Sam Vernon was a Southland miner who served with the New Zealand Tunnelling Company during the First World War.
Growing up in the rugged and isolated upper Waikaia Valley, Sam began mining at an early age. He helped his father pan for gold and work water sluices along the Waikaia River, and later mined at Reefton on the West Coast.
Soon after the outbreak of the war, Vernon volunteered. By October the same year he began basic training at Avondale Racecourse in Auckland.
He was quickly promoted to Sergeant and in mid-December embarked for Europe with the main body of tunnellers.
The 446-strong New Zealand Tunnelling Company arrived in France on 10 March 1916, under the command of Boer War veteran, Major John Evelyn Duigan.
After the Germans detonated four mines in the New Zealand sector on 6 June 1916, Vernon volunteered to dig out two British soldiers buried by the explosions. In broad daylight, and exposed to enemy fire, he led a small rescue party and succeeded in freeing the trapped men.
A fortnight later, a Lieutenant Thompson was nearby when a rifle grenade went off, and Vernon was mortally wounded.
He was on duty in the trenches with me, and at about 11 o’clock in the morning of the 21st… The explosion badly fractured his right leg, and broke his right arm, besides cutting him severely about the body and limbs. His face was not disfigured in the least, and he was perfectly conscious until he died about three hours later.
A number of tunnellers wrote to his widow, Maggie Vernon, and to newspapers about his service and his death. Among them was sapper John McManus.
He was the one man, I can safely say without exaggeration, whom I would have preferred to see the very last to go. But fate decreed otherwise. Sergeant Vernon was a man with iron nerve, who understood his work of mining thoroughly.
As evidence of his self-sacrificing disposition, I have seen him – when the fatigue party under his control feared the enemy’s fire – build a wall of sandbags to protect the dump from the enemy’s view.
I have seen him down below; where shattered ground required timbering, wanting to do the dangerous work himself, even excusing himself in such cases by saying: “A little exercise will do me good; let me do this”.
Lieutenant Thompson, who was a member of the Number Four Section also wrote to Vernon’s wife.
…When word was quietly passed round in the trenches that Sergeant Vernon had gone, there was hardly a word spoken, and all knew that they had lost a friend that would be very difficult to replace.
He was one of our best miners and non-commissioned officers, and absolutely devoid of fear.
He was always a volunteer for any dangerous work that had to be done, and on several occasions I have known him stopping his own men and doing a piece of work himself, because it was specially dangerous.
Samuel Vernon’s funeral took place that evening at Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery in Arras.
He was the first member of this unit to be killed in action on the Western Front.