Newpaper clipping showing a photograph of a soldier in uniform.

Memories of New Zealand’s First Combat Death of World War I

3 Feb 2015
The first New Zealander to die in combat in World War I, 100 years ago this week, was Private William Arthur Ham of Ngatimoti.

By Sarah Johnston

Private Ham was a 22-year-old serving with the 12th (Nelson) Company of the Canterbury Infantry Battalion.

There had been some earlier deaths of New Zealand troops due to accidents and disease, but when William Ham was hit by Turkish rifle fire on February 3rd 1915, he entered the history books as the first New Zealand combat death of the war.

Nearly 50 years later, in 1964, radio broadcaster Jim Henderson compiled an in-depth documentary to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. A copy of this programme is held in the Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision Radio Collection in Christchurch.

Simply entitled “1914-1918” it features musical excerpts, letters, poems and first-hand recollections of the Great War, 50 years on. One of the many people Henderson interviewed was William Ham’s sister-in-law, Violet Ham of Dunedin. Her brief recollection of terrible impact of Willie’s death on her family, was a story to be repeated thousands of times throughout the New Zealand over the next four years.

Click below to listen:

Violet Ham

From 1914-1918, a documentary by Jim Henderson, 1964. Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision Radio Collection, all rights reserved. To enquire about re-use of this item please contact us.

Born in Ireland, William Ham’s family had emigrated to the Nelson region in 1903, and lived in various rural locations around the Motueka Valley. He went to Orinoco School, and was working as a farm labourer when he signed up at the outbreak of war in August 1914.

The New Zealand Expeditionary Force arrived in Egypt in December. 100 years ago this week they were camped at Zeitoun, outside Cairo, preparing for the Gallipoli campaign.

Turkish troops were spotted on the opposite side of the Suez Canal from where the 12th Nelson Company were based. Fighting began early on February 3rd with several boatloads of Turkish soldiers attempting to cross the Canal by boat. The Nelsons joined some Indian Army units in repelling the Turks, but during the afternoon William Ham was hit when a bullet ricocheted off his rifle and struck his neck, breaking his spine. He died of his wounds at Ismailia Hospital on the evening of 5 February 1915, and is buried at Ismailia War Memorial Cemetery.

Tragically, the war was to inflict further losses upon the Ham family, with other family members also dying in the conflict. Read more about William Ham’s family and his life and death on The Prow website, here.

Willie Ham is remembered by his community on the Ngatimoti War Memorial.

Hero image: Portrait of William Arthur Ham provided by Peter Millward. Courtesy of Auckland War Memorial Museum.