The material in this article was published in the "The NEW ZEALAND GENEALOGIST" Vol 32 No 272, Nov/Dec 2001. It was also on my paradise.net homepages for many years, but those are no longer online. This blog post replaces those homepages.
Paying my last respects
The journey to family War Graves in Northern France
I grew up in Waitara, in a house that backed onto the War Memorial Hall with its adjoining cenotaph. As each Anzac Day neared, white crosses and poppies would appear around the small cenotaph. I grew familiar with the way the old soldiers marched wearing their medals, and mesmerised, I watched the younger soldiers who stood in uniform at each corner of the monument, immobile, their guns held firmly in front of them.
I grew up, watching these Anzac Day commemorations, not knowing that on each side of my family, a young man had gone to war in northern France and had not returned.
It was when I began to explore my family history as an adult that I learned about my two great-uncles who had died in World War 1. James RIORDAN, born in Charing Cross, the fourth son of Patrick Riordan and Mary BURKE, lies buried near the town of Etaples on the French coast. John Francis PAYN, born in Kumara, son of Francis Davis Payn and Johanna SCETTRINI, rests now in a peaceful inland part of rural France near the city of Cambrai.
Finding out about what had happened to James Riordan posed an early puzzle for me in my genealogical research. I found the will for Patrick Riordan, his father, quite quickly, and from that I learned that there was a son called James who had inherited the family farm near Charing Cross in 1911. However, further references to this James seemed elusive.
It was a visit to National Archives in Wellington that first gave me evidence that the James Riordan I sought may have died in World War 1. On a list of World War 1 soldiers, I found James Riordan, farmer, whose next of kin was described as “PJ Riordan (brother), Springdon, Southland.” I knew that I had a great-uncle named Patrick Joseph Riordan who farmed at Springston in Canterbury. Further research was clearly warranted.
I also viewed the casualty form for James Riordan while at National Archives. Private Riordan 23436, was part of E Coy, the 13th reinforcement and he had embarked in Wellington on May 29 1916. He arrived in France in August and marched out to division on September 8th. He was wounded in action two weeks later on 22 September 1916 and died of his wounds at 11am, 11 October 1916. The casualty form gave a detailed listing of the position of his grave in the Etaples Military Cemetery. I wrote down all the details, not thinking that one day I would visit this grave.
I decided it was time to send to the Registrar General’s Office for James’ death entry. Unfortunately, the register entry did not name his parents, but it did list his place of birth as Charing Cross, and this increased the likelihood that he was the James I was seeking.
When I began researching my mother’s side of the family, I was put in touch with Maurice Payn in Nelson, who knew much of the oral family history. I quickly learned from him about John Payn who had died in World War 1. Maurice sent me a copy of a card that the family had received that carried a photograph of the grave. He also had a coloured certificate that had been sent to the family to recognise the services of John Payn, “Who gave his Life for his Country”.
A search at National Archives for a casualty form for John Payn proved fruitless though, as his form was missing when I looked, so I had no details about his place of burial. The death registration entry from the RGO clearly listed his parent’s names, but listed his place of burial only as “France.”
On a visit to the Alexander Turnbull library newspaper section, I was able to find both men listed on the rolls of honour in newspaper lists of the time. While on a South Island trip, I visited Darfield, and saw the memorial that listed Riordan, J; in Kumara, I saw the greenstone tablets that listed the name Payn J.
On a visit passing through Waiouru, I called into the Army Museum to see the greenstone memorial wall. While there, I began talking to one of the soldiers present. I was planning a trip to Europe at that stage and I wanted to know more about the locations of the cemeteries these two men were buried in. Although I knew which cemetery James Riordan was buried in from his casualty form, John Payn’s exact burial place still eluded me. The soldier told me that details about the graves could be found through the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. (This conversation was prior to the days of the website that now exists.) The soldier was kind enough to go in search of the address for me, and on my return home, I wrote away to the Commission.
Very quickly I received a most helpful reply. I was sent information from the register for each cemetery, that described its whereabouts, and also a brief outline of the history of the nearby battles that had led to its creation. There was also specific information for each named soldier that usually included the names of their parents and their home addresses. Finally I had a written piece of information that named the parents of James Riordan and left no doubt that he was my great uncle. I also now had exact details about the burial place of John Payn. Importantly, as I was later to discover, there were also two maps. One was the map of the immediate locality of the cemetery that gave me clues as to the nearest town. The other was a map of each cemetery, with the sections and plots numbered clearly. This map was to prove vital when I reached the Etaples cemetery where James Riordan was buried. The cemetery held more than 11000 graves, and finding a specific grave without such a map would have been an impossible task.
In 1998 I set off on my long trip overseas, and one of my goals while in Europe was to visit the graves of both James Riordan and John Payn.
On 13 May 1998, some eighty years after his death, I was able to visit the grave of John Payn.
From the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, I had obtained information that John was buried in Flesquières Hill British Cemetery, and that this was near the town of Cambrai in northern France. As I headed towards Cambrai, through beautiful rural countryside dotted with small villages, it was hard to comprehend that this peaceful looking area had once been the scene of such wartime devastation.
In Cambrai, I sought information at the Tourist Office about public transport to the village of Flesquières. After several phone calls they identified what seemed to be a suitable bus route for me, but I was later to discover that the closest this bus would take me to Flesquières was a bus-stop some distance away. Once at this bus-stop, I sought directions at a village café opposite and began walking. I hadn't walked far, however, when a man I'd seen in the café pulled over in his car to offer me a lift. It turned out that this man had been born in the village of Flesquières. I suspect that he had no need to travel to the village himself, and that he drove me there purely as an act of kindness, and perhaps also as an act of French gratitude for the foreigners who had died there.
I was dropped off right in front of the cemetery itself. A wall rose up from the roadside with a tall cross above it. A large plaque announced, in English and in French: "The land on which this cemetery stands is the free gift of the French people for the perpetual resting place of those of the Allied armies who fell in the War of 1914-1918 and are honoured here."
I climbed the steps to find the grave of John Payn. It was easy to find with the information I had been given by the War Graves Commission. It lay near the tall cross, and a miniature rose grew in the carefully tended garden in front of his headstone. The headstone read simply: “52645 Private J.F. Payn, NZ Wellington Regt, 3rd October 1918 age 23. I stood quietly in front of his grave for some time, bringing a farewell from New Zealand to his resting place on French soil. Whatever horrors he faced in his last days, he rests now in the peace and beauty of the French countryside.
There was a shelter holding the register of names of those buried there, and it included a book for recording visits where I recorded that I had visited the grave of John Payn.
Near John’s grave lay those of many other New Zealand soldiers killed around the same time, near the end of the War, when their mothers must have begun to expect that they would be returning home. From this cemetery, another war cemetery is visible, just a few kilometres away.
Two days later, on 15 May 1998, I visited the grave of James Riordan.
Transport to the cemetery at Etaples proved to be more straightforward, as train connections took me to the town of Etaples, and I just needed to walk a few kilometres north to the cemetery itself, which lay on a main road.
From the roadside, a short path led to a large cross. I found I was not at all prepared for the sheer size of the cemetery that soon lay spread out below me. The huge Etaples cemetery is impressively landscaped, and was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens: all the graves spread out below three terraces with a huge cross standing above them.
I used my cemetery map to find the area in which the grave of James Riordan lay. James’ headstone had the simple inscription: “23436 Rifleman J Riordan, NZ Rifle Brigade, 11th October 1916.” Again, I was glad I had come to pay my respects at the grave of my great-uncle. I stood at his graveside and reflected. James Riordan died in 1916, and in 1917, my father was born and was named James, surely in his memory.
I spoke with an Englishman there who was in charge of maintenance of the lawns and gardens. He explained to me how there had been huge field hospitals near this site, and that most soldiers buried in it had "died of wounds”.
I returned to New Zealand, glad in the knowledge that I had found the resting places of these two young men of my family. Each Anzac Day since, as a primary teacher, I have told children of this generation about the young men we remember who never came home.
(I have other photos of both cemeteries that I will try and scan to post here before too long.)