World War One letters from Vic, Norman and Neil Smith

Last Changed March 2014

The Letters

Three caches of old letters, each individually stored in plastic envelopes have been stored on my book shelf for several years.  Prior to my eldest brother’s death in 2011 they were stored on his book shelf for, I think, two or three decades.  And prior to that they were collected together when the old family home was cleaned out, the letter’s authors and their siblings having by then passed away.  

The letters were written by three Smith brothers who had enlisted into the army in 1916 to fight in World War One.  They were mostly written to the men’s mother from military training camps in New Zealand and England and then from the battlefields of France and Belgium during the 1917 campaigns. The fighting inevitably resulted in injuries and sickness and the correspondences continued from convalescent camps in England. A smaller number of letters were written to the men’s father and siblings.

To the relations and descendants of these men the letters are now a fascinating read which provides many insights into their attitudes to the war and their experiences in England and France as well as their general approach to life.   The letters reveal the close family relationships between the men and their parents and siblings together with a keen competetivness and independence which, as the youngest son of one of the men, I can readily relate to. For the few remaining children of the authors and of the author’s siblings, who knew members of the family at first hand, the letters provide a remarkable and fascinating insight into the dynamics of that family.

Even without intimate knowledge of the family and its history there is much in the letters that provides a deeper understanding of the attitudes held at that time towards the first world war and the social pressures existing in Auckland to “Fight for King and Country”.

In deciding how to present the letters on this website, I had a choice of simply displaying an image of each page and letting the reader make what they could of the result. The advantage of this approach is that the reader being able to view the original material, has a sense of looking over the writer’s shoulder and being better able to understand his feelings as he writes the words. The script and the note paper that was used varies according to the circumstances the writer finds himself in and even rushed post script notes added to cramped margins gives the reader a sense of the stress they were sometimes under. But it seemed to me that this approach fell short of addressing the audience I most wanted to reach. A few tests with my grandchildren quickly convinced me that the unfamiliar copperplate script contained in the letters was difficult to read for the modern child. Also one of the brothers had a writing style that could deteriorate to a straight line with kinks every now and then. One of my primary goals was to encourage my grandchildren to read and research this important part of their great great grandfather’s life so I decided that a transcription of the text with explanatory comments might best achieve this. Adding photographic images of the letters to support the transcriptions can always be added later.

So on this website the letters have been transcribed as they have been written including the word spellings. Where the text cannot be deciphered or is missing I have added, in red, an in-line explanation ‘— It looks like this —‘.  Occasionally, the letters show the ravages of time and there are missing pieces of paper particularly along the fold of the letters where silver fish or frequent folding have been evident.  Again the situation is explained with ‘— missing —‘, or similar inserted into the text.   At appropriate places where a word or a phrase may have an obscure meaning to the modern reader, and also to clarify family relationships, I have created links to explanatory popups. By moving the mouse over the coloured underlined section a popup box will appear. It looks and works like this..

The Family

A few years before the turn of the century my Grandfather’s family moved from Ti Point, near Leigh in North Auckland,  to Ponsonby in Auckland where they saw a better economic prospect for their growing family.  At that time the parents, John and Christina Smith had six children ranging in age from 14 yrs to 1 yr.  At the start of the war in 1914 increasing social pressure was exerted on eligible men to enlist and fight for “King and Country”.  Three of the brothers in John and Christina’s family – Victor (Vic) aged 29,  Norman aged 24 and Neil aged 20 – enlisted in 1916 for military service and two older brothers were subject to the Military Service Ballot that came into being at that time.  Vic elected to join the infantry, but Norman and Neil joined the Medical Corp as, in Neils words, it ought to be the least dangerous. The brothers trained first in New Zealand at various military training camps in the North Island, then embarked on troop ships to continue their training in England before finally being sent to fight in France and Belgium in 1917.

All three brothers were diligent in writing home to their parents and siblings and a great many letters and postcards were sent back into the family homes where they were doubtless passed around the relations before being stored in shoe boxes in dusty wardrobes to be rediscovered by the descendants of the authors when the old family homes were abandoned or sold.  This website contains the transcripts of 163 letters, a number of postcards and a diary.  There are also a great many other postcards surviving, but mostly the descriptions on them relate to the subject of the postcard itself, but they do serve to establish a chronology of places visited.  It’s apparent that many letters have been lost along with unfortunately all the letters written by the parents and the men’s siblings.

Vic Smith, aged 29 and single when he enlisted in 1916, was the eldest of the three and was my future father.  He received a basic education at Ti Point School prior to the family moving to Auckland. In 1916 he was a Gas Company meter inspector and was living in Ponsonby close to the family home in Paget St.

Norman Smith, aged 24 and also single, enlisted along with Neil slightly after Vic in 1916. He was a school teacher and it seemed that he taught at primary schools at Huntly and Te Kuiti.  After the war ended he married Alma Torkington, but contracted influenza and died 12 months later, remaining childless.  Twenty months later Alma married Vic Smith. They had four sons of which I am the youngest.

Neil Smith enlisted with Norman and was aged 20.  He was an outgoing and charismatic man who was a graduate from Auckland University and a Master at Auckland Grammar School. His letters home reflect an articulate and often witty commentary on both the war and family matters.  As a young boy I saw Neil occasionally when he came to visit my parents.  He was a tall, large man, had a commanding presence and frequently had a camera or pair of binoculars to show Dad which to me, at that time, seemed magical.

The clan in 1917

Their ages in 1917 are shown in brackets. The given names they were known as are shown. More genealogical information on the family can be found in

John Smith – (63) Father of the nine children in the immediate family.
Christina Smith – (56) Nee Matheson. Mother to the seven boys and two girls of the family.
Ben Smith – (34) Eldest child. Married to Daphne. Two daughters, Alma (3) and Vera (baby).
Gorrie Smith – (32) Single. Possibly living with John and Christina at No 10 Paget St, Ponsonby.
Vic Smith – (30) Single. A Gas Company meter inspector.
Mattie Smith – (27) Known as Mat.  Married to William McClintock who was known as Mac. In some letters he is abreviated to ‘Mc’. In 1917 they had one son born July 1916. Probably living in Pukekohe.
Norman Smith – (25) Nickname ‘Trot‘ mainly used by Neil.  Single. A school teacher.
Neil Smith – (21) Single. An Auckland Grammar School master.
Roy Smith – (18) Single. Attending Auckland grammar. Living with two aunts in Grey Lynn. The reason is thought to be that the family home was simply not large enough.
Gertie Smith – (13). Living with John and Christina.
Clyde Smith – (10). Living with John and Christina.

Why I did it

When I first started reading through the letters and postcards about a decade ago I found a series of fascinating stories.  On the one hand the time, places and events being written about were, for me, far in the distant past; of events and places I had learned about at school – almost ancient history.  Yet the documents were written by people whose personalities, and the expressions they used, and their descriptions of home events were so familiar that I could immediately relate to them. In growing up in my parents household I did not realise until I was much older that my father only very rarely mentioned the war, it seemed that part of his life was a closed book and it resulted in me not having any sense of what my fathers early life was like. To me there was a huge gap in my understanding of his life. These letters provide a small window into that part of his life he was so reluctant to talk about. One of the primary reasons for constructing this website is to show this window to my children and grandchildren, as well as other descendants of the letter’s authors, so as to allow them a greater understanding of their great grandfather and the family he was part of.

Vern Smith 2013