, and John certainly spent some time there, but he and his older brother Robert both were back in New Zealand at least by the time war broke out in 1914. In those few years from about 1911 to 1914 he “carried his swag” (to use my uncle’s words) around Australia and even apparently spent a little time working for a circus. I have no documentation of these movements, however.
What is documented is that in 1914 John Fraser signed up with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. Actually, eleven different John Frasers signed up that year, and six of them had no middle name, like my grandfather (an oddity, that, as his brother had a middle name, his father had a middle name, he gave all his children two middles names each), which doesn’t exactly make it easy to isolate which one was him. However, of those six, only one was in the Auckland Military District (which would definitely have included Tauranga), and according to the New Zealand Army WWI Nominal Rolls, that one gave as his next of kin Mrs Annie Fraser, mother, of 99 Victoria St, Darlinghurst, Sydney. My great-grandmother was Mrs Sarah Annie Fraser (née Cliffe), and she moved to Sydney around 1911, where she lived until her death in 1936. By 1936 she had a different address than Victoria St, but over that space of time it’s entirely likely she moved at least once, and besides, the two addresses are an 8-minute walk from each other. She didn’t move far. As for calling herself by her middle name, I don’t know if that was her custom, but her mother was also Sarah so it would not be unusual for her to grow up being called by her middle name. She called her firstborn daughter Annie, so it seems she was fond of the name, and that Annie then went on to be known by her middle name. There seems to be some support for the notion that Sarah Annie Fraser would be known as Annie.
The evidence that this is my John Fraser seems quite strong, but it’s still not conclusive, and we still don’t know much about what he did other than sign up.
Enter Archives New Zealand, the official archival office of the New Zealand government. The Archives holds most of the older war records (the Defence Force keeps everything more recent), and they have published an index to their holdings online. Now, as you might imagine, there are many mentions of a John Fraser in the government archives, but most of them have nothing to do with my family. Twenty-two of them are WWI personnel records, nine with no middle name, and most of them have only the index online. How to find the right one?
Well, going back to the Nominal Rolls, which have been digitized on ancestry.com, and assuming the record I found earlier is my John, I have a critical piece of unique identifying information: his regimental number. If I’ve got the right man, my John Fraser was number 13/993a in the NZ Army, and that number 13/993a, appears in the Archives index. We have a match.
Drilling into the index, I come across the statement “Access to this record has been restricted… for preservation reasons,” which means the microfilm on which the record is kept has become fragile. They aren’t letting people handle and view the microfilm. The restriction will next be reviewed in 2015.
For a moment I have a sinking feeling, akin to when you find a record and realize it will require a personal visit on the far side of the world to see it. Not that I wouldn’t love to travel back to New Zealand and spend time digging around, but it’s not in the cards for this year. Or next.
Further reading, however, reveals that for a nominal fee I can ask the Archives personnel to digitize the record and make it available online. Presto! I quickly submit my application, pay my fee, and now I am just waiting for the result. The details of this record should make it absolutely clear if I have the right man, since it should list details about his birth and next of kin that are known to me. Beyond that, the record should give a history of his movements during the war, his wounds, and any medals he might have earned.
So now we wait. While waiting, however, I decided to google a bit more using some of the other information I gleaned from John Fraser 13/993a’s record in the Nominal Rolls. From that scant record, I know that he joined the Auckland Mounted Rifles and was part of the Third Reinforcements. That information was enough to lead me to the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Association, an historical society dedicated to this particular subgroup of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. The Auckland Mounted Rifles have their own page within this group, and there’s a great deal of history particular to this unit.
And just while writing this, I discovered that the digitized copy has become available. Serendipitous timing! Actually, it’s probably been available for some days, but I’ve been waiting for an email to tell me that, and I just happened to go back to the website and look and there it was. Now the record is publicly available to all who are interested (and indeed, I could use some help deciphering some of the handwriting, as I’m terrible at that), but I can tell you straight off, based on the particulars in the file, that this is indeed my John Fraser. From a quick glance I see a record of his being wounded in the Gallipoli campaign seriously enough that he was discharged as physically unfit for duty, and then not long after being returned to New Zealand he managed to enlist again, this time in an infantry battalion, and was sent off to France, where he was wounded again! No wonder he had pain for life. On this second deployment it appears he was promoted at least once to Lance Corporal. It also appears that he had a period of rebelliousness, as there are some mentions of forfeiture of pay and so forth, apparently for unauthorized absences. I’ll have to read those more carefully. Nevertheless, this fits with what my father has previously told me about his father, that he was wounded in Gallipoli, that he was discharged for the wound, and that he then signed up again to go to France, where he was wounded a second time.
It seems it was this second wound which put him in hospital in England for a while, and the family history is that this is where he met his wife, my grandmother, while she was working there as a nurse.
But that story will have to wait for another time.