Waikato sailor walking in the shadows of giants
A Waikato-born sailor says going to Gallipoli is a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to honour a relative who died on his first day of battle.
Able Electronic Warfare Specialist Simon Hollingsworth, from Te Aroha, successfully applied to attend the Gallipoli 2017 service. He has taken with him a battered leather wallet he has carried to every Anzac Day service he has attended — the wallet of an ancestor killed on the day he arrived in Turkey.
He will also have the research on 12 ancestors who fought in, died in or survived World War I, World War II and beyond.
“My ancestors are everywhere,” he says. “I could stand and point to 10 different locations.”
Three of his ancestors are associated with Gallipoli. He has complete — and tragically brief — service records for Waikato brothers Herbert and Edward Watson, his great-uncles. As part of the 16th Waikato Company, Herbert was killed on the first day of the Gallipoli assault, 25 April, 1915. His leather wallet was returned to the family and Hollingsworth has taken it to Gallipoli. He also has a poignant last telegraph from Herbert to his mother, telling her he had sent her 50 pounds “and you receive everything if I get killed at the front”.
“You can hear his voice,” Hollingsworth says. “He signed up in August 1914, from rural Waikato, and almost immediately travelled halfway around the world, endured everything to get there, to be killed on the first day. It gives me goose bumps. It’s the courage.”
The other brother, Edward, received a gunshot wound to his arm in August 1915 and died in a Cairo hospital from disease. At the time his brother Herbert was “missing” and Hollingsworth reflects on the tragedy of Edward dying not knowing if his brother was alive or dead.
“You then picture their mother. Family of 11 kids, one son is missing, another has just died in hospital, then you find out the first one died a long time earlier. It’s very hard to imagine how that feels.”
In contrast, the third relative associated with Gallipoli was a survivor — and something of a celebrity. Sir John Henry Dacres Cunningham, Hollingsworth’s great-grandmother’s cousin, was a lieutenant commander and navigating officer on HMS Russell during the evacuation of the Dardanelles. After serving as Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet in World War II, Sir John rose to become Britain’s First Sea Lord.
Hollingsworth started exploring his ancestors in detail when he joined the Royal New Zealand Navy in April 2015, having previously been on naval staff as a civilian and in the New Zealand Army for four years before that.
“It was coming up to the 100th [anniversary of Gallipoli]. I spent some time speaking to my grandmother and found a treasure trove of information from a dozen different relatives, from World War I to the Falklands.”
The realisation of their achievements is humbling, he says.
“You really feel like you are walking in the shadows of giants. What these guys did, what they went through, you feel unworthy. They have done the ultimate. How do you live up to this?”
He is doing this research — and making the journey — as a way of honouring them, as they have honoured his family. The idea of being in Gallipoli is only just sinking in.
“It’s like my Mecca, my pilgrimage. To be standing here, on sacred ground, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime moment.”
Hollingsworth, who was a Royal New Zealand Navy Sailor of the Year nominee last year, will undertake catafalque duties while in Gallipoli, and he plans to read aloud his great-uncle’s last telegraph. He also hopes he’ll find the Watson name on a monument there.
He is pleased Herbert’s name features in Sir Peter Jackson’s Great War Exhibition in Wellington.
“He could have died on the beach or at the top of the hill. To imagine what they were going through on the day — it doesn’t have words.”