Brothers in arms

As part of our continuing series of features on World War I, we offer you the story of two men whose lives were destined to intertwine during the course of the conflict. In an even more interesting turn of events, the families of the men — who served on the Western Front, were wounded and ended up recovering in the same New Zealand Hospital together — have known each other for decades without realising that their fathers had known each other during the war.

In 1915 a young gentleman from Lomaloma in the Lau Group caught a ride on a banana boat to Wellington to sign up as a volunteer in the New Zealand Army.

Herbert (Bert) Lolohea Powell signed on for the “King’s shilling” in early 1916 and was appointed instructor at Trentham Military Camp, just outside Wellington, teaching new recruits the art of throwing hand grenades and marksmanship.

At about the same time another young man named Ivor Norman (Norm) Fleet from Petone, near Wellington, who was bush felling in the centre of North Island, also enlisted in the army.

Fleet was enlisted on July 1, 1916. He too, was posted to Trentham Camp for training.

Powell’s army service number was # 15299 and Fleet’s was #31249.

Now a Sergeant, Powell was hungry for battle and just wanted to go overseas and fight.

According to son Joe Powell, 80, Bert Powell had his stripes removed because he refused to stay in NZ and train troops. He just wanted to go overseas and fight.

“He refused and was stripped of his three stripes and went overseas as a Private but later regained his three stripes before he was wounded,” said Powell, now a New Zealand resident.

Both men sailed from Wellington on different troop ships in 1916, with both soldiers being posted to the Wellington Regiment, NZEF.

“We know from their army records still available from the NZ archives that they would have served together in several battles over the next 12 months,” said World War I historian Michael Thoms, who has more than a passing interest in this story.

His wife Kathleen is one of Norman Fleet’s three children.

Thoms has been researching their stories in recent times and newer details continue to emerge about their time on the front.

“It appears that they were both at Messines when the series of mines were exploded under the German lines with the resulting loss of 10,000 German soldiers.

From this position on the Western Front, the NZ troops were marched north to Flanders, Belgium.

And the Ypres area, they took part in several bitter battles usually referred to as Passchendaele — the month of October 1917 being the worst ever recorded for the NZ troops with major loss of life, men posted missing and injuries.

Powell was injured in one of these battles in between September/October 1917 and suffered serious injuries to both leg and arm.

He was evacuated back to England and was subsequently admitted to NZ General Hospital No 2 located as Walton on Thames for treatment.

Fleet was injured on October 22, 1917 and evacuated back to the same Walton on Thames Hospital.

In the case of both men, their injuries resulted in the amputation of parts of their legs.

Powell lost his leg at the knee and his arm was considered badly damaged and is referred to as paralysed in his records.

Fleet lost his leg above the knee, hence both men were hospitalised at the extension of the No 2 NZGH, known as Oatlands a few miles away from the main Walton on Thames.

NZGH Oatlands was a hospital unit mainly for men who had lost limbs and were in rehabilitation as they recovered.

“As with research it can be hard work at times, then we have a find that makes it all worthwhile,” said Thoms.

“As we found out more about Bert, realised that he had served with Norm in the same regiment, were hospitalised together as Oatlands at the same time, we wondered if we may have a photo of them together Oatlands.

“Fleet had sent home to his mother a significant collection of photos and other memorabilia with the request that she please keep them for him, having obtained a few photos of Bert as a young soldier, we went back to the Norm photo collection and searched.

“The attached group photo from 1918 at Oatlands shows a large group of NZ soldiers in various uniforms.

“The jackets with the large white lapels indicated patients, until very recently the only person identified to us in this photo was my wife’s father, Ivor Norman Fleet seated in the wheelchair at the extreme right.”

“We can see that he is minus his left leg and his lower right leg is in plaster.”

“When we enlarge this photo, the exciting discovery was to be able to place Herbert Powell as the soldier standing behind Norm in this photo, a very emotional moment that some 96 years later, we have identified another individual in the photo, being a Fiji solider we have been researching.

“We can presume here that the standing Bert has been fitted with a wooden peg leg as the first step towards being fitted with an artificial leg that we know from his records was supplied later, though we have been told by his family that he found the leg supplied uncomfortable and did not use it in later years, preferring to use crutches.

“Norm used his artificial leg for the rest of his active life until he passed away in 1972, we have some fun stories about his artificial leg. The time a dog tried to bite his leg being one such story, he had three children, my wife Kathleen being the only surviving member.”

Powell who passed away in 1964, went on to have 13 children after returning to Fiji a number of whom still live in Fiji.

Bert Powell is from the yavusa Tonga of Lomaloma, a descendent of the group of Tongans that arrived with Ma’afu during the 1800s.

One of Powell’s 13 children, Suva resident Elizabeth Sorby (nee Powell) said she was pleasantly surprised to discover that her father had spent time with Norman Fleet in the arena of war and while recovering in New Zealand.

“I’ve known the Thoms for quite some time now but we never thought that that connection was there,” said Mrs Sorby who is one Powell’s surviving four daughters.

She and her husband, retired officer Bill Sorby, had met Michael and Kathleen Thoms in the Nausori Highlands area during the 1970s.

Kathleen Thoms is Norman Fleet’s daughter.

“My father never talked about the war — I suppose it is something that was peculiar with veterans of all wars.

“He would talk about the good times that he had with his friends but never about the actual conflict.”

The Tamavua resident said his father later admitted to the family that he had falsified his age just to get into the army.

In his attestation form for the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, Powell states his date of birth as September 21, 1895, which would have made him 21-years-old when he enlisted in 1916.

However Mrs Sorby said that he would have been little more than 17-years-old when he decided to sign up.

Mrs Sorby said her father once described the day he was injured in the war and how he threatened a stretcher bearer to pull him to safety when the Germans started closing in.

“He said that when he got shot and they were all retreating, even the stretcher bearers were running away.

“He told us that he threatened to shoot the stretcher bearer if he didn’t pick him up and he (stretcher bearer) was compelled to do it.”

Herbert Powell also related the non-use of anaesthetic when horrific amputations had to be made while battles were still raging.

An accountant by profession years after the war ended, Bert Powell ended up working on Mago Island as a manager and later moved to Suva where he worked in a number on companies including Carpenters.

Mrs Sorby said her father was an extraordinary man who built a reputation for manliness in a time when men of war were held in high esteem.

Despite his disabilities Herbert Powell was eager to prove himself among his peers, mostly army men.

A powerful man who could do chin-ups with one hand, Bert Powell would beat a host of friends in impromptu arm wrestling matches at the Defence Club in Suva.

Herbert Powell passed away in Suva at the age of 68 in 1964.

Norman Fleet, who married late at 39-years-old, lived to the ripe old age of 83 in 1972.

His daughter Kathleen said it was “almost unbelievable” that there was a connection between the two men and their families and they didn’t even know it.

“It takes this connection to people, not knowing until now that our father’s had a connection in a totally different country on the other side of the world.

“It was not until this project of 100 years that we have found out that our fathers knew each other. I found it just almost unbelievable,” said the 75-year-old Pacific Harbour resident.

“We come here to live, we make friends and our children make friends with the Powells and we didn’t know that the initial connection was made almost 100 years ago.

“In retrospect, knowing these stories, it is hard to understand how they could come back and live what we would consider a normal life,” said historian Thoms.

“Having seen the worst of what humanity could do to one another, from this distance of 100 years later, we cannot conceive what these men went through and the conditions they survived.”

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