Anzac Day is taking on much more meaning as we recall events of the First World War 100 years ago.
Not forgotten are contributions made by firefighters: fit young men, ever-eager to help their community and country, well-used to working in a disciplined team who thus made ideal recruits for the Army.
At the end of hostilities most brigades—like Feilding—erected an Honours Board. Many brigades found they had one member whose experiences at the front were extraordinary.
Feilding Brigade unveiled an Honours Board with names of 32 members who had served, notable because the brigade normally comprised about 20 firefighters, so some replacement recruits must have signed up soon after joining.
Of the 32, nine members paid the supreme sacrifice, killed in action. In June 1919, the Mayor led a presentation of service awards to those whose UFBA honours had accumulated while they were away at the War.
Many men were to continue their membership in the brigade but some retired through injury and sickness suffered overseas. Thanked, too, were those men who filled the ranks, replacing those who went abroad, ensuring an active brigade throughout the War.
Feilding’s remarkable individual was Fireman Alfred John Shoebridge, a 28 year old carpenter working for well-known Manawatu farmer, Ernest Short, when he enlisted soon after the outbreak of war in August 1914.
He went to Gallipoli with the Wellington Infantry Battalion and, in the now-celebrated pre-dawn battle, helped secure the Spur on Chunuk Bair on 8 August 1915.
But the Turks retaliated at daybreak. Shoebridge became separated from his troop and tried to walk back to the British camp on the beach.
A Turkish sniper picked out the lone soldier and shot him, shattering Shoebridge’s right arm. Though he surrendered, he was lined up against a wall to be summarily executed, shot.
The Turks took him prisoner instead and he was posted as ‘missing in action’ until some weeks later when was found in a Prisoner of War camp by the American Ambassador in Constantinople.
This contact through the US Embassy proved useful. The 1916 UFBA Conference, made aware of Fireman Corporal Shoebridge‘s incarceration, took up a collection for him. The seven pounds gathered, matched by his own brigade, was sent to the Ambassador to give to Shoebridge. Prisoners could buy food, but at fantastically inflated war-time prices.
The captive was treated harshly. “Turkish guards reckoned the British mis-treated their prisoners so we were in for pay-back”. Conditions were rough, discipline barbaric, the winter severe, food was scarce, facilities unsanitary, and injuries, such as Shoebridge’s, went unattended.
Shoebridge was transferred to another POW camp at Psamitia. “By now doctors had examined my arm more than 20 times, but still no proper medical attention to my shattered, protruding humerus”.
Escape via exchange
As luck would have it, some inmates from this prison were considered for exchange with Turkish prisoners held by the Allies.
In January 1918, Shoebridge was on his way to London, and medical help, as an exchange prisoner. It was a circuitous journey through Bulgaria, Serbia, and Austria. “That was when progress came to halt for several months. We had to wait while Turkish exchange prisoners recovered from disease”.
The journey resumed by train through Switzerland and France and then to England. “As Allied soldiers we were hated as we travelled behind the lines, locked in our transport out of sight, but in France we were welcomed as heroes!”
England ... and home
Once in England, Shoebridge began a long series of operations and treatment for his arm in military hospitals, the first proper surgery in more than two years since he was shot.
He was also sought out by Military Intelligence—as one of the first prisoners released by the Turks to reach London he had valuable information from behind enemy lines, including the results of Allied air-raids on Constantinople.
Alfred Shoebridge returned to New Zealand in mid-1918 for further medical treatment. Military doctors declared him disabled because of his wounds which had gone untreated for many months while he was POW.
Fireman Shoebridge re-connected with his brigade in Feilding (and Palmerston North with whom he had earlier served) where he received UFBA Service Honours.
Alfred Shoebridge had been the only New Zealand firefighter who was taken prisoner of war. He died in Christchurch in August 1919, aged 33. The cause of death was “pneumonia following surgery for wounds received on active service”.
Photo: A view of troops landing from ships’ boats on to the beach at Anzac Cove on 25 April 1915. The photographer was in the Wellington Battalion. Photo credit: Wairarapa Archive, 14-50/2
You must be logged in to post comments. Please log in (top right) or register.