Topic: Ernest Frank Fine

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Ernest Frank Fine was a First World War soldier with links to the Lower Riccarton area and Wharenui School.

Ernest Fine was born on the 28th February 1894 in Riccarton; the sixth surviving child of William Albert Ernest Fine and Sarah Maria Fussell.  Sarah traveled with her family from London aboard the British Empire and arrived in New Zealand in 1864, settling in Tai Tapu. William was born in Renfrewshire in 1855 and would also settle in Tai Tapu after arriving in New Zealand in 1876 aboard the Otaki.The two would marry on the 28th August 1881 and welcome their first son, Frederick a year later. The couple had 12 children in total, though sadly, five children did not live for more than a year. The family was further struck by tragedy in 1905 with the death of Sarah, when Ernest was only 11 years old. His father then went on to marry Sarah's cousin, Emma three years later.

The family eventually settled in Lower Riccarton, though they kept a farm operating in the Tai Tapu region. Ernest was then one of the first four students to attend Wharenui School after its opening in 1907. While at school, Ernest became involved in the Junior Cadets, an initiative that encouraged the students to find a love of military service. This was aimed at both boys and girls in Standard's 5 and 6 and students were given uniforms of navy blue jerseys and trousers, glengarry caps in their school colours and dummy rifles. Ernest's younger brother Jim was named the bugler for a short time. Students learned marching and were even shown how to shoot on a rifle range, though girls were only allowed to do this in the beginning. The students also marched from their school to Lancaster Park to parade for Lord Kitchener while he was in New Zealand for a visit. Before enlisting with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, Ernest worked as a Draper at W. Strange and Co. 

Upon enlisting with the Army on the 28th April 1917, Ernest gave his birthdate as 28th February 1893, making himself a year older than he actually was, even though he was 24. He began his military training at Trentham in Wellington and then embarked for Plymouth, Devon on board the Ulimaroa on the 26th July 1917, accompanied by his older brother William John Fine.

They arrived on the 24th September 1917 and marched in to the New Zealand Expeditionary Force depot at Larkhill, Bulford Village, Salisbury Plain, commonly called "Sling". By late October, he marched into Etaples, the Allied camp in the Commune of Pas-de-Calais in Northern France. Here soldiers would receive further training and be "toughened up" before joining their Battalion and heading out to the trenches. 

Before joining a battalion, Ernest, unfortunately, was diagnosed with German Measles and admitted to hospital before transferring to a convalescing depot in Trouville, Normandy almost a month later. Here, Ernest contracted Tonsilitis and was sent north, across the Seine to the No. 2 General Hospital in Havre. He recovered until Christmas of 1917 and finally returned to Etaples in the New year to be placed with the 2nd Entrenching Battalion on the 17th of March 1918. This Battalion was formed from the surplus of men after the disbandment of the 4th brigade, along with two other Entrenching Battalions, designed to act as trained reinforcements for the New Zealand Division.

By late March, the 2nd Entrenching Battalion were rushed forward to fill gaps in the front line at short notice. The troops marched or were transported by bus and were given their first real taste of what the war had done to Europe. With the German Army positioned not far off, the area was filled with activity which they encountered along the way. "...supporting troops ... columns of motor-lorries and ambulances, the passage of artillery and transport, and, unforgettable above all else, the stream of civilian refugees fleeing from the threatened destruction."1

They arrived at Meteren, a small village near Armentieres on the border of Belgium and only a short distance from the Somme battlefield. The area had been hit hard in the previous battles and Ernest's battalion were tasked with building a switch trench behind the village that would connect with existing trenches nearby.

The men set to work after commandeering various tools from the buildings in the surrounding area and spent a day digging roughly a half mile of entrenchments. The next day they were given orders to move forward, taking position in some half-dug trenches to the right of the village. These trenches were found to be "...nothing more than disconnected ditches, dug without any apparent system."2 And after being spotted by the German's earlier in the day, the Entrenching Battalion endured an endless onslaught of gunfire. During this time, the Battalion Officer became seperated from the rest and was likely wounded, leaving the Platoon Sergeant, Herbert Reginald Hansen to take his place. Hansen detailed the coming days in his memoirs.

Ernest, along with Hansen and one half of the Entrenching Battalion, made up of the Canterbury Regiment and a large contingent of the Otago Company, held their position on the right side of Meteren, while the other half, along with the remainder of the English 19th Division, held the left side. The majority of the 2nd Entrenching Battalion were new soldiers, inexperienced thus far in the war and the two forces, seperated by the village did not have a clear line of communication. Though they attempted to join the two trenches together, only one man could work at a time on this with such consistent machine gun fire landing around them. 

Uncertain exactly where the German's were and, lacking ammunition, the group waited for reinforcements that would never come. 

On the 16th April 1918, the morning seemed ominously quiet and it was then that a runner from the 19th Division informed the force holding the right that those on the left had been given orders to retreat. Unfortunately, it was now broad daylight and the Germans had a clear view of the trenches where they were sheltering. Many were wounded before they made it a hundred yards or so as those on the left side fled. On the right, uncertainty and a lack of experience meant some men still ran to try to escape and were also injured. Others fired back at the Germans with the little they had but they soon ran out of rifle ammunition and had nothing else left. The Otago Regiment's Sergeant T. Sounness attempted to withdraw along the Bailleul-Caestre road but this too, ultimately failed.

The German forces moved in with six machine guns, surrounding the platoon and they were left with no other option than to surrender. 181 New Zealand soldiers were taken prisoner by the Germans, making it the greatest single capture of New Zealand prisoners during the war.

In his memoirs, Hansen goes into great detail about the treatment the captured 2nd Entrenching Battalion members received at the hands of the Germans but largely, they were interrogated for information and then put to work unloading trains filled with ammunition and supplies. They had little food or sleep but kept up a harsh schedule of back-breaking work.

They were finally given food a few days later while stationed at Armentieres which consisted simply of coffee and a quarter pound of black bread for breakfast, mule or horse and barley soup and water for lunch, and another quarter pound of black bread, one spoonful of vegetable jam and water for dinner. Here they were all housed in a small, water-logged cellar measuring only sixty feet by forty feet and were soon joined by a hundred Portuguese soldiers, bringing their total to 282. 

Many men became sick and it is likely that they would have died in such conditions. New Zealanders were treated particularly harshly by the Germans and given the most difficult jobs. The German's viewed the New Zealand soldiers as savage fighters, not least because they were volunteers.

From here, Ernest's path is uncertain. Many of his comrades succumbed to illness and were sent on to German hospitals. Some, like Hansen, were sent on to Fort McDonald, also known as the Black Hole of Lille. It is possible that Ernest may have endured the hardships of this horrible prison; where as many as 350 men were crammed into a 60 by 20 foot cell with very little food and water. It is also possible that he may have escaped this fate and simply been sent straight on to Stendal3, a working prison camp in Germany, where he would ultimately end up. For a time, at least, it is likely that Ernest would have remained on the front lines, being forced to work for the enemy under the barrage of bombs and gunfire from the British forces.

Ernest was reported missing in April 1918, at which time, he was believed to have been wounded and held prisoner. His location was unknown until the 25th October at which time he was reported as being at Stendal and not wounded. Whatever the treatment he received, the newspapers reported that Ernest had sent a letter to his step mother, letting her and the family know that he was " an interment camp in Germany. He and his fellow prisoners were receiving fair treatment, and as for himself he was in the best of health and spirits."4

Luckily, Ernest would not have to remain at Stendal for long as Armistice was finally reached on November 11th 1918. This called for, amongst other peace-keeping actions on the part of the German's, an exchange of prisoners and, in early December, Ernest was released from captivity and arrived in Dover.

He was admitted to Hornchurch, a New Zealand Convalescent Hospital, with boils, only to be sent to Codford Hospital for further treatment. He was given a medical examination and though he complained of general weakness, he was otherwise in fairly good health and may have even gained weight since enlisting with the army. The doctor's only commented that he "...required strengthening..." but would be recovered in 6 weeks time.

On the 24th February 1919, he was discharged and on the 12th March, he finally embarked on the long voyage home aboard the Corinthic with his older brother Albert. Both arrived home on Wednesday 23rd April 1919 to a warm welcome from family and friends. They celebrated together, with appreciative speeches from influential friends and musical performances, one of which was performed by Miss Winifred Harper.5

Ernest would go on to marry Winifred two years later and settled with her in Riccarton, as well as returning to his job at W. Strange and Co. He and Winifred had two daughters, Joyce and Marjory who, along with their mother, regularly participated in craft shows for knitting, crocheting and flower arrangements.6

Sadly, in 1937, the family would be dealt a blow when Ernest's eldest brother, Frederick William was killed tragically at the age of 54. His funeral was held on the 6th August 1937 and he was buried in the Bromley Cemetery.

Around 1957, Ernest retired and in the early 1960’s, he and Winifred moved to Nelson where they remained until their death. In 1982, Ernest returned to Christchurch and attended the Wharenui School 75th Jubilee Celebrations and was honoured as one of the first four student's to attend the school. He would have been 88 years old.

Ernest passed away aged 94 on 21st February 1989, while Winifred survived until 2000 and passed away aged 100. Both are buried in the Motueka Cemetery.




  • Olwyn. Otaki. 2010. Ancestry
  • Wilson, Alan S. "History of Wharenui School. 75th Jubilee Celebrations. 5th to 7th February 1982."  2007
  • 2HJ & PJ Hansen, "Served in Two Armies: The Life and Times of Herbert Reginald Hansen Including His Own Account of His Time Spent as a German Prisoner of War in 1918." The Watermark Press Ltd. 2010.
  • 6Papers Past. "Poultry Show" Press. Volume LXXIII, Issue 22110, 4th June 1937.

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Ernest Frank Fine

First Names:Ernest Frank
Last Name:Fine
Place of Birth:Riccarton, Christchurch, New Zealand