William McCaw was born in Dunedin in 1894. The son of a Presbyterian minister, McCaw was working as an assistant school teacher in Upper Hutt when he enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force on 9 August 1914.
As a member of the Expeditionary Force’s Advance Party, McCaw was part of the force that occupied German Samoa on 29 August.
He returned to New Zealand in March 1915, and sailed for Egypt later in April, eventually serving with the Otago Battalion at Gallipoli, where he was wounded.
Making a full recovery, McCaw embarked for the Western Front and landed in France in 1916. There, he was transferred to the First Light Trench Mortar Battery.
McCaw saw action in the Somme battles of Flers-Courcelette and Morval in September 1916, during which his former unit – the 14th South Otago Company – suffered heavy casualties. He was lucky to survive. The following month, he received the Military Medal for gallantry.
In June 1917, McCaw’s mortar battery served at the Battle of Messines. The night before, he wrote in his diary.
Making final preparations for we ‘hop over’ tomorrow. Packed up all our gear and sent it away back for storage in charge of ‘Micky’ McDonald and the two cooks. Then it was busy all day supplying and attending to eleventh hour wants. About six p.m. I accompanied the skipper to our assault position in Nugent Support Trench, receiving final instructions from Brigade on the way. Not being in the first assault, we found our trench about a quarter of a mile behind the front line, and directly beneath Messines village…
The following morning McCaw was ready. He described the beginning of the assault.
At last came 3.10 a.m. – zero hour – and with it the barrage. To me standing looking over our parapet it was ‘Hell let loose’. The bombardment was many times redoubled. Out of the dim mist of darkness, smoke, and flashes, came a dull boom, high curling dull red flames, while the ground rocked as in a huge earthquake. The famous Messines mines had been fired.
During the battle, McCaw crossed through the destroyed German frontlines and had a near miss with a ‘whiz bang’ which exploded mid-air.
As the New Zealanders consolidated their positions among the ruins of the German defences, McCaw witnessed a peculiar interaction.
Down below us Maoris worked, filling in a demolished bridge so that traffic could proceed. Fritz shelled them. They stopped a party of captured Germans, handed them their shovels, making them finish the job amid their own shells. The work finished, those Huns were allowed to go and they considered not the order of their going. I had a look round what was left of the German lines and found them almost entirely demolished.
McCaw also witnessed something more chilling.
One of our planes, its wing shot off, fell quite close. Its two occupants fell out, about two thousand feet and tho’ the sight sickened me, I could not bring my eyes off them till they hit the earth.
Exhausted and lucky to be alive, McCaw wrote to his brother, Bertie, a couple of weeks later, and told him about the battle.
At the appointed time, the barrage got loose, the mines went up, the boat rocked, and things moved – just a little.
Old Ma Earth got a rude shock that time and quivered some. A little later we were wending our way thro’ a feeble barrage to the scene of the stoush. Arriving just in rear of it, I found a good shellhole, and proceeded to fit it out for habitation. Finding a suitable hole was no difficult matter for there was nothing else but holes and holes and holes. The Somme had a fair selection in this line, but up here, the variety was greater still. And so, there I abode for a couple of days, letting old Fritz have a few.
McCaw eventually returned to the United Kingdom for officer training, then as a second lieutenant, took up a training position in New Zealand in March 1918.
He left New Zealand in October to serve overseas once more, however, the war ended before he could reach the Western Front. William McCaw returned to New Zealand aboard the Hororata in March 1919.
He died in Cambridge on 20 February 1983, aged 88.