Grafton accountant Bob Northam visits the grave of his great-uncle Robert Rowan Northam, who was the last New Zealand soldier to be killed in the first World War.
Grafton accountant Bob Northam visits the grave of his great-uncle Robert Rowan Northam, who was the last New Zealand soldier to be killed in the first World War.

Trove reveals real treasure for family

GRAFTON accountant Bob Northam visits the grave of his great-uncle Robert Rowan Northam, who was the last New Zealand soldier to be killed in the first World War.

IF IT wasn't for the wonders of the internet, Bob Northam would never have known his great-uncle Robert Northam was the last New Zealand soldier killed in the First World War.

Until last year Mr Northam was completely unaware of his uncle's existence.

The Grafton Motor Group accountant grew up knowing little about his father's side of the family.

Mr Northam was just 13 years old when his father died, so when he began to compile a family tree he had to rely heavily on official records.

Through online database Trove he made a startling discovery that his grandfather had four brothers and sisters whose names corresponded with that of his own siblings.

Just like Mr Northam's family, the earlier generation had a John, Margaret, Muriel and Robert.

He then discovered that his own namesake, known affectionately as Bob, was killed fighting with the New Zealand Army in France, just six days before the end of the First World War.

Born in 1880, Private Robert Rowan Northam was 35 years old when he enlisted in the armed forces, joining the 2nd Otago Battalion in 1915.

In the midst of the war, in July 1918, he married a Scottish girl named Helen Mary.

"I couldn't believe how much information I've found," Mr Northam said.

"Trove is the most amazing thing for tracing family history."

The discovery last year inspired Mr Northam to stop in France while travelling to London for his niece's wedding.

With a few days to spare, Mr Northam and his wife set out to find his great-uncle's final resting place, armed with a copy of a letter that was sent to Pte Northam's wife in 1918 informing her of his death.

The letter indicated Pte Northam had been buried by the road between Bavay and neighbouring village Pont Sambre but when Mr Northam arrived in France he discovered the grave had been moved to a cemetery in the northern city of Maubeuge, near the French/German border.

"The graves were so well kept, there were flowers everywhere," he said.

"There were just rows and rows of gravestones.

"It's so sad, all those young men."

Mr Northam's trip coincided with the 100th anniversary of D-Day with the ferry to France filled with former soldiers heading to France to mark the event.

One mystery Mr Northam says he would love to know more about are the circumstances surrounding his great-uncle's marriage.

"I would love to find out how he met a girl from Scotland and came to marry her in the midst of war," he said.



THE following letter refers to the late Pte Bob Northam, who was the brother of Mrs Arthur Clark, Corndale. He enlisted in New Zealand, where he resided for a number of years. The deceased soldier was well and favourably known at Rosebank and Clunes, having lived in those localities for a considerable time. Of a retiring and unassuming character, he was respected wherever he lived, and his untimely death is deplored by many friends. His widow resides in England.

France, 13/11/18.

Dear Mrs Northam,

I am sorry that this is sent to give you tidings of the death of your husband, 8/3724 Pte RR Northam, of this battalion.

It was on the fifth of this month that he was killed.

Our men had been advancing all day, driving the enemy through the famous Normal Forest.

About half-past three in the afternoon your husband was wounded in the foot by a bullet and while another man was tying up his wound a second machine-gun bullet caught him in the head.

He was killed instantly, so that his suffering was very little.

We went back and carried his body out of the wood and buried it by the roadside - that road was the final objective of the NZ forces.

He is buried alongside one of the stone milestones that are set up in this country along the main roads.

When we were filling in his grave an old bent Frenchwoman came out of her garden on the opposite side of the road and carried two chrysanthemum plants which she had dug out of her plot. She planted them on his grave.

I have no doubt that as long as they live those French people whom he helped to deliver from the Hun the day before, and for whom he died, will care for that grave.

He was the last man killed in our division, and he is buried nearer to Germany than any other NZ soldier.

I have told you all the truth, because although it is very sad I thought you would like to know everything.

We have put up a cross on his grave. The grave is on the edge of the Normal Forest on the road returning from Bavay to Pont Sambre.

Will you please accept our sympathy in this hour of your sorrow.

We know that it is in the homes where these men are loved that the terrible price of war is paid.

The men themselves, because they felt that they were where they ought to have been, got a great deal of satisfaction out of life, and frequently, as in the case of your husband, death came so swiftly that they never knew pain.

But no one outside can ever realise the intensity of grief in the home where the blow falls, and the very light of your life is taken away. God only can understand.

May He who for a great cause gave His Son bless and strengthen you in the giving of your loved one.

(Signed) DC Herron, Chaplain,

2nd Otago Battalion.

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