William Powell Nimot was born in Carterton in 1887. His father, Ferdinand Nimodt, had immigrated to New Zealand from Germany in the 1880s and settled in the Wairarapa where he ran a farm.
Nimot embarked for France at the beginning of April 1916 and entered the front line near Armentières in mid-May of that year.
Nimot found army life particularly difficult. A loner with no close friends, his isolation was compounded by taunts about his German background.
Soldier John Towers, who served in a battalion near Nimot, speculated on how uncomfortable army life must have been for him:
…it is a well-known fact in the front that Nimot was subjected to many insults and jeers on account of his foreign origin.
Possibly it may have only been in fun but from what I could gather he evidently took it to heart and it preyed on his mind...
Early in the evening of 28 June, Nimot was on sentry duty in The Mushroom, one of the closest points to the enemy front line.
He approached his Corporal on duty, complaining of feeling nauseous, and was told to move along to the edge of a sap – a short trench that extended into No Man’s Land – if he wanted to be sick.
When Nimot did not return, the Corporal went to check on his whereabouts, and found his rifle and other personal equipment abandoned. Sometime in the early hours of 29 June 1916, Nimot had disappeared. It appeared that he had deserted, and he became the only New Zealand Expeditionary Force soldier reported to have done so.
There was some initial confusion over Nimot’s status after he went missing. He was originally reported as having deserted on 17 August 1916, when Prime Minister William Massey released a statement to the New Zealand press that a New Zealand soldier had deserted to the enemy. However, Nimot was officially declared a prisoner of war in Germany soon afterwards on 30 August.
A subsequent Court of Inquiry concluded that Nimot had in fact deserted to the enemy and he was struck off the New Zealand Expeditionary Force register.
His desertion was widely reported in New Zealand newspapers, albeit with conflicting and fanciful accounts, and the incident soon gained national notoriety.
The New Zealand Truth reported:
His ruse was rather clever. Looking over the parapet, he made out that he saw somebody lying in No-Man’s Land, and said that he would investigate.
The members of his platoon thought him the essence of gameness as he hopped over our parapet and crawled out.
When about half-way between the lines, he rose, and, waving a white flag, bolted to the German line.
The New Zealand Truth
The Wairarapa Daily Times ran an article saying that it was a common occurrence when “nothing was doing” for soldiers to steal out from their positions, quoting one Private A. H. O’Neil:
I saw Nimot go over to the German trenches on the day he left the regiment. He said he was going for souvenirs.
Private A. H. O'Neil
Several hours after Nimot had gone missing, a German artillery barrage came down accurately on Nimot’s battalion. This fueled speculation that Nimot had indeed deserted to the enemy and had given the German Army his battalion’s location.
Back home, Nimot’s family soon became the target of anti-German rhetoric. They endured police enquiries, and were ostracised by friends and neighbours.
In late August 1916, police reinforcements were sent to Carterton because of threats against the family. Patrols were maintained around the Nimot farm because of fears of reprisals from soldiers at the nearby Featherston military camp.
Despite carrying the stigma of the desertion, the family continued to write to Nimot and send him parcels. His letters to them gave no indication as to why he had deserted but he expressed loneliness and longing to see family.
In 1919, a New Zealand team tasked with repatriating New Zealand prisoners of war tracked down Nimot. He was found working in a cheese factory in Assenheim near Frankfurt.
Nimot claimed that he did not desert and that he would be willing to submit himself to a Court Martial, providing that the English rather than the New Zealand authorities try him.
Nimot remained in Germany after the war. The New Zealand Government asked that he be extradited to face charges, but they were not able to do this because the British War Office had stipulated that no British prisoners of war were to be compulsorily repatriated.
Nimot’s desertion, and the fall-out that followed, highlighted the strong anti-German sentiment within New Zealand society at the time, and the effect it had on soldiers, and their families of German descent serving in the New Zealand Army.