Newspaper Article 2014 – Bricklayer awarded for bravery


Bricklayer awarded for bravery

By Owen McMillan

My father, Hugh McMillan, was born on October 9, 1892, in Bangor, in the north of Ireland. His mother died when he was born. He had three older brothers and one sister.

After leaving school he worked as an apprentice bricklayer. At the age of 18 years he emigrated to New Zealand to live in Hawke’s Bay, where his cousin lived.

He was working in Gisborne when World War I started, and was an early volunteer. He was posted to the Otago Light infantry and was one of the 1400 men who left New Zealand in August 1914 bound for Samoa. Samoa was at that time a German protectorate.

During his journey to Samoa he kept a diary, which is my one precious memento of my father. He writes of being seasick despite calm waters, sleeping in hot overcrowded cabins and living on one meal per day; hard biscuits and sometimes a bit of meat.  Hugh’s seasickness continued throughout the journey and he often went for days without eating or drinking.

On arrival in Samoa they were warmly welcomed by the “natives”. Their “barracks” included the local picture theatre. Hugh’s duties ranged from guard duty to potato picking.

“A visit from two German warships which came in at daybreak caused some excitement. After playing her guns around the bay for about an hour she went out again. They thought they were going to fire on us and land some troops which I wish they had. We returned to camp dissatisfied.”

Hugh’s diary stops on September 18, 1914, with the last entry being “I had to get into hospital”.

He returned to New Zealand in March 1915. He was later posted to the New Zealand Engineers 11th Reinforcements. On April 2, 1916, they embarked on the New Zealand troop ship SS Tahiti, disembarking in Suez on May 2, 1916. He was then posted to New Zealand Engineers No 3 Field Company, stationed in Etaples, France.

The engineers were in charge of repairing the devastation of the war to expedite troop movements; surveying, bridge and road repair, constructing buildings, maintaining communication lines.

Hugh fought in the Somme and later at Passchendaele in Belgium. It was here, on his 25th birthday, October 9, 1917, that he was awarded the Military Medal for bravery in the field. An extract from A History of the NZ Field Engineers states that “during the attack on the 9th the NZ Engineers had further opportunities for distinguished service, and several of them were recommended for immediate rewards. Sapper H McMillan from the 3rd showed outstanding qualities of courage and determination while engaged on roads and tracks.”

Those fighting on the front line could not have done so without the support of the engineers.

Hugh was presented with his medal by King George V, who frequently visited the troops in France in order to do this. Hugh was subsequently promoted to Corporal.

He was wounded several times while in France and Belgium. The only thing I remember him telling me about fighting in the war was that he went “over the top” seven times. Even the engineers were expected to take part in major battles.

He returned to New Zealand on the troop ship SS Kigoma in July 1919 and was discharged on August 12, 1919.

He returned to Hastings and worked as a bricklayer. It was here that he met Alice Barry (nee Connolly), a widow with three young children, whom he later married.

In about 1922 he purchased 3 acres of land in Havelock Rd. This land had been part of the large hop gardens originally owned by Thomas Tanner. Using his skills as a bricklayer, he built a home for his family using the “brick cavity” technique, which has no timber frame. The house survived the 1931 earthquake and is still standing (No 204).

My father died of tuberculosis in 1942, at the age of 49. We believe that, like so many others, he contracted this as a result of spending so much time living and fighting in the wet and muddy trenches of World War I. At the time there was no cure for tuberculosis; antibiotics were still several years away.

In his desperation to find a cure he even went to see a German doctor who was practising in Hastings during World War II (in premises opposite Hastings New World, which is now a hairdressing salon). I remember this well as he took me with him. I was seven at the time.

l have very few memories of my father as he died when I was only eight.

His three brothers all served in the British Army. Two were killed in France and the third died after the war as a result of wounds suffered during the war.

I am the last survivor of Hugh and Alice’s seven children and am pleased of this opportunity to share a small piece of our family history.

Photo caption – MILITARY MEDAL: Hugh was injured several times when stationed in France and Belgium.

As this year is the centenary for the beginning of WWI, if you have a relative’s memoirs and photographs from their time during WWI we invite you to share their experiences. Please email your story of no more than 800 words and a relevant photograph to [email protected] or phone Bonnie 06 873 0815 between 9am-1pm.

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Newspaper article

Date published

30 August 2014


Hawke's Bay Today


Published with permission of Hawke's Bay Today


  • Alice Barry, nee Connolly
  • Bonnie McLeod
  • Hugh McMillan
  • Owen McMillan

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