To Hilary Barry, he was “Old Pa”, her sweet and gentle great-grandfather who was rather hard of hearing.
Old Pa loved home baking and whenever Hilary’s family visited him in the rest home where he lived, they’d take him treats like “Elsie’s Fingers” – shortbread rolled in caster sugar.
When it was warm enough for an outing to Milford Beach on Auckland’s North Shore, Old Pa would make a beeline for one particular spot on the sand. Today, the TV3 newsreader, her husband Michael and their sons Finn and Ned always head to the same part of the beach.
From a young age, Hilary was aware that Old Pa – whose name was Jack Hall – had fought in World War I. “He had a nasty wound on the back of his leg from the war – it was one of those things that as a kid you know you shouldn’t look at but you just can’t take your eyes off it,” she recalls.
Yet Jack, who died aged 85 when Hilary was nine, never spoke about his experiences during the war – certainly not to her, and not to his sons or grandchildren. The fact that he only had one photograph of himself in uniform from those days suggests that it was not a time of his life he particularly wanted to remember.
However, her great-grandfather’s military service is a subject Hilary has recently become keen to learn more about, thanks to a project she’s been involved with for TV3.
Hilary has narrated Great War Stories, a series of four-minute documentaries that will screen during 3 News from August 4 to mark the 100 years since World War I began. The documentaries, made by Anna Cottrell in collaboration with the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, highlight different aspects of New Zealand’s involvement in the war, from the Maori contribution through to pioneering work carried out on injured servicemen by Kiwi plastic surgeons.
When Hilary spoke to Anna about her own family connection with the war, Anna encouraged her to find out more about Jack’s involvement.
“She explained that it was a lot easier than you would expect to look up people’s records through Archives New Zealand, so I decided to try it and found out she was right,” says Hilary (44).
“I thought I might have to go down to Wellington to search myself, or at least have to prove who I was. But in fact all you need is the name of the person you are trying to find out about, and everything is available online.
“Somebody deserves huge congratulations for doing an amazing job of uploading all these handwritten records. I was able to learn so much.”
Hilary discovered that Jack – who was her mother Fay’s paternal grandfather – enlisted in the army in October 1916 when he was 23, and left for Europe on board HMNZS Pakeha in April 1917. He served with the 3rd New Zealand Machine Gun Company.
“We had always thought he was in the Battle of the Somme, but he got there too late for that,” tells Hilary. “However, he did fight at Passchendaele, which was one of the worst battles of the war.”
The fighting in the trenches of Passchendaele, on the French/Belgian border, has been described by historians as one of the most horrific campaigns of the Great War. Around 5000 Kiwis lost their lives on the muddy battlefields, and another 13,000 were injured, including Jack, who suffered a leg wound. He was sent back to New Zealand in December 1918, shortly after the war ended.
“It is hard to imagine today what it must have been like for those young men,” says Hilary, somber as she reflects on the trauma her great-grandfather and his army mates must have experienced. “They spent weeks and weeks stuck in those trenches in the mud and the rain, living in complete squalor, and they were expected to go out and fight. The Germans used mustard gas, which was a horrible way to die.
“Some of the soldiers there were still teenagers. I look at my own sons – Finn is 14 and Ned is 12 – and I just couldn’t imagine them in a few years time going off to deal with something like that. And even though my great-grandfather was 23, to me that was still very young.
“You see pictures of these young men waving goodbye as they headed off to war looking very excited. They had no idea what they were getting into. It was such carnage and we lost a whole generation of young men, who never came home.”
Jack was one of the lucky ones who did make it back to New Zealand in one piece, but Hilary says she can’t help wondering about the impact the war had on him. She was able to access his medical records and learned that he suffered from tachycardia – a faster than normal resting heart rate which can in some cases be due to severe stress. Between 60 and 100 heartbeats a minute is considered normal – Jack’s was 120.
“That’s not surprising when you think about some of the things he must have seen.”
She also wouldn’t be surprised if the hearing problems she remembers him having were a consequence of the intense shelling soldiers were subjected to while serving on the Western Front.
Hilary says while Old Pa was alive, she was too young to be aware of what he must have gone through.
“To me, he was a lovely old man. He and my great-grandmother Dorothy were a very frugal couple. He went on to have a shipping business that transported materials on scows from Auckland to all over the country, and it was successful by all accounts.
“But nothing was ever wasted in their home. Their eggs came from their chooks and there was never a bought biscuit in their house – everything was homemade.” Jack and Dorothy had a house in Castor Bay on Auckland’s North Shore and also owned land in nearby Milford, not too far from the beach. In the summer months, they’d walk down to the section, taking their chickens with them, and camp out.
“When the area started to become more developed, a number of people in the street contacted Social Welfare because they thought this couple were in need of some help,” chuckles Hilary.
Her grandparents built a house on the section in the 1970s and in 2000, Hilary and her husband Michael bought the property, rebuilding the house for them and their sons. “It is really lovely that it has stayed in the family,” she says.
“My husband was digging out the back garden once and found beer bottles from the 1920s buried there. I suspect Old Pa might have had a few sneaky beers out the back!”
Finding out about her great-grandfather’s history has sparked a new interest in the part New Zealanders played in World War I. “My husband has always been keen to trace the footsteps of the Anzacs through Europe and now I would be interested in doing that too.”
In the meantime, she is delighted to see how Kiwis turn out in their droves at Anzac Day events to pay their respects to those who served their country.
“I think the resurgence of remembrance is wonderful.
“I’m really pleased that I can tell my boys about the role their great-great-grandfather played. People like Old Pa were prepared to make sacrifices for future generations – and that’s me and my kids. I think it is really important to remember them.”
A woman of many talents:
Hilary has lent her voice to the Great War Stories documentaries in more ways than one. As well as narrating them, she sings a backing track for one of the clips. “Yours truly does a version of Abide With Me on the one about Passchendaele,” she reveals. “They wanted to use a Hayley Westenra track but there was a lot of paperwork involved, so Anna asked if I would do it. I’m really hoping they’ve put it through a reverb machine!” While Hilary, a talented singer who spent six years with the National Youth Choir, said yes, don’t ask her to show off her vocal skills. “There’s something about singing that makes me a nervous wreck,” she confides.