With the start of the commemorations of World War One it is perhaps timely to remember that not all casualties were to be found on the battlefields or in the trenches. Thames and districts were no exception.
In May 1915, against a backdrop of rising anti-German feeling across New Zealand, Herman Mohlman, a naturalised German of Paeroa, ordered his wife and children out of the house. His wife, who had no financial means, went to stay with friends. She had recently started proceedings against her husband on account of his ill-treatment of her.
They had married at Rotorua six years previously and had lived at Opotiki for a time, then at Paeroa for about eight months. Two years earlier Herman had gone to Germany for six months. His father had died and Herman was to look into his estate. He had been in New Zealand a little over six years and was naturalised after marriage. He had been a gardener at Rotorua Sanatorium and afterwards started farming near Rotorua but gave it up to go to Germany. Since returning from Germany his sympathies were absolutely German and he was very strong in his beliefs. He began gardening again at Paeroa but was fired due to pronounced pro-German statements.
The day before he ordered his family out he had applied to the Thames police for the cancellation of his naturalisation papers as he wished to become German again.
His wife last saw him on the morning of the 18th when he called out from across the road to say he was going to the police and wanted to say goodbye to the children.
Herman travelled to Thames and engaged a room at the Royal Hotel. He told Mr J W Bright, the hotel licensee, that he would be staying overnight and returning to Paeroa the next afternoon. A subsequent guest went to occupy the room Herman had been in but found it still tenanted. Bright investigated and to his horror found Herman shot in the temple, on the bed, fully dressed with a revolver nearby.
Bright told the inquest that he had heard no shot fired nor had he noticed anything unusual in Herman's behaviour. He considered Herman had been perfectly sane. He drank very little and had missed no meals.
The verdict reached was one of suicide by shooting, there being no evidence of insanity. There is no record of where Herman Mohlman is buried, a task that was probably carried out quietly with no acknowledgement. It was noted that for the Mohlman's, there had been unhappiness before the war, which had increased since its outbreak.
In June 1915, near Ohingaiti, on a special troop train from Auckland to Trentham, Archibald Young, from Thames, a member of the Auckland reinforcements, was asked for a match by another trooper. Instead of producing a match box Archibald pulled out a razor and shockingly slashed at his own throat in a most determined manner. He was immediately restrained and a doctor who boarded the train at Hunterville accompanied the injured man to Palmerston North Hospital.
At the Magistrate's Court hearing the next month Archibald Young blamed the send-off in Auckland at which the departing soldiers were supplied with a great deal of liquor, which had affected him. He made a "remarkable recovery" and his father paid all court costs. "A soldier's lapse" the newspaper headlines described it, playing down what was, for the times, perceived as a shameful disgrace.
The uncertainty of war also affected loved one's left behind. In February 1917 at Tirohia, Kahu Taupaki, a 19 year old European woman, attempted to drown herself in the Waihou River in the vicinity of the Tirohi Maori settlement. Her husband, a Maori, was away at war and she had been living with his relatives at the settlement. She felt isolated and alone and got the idea into her head that she had not been treated properly, and those at the pa were always talking disrespectfully of her. This preyed so much on her mind that she suddenly rushed into the river. She was up to her shoulders in the water before she was rescued.
Kahu was taken to Paeroa and seen by a doctor. The stress of the incident affected her psychologically. "Strange to relate Mrs Kahu Taupaki appears to have lost her memory regarding the occurrence. She could remember nothing whatever about going into the water," said the Ohinemuri Gazette. She was brought up at the Police Court and charged with attempting to commit suicide. The Bench unsympathetically gave her a severe reprimanding, some advice and discharged her, remarking it would be wise for her to leave the area.
Kahu was reported to have later taken a job as an assistant at the quarry cook-house at Tirohia with the likelihood of her running it on her own in the near future. "She is, however, in regular receipt of money from her husband at the war."
Suicide and cowardice were seen as a serious transgression particularly in war time. There was much to fear - being shot at, gassed, losing friends, losing family, being wounded, being killed. The continual fear of death drove many over the edge. Others suffered from trauma and mental breakdown from constant explosions and artillery fire. Men returned wounded, suffering with war related mental illness to employment prospects could be grim. Shell shock was poorly understood and often not recognised.
In July 1918 the publication of details on the suicide of soldiers came under discussion.
The Rangitikei War Relief Association protested against the undue prominence given in the press to suicides of soldiers and returned soldiers. The association asked the Dominion Advisory Board of the Patriotic Society to take action so that the newspapers would suppress the words "soldier" and "returned soldier" in future. The president of the RSA, Mr McCallum, said "starring in headlines of returned soldier suicides was most offensive. It reflected on the deceased relatives and in soldiers generally."
Mr J Dougall said the request should not stop there - it should be extended to cover soldiers charged in court. The Hon J T Paul remarked that he had heard "very strong comment in the lack of publicity that was given to suicides in the (training) camps for instance." He agreed that publicity in these matters was sometimes scandalous, but they must not stifle reasonable publicity. The public, he said, was the great jury.
Mr Larner observed that the government might not be blameless in these suicides. He believed many of the men to be victims of neurasthenia, who had been discharged before they were fit. Publicity would be a good thing if it brought the government to a sense of responsibility in regard to these men. Mr McCallum, replying, said that camp suicides were on a different plane to those of returned men. Camp suicides might be from fear. As for returned men, it was impossible to say what a man might have been through or how his mind might as a result have been affected. A resolution was passed condemning undue publicity being given to soldier suicides or offences.*
SUICIDE IN THE TRENCHES
By Siegfried Sassoon
I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
Rameka Taupaki's war grave at Ramparts Cemetery, Ypres, Belgium. His wife, known as Kahu, was Gwenyth Taupaki, nee Henry. They married at an Auckland Registry office in February 1916. They lived at Grey Street, Waihi at one time. Two Taupaki brothers went to war. Rameka Taupaki was a Lance Corporal who embarked February 1916 with the Third Maori contingent. He was killed in action at Ypres, on 31 December, 1917, aged 27, ten months after Kahu's suicide attempt. His brother, Te Aotutahanga Taupaki, was a private who embarked in February, 1915, with the First Maori contingent. He is noted as being single, with his as mother next of kin. In Roll Of Honour In Memoriam notices a year later Rameka is remembered by his brother Te Aotutahanga, his sister Caroline and his mother. Rameka's brother's memorial notice to him poignantly says "killed in action somewhere in France."
'John' Taupaki of Paeroa - Auckland Weekly News 21 March, 1918. In all likelihood this is Private Rameka Taupaki who was killed three months before.
*At the same discussion there was also an appeal for the elimination of 'Americanisms' in the press.
Neurasthenia was originally a description of a mechanical weakness of the actual nerves. It later came to mean a psychological disorder marked especially by mental exhaustion, lack of motivation feelings of inadequacy and psychosomatic symptoms.
(Sources: Papers Past, Heritage Images AWNS 19180321-41-34, Auckland Museum Cenotaph database, NZ War Graves Project, Wikipedia)
© Meghan Hawkes and Dead Cert 2014