George Knight was one of three brothers who served during the First World War at both Gallipoli and the Western Front. He was a part of the Passchendaele offensive during October, and wrote many letters to his mother, Ellen, who kept up correspondence with all her sons who served overseas.
Born in Dannevirke, George came from a large family, with six brothers and three sisters. When war was declared, George and his younger brother Herbert went to Trentham Military Camp in Upper Hutt, where they enlisted and trained together. They arrived on 15 December 1914.
Their mother, Ellen, was a devout Anglican and saw enlistment in terms of duty and sacrifice, but she disclosed her fears to George.
I tried to write last night. I had to tell Dad I could not face it alone. I had a good blub and feel better. Of course I knew we could not hope to keep out of it, nor did I want to as I told the others, if you were needed and you felt you ought to go, it will be very hard to part with any of you and I dare say it will mean the three of you, but I am ready to do my duty always, as you are to do yours…
In February 1915, George and Herbert travelled from Wellington to Egypt, where they underwent further training at Zeitoun Camp. They visited the Sphinx, which they both described at length in letters home. From Egypt, they travelled to Turkey to take part in the Gallipoli campaign as part of the Otago Battalion. George wrote to his mother to let her know just how much her letters meant to him and Herbert.
My dearest mother, you ‘home’ people can hardly realise what one mail means to us here. On ‘mail day’ I notice everyone is eager, brighter and expectant and if they happen to get a big mail they are as cheerful as anything, if not they go about with a lip on them like a motherless foal. I know I do.
On 8 May, the New Zealand Infantry Brigade, including the Otago Battalion, went into action at Cape Helles. That very evening, while volunteering to bury a dead mule, Herbert was killed by a sniper. George was the one to tell his family about it.
Herbert was only twenty years old when he died. The family was deeply affected by the news, as their mother told George in a letter.
I prayed so hard that you might both come back to me, but it is part of God’s great plan and we must bear it, but it is a hard task to be the mother of soldiers… We feel so helpless here.
In August that year, George was briefly hospitalised in Cairo. He had survived the disaster that was Gallipoli, and he went on to serve in France and was seriously wounded in the chest in Armentières.
Recovering fully, he returned to France as a second lieutenant, and was put in charge of the 8th Southland Company, 2nd Battalion, under the Otago Regiment.
He wrote to his mother about his eagerness to be involved in the battle for Passchendaele.
My dear Home, we are just preparing to go into a stunt… I have been looking forward to this for ever so long. It would be rather awful to come back to N.Z and say that I had been three years away and never been in the THE dinkum thing. As for coming through safely, it is in someone else’s hands.
On 4 October, George wrote again, with news of the success of Broodseinde and his recent promotion, which he was extremely proud of.
My dear Home,
At last I’ve got a few moments to sit down and send a few lines. But I am liable to be called up to go to the front line to help in the big attack.
Our boys went over the top this morning and are still going strong I believe it’s great to see the prisoners coming down in dozens and such miserable specimens they are too.
You will be proud to hear that for the last four days I have been in charge of a Company.
Our skipper was knocked out while reconnoitring up in the front lines and I had to take over & take the Coy up to the frontline outposts.
We spent four days there and had a good time. It was very interesting & exciting. Our barrages (practice) were perfect and gave old Fritz beans.
The attack on 12 October at Passchendaele was a disaster.
Poor artillery preparation and a weak barrage had minimal effect on the German defences. Bunkers surrounded by barbed wire were left intact and the wet weather had turned the landscape into a craterous quagmire.
In the first few hours of the assault, 845 New Zealanders were killed. George Knight was one of them.
Leading his men up Bellevue Spur that morning, he had encountered the strong German defences, fortified by wire. Only a few feet away from the enemy position, George was killed by machine-gun fire. His body was never recovered.
The next day, on 13 October, elder brother Douglas embarked from Wellington with the Thirtieth Reinforcements, sailing aboard the Arawa for England, passing through the Suez Canal. He didn’t find out about his brother’s death until he arrived in London.
After landing in France, Douglas took part in the successful capture of Bapaume, but during the second attack on Bancourt Ridge on 1 September 1918, he was one of 34 men who lost their lives, dying from machine-gun fire.
One of Douglas’s letters to his mother Ellen arrived after the family had received news of his death. She never opened it.