This article is republished with the permission of the Facebook page “Upper Hutt War Stories“. Upper Hutt War Stories is a Facebook page dedicated to commemorating the war service of Upper Hutt’s citizens and those with strong connections to the City. It remembers those who put their lives on the line for the defence of our Nation.
A small bronze plaque in the St John’s churchyard in Trentham gives only a small hint as to the amazing story behind its epitaph. Two small brass letters were added after the plaque was cast, but sadly one has come loose and been lost. The letters MM denote the award of a military medal for gallantry in the field. But little is shown of the long and dedicated service of its recipient, and his involvement in one of the deadliest battles on the Western Front.
Born in Somerset and raised in Exeter, Devon, England, Oliver Avis had come to New Zealand when he was 20. Throughout his childhood, he was always referred to as George and used this name throughout his life. It wasn’t until he was 39 years’ old that he discovered that his name was officially Oliver. An issue which created some confusion for the Army and those now trying to interpret his service files.
George had been working as a storeman in Taranaki and enlisted into the Army on 16 November 1915. He was initially posted to the 11th Mounted Rifles reinforcements and trained with them for four months, before the New Zealand Expeditionary Force decided to change its force composition before heading to France, and he was transferred to the Infantry.
Departing Wellington on 2 April 1916, George and his reinforcement arrived in Egypt a month later. Then, after only three weeks he departed Alexandria for France with the Main contingent of the New Zealand Division. Completing further training at the New Zealand Depot at Etaples, George was posted to 4th (Otago) Company of the 2nd Otago Infantry Battalion in the frontlines at Armentieres on 7 July 1916.
The Kiwis were engaged in raids and reconnaissance activities across no-man’s land, and suffered casualties from enemy shelling. Conditions were difficult and after only four weeks in the line George was withdrawn to the New Zealand Field Ambulance station with conjunctivitis. He attempted to rejoin his unit, but was evacuated sick to the hospital at Boulogne in mid-August, just as the New Zealand Division was withdrawing from the line in preparation for a major attack.
George’s illness meant he missed the Kiwi’s first major assault on the Western Front at the Somme in mid-September. After recovering and being released from hospital, he was posted back to the New Zealand Depot at Etaples, for further recuperation and training. He finally rejoined the 2nd Otago Battalion on 18 October 1916, just as the heavily depleted New Zealand Division returned to Armentieres for another difficult winter in the frontlines.
The unit was withdrawn to rest and reorganise in March 1917, and in late May George was temporarily appointed as his Company’s Quartermaster Sergeant (QMS). He fulfilled this role during the 2nd Otago Battalion’s attack at Messines on 6 June and against the German positions at Sunken Farm eight days later. Having survived his first major battle, he relinquished the role in July, just before preceding to England on leave.
On return to the Battalion, George helped defend the Warneton sector, and when withdrawn to the Lumbres area for training was inspected on parade by Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haigh, in a ceremony watched by Winston Churchill. Then the New Zealand Division was moved into the Ypres area in preparation for their next major offensive.
After the successful but costly Divisional attack at Gravenstafel Spur towards Passchendaele on 4 October 1917, the 2nd Otago Battalion attacked up the Bellevue Spur eight days later. In what turned out to be the deadliest day of the War for the Kiwis, George was caught with many others in a murderous wall of defensive machinegun fire.
Shot through the right side of his back, he was carried to the rear through a sea of mud which now defined no-man’s land. Lucky to make it to the New Zealand Field Ambulance station, George was evacuated to No. 46 Casualty Clearing Station, before being transferred to No. 5 General Hospital at Rouen. In a serious state he was sent back to England and admitted to the Royal Victoria Hospital at Netley, near Southampton.
As George’s condition improved, he was transferred to the New Zealand General Hospital at Brockenhurst, and then to the New Zealand Convalesce Hospital at Hornchurch. After a long period in Codford and Sling Camps, he finally returned to France in mid-May 1918. The New Zealand Division had amassed a large number of reinforcements by this stage of the War, and George spent two months in an Entrenching Battalion before finally rejoining 4th Company, 2nd Otago Battalion in late July 1918.
Promoted to Lance Corporal, he was immediately thrown into the Battle for Bapaume and what would turn out to be the decisive last 100 days of the War. During an attack near the Forest of Mormal just south of Le Quesnoy on 5 November 1918, George was acting as a Company runner, carrying messages from the front lines back to Battalion Headquarters. He made several trips through heavy enemy machinegun and artillery fire and was commended for his coolness under fire.
A month later, George was notified he would be decorated with the Military Medal in recognition of his gallantry and devotion to duty, although the award wasn’t officially gazetted until after his return to New Zealand in mid-1919. By this time, he had already made the decision to try and stay in the Army. George volunteered for the temporary section of the New Zealand Army Ordnance Corps and was attested as a Private on 26 May 1919.
Promoted to Lance Corporal and posted to Trentham Camp in April 1921, George married Catherine Reid 18 months later. They settled into a house at Heretaunga and welcomed a son in September 1923. George transferred to the permanent section of the New Zealand Army Ordnance Corps in 1924 and rose quickly through the ranks, being promoted to Corporal two years later, and Sergeant two years after that.
Unfortunately, the military downsizing which accompanied the great depression saw him lose his uniformed role in January 1931. He volunteered to stay on as a civilian staff member at lower pay, and remained in that role performing critical work in the main supply depot at Trentham Camp up until New Zealand entered the Second World War.
Due to the need to rapidly expand the New Zealand Army, George was recalled to the military in December 1939 and commissioned as a Lieutenant in the New Zealand Temporary Staff. Made a temporary Captain he was appointed as the Ordnance officer in charge of Clothing in the Main Depot at Trentham. He was responsible for the management of all Army clothing and lead the transition from First World War era service dress to the new battledress uniform early in the War.
After recovering from an operation for acute appendicitis, George was promoted to temporary Major in February 1942. But the demands of his job began to take a significant toll. After 5 years’ service he was worn out and suffering ill health. At his own request he transferred to the Reserve of Officers in October 1944, and in recognition of the excellent service he had provided so far during the War was awarded another role in the Public Service.
On reaching the age of 67 in July 1955, George was posted to the retired list in the rank of Major. He passed away in Upper Hutt in November 1964 and his ashes were interned at the cemetery of St John’s Church Trentham, where his wife joined him eleven years later. His memorial plaque gives little indication of his incredible military career, gallantry, and total of 28 years’ service to the New Zealand Army. Lest we forget.
Citation for the Military Medal, London Gazette 3 July 1919.
“Operations: British front in the vicinity of the Foret de Mormal – 5th November 1918. For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. During the above operations, Lance Corporal Avis, who is a runner, was engaged in carrying reports and messages between forward Companies and Battalion Headquarters. He made several trips and although the enemy machine gun and artillery fire was most intense, he delivered his reports and messages expeditiously. Throughout he showed great gallantry and continuous devotion to duty.