Topic: Rewi Alley

Topic type:

Rewi Alley (Service no. 55386) was a First World War soldier with links to Springfield and Wharenui School.

Rewi Alley was a First World War soldier with links to Springfield and Wharenui. After the war, he became a writer, educator, political activist, revolutionary, social reformer, potter, and member of the Communist Party of China.

Born in Springfield, Canterbury, on December 2, 1897, Rewi Alley was the third child in a family of seven. His father, Frederick James Alley, was a schoolmaster and his mother, Clara Maria Buckingham, emigrated to New Zealand in 1884. She worked alongside women like Kate Sheppard to secure women's suffrage.

Rewi's name was chosen by his father's sister, Aunt Amy, who never had any children of her own. She greatly admired the legend of the Maori chief, Rewi Maniapoto, who bravely resisted British forces during the Maori land wars of the 1860's.

When Rewi was only one month old, his family moved to Amberley, where they remained until 1906, when they moved to Lower Riccarton so that his father could become headmaster of Wharenui School. While attending Wharenui School, Rewi remembered in his autobiography, he joined the school guard cadets and paraded with dummy rifles. Rewi's father, Frederick, acted as commanding officer and tried to teach the children Boer tactics of guerrilla warfare. Rewi rose to become colour sergeant and said, "I think the early cadet training helped in my World War I days."

Soon after the move to Christchurch, Frederick bought a farm at Castle Rock and Rewi started to spend summer and winter school holidays working there. His father believed that struggle was necessary in a boy's education.

At age fifteen, Rewi attended Christchurch Boy's High School. In his own words, "I was not a model student." He remembered a math teacher, Johnson, telling him, "...the only thing you'll be good for in life is to break stones." Despite this, he enjoyed his time at Christchurch Boys. He became a member of the Snow Shield Shooting Team and competed against Christ's College. He also played Rugby and joined the rowing team in his final year. Of CBS, he said, "I loved the Boy's High School in Christchurch with all the fervour of a young heart. I was very proud of the school, and of belonging to it."

Boy's High School honoured him in return, creating a plaque that reads, “A noted Canterbury figure. He dedicated 60 years to the service of China and its people. This memorial placed in December 1997 to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth.”

World War I

Rewi much admired his older brother, Eric, who enlisted at a lieutenant twelve days after the war began, and so in 1916, he had fixed on the idea of going to war. He said, "It was something heroic for a high school boy in those days to be killed and so have his name inscribed on the Roll of Honour."   Eric, was wounded in Gallipoli and finally killed in France, in a trench raid at Armentiers. Rewi said of the news, "I became even more impatient of any delay and determined I would follow him."

In a letter to his cousin, included in his military personnel file, Riwi wrote "from my earliest days, soldiering has been my passion." He passed the Public Services Entrance Exam in December 1914 and was going to sit for the Duntroon Military College Examination in 1915, but "as the time for examination came along, it became clear that if I went to Duntroon, and spent four years there, I should miss the war where, being fit and in my estimation old enough, I thought I should be."

Still underage, Rewi volunteered on the 30th of March, 1917 (service no. 55386). He embarked for England on the 26th of July, 1917, sailing on the Ulimaroa. During the passage from Albany to Cape Town, Rewi fell from the third bunk and broke his left arm. He spent the rest of the trip in the ships hospital. On 15th August, 1917, soon after he arrived in Sling Camp, a court of enquiry was set up to determine whether it was 'a case of malingering'. In Alley's autobiography, he mentions a young Maori lieutenant that spoke up for him. His military file states that "He was heard calling out in his sleep. Then found lying on the floor. Was helped back into his bunk. Then arm was found to be broken. Was then taken to hospital. The Board is of the opinion that Alley fell out of bed when asleep."

During shore leave in Cape Town, Rewi Alley remembers a company of Maori troops went on a tram and were ordered off as coloured people were not allow to ride in street cars. This made the New Zealand soldiers angry and many of them went together down the main street and tipped the trams over. Rewi's arm was in a sling, so he could only watch, but he along with the others were driven back to their ship by the fire brigade with hoses. Once aboard, the ship was anchored out in the harbour and they were not allowed to go ashore for any of the subsequent stops between Cape Town and England.

Still stuck in England, far from the front, Rewi had another hospital visit on the 7th of November. This time the complaint was not stated, but he returned to camp on the 15th, only to be sent back to hospital the following day and then on to quarantine camp at Perham on the 19th of November.

Finally, he returned to the 4th Canterbury Reserve Batallion (C. Company) on the 1st of December and proceeded overseas to France on the 13th. He joined the 12th Nelson Company of the First Canterbury Regiment on the 17th of January, 1918, and travelled to the Ypres Salient. In his autobiography, he recalls daily artillery battles on a wild, deserted landscape. He speaks of it as a desolate place, and very cold, with frozen corpses by the roadside. Soon after, he was lent to the NZ Division Signallers from the 26th of January to the 2nd of February, where he acted as a runner and often had to cross 'vacant, bomb-cratered land from one station to another'.

During March 1918, the Germans advanced on the Somme and Rewi Alley travelled with his battalion to Gommecourt where there were still many old Allied trenches. On March 29th they entered the trenches, encountering little resistance as they went. By April 5th, they had spread out in a thin line ready to face the last big enemy push. Rewi set up at the head of an old communication trench and put his high school shooting practice to good use, firing four bandoliers (200 rounds) at targets within 200 yards. At noon, an enemy airplane bombed their position and Rewi got some shrapnel in his shoulder. The lieutenant in charge didn't think it was severe enough to pull him off the line, so he held position until the following morning.

Rewi Alley remembers quite a rigmarole the following day as he headed to the dressing station with another soldier to get their wounds seen to. The doctor had been killed, as well as the padre who had taken over. The cook told them to head back further to the first-aid station, but the staff there were too busy, so they were sent still further from the front line to another station and then down by train to a camp hospital on the coast. His military file records his arrival in hospital as the 9th of April, with the note of Gunshot Wound to Shoulder. In his autobiography, Alley says that he, along with two big Australians and a Maori soldier were playing cards in a tent while waiting to be seen. An English sergeant-major told them to put the cards away and cut out the lights. He made such a fuss that the four men dumped him out of the tent (taking a leg and an arm each). The following day, they were marched off the colonel in charge of the camp. He was a kindly old London doctor who asked them what they would like to do. They asked to return to their units and so were issued new uniforms and returned by train to the Somme, forgetting about the piece of shrapnel. His record has him re-joining his unit on the 12th of April.

From this time until August 1918, Rewi Alley was not on the front line. He remembers spending afternoons swimming in a mill pond and says "It was one of the most enjoyable rest periods we were ever to have while at the front."

Then came August 1918 and Rewi's battalion was part of a large force advancing over the French countryside. They took the town of Avesnes and then dug in outside Bapaume on the Somme. During this time, Alley remembers acting as an NCO and being sent out several times on patrol, looking for the main enemy force. It was a 'hectic time', especially during a patrol near Bapaume railway station where German machine-gun bullets hit a pile of rails they were hiding behind and injured some of his men. They succeeded in finding the necessary information, however, and for this, Rewi was awarded the military medal. The wording associated with his medal reads:

Operations: West of Bapaume - 25 August 1918. For courage and devotion to duty. During the period of consolidation he went forward several times under heavy fire in charge of patrols, and by his courage and initiative gained and brought back valuable information. His coolness and courage were a fine example to the rest of his men.

Soon after this, he was shot in the thigh, the bullet going through the hip and coming out near his backbone. His comrades pulled him down into a manure pit in the horse lines, intending to apply a dressing, but then had to leave him as the Germans were returning. In his autobiography, he says 'As I looked very dead, lying there, nobody bothered me. At that time, many of the wounded were shot.'

He stayed there overnight and the next morning, a barrage blew the side of the pit in on top of him, leaving only his head free. Eventually, some men from his own unit returned and dug him out. The dressing station was very full and the next wounded man after Alley was left to lie outside. The enemy started gas shelling and many outside were gassed, while those inside were protected by blanket mats hung over the entrance.

Rewi Alley's military file records this final gunshot wound as the 2nd of September. He remembers a horrible ambulance ride over shelled roads with two injured Germans and another New Zealander. He was sent to a temporary tent to await his operation and lay there surrounded by men mostly too far gone to be operated on. There was a German breathing through a big hole in his chest, a Canadian who died quietly and an Indian who'd had the cheeks of his buttocks shot off and was crying in great pain. Alley was in a different kind of pain, his wound preventing him from being able to urinate. He remembers a padre coming over to tell him that he would die soon and to put his mind on heavenly things, to which Alley replied, "My God, if only I could piss, it would be alright!"

That night, he travelled by train to a base hospital on the coast where he had the necessary operation. He was later moved to Oatlands Park Hospital near London, then once he got better, he was sent to a convalescent hospital in Hornchurch, Essex.

He vividly remembers celebrating armistice in London, where Australians hauled captured German gun carriages to the Nelson Monument and set them on fire. "I remember watching the flames licking up the monument, and rejoicing that the terror had come to an end, but wondering rather fearfully what the new life would bring. I was glad that the killing had ceased, but very scared too that the comradeship which had seemed more important than life would soon cease."

Following the war, he tried many options to remain in the military, from applying to sit again for the Military College Entry Exam (he was refused for being too old) to requesting a commission in India (where no new commissions were being awarded due to the Armistice). During this time, he and his companion, Jack Stevens, attempted to break in and farm a steep bush property at Moeawatea, inland from Waverley, Taranaki. After six years, the project was deemed a failure and in 1927, Rewi left New Zealand for China - a place he had become curious about through interactions with Chinese during the war and though he might visit. Little did he know that China would become his home, or that he would become so important to the Chinese people.

Date of death: 27 December 1987

Discuss This Topic

There are 0 comments in this discussion.

join this discussion

Rewi Alley

First Names:Rewi
Last Name:Alley
Place of Birth:Springfield, Canterbury, New Zealand