Unlike Ordnance Depots in New Zealand in the 1980s, the New Zealand Advanced Ordnance Depot (NZAOD) in Singapore had little affiliation with New Zealand’s first Colonial Storekeeper, Henry Tucker. Instead of having a Henry Tucker Club, some other social gathering was required for the Singapore-based RNZAOC Personnel. The solution was found in 1986, when a small club for RNZAOC Military members was established and named “Billy Becks’ in tribute to Captain William Thomas (Billy) Beck, attributed as the first New Zealander of Godley’s Force ashore at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915.
Meeting once a month on the rooftop of RSDS from August 1986, the “Billy Beck” club soon became an RNZAOC institution where all ranks could meet for a barbeque lunch and a few drinks. However, in 1989 the NZAOD closed, and the name “Billy Beck” was soon forgotten.
Who was Billy Beck?
William Thomas (Billy) was the son of Sarah Beck (Taylor) and her husband Richard Beck and was born in Castlemaine, Australia, on 7 May 1865. shortly after his birth, the Beck Family, including his two brothers and sister, migrated to New Zealand, Settling at Kanieri, Hokitika, on the West Coast of the South Island. Beck’s father was a butcher. His mother was in 1895 appointed as the first full-time Police Matron at Wellingtons Lambton Quay Headquarters, where she was responsible for handling female prisoners. She was also involved in enforcing the Infant Life Protection Act in New Zealand.
At the age of 31, Beck married Edith Chick on 8 June 1896, in Port Chalmers, New Zealand and would have three children;
- Ellen Edith, born 8 September 1895
- Thomas Nathan, born 1 January 1897
- Olive Ivy, born on 10 March 1903.
In the New Zealand Permanent Militia during the 1890s, Beck was a Torpedoman Second Class with No 2 Service Company, Permanent Militia, based at Port Chalmers.
By 1904 Beck had relocated to Auckland and was employed as a civilian by the Defence Stores Department as the Defence Storekeeper for the Northern Military District, located at Goal Reserve, Mount Eden. Around 1907, Beck was granted the rank of Honorary Lieutenant in the New Zealand Staff Corps, followed soon afterwards by promotion to Honorary Captain.
From the annual camps of 1913, a new management system for Camp Equipment was implemented. Temporary Ordnance Stores Depots were established before the camps, and stores assembled based on the strength and role of the units attending the camps. The initial trial of the new system was a success and was to be refined and repeated for the 1914 camps. For the 1914 camping season, Beck was the Officer in charge of the Camp Ordnance for the Auckland Divisional Camp at Hautapu near Cambridge in April 1914. The Camp ran from 28 April to 11 May. With a staff of 6 clerks and 12 issuers, he was responsible for managing store issued from the Auckland Defence Stores, including;
- 66 indicating Flags,
- 80 Axes,
- 100 picks and handles,
- 800 water buckets,
- 800 wash basins,
- 82 picket ropes,
- 81 brooms,
- 5000 groundsheets,
- 13 Roberts cookers,
- 13 horse troughs,
- 20 overall suits,
- 1320 yards galvanised iron piping,
- a 2000gal water tank,
- 1 large swimming bath,
- 11 flagstaffs,
- 500 nose-bags,
- 566 pairs of boots,
- 455 Mattress covers,
- 500 blankets”.
On 21 August 1914, Beck was enlisted in the Auckland Infantry Battalion with the rank of Honorary Captain. After a short mobilisation period, Beck departed Wellington on 3 December 1914 with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force’s main body on the troopship TSS Maunganui.
Arriving in Suez, Egypt on the 3rd of December 1914 and was soon attached as the Deputy Assistant Director of Ordnance Services to the New Zealand & Australian Headquarters Ordnance (NZ & Aust HQ Ordnance) of the New Zealand and Australian Division.
Deploying to the Dardanelles in April 1915, Beck as a critical member of General Godley’s Headquarters, was amongst those in the initial landings at ANZAC Cove on the Gallipoli Peninsular on 25 April 1915. The Assistant Director Medical Services, Lieutenant Colonel Fenwick, another New Zealander, was also part of the Headquarters landing party and described the events of that day:
“we were all ready to land but were kept waiting and waiting until about 9.00am. Some barges were moored alongside and a string of boats outside of these on the starboard side. Colonels Braithwaite, Chaytor and Manders, Major Hughes and Captain Beck and I got into the first boat. We were frightfully hampered by our kit – overcoat, revolver, glasses, map case, haversack, three days rations, firewood, Red Cross satchel, water bottle – like elephants. It was certainly that we would drown if we got sunk. After waiting, a steam picket boat came along in charge of a very fat rosy midshipman. he took our string of boats in tow and we were off. Our boat grounded about 50 feet from the shore and we all hopped out. Of course I fell into a hole up to my neck. I could hardly struggle ashore and when I did the first thing I saw was Beck sitting on a stone, roaring with laughter at us.”
Although New Zealanders were serving with the Australian Division and in other roles as part of the landings, Beck was the first New Zealander of Godley’s New Zealand and Australian Division to land on Gallipoli.
So not only was Beck one of the first New Zealanders ashore, it would appear that he was also a bit of a character and The Hawera & Normanby Star, 24 June 1916 had this to say about Captain Beck’s service at Gallipoli:
“Finally, there was Captain William Beck, an ordinary officer. “Beachy Bill” was in charge of the store – a miserable little place – and whenever he put his nose out of the door bullets tried to hit it. The Turkish gun in Olive Grove was named after him, “Beachy Bill.” The store was simply a shot under fire and Bill looked out and went on with his work just as if no bullets were about. He was the most courteous and humorous, and no assistant at Whiteley’s could have been more pleasing and courteous than the brave storekeeper on Anzac Beach. General Birdwood never failed to call on Captain Beck or call out as he passed on his daily rounds, asking if he were there, and they all dreaded the that some day there would be no reply from a gaunt figure still in death. But Captain Beck was only concerned for the safety of his customers. He hurried them away, never himself.”“Brave New Zealanders.” 1916. The Hawera and Normanby Star, Volume LXXI, Issue LXXI, , 24 June 1916. https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/HNS19160624.2.26.
The 14th of June 1915 saw Beck commissioned as a Captain into the New Zealand Army Ordnance Corps.
At Gallipoli since 25 April, the strain of the campaign was starting to wear beck down and in a letter to the Minister of Defence on 2 July, Godley who noted that;
I am sending Beck to Alexandria, and cabling for Levien in his place: the former’s nerve is quite broken down, and he wants a rest from shells. He has been shelled out of his dug-out on several occasions, has had many close shaves, and his stores repeatedly wrecked, and this, on the top of all his hard work, has been rather much for him. Now that the MEF has taken over all our stores, this should work without difficulty.”Major General Godley, “Correspondence Major General Godley to James Allen 2 July,” R22319698 – Ministerial Files – Correspondence with General Godley (1915).
On the 13th of July 1915, Beck was listed as a casualty on Casualty list No 50. Replaced as DADOS on 1 August 1915 by Lieutenant Norman Levien, NZAOC, Beck left Gallipoli for duty in Alexandria.
Mentioned in Dispatches by the Commander in Chief, Mediterranean, Sir Ian Hamilton on the 26th of August 1915, this was followed up with the awarding of the Distinguished Service Order for distinguished service in the field during operations in the Dardanelles, which was recorded in the London Gazette of 8 November 1915
With a Medical Board finding him “incapacitated for military duty”, Beck was invalided back to New Zealand on the RMS Tahiti on 20 November 1915 and struck off the strength of the NZEF on 19 February 1916. He was transferred to the reserve list of officers with the rank of Captain, resuming his pre-war duties at the Northern District Ordnance Depot as the District Storekeeper. In 1917 with the formation of the Home Service NZAOC, Beckn transferred into the NZAOC with the new title of Assistant Director of Equipment and Ordnance Stores for the Northern Military District, a position he held until his resignation in March 1918.
Taking up employment with the Public Works Department in Apia, Samoa, Beck remained there until his retirement in 1922.
Divorcing his first wife Edith in the mid-1930s, Beck remarried in the late 1930s.
Retiring in Wellington, Beck passed away on the 15th of January 1947 and is interned in the soldiers’ section of the Karori Cemetery, Wellington, New Zealand.
Beck’s medals are now on display in the Gallipoli Room of the Maryborough Military and Colonial Museum, Queensland, Australia.
New Zealand, Marriage Index. 1896.
“Gunner W T Beck”. archway.archives.govt.nz.
New Zealand, Electoral Rolls. Waikouaiti Otago. 1896.
New Zealand, Electoral Rolls. Waikouaiti Otago. 1900.
Glackin, Rusell (2009). In Defence of our land. Penguin. p. 71. ISBN 9780143011866.
“W T Beck Defence Storekeeper,”. archway.archives.govt.nz.
New Zealand, Electoral Rolls. Eden Auckland. 1905–1906.
“AUCKLAND TERRITORIALS” (VOLUME LI, ISSUE 15594). NEW ZEALAND HERALD,. 28 April 1914.
Bolton, Major J.S (1996). History of the Royal New Zealand Army Ordnance Corps. p. 53. ISBN 0477015816.
Pugsley, C (1998). Gallipoli: the New Zealand Story. Reed New Zealand. ISBN 9780790005850.
Harper, Glyn (2015). JOHNNY ENZED: The New Zealand Soldier in the First World War 1914–1918. Exisle Publishing. ISBN 9781775592020.
“Brave New Zealanders”. The Hawera and Normanby Star. 24 June 1916. p. 5.
Stowers, Richard (2015). Heroes of Gallipoli. John Douglas Publishing. ISBN 9780994105950.
“Military personnel file”. archives.govt.nz.
“TERRITORIAL NOTES” (VOLUME XLVII, ISSUE 100,). AUCKLAND STAR,. 27 April 1916.
Reports of the Defence Committee. 1 January 1922. p. 4.
Beck, William Thomas. “Cemeteries Search”. wellington.govt.nz/.
“New Zealander Decorated and Mentioned in Despatches”. nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/.
The London Gazette. 4 November 1915.
“Maryborough Military & Colonial Museum”. maryboroughmuseum.org.
RNZAOC Pataka Magazine. December 1986. p. 38.
Copyright © Robert McKie 2017